Once, jazz did not require a rapt face and sophisticated demeanor. Spin old Louis Jordan or Duke Ellington records and you know people were having a damn good time on their night out. Too bad jazz has lately become all too high-art, the preserve of pricey nightclubs, sterile avant-garde rooms, and black-tie Lincoln Center tributes.
But in the beer-stained, faintly scuzzy setting of the Owl 'N Thistle pub, off Post Alley near Pioneer Square, Bebop & Destruction have been keeping blue-collar bop alive with a free Tuesday night jam session that has run, with occasional interruptions and breakdowns, for over six years now. (The band's most recent CD, recorded last year for Freetone Records, is Live at the Owl 'N Thistle, Volume 1.)
If everyone at the bar is fixated on the Mariners game on TV, well, that's fine. "We don't care if people are talking during our set," says keyboardist Ryan Burns. B&D's lack of pretension may be a key to their enduring popularity: They're there to blow—and, during the jam sessions, encourage others to do the same—not give a recital. Often, says Burns, the jams devolve into an absurd scatting competition.
Mind you, this quartet has plenty to arrest your attention: Burns, for one, has a fantastically fertile brain, prodding the music with unexpected voicings and twisted runs; as with the best pianists, his comping is as intriguing as his solos. Drummer Jose Martinez makes the kit sing, especially when it's his turn for a few choruses. Bassist Geoff Harper has a big, meaty, Mr. P.C. walk, but is also comfortable with open, free jazz bowing and intricate solo statements. And alto saxophonist Marc Fendel offers a sharp Cannonball attack that cuts through any crowded room.
The band has become a sort of local institution: Its 10-years-and-counting career far exceeds any of the other jazz groups in the SW competition this year. "We've never really had reason to break it up!" laughs Fendel. "Amazingly, we've all stayed friends." Which is not to say the band hasn't experienced some comings and goings. The group first started doing jam sessions at a Belltown bar called Brick Street in the mid-'90s, with guitarist Dan Heck and drummer Jon Wicks, both of whom later left the band (and town). Martinez, who'd been turning up for the Brick Street sessions, quickly assumed the throne, while the band abandoned guitar—and the rock venues it had been seeking out. They've stayed in more of a jazz vein ever since, though they cover many bases beyond bop.
Wherever else they play, these guys always return to the Owl—even on the nights they gig elsewhere, as last Sunday, when they each drifted in after the SW Music Awards Showcase in Pioneer Square. "This is kind of home for us," says Fendel. B&D have tried to tour off and on, released records off and on; "the energy level has kind of ebbed and flowed," Fendel says. But a loose, once-a-week show at the Owl is all they need to make a first-place impression.