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Jazz in the most unlikely of places

The Speakeasy in Eureka Old Town holds true to its name

On a rainy Tuesday night tucked away in a dimly lit Old Town Eureka alleyway, a tenor saxophone can be heard echoing off the brick-patterned mural-covered walls. A multistory Billie Holiday painting stands as a beacon of light covering the entrance to the 1920s-style jazz joint, The Speakeasy. Every Tuesday and Friday night The Opera Alleycats can be seen and heard performing covers ranging from Miles Davis’ “So What” to Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

This particular Tuesday night the small and cozy New Orleans-style bar is full. Local musicians and bar patrons have gathered solely to hear the quintet wail the not-so-long-ago Bebop style of jazz that hit America with a left hook harder than Muhammed Ali himself.

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The Opera Alleycats’, Tim Randals, plasy keyboard at The Speak Easy in Eureka during The Opera Alleycats’ once a week jazz show. | Photo by T.William Wallin

The brass players, keyboardist and percussionist all play in sync on the same level, feeding off their improvisations and individual solos. The trombone player embodies J.J Johnson, a low beat from the percussionist leads his rhythm and after the last blowing exhale all the hands in the bar are clapping enthusiastically.

One wouldn’t think of Humboldt County as a destination for authentic jazz. Typically places like New York, New Orleans and San Francisco come to mind. But if you’ve ever heard jazz in any of these cities than you would be pleasantly surprised to realize jazz is at your front door.

Once you step through the doors of The Speakeasy you are transplanted to when the consciousness of America was widening and bebop jazz could be heard in every dingy dive bar from coast to coast. The low lighting sets a hipcat mood, while the selection of booze behind the mahogany colored bar makes one feel as if they’ve walked into a Humphrey Bogart movie. The only thing missing is the ability to light up a newly packed Camel wide while crossing one’s leg and asking the person next to them for a light.

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Brian White blows the trombone during The Opera Alleycats weekly jazz night at The Speak Easy in Eureka. | Photo by T.William Wallin

Trombone player Brian White said that the Speakeasy is his favorite place to play.

“We don’t really make any money, but The Speakeasy is the only place we can play with such freedom and people actually come to just listen to us,” White said.

He is right. Sam the bartender was busy making Manhattans and whiskey gingers for a crowd unable to keep their legs from tapping or their bodies from moving in rhythm to the band.

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Sam the bartender makes cockatails at The Speak Eay in Eureka during The Opera Alleycats’ once a week jazz show. | Photo By T.William Wallin

Local musician Anna Hamilton said this is the best group of musicians playing together in Humboldt County.

“I travelled up here from Southern Humboldt because I needed to hear some great music tonight,” Hamilton exclaimed in between sips of whiskey sour.

Most of the band are transplants to Humboldt County, bringing their musical influences with them. White is from Los Angeles and has been in Humboldt for over 20 years. He said he wouldn’t want to play jazz anywhere else besides Humboldt because although he has regular job, he is allowed room to breathe and play what he wants with his friends.

The youngest member of the group is the saxophonist Issac Williams, who was born and raised in McKinleyville. The Opera Alleycats have been playing together for six years at The Speakeasy with most members interwoven into other Humboldt County musical groups.

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The Opera Alleycats’, Issac William, plays saxophone at The Speak Eay in Eureka during The Opera Alleycats’ once a week jazz show. | Photo By T. William Wallin

Tonight, the band’s lineup is Brian White on trombone, Issac Williams on sax, Tim Randals on keyboard, Ken Lawrence filling in on bass and filling in for drums is Mike Labolle. They play three sets and in each intermission are out in the crowd, sipping I.P.A.’s and engaging in hearty laughter. Humboldt County being so small and rural, naturally the band and the audience are all good friends.

The band ends on a nine minute ride of Miles Davis’ “So What”. The crowd is aware right as the first key is struck. The keyboard keys start slow and mellow, the bass riff comes in setting the tone, and everyone’s involved by the time the brass comes in. Even without a trumpet player the band is able to summon the feeling of Davis and keep the spirit of jazz alive.

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The Opera Alleycats’ Issac William, saxophone, Brian White, trombone, Ken Lawrence, bass, and Mike Labolle, drums at The Speak Eay in Eureka during The Opera Alleycats’ once a week jazz show on Tuesday February, 12, 2019. By: T.William Wallin

After each player gets a chance to express their skills on their individual instruments, they all come together center stage, right toes tapping, lungs filled with inhalation blowing from the Hara outwards.

They all end the night on the same note, with a ringing of a tenor saxophone echoing across the brick-patterned alleyway walls covered in murals close to midnight.

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The Opera Alleycats jazz night every Tuesday at 7:30 pm at The Speak Easy in Eureka. By: T.WIlliam Wallin

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