The Northwest Room, Red Kelly & Kareem Kandi Keep Jazz Alive in Tacoma

by Julie Barker

On an especially wet and moody, quintessential Tacoma evening in November 2022, I fell in love in more ways than one. I was enrolled in a class at the University of Washington Tacoma titled Tacoma Music History.  Ever the extra-credit enthusiast, I found myself climbing the Spanish Steps of the historic, recently renovated McMenamin’s Elks Temple to attend a free jazz show put on by local jazz musician and educator, Kareem Kandi. I had selected this show for my extra credit event as I had recently learned about Tacoma’s long and storied history of jazz and, particularly about the local favorite and funny man, Red Kelly. As I enjoyed the sultry tones of Kareem Kandi’s World Orchestra playing their rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave and a stellar vocal performance of Etta James’ version of Stormy Monday, it was easy to understand the allure of jazz clubs past, like Kelly’s.

Thomas “Red” Kelly (1927-2004) has often been remembered by those who knew him as a “comedian with a jazz problem” (Lewis). His humor and warmth eclipsing his talent as a jazz bassist is impressive given his incredible decades long jazz career. Montana-born, Seattle-raised Red Kelly was a lifelong musician who picked up the bass while in high school. Kelly once explained in an interview that he had wanted to play the drums but, was unable to work the hi-hat as he had contracted polio as a child which inhibited the use of his feet and so, he learned to play the bass (Rusch)…And boy, did he play! Kelly dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and hit the road as a touring bass musician with the Tiny Hill band before being hired by Stan Kenton. Red would become a jazz star in his own right and a musical peer of jazz greats like Woody Herman, Harry James and Jack Benny and other “true musicians” as he called them.  At the height of his musical career, Kelly played with big name celebs but never minced words about which deserved musical acclaim saying:

“I played with Elvis Presley for a week. It was the most boring thing in the world, and he was the most untalented person I have ever seen! I’ve played with the best – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra. Give me a break! Elvis Presley?” (Dutton)

 He had similarly kind words for Sonny & Cher: “… Forget it – they were oozing with non-talent.”

Despite Kelly’s mild enjoyment of celebrities, he became a bit of a local one himself after settling in Washington State with his wife Donna. In 1974, they opened their first jazz club, The Tumwater Conservatory in Olympia near the state capital. Kelly’s wit and humor punctuated the stellar line-up of jazz greats like the Tacoma area guitarist Don “Earthquake” Ober or bigger names like Count Basie, Red Norvo and Buddy Rich.  In a recording taken at the Tumwater Conservatory, Red can be heard razzing Don Ober as he introduces their performance, much to the delight of the laughing crowd. Local politicians began to spend their time at Red and Donna’s club and one evening in 1976, Kelly and some of his jazz pals decided he ought to run for governor. The O.W.L party was born. Standing for “Out With Logic” the satirical run for governor would leave a lasting impression on Washington politics as the joke resulted in a change to stiffer gubernatorial candidate requirements which are still in place today (Berg).

Much to the disappointment of his Olympia regulars, in 1978, The Tumwater Conservatory closed and Kelly returned to playing gigs in the South Sound. By 1986 though, Red and Donna opened a new club, Kelly’s, located at: 1105 Tacoma Ave. South in Tacoma.

Though the bar never made them rich, it was in this location that jazz, Red, his family and friends would become rich in joyful memories and full hearts.  Donna, Red’s beloved wife was the brains of the operation (Siders) and her passing in 2000 coupled with declining interest in jazz caused the club to hit financial troubles.  Despite attempts by local jazz musicians and lovers of the bar to raise money to keep the bar from closing, Red sold it in 2003, only a year before his death.

When news of Kelly’s bar closing got out, The Tacoma Public Library, aptly located directly across the street from Kelly’s, approached him about acquiring his vast collection of jazz memorabilia including photos, documents, jazz recordings and more of his personal belongings (Chase). He agreed and thanks to the careful cataloguing and archiving of the library’s Northwest Room, I was able to experience a bit of the Tacoma’s jazz man’s energy, nearly 20 years after his death.

As Spencer, a knowledgeable and thoughtful team member of TPL’s local archives Northwest Room wheeled up boxes of Red Kelly’s belongings, I felt the same joyful, light-hearted energy I’d felt at Kareem Kandi’s jazz show at Tacoma’s fanciest old-made-new-again McMenamin’s venue. Thanks to the commitment of the Northwest Room to preserving local history, I was able to learn about the history of the building I’d attended Kandi’s show in (did you know the Elks Temple was empty for decades?!), in addition to really getting to know Red Kelly’s impact on the Tacoma community and jazz music. Photos of he and Tony Bennet, his stories about Rosemary Clooney and a scuffed and stained print out entitled Some Time Honored Truth’s to Ponder including such academic ponderings as:

“Why are hemorrhoids called ‘hemorrhoids’ instead of ‘asteroids?’

“Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.” These made me chuckle aloud, as I’m sure Red himself would have. As I thumbed through reading and scanning articles about Kelly’s wide contribution to jazz, I lost track of the many brilliant musicians he’d played with and the kind words they had about him but, a name jumped out. Kareem Kandi had played the same Tacoma Jazz festival as Red and Kandi had also played at Kelly’s as a teen getting his start as a Tacoma jazz musician. I can’t help but think that Donna and Red Kelly would be tickled to know that a local 30-something had just discovered a love of jazz thanks to the Northwest Room archives and Kareem Kandi keeping the jazz vibes alive in Tacoma.

The history of jazz in Tacoma goes far back before Red Kelly. Pacific Ave was once home to happening ‘brown spots’ and jazz clubs of all flavors. That rich Tacoma jazz history has been carried forward through the legacy of Red Kelly and now by musicians like Kandi who puts on a free, all-ages show at McMenamin’s Spanish Ballroom one Monday each month. Attend one of Kandi’s show/jam-sessions and you can experience Tacoma music history as you take in the deep bass lines, cool ticking of jazz drums, sultry tones of saxophone, jazz guitar and the inherently communal improv that is jazz in one of Tacoma’s most historic buildings. If you’re the imbibing type, maybe even enjoy a “Red Kelly” cocktail and raise a toast to Kandi, Kelly and all those Tacoma musicians who’ve come before– and to the local historians who keep their legacies alive. If you’re the researching type, check out TPL’s incredible local history database which they’ve lovingly digitized, or better yet, make an appointment to go in and get your hands on some Tacoma history.

About the Author

Julie Barker prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2022, she was a senior majoring in Psychology.


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