Getting jazzed in Bellevue

The jazz scene is making a smooth transition in Bellevue, from smoke-filled bars with candlelit tables to savvy upscale venues. It’s a new generation - one where jazz and hipsters are beginning to walk through the same front doors.

City becoming a hot spot to hear premier performers

The jazz scene is making a smooth transition in Bellevue, from smoke-filled bars with candlelit tables to savvy upscale venues. It’s a new generation – one where jazz and hipsters are beginning to walk through the same front doors.

Take the Vertigo Lounge & Grill for example. Located on the second level of the 989 building, the venue has reintroduced itself as the Eastside’s new premier jazz hot-spot.

Neal Golden has paired with Vertigo owner Bill Khanna, his partner Shenay Akdeniz and manager Ray Thorkildsen to unveil “Live at Vertigo.” The live interactive jazz show is produced and hosted by Golden and features notable Northwest artists such as Greta Matassa, Randy Halberstadt, Overton Berry, Gail Pettis, Gayle Cloud, Primo Kim and many others. Smooth jazz tunes flow throughout the restaurant and lounge as vocalists perform hip versions of standard jazz.

“What we’re bringing to the table is standard jazz reintroduced in a new way,” Golden explained. “It’s the same way young artists like Michael Buble has reintroduced the sounds of Frank Sinatra to a new generation.”

The black ebony Steinway Essex grand piano sets the stage for the live jazz performances that take place Wednesday through Saturday from 6-9 p.m. To ensure every seat in the house will feel like the front row, Vertigo added live feed video on five new flat screen televisions in addition to the two that were already in place.

“The artists that will be playing in our venue are the same one’s who play the ‘big places’ where it normally cost $20 a person just to get through the door,” said Thorkildsen. “There’s no cover charge here and that’s the beauty of it.”

Jazz may be making a new home in Bellevue, but the genre is no stranger to the Northwest. Seattle has a number of jazz club gems including Tula’s and Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley that have catered to some phenomenal artists over the years. And let’s not forget that Seattle is home to the world famous Earshot Jazz Festival.

The roots of jazz may have sprouted in Kansas City, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, but Seattle has managed to form a close knit relationship with the jazz scene and now Bellevue is following suit. Even the younger generation, who weren’t around to witness the rise of great talents like Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, are growing to appreciate the smooth sounds of jazz.

“That younger generation has been off in the grunge and rock on the Westside and then when that whole scene retired and kind of matured, they went head down into the IT era,” Golden noted. “They didn’t really think about culture that much. It seemed that culture stood still for a little while and now it’s showing signs of life again.”

Golden saw Vertigo as a great potential for a new jazz club because of its unique layout.

“Its layout takes you from the north end to the south end like a long train. You go from what I call the dining car on the north end to the disco car in a sense. When you visualize a train ride it’s all about promenading through the train. You run into people and you start talking to people – it creates a demand of social contact because you’re literally walking a long narrow aisle.”

The Eastside is embracing the increasing presence of the jazz and culture and the chance to dress up and have a night on the town. With lyrics about relationships and life, jazz has a way of making people feel alive again, Golden said, who also has shows in Las Vegas and Mexico.

“Jazz doesn’t discriminate, but instead defies categorization by welcoming people of all nationalities, all age and all sexes.”

Spurring on the momentum, the Bellevue Downtown Association announced the Bellevue Jazz Festival, set to run from today to May 24. The six-and-a-half week festival will incorporate a handful of free Wednesday night concerts throughout downtown Bellevue featuring regional jazz artists.

For 16-years the city produced a jazz festival at Bellevue Community College – the last time was back in 1993. Jump forward 15-years, and the BDA is looking to revive the festival and renew it by adding a newer format to cater to national headline acts.

World-renowned saxophonist, Branford Marsalis, will headline the festival with a concert on May 23 at the Meydenbauer Center along with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra the following day. The free concerts in April and into early May will lead up to a finale during Memorial Day Weekend.

“Downtown Bellevue is at a spot to create a major jazz cultural event,” explained Patrick Bannon of the BDA. “Some of our staff even traveled down to the Portland Jazz Festival and went behind the scenes. This area has such a rich base of local artists who love to play and the audience with a growing passion for jazz.”

Sherman Clay Piano Store in Bellevue has had a huge handle on the jazz scene for years and continues to feature performances in their showroom on the second Tuesday of every month, courtesy of Eastside Jazz Club.

Next time you’re considering driving down to Belltown to fight the crowds and parking, consider the jazz scene in your own backyard.

“The whole idea of the dinner clubs back in the ‘30s was a chance for people to get outside themselves, socialize, meet new people, make connections, see and be scene,” Golden said. “It really emphasizes Bellevue’s transition from push jazz to pull jazz.

The difference is between pushing jazz into the community or answering to a market demand and meeting the community’s wants, Golden added.

“People are coming out specifically to hear this music live. To me, that is the awakening of culture in the community. Some places try to bring jazz into their community to add culture, but the great thing about Bellevue is that it’s an area that’s already steeped in culture.”

“Live at Vertigo” –

Bellevue Jazz Festival –

Submitted photo

Neal Golden and Greta Matassa at a “Live at Vertigo” performance.