Playing A Different Tune -- Recession Brings Change To Jazz Club

The cars rolled slowly along Sixth Avenue as the clock ticked toward noon. A few office workers headed into nearby delis and cafes, but the sidewalks weren't crowded and there was no sense of urgency.

Two stories up, John Dimitriou sat at his desk poring over paper work for his nightclub, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. From his office window, the scene below seemed a far cry from midtown Manhattan, with its gleaming towers, glitzy shops and blaring taxicab horns. Seattle is far more subdued.

Never has that been more apparent to Dimitriou than now. For nearly a year, Seattle's leading jazz club has brought in New York-style talent at what some local customers consider New York-style prices. Emerging from what traditionally is his slowest season, worsened this year by a poor economy, Dimitriou is changing the club's focus.

He's paring his prices and bringing in local talent once a week in hopes of attracting a new round of regulars. But one thing he wants to make clear is that he's not actively seeking a buyer for Jazz Alley, a Seattle institution since the 1970s. That rumor surfaced recently after an overzealous real estate agent placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal saying the club was for sale.

Like a child who has strayed too far from home, Dimitriou is taking the club - which he has owned for 12 years - closer to its roots.

"We're going back to being a jazz club," Dimitriou said. "To me a jazz club has to be affordable for everybody. We don't want to be a special place for anniversaries or birthdays. We want to be a jazz club where you would not come every two or three months, but once a week. We want to be in the same range as a movie."

That philosophy calls for putting aside results of surveys taken before the economic downturn that showed customers were willing to pay more for bigger-name talent. That recently meant cover charges of $10 to $16 per night to see performers such as Dizzy Gillespie or Lionel Hampton - prices that were considered high for Seattle but were far less than other major markets such as New York, where sets at well-known jazz clubs run $25 or more.

But with the downturn, Dimitriou found more of his customers' checks bouncing and credit cards being rejected. Worse yet, fewer customers were showing up for the gigs, culminating when nearly 200 people with dinner reservations failed to show up for keyboardist David Benoit's visit during the week of rioting in Los Angeles and rowdiness in Seattle sparked by the Rodney King verdict.

Having booked talent based on the hope that business would be better, Dimitriou lost money on some acts. That caused him to make some changes: He is cutting his cover charges to between $5 and $8, adding lower-priced menu items, lowering second-set cover charges, allowing children under 12 in free and featuring local talent on Monday nights to attract new customers. He's also bringing in performers who are less known outside traditional jazz circles.

"The music has to make itself affordable by having people who may not have the name recognition of a Harry Connick Jr. but who certainly can produce the goods, the music," he said.

A downturn in business during April and May sowed seeds of rumors that Jazz Alley was on the auction block.

The rumors spread when a real estate agent called, asking if the club was for sale. Dimitriou, having expressed an interest in spending more time with his 3 1/2-year-old son, Ari, said he would consider taking a minority interest in the club or selling it if he received an offer he couldn't refuse.

After the Journal ad ran, Dimitriou said he fielded numerous calls from those who have known him over the years, wondering if he had reached his peak in the business. Not so, he said. "We have no buyers, we are not pursuing or being pursued," he said. "We're very happy here.

Revenues at the club have grown from $700,000 in 1979 to $1.5 million in 1991, its best year.

Seldom does Jazz Alley make money on cover charges, Dimitriou said, since performers get up to 90 percent of the cover. An act usually costs between $8,000 to $15,000 (but can go as high as $30,000) for a weeklong stay in Seattle. In addition, Jazz Alley covers the cost of air fare, meals and accommodations.

Jazz Alley, with its large stage, theatrical lighting and sophisticated sound system, relies on volume to turn a profit. The club is unusual in that it seats a large number of people, 250, and serves a full dinner menu.

"I think Jazz Alley represents what jazz clubs have to do to survive," said Jim Wilke, host of "Jazz After Hours", a syndicated program heard locally on KPLU-FM. "It's one of the most attractive jazz clubs one encounters anywhere. It has great sight lines and sound. I don't know what more you could ask for in the comfort of a club."

Musicians tend to agree."I think it's the best jazz club in the country. It's the only one I play," said pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, a leading spokesman for the nation's original art form.