"True music is a tool to heal and to bring joy to the world."
Dimitriou's Jazz Alley: The Joy of Music
Dimitriou's Jazz Alley is a Seattle institution, but it's really legendary across the United States for its amazing ambiance and the incredible roster of musicians who've graced the stage for 40 years. John Dimitriou went on to open Jazz club in 1979, but his love for jazz started well before he opened his club. It began in the early 1960s. Dimitriou has established a Seattle jazz music venue that is recognized throughout the USA.
Dimitrou's Jazz Alley has been a West Coast 'must' for all the towering figures in the world of jazz - stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Betty Carter, and Bill Evans have played there. In its first twenty years, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley has become the West Coast's premiere jazz club. Every week the club brings the greatest names in jazz to Seattle's audiences. Artists of international stature such as Burt Bacharach, Judy Collins, Kenny G, Poncho Sanchez, Taj Mahal, Diane Schuur, John Mayall, Earl Klugh, and Bill Frisell appear weekly at Jazz Alley. The nightclub first opened its doors in 1980 in Seattle's University District. An intimate bistro setting, it attracted a diverse clientele. Equally popular among college students and die-hard jazz aficionados, one always found an exciting mixture of personalities and performers. Six years later Jazz Alley relocated to the larger and more accessible club at 6th and Lenora; the perfect venue for introducing new fans to world class jazz music while still offering the exuberant atmosphere of the old establishment.
Interview by Michael Limnios Katerina Lefkidou (transcription)
Special Thanks: John Dimitriou & Rachael L. Millikan
What characterizes Jazz Alley’s philosophy and mission?
Joy. Bringing joy to people that come in, to make them feel good. Bring joy to the artist through his performance, to give him the tools that he needs to create the music to make themselves happy and to bring joy to the Alley, so they can all have fun together.
What do you miss the most nowadays from the music of the past?
The people. The artists in the past are different than the artists of today and that might be because of my age. Because the artists that I grew up with, people like Stanley Turrentine, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson they were all special people like Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, it was a different group of people, they’re not better, but they were just my age and we came up together. They’ve gone away to meet their makers and the new people I don’t associate with as I did with the old people. Although the music is just as good, they’re just as good the players, I can’t say anything about their playing ability but it’s just different for me. Does that make sense?
Too many experiences, too many experiences in the music industry, in the business, what have you learned about yourself from these experiences?
What have I learned about myself? I’ve learned to enjoy life, to enjoy music and to embrace this art form we call jazz. It’s rare that you can do a job that you enjoy coming to every day and it changes every day. The music changes, we do different music, whether it be jazz, or blues, or Latin or fusions, I’s always different and that’s what makes it exciting.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?
I don’t know. I’m happy where I am. If I had to go anywhere, I would go nowhere. Because I know what happened in the past and I don’t want to know what’s gonna happen in the future. So, I’m happy with right where I’m at.
"The best advice, I suspect was just to be persistent and to be true to my beliefs that the art of jazz and music is important always and it’s important to communicate with people and to bring people together."
I know you have met so many great personalities and musicians, which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
Well there’ve been so many it would be really hard to put them in chronological order, you know? I would be doing a disservice to all the people I forget. Benny Carter was an important part of my life, Ray Brown was an important part of my life, Milt Jackson, everyone that I’ve performed with has affected me. Jimmy Smith, the great organ player, who I knew was an important part of my life, I didn’t like him very much as a person, but he was a great player and I learned a lot from him. Joey DeFrancesco, a current organ player is someone that I listen to and I’ve learned a lot from and enjoy talking to. So it just depends that type of question arguably has a specific answer,
So really, what touches you emotionally from the jazz, what does the jazz mean to you?
Excellence. Someone excelling in their profession. It’s not for every jazz player, but if you are a legitimate jazz player like Chick Corea for expample, you’re dealing with excellence. Someone who is proficient in their ability to play an instrument, would it be piano, drums, sax, trumpet. And if you can’t do that, then you’re not gonna be a jazz player.
You have worked both with blues and jazz musicians. Do you find any differences/similarities between jazz men and blues men?
Well there’s a big difference. There’s a huge difference in their ability to play. Jazz is made of being able to move around a tune and take it and change it and re-harmonize it in any way you want to. Blues is much more restricted. You’re isolated by the tune itself, but that’s not to be confused with being musical. One of the most musical people that I’ve ever met in my entire life was Taj Mahal. He could take a simple three chord song and make more music out of it than a lot of jazz players who could play a symphony. So, there’s a difference in being able to play and being musical. And that’s what makes blues really exciting, that the really great musical players such as Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Gregory Porter, they’re very musical people, so you could give them a spoon and say “Make music” and they could do it. A lot of jazz guys can’t do that. But I’ll tell you one who is great at it, he is one of the most musical people I’ve ever known, a south African travel player musician Hugh Masekela. He was an amazing human being, but also an amazing musical player. He could make music out of anything. That’s the enjoyment of music; to make music as oppose to play songs.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and what advice would you like to the new generation?
The best advice, I suspect was just to be persistent and to be true to my beliefs that the art of jazz and music is important always and it’s important to communicate with people and to bring people together. Music doesn’t have a political party or a political agenda, unless you decide to make it. True music is a tool to heal and to bring joy to the world. And I think that’s what I learned and that’s what I was told by all these other great jazz artists and I think that’s what I would tell to the young people, to embrace it as a mean to sooth your soul and to realize that there is a lot of joy in this world.
To my mind come Johnny Otis, Nick Gravenites, Emilio Castillo of Tower of Power, are Greek guys, Greek-American guys, how difficult was for a Greek-American to work with Afro-American music?
Emilio Castillo from Tower of Power is half Mexican. So, I don’t know it makes any difference whatsoever. I don’t think they have a problem with that, if they’re musical they can play with anyone. There’s another guy I think named Greg and they have no problem.
"The music changes, we do different music, whether it be jazz, or blues, or Latin or fusions, I’s always different and that’s what makes it exciting."
What are your hopes and fears for the future of the jazz?
I don’t have any fears. I think the music is coming and going, but it always comes back and I think that people love to improvise and I think people love to change things up and I think that it’s very healthy. Like I said, there’s a lot of wonderful players, young players coming through and coming up and they’re experimenting and I think it’s in a very healthy place right now.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and that thing would become a reality, what would it be? What would you like to change in the musical world?
Oh, I don’t know. That’s a hard question. The musical world is going through a transitional period now, with all the onset on technology, but it will find its ground and people still listen to music. One thing that’s happened is that there’s more emphasis on performance. So, we enjoy that, the people are coming up to play and people are coming up to listen. That’s a good thing. The other thing with that’s really interesting is that with the new technology we have now, people won’t have to rely on major record labels to produce music. They can do it in their own garage if they want to and put it out and if it’s good people will hear it and will come to hear them when they travel. You see that all the time. New bands coming through, when nobody knew who they were and all of a sudden, there’s no major labels helping them out and they’re very successful.
What moment changed your life the most?
When my son was born.
And what is happiness for John, what is happiness to you?
My family and my extended family, which means a lot of my employees here, they’re part of my family too, because I work with them every day.
What have been the high-lights and what have been the worst times at Dimitiriou's Jazz Alley?
We’ve had ups and downs, in business. I mean jazz clubs traditionally in this country and in your country too don’t do particularly well. They’re hard to make a living, there’s coming round the country all the time. We’re fortunate, that we’re descending our 40th year and we’ve become stable, but it’s hard. We’ve paid our dues the hard way. When we started, we didn’t have any money and we worked hard and we persevered and we continued to learn, we continued to grow and that one of the things that people do to realize that they can’t always rely to somebody else other than themselves. And that’s the hardest. And dealing with people, dealing with employees, that should be happy and you treating them properly, so you can go home and sleep at night and I’m happy that I can sleep very well.
"I don’t have any fears. I think the music is coming and going, but it always comes back and I think that people love to improvise and I think people love to change things up and I think that it’s very healthy. Like I said, there’s a lot of wonderful players, young players coming through and coming up and they’re experimenting and I think it’s in a very healthy place right now." (Photo: John Dimitriou & Mona Locke)
You’ve also worked in East Side, East Coast, do you find any difference between the East and West jazz scene?
No. When I was in the East Coast, I was in Blue’s Alley and that was in ’75, ’76. So that was long time ago. We started Jazz Alley 1980. And that was a long time ago. So the two years that I spent in Blues Alley in Washington DC was miraculous for me. I met my wife there. We got married there, I learned an awful lot about living on my own, when I was still a young man. I really enjoyed the people on the East Coast, they were very hip people. They were hip to the music and Blues Alley had been open for 30 years, so they had a strong tradition and it was fun to do that. But I don’t think I would live there, I was born and raised in Seattle and I think I like it here.
What is the impact of the blues and jazz music on the sociocultural implications?
It’s huge. Like I said earlier, you convey the message of joy. Now there’s a lot of groups that have different agendas, political agendas and we try to stay away from that. Any person can express their personal opinion when they want to, but this is not the place for that kind of dialogue. This is a place for music. So, we want to make a socially sound, we want to make it acceptable for all the people that come and we want to make it available to everyone, whether they have a lot of money, whether they have little money, whether they’re black, white, Asian or whatever. The music is not for one person, Whether it’s blues, or jazz, reggae…
What were the reasons that made you start the jazz research and experiments?
I’ve always enjoyed the music from a very young age. Whether it was RnB or jazz, growing up, that’s what I listened to. And being Greek, I was introduced to working for Greeks in restaurants at the age of 12. So, I learned how to work in a restaurant and I had the good fortune having the joy of realizing the music and I just put it all together, it’s been quite literally a dream job, I can’t imagine what I would do if I wasn’t doing this. I mean I’m sitting here at my desk and I’m looking out at the horizon complex and I can’t imagine what I would do if I had to work in one of those buildings.
Do you find any similarities between the Greek music and/or jazz music and I talk about Epirus music, or rebetiko music.
Well I think there’s a lot of improvisation in Greek music. I see it all the time. One of it has to do with time symmetries the other has to do with scales. They have a different scale and a different form, after playing the music, but if you listen to a good bouzouki player, they’re improvising all the time. I would say it’s akin to country music, in some sorts. People don’t think of it as being improvisation, but it certainly is. And I think that that’s a really great thing, there are really great Greek players out there and I think they come to it naturally, because of the type of music that they hear in Greece. So, I think that there’s a really good correlation between the two.
"Joy. Bringing joy to people that come in, to make them feel good. Bring joy to the artist through his performance, to give him the tools that he needs to create the music to make themselves happy and to bring joy to the Alley, so they can all have fun together."
What has made you laugh from a really funny night in Jazz Alley?
Oh, I don’t know, I laugh all the time. I try to laugh every day as much as I can. I do it at work, I do it at home, I do it in my car when I’m driving.
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as a businessman and has this helped you to become a better music businessman?
Well there are so many obstacles that would have been impossible to not have in mind. You have obstacles from the musicians, how much they want to get paid, where they going to stay, where they going. You have obstacles from hiring people to serve in the restaurant, do you have enough people, are they making enough money? You have the legislated process of the city and the State and the federal government, what rules you have to abide by, are you paying all your taxes? All those things. Do you have a permit for a sign outside, do you have a fire extinguisher system that’s working? It’s on and on and then you have the simple factor, how much money you have in the bank, how much money do you have to pay in bills, how much money is left at all? That’s from a very practical aspect. So all of those things is a combination that have to be set in a ratio that works so you can continue to do what you do. And that takes an awful lot of time. It’s a lot of effort and in my case you do it with trial and error. Through the years it’s been difficult at times, because things I didn’t know, I had to learn. And sometimes they were very expensive lessons. So, I think that the more you do something, the better you get at it. The longer that I do, what I do, I hope, the better I become at it.
And the last one, why do you think that Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley continues to generate such a devoted following?
Because I think we do a really good job and we work really hard to do what we do. People may not realize this, but this is my 32nd day in a row working. And I’m able to do this because I enjoy what I’m doing. But it must not be construed that it’s something easy to do; every one of these people that work with me here, whether it’s in the office or whether it’s in the kitchen, they all work really hard and we all have a common goal. That is to succeed. And that is why we are successful and nobody’s knows what’s gonna happen in the future, but I think if we keep working hard and my son now, who’s different than I am, who’s working in the office, he’s also a graduate school in finance and when I retire, I think he is in a great position to continue this on. I hope that the Dimitriou Jazz Alley will be around another 50 years.
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