Seattle’s coolest jazz club replaced decades ago by parking garage

Apr 21, 2023, 10:52 AM | Updated: 11:46 am

Jim Wilke stands at the site of The Penthouse, a legendary Seattle jazz club which operated from 19...

Jim Wilke stands at the site of The Penthouse, a legendary Seattle jazz club which operated from 1962 to 1968 or so and hosted well-known performers and regular live broadcasts. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

In a tiny storefront club on First Avenue at the foot of Cherry Street 60 years ago, jazz history was made, and a local man was there to preserve a lot of it for posterity.

The tiny jazz club in downtown Seattle, on the edge of Pioneer Square, existed for only about six years. It was called The Penthouse, but it wasn’t at the top of a building, it was at street level in an old three or four-story hotel. Despite its misleading name, it hosted some of the best-known jazz artists in the world.

The Penthouse was owned and operated by a guy named Charlie Puzzo, who would later be better known for operating an adult-entertainment venue in Woodinville called Good-Time Charley’s (and yes, “Charley” was spelled differently than Charlie spelled his first name.) The Penthouse opened right around January 1962 when many new restaurants and bars were debuting in advance of the Seattle World’s Fair – which would open April 21 of that year. Construction for the fair reshaped Lower Queen Anne Hill that year and reshaped the soul and character of the city forever.

Down on First Avenue, along with beer, wine, and jazz – and, in a bit of foreshadowing of Puzzo’s future endeavors, servers dressed like Playboy Bunnies without the ears and fluffy tails – The Penthouse was reshaping Seattle in its own special way as the club also became home to a weekly live remote radio broadcast on KING-FM called “Showcase of the Lively Arts.”

The producer and host of those live 30-minute broadcasts, sitting stage-side with ancient headphones and a vintage mixing board and witnessing all that music history, was a 24-year-old named Jim Wilke. He had recently settled in Seattle, where his sister already lived, after growing up in Iowa and graduating from college there. Wilke had joined the staff of KING-FM in 1961.

KIRO Newsradio caught up with Jim Wilke earlier this week on the sidewalk at First and Cherry, on the west side of First Avenue, right in front of where the legendary Penthouse once stood.

“Seattle didn’t have a full-time, major-league jazz club until The Penthouse,” Wilke said. “And that put us on the map with San Francisco and LA. If a touring national or international group played three places on the West Coast, The Penthouse was one of them.”

“Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderley – all these great stars were all playing there, Carmen McRae,” Wilke continued. “Aretha Franklin did a show there, but Aretha Franklin at the time was pretty unknown. She was just another girl singer with a jazz trio doing standards.”

The club itself was not exactly glamorous, but the acoustics were actually pretty good.

“It was a typical Pioneer Square storefront, that is, narrow and deep,” Wilke said. “As you walked in, there was a sandblasted brick wall on your left, and the stage was up against that about halfway down. The bar was at the far end, and the restrooms were back behind that, and then the office was upstairs.”

“The stage was more toward the front, but [the space] being long and narrow, the stage was on the side,” Wilke said. “So the audience was seated on the wings of the stage,” other than a few tables right in front.

The stage itself, Wilke says, was really just a riser. It couldn’t have been much higher because the club had a dropped ceiling with acoustic tiles in most areas and mirrors over the stage.

The ceiling was so low over the stage, “You could almost change the light bulbs in the reflector cans,” Wilke said. But the stage was carpeted, and somehow, the overall sound was pretty good.

“It was a very dry room,” Wilke said. “It was not echoey at all. It was perfect that way.”

And in that very dry room, Penthouse owner Charlie Puzzo was a character with a thick East Coast accent, but he “was a gentle soul . . . and he really respected the musicians,” Wilke said.

For instance, under Charlie Puzzo’s management, The Penthouse was not a place where the audience carried on a conversation during the performances.

“They were instructed that they were in a ‘listening club,’” Wilke said. “Charlie Puzzo would get up in front and say, ‘Okay, youse guys, time to quiet down; we’re going to have the music now.’ He’d say, ‘This is a listening room, and we appreciate your silence, and the people sitting around you will as well.”

“So he let people know that the purpose of this is to be here to listen,” Wilke said.

To capture the sounds of the musicians, Wilke would set up four microphones for each broadcast, including at least two legendary RCA 77 “ribbon mics.” He’d connect the microphones to what might have been the only option available in 1962 to someone producing a live remote broadcast from a tiny jazz club: two pieces of RCA gear, an “OP-6” single channel audio amplifier, and an “OP-7” four-channel audio mixer. The mixed and amplified sound was then sent back to KING-FM using a special phone line which, in those days, only the phone company could install and activate.

“And then I monitored on headphones,” Wilke said. “I shudder to think of the headphones that I was monitoring on. I think they were brush headphones or something more like you would see a World War II bomber pilot,” he said, laughing at the memory.

But it was through those bomber pilot headphones, from 1962 until sometime in 1968, that Jim Wilke bore audio witness to history. He was at the Penthouse one night a week producing live broadcasts and personally experiencing hundreds of performances by amazing jazz artists for most of the club’s six-year run.

And that would be a great story on its own. But it gets better.

Because meanwhile, back at the old KING-FM studios on Aurora Avenue just north of the now long-gone Battery Street Tunnel, a reel-to-reel tape deck was rolling, making recordings of each and every show. The point, Jim Wilkes says, wasn’t to create an archive, and rules around live broadcasts of musicians meant that KING-FM could never rebroadcast the shows as reruns. The recordings were made only so that Wilke could later listen to himself and hear where he wanted to improve his delivery of the brief introductory remarks he made at the beginning of each broadcast.

Fortunately, most of this unintentional audio archive survived, and Jim ended up with the tapes. Then, when he was at a jazz conference a few years ago, someone remembered the old Penthouse shows, and an idea was hatched. Ultimately, deals came together to start releasing some of the best recordings on CD and vinyl.

Best of all, the commercially released archival recordings are not bootlegs. The record companies Wilke works with secure the rights to the music from the artists or their estates and also create dense liner notes and include, where possible, photographs and other archival materials. Some of the releases originally produced by Wilke – which are all mono, by the way, but sound pretty amazing just the same – have won major awards for best archival jazz recording of the year.

In sharing the story of his years of live broadcasts from The Penthouse, Wilke is understated and matter-of-fact. Which is perfect because the tale needs no embellishment or hyperbole to sound magical and almost mythical all these decades later.

Wilke went on to have a long career that included a total of 16 years at KING FM, plus roles launching what became the longtime staple of public radio called Jazz After Hours, producing jazz concerts around Seattle, and hosting a long-running program on KNKX called Jazz Northwest.

It’s nice to know that this legendary broadcaster and recording engineer, and a true visionary in terms of jazz and classical music programming, made such an auspicious start at a small and now mostly forgotten jazz club in Seattle.

Part of the reason The Penthouse is forgotten is that the building which housed the club was demolished decades ago to make way for a parking garage. When asked if he thinks a brass plaque or other monument should be dedicated in memory of the jazz hotspot, Jim Wilke laughs and says it would be more appropriate if the building were still standing. Plus, he’s more focused on the future than the past.

In an email a day after visiting the site of the old club, Wilke wrote, “Another Ahmad Jamal two-disc album is expected by fall. There are at least two more by other artists in the process of being reviewed and cleared for release (can’t say who, just yet.)”

His understated excitement comes through, even via email. “There are some we’d very much like to do but have been unable to get clearances,” Wilke wrote.

Still, though, along with an unintentional audio archive, a bronze plaque at the site of The Penthouse would be a pretty cool thing.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Seattle’s coolest jazz club replaced decades ago by parking garage