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Seattle Music: Then and Now

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Seattle became the epicenter of the nation’s collective playlist as grunge – a genre of hard rock featuring distorted guitars, which emerged from the local scene and independent record labels – dominated the airwaves. Seattle-based bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots put out platinum-selling discs and defined a generation for the flannel-and-denim crowd. But this was hardly the only zeitgeist in the Emerald City’s soundtrack; it has played host to seminal music selections for nearly 100 years.

  • Folk – Inspired in part by several lengthy stays in the region by singer Woody Guthrie, in the 1920s Seattle came to support a politically radical American folk scene. Chief among local performers was Ivar Haglund, who would later achieve fame and fortune with his chain of eponymous seafood restaurants.
  • Jazz – In the early part of the 20th century, Seattle was home to influential pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton, who is frequently cited as an early innovator – and, if Morton’s claims are to be believed, the inventorof jazz itself. Vic Meyers, a local performer and nightclub owner, was elected Lieutenant Governor of Washington in 1932.
  • Ballroom – Around the time of World War II, a number of Seattle venues – such as the Showbox, Washington Hall, Parker’s, the Odd Fellows Temple and Trianon — played host to vaudeville, burlesque and big band music. In addition, there was an after-hours jazz scene that flourished in the city’s Chinatown. Among the notable performers who came out of this period were Ray Charles – who recorded his first single and made his first TV and radio appearances in Seattle – and instrumentalist-turned-producer Quincy Jones.
  • Instrumental – In the 1960s, instrumental rock combos such as The Frantics, The Wailers and The Viceroys gained local attention, while The Ventures (pictured) garnered national acclaim as a surf band. Their recording of the theme for the TV show “Hawaii Five-O” became a Top Five hit, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • Rock – One of the earliest Seattle exports to achieve iconic status was guitarist Jimi Hendrix who, despite an extremely short career, remains revered to this day for his guitar-playing wizardry. In the mid-1970s, Heart – fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson – got their start in the area. Queensryche, hailing from the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, were a noteworthy entry in the genre of heavy metal, bringing in elements of prog rock and art rock.
  • Grunge – The grunge era, lasting roughly from 1986 to 1995, was one marked by the paradox of artists finding new fans thanks to mainstream media, while the fans who had brought them to that precipice accused the bands of selling out.
  • Indie – Independent and alternative bands continue to flourish in Seattle and the surrounding cities, with such artists as Modest Mouse, The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie combining electronic elements with indie pop for a moody, atmospheric sound.
  • Hip Hop – Seattle is also in the musical roots of two of hip hop’s biggest names – one from the 1990s and one from today. Sir Mix-a-Lot, whose novelty hit “Baby Got Back” continues to be heard on such TV shows as “Friends” and “Glee” was born in the city, as was Ben Haggerty – a writer and producer better known as Macklemore. With Ryan Lewis, he won four Grammy awards at the 2014 ceremony.

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