Lionel Hampton Orchestra (with Quincy Jones) rocks Seattle's Trianon Ballroom on August 31, 1951.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/12/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10356

On the Friday evening of August 31, 1951, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra performs at Seattle's popular Trianon Ballroom (218 Wall Street) -- and the building's marquee proudly touts two young local musicians-made-good who had joined the nationally famous band: trumpeter Quincy Jones and singer Janet Thurlow.

Trianon Tales

The Trianon Ballroom was an important -- though tragically flawed -- entertainment venue in Seattle's musical history. The racially segregated hall was founded by an experienced and well-connected white nightlife veteran, John E. Savage, who for years had managed the Butler Hotel (Second Avenue and James Street). The hotel's infamous Rose Room had featured a Prohibition Era speakeasy that had long offered live music and illicit liquor to crowds that included some of the town's most prominent citizens along with many jazz-loving college kids. Barely hiding its illegal activity, the Rose Room was often raided by lawmen, occasionally shut down for a period, and then reactivated. But by 1927 Savage was ready to move on, and on May 20th of that year he threw a huge Grand Opening party for his new Trianon Ballroom. The hall -- which covered a half block and had a 30-by-135-foot dance floor that accommodated more than 5,000 dancers -- was hyped as "the largest dancehall west of Chicago." Savage's partner in the enterprise, bandleader Herb Wiedoeft (1886-1928), brought his Brunswick Recording Orchestra from Los Angeles to perform.

For the next three decades the Trianon was the site of countless fabled shows and events. One, relevant to this particular story, concerns the ballroom's Jim Crow policy of racial exclusion, which Savage, for years on end, untruthfully maintained was necessary due to a Seattle city ordinance prohibiting "mixed [race] dancing" (Cleary). On May 24, 1940, white Seattle attendees saw a concert at the Trianon by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, which then included the African American drumming star Lionel Hampton (1908-2002). Meanwhile, Hampton had formed his own 15-piece orchestra and Seattle's growing black community soon learned that his big band, which included Seattle jazz singer Evelyn Williamson, was on tour and that some concert/dance dates (October 9-12, 1940) were already booked at the Trianon -- which, of course, meant that they would not be allowed to attend. Some community leaders made contact with then-manager Ted Harris to plead that blacks finally be allowed to enter the hall, and they received a counteroffer: if the local black-oriented newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, would sponsor a second night's show, there could be a special "Colored Folks" night.

The newspaper's editors, committed to battling racist policies in general, balked at that idea. But the show did occur after Seattle's "Negro Musicians' Union," AFM Local 493, stepped up and sponsored a second Hampton show on October 14th. Trianon management, however, still felt it necessary to promote Hampton's shows with questionable language, describing Hampton's music as "Savage Rhythm" -- a phrase clearly not used in reference to the ballroom's founder -- while The Seattle Daily Times pointed out that Hampton was a "Negro sensation" and that he "recently organized his new orchestra, which includes some of the best Negro musicians in the country" ("Lionel Hampton at Trianon …"). And thus began a series of such segregated shows held on Monday nights.

Seattle's Scene

Lionel Hampton -- vibraphonist, pianist, and "the world's fastest drummer" who initially gained fame with the Benny Goodman Orchestra ("Hampton Returns …") -- continued recruiting new band-members for a while from a pool of excellent players and singers on Seattle's vibrant jazz scene, including famed jazz singer Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016) for a time in 1952. Earlier, in 1950, he added jazz singer Janet Thurlow, formerly with Robert "Bumps" Blackwell's (1918-1985) Seattle-based band. Thurlow, who sang on Hampton's Decca disc "I Can't Believe You're in Love With Me," made history in Hampton's band as "the first white singer to front a black big band" (de Barros, 85). It was Thurlow who soon prompted her boss to hire young Seattle trumpeter Quincy Jones (b. 1933).

Working with Hampton meant endless road-dates touring around the nation, and in the late summer of 1951 the 22-member orchestra returned to Seattle for gigs on the evening of Friday, August 31st. By this time the promoters were aware of the pride locals felt about having two of their own associated with such a big-time musical ensemble, and Trianon's big marquee sign touted the fact that both Jones and Thurlow would be performing. Its display ad published in The Seattle Times blared this information: "COMING! ... THE AMAZING! ... LIONEL HAMPTON -- His Famous Orchestra & Stars -- Featuring Two Seattleites QUINCY JONES & JANET THURLOW" and "Greatest Musical Entertainment Ever Offered Anywhere."

Well, it must have been great (for those who could attend -- a probable downside of the gig for the sophisticated and well-traveled musicians was that the Trianon was still racially segregated and plenty of their local African American friends and fans would not be able to attend). Even the authoritative national jazz magazine down beat noted of a Trianon performance that Thurlow was a "home-town girl who … [is] … a soulful interpreter of modern songs" (de Barros, 84). And although Thurlow's career would prove to be short-lived, Jones would go on to enjoy a fabulous life at the very top of the music biz as a player, arranger, manager, and multi-Grammy Award-winning producer.


Sources: "Lionel Hampton at Trianon this Week," The Seattle Daily Times, October 8, 1940, p. 26; "Savage Rhythm," Trianon display ad, The Seattle Daily Times, November 24, 1940, p. 12; "Hampton Returns to Trianon by Request," The Seattle Daily Times, November 28, 1940, p. 23; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "AFM Seattle Local 493 (1918-1958), 'Negro Musicians' Union'" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 10, 2013); Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle: Sasquatch, 1993), 84-85; Caitlin Cleary, Paul de Barros, Melanie McFarland, "Controversy Has Dogged Music for Decades," The Seattle Times, October 1, 2000 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); "COMING!," Trianon display ad, The Seattle Daily Times, August 30, 1951, p. 25.
Note: This essay was updated on March 16, 2016.

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