Boxley’s restaurant has existed in downtown North Bend for many years, but six years ago when Danny and his wife, Robyn Kolke, handed over a down payment, Boxley’s was transformed into much more — part restaurant, part performance venue, part educational facility. The nearly century-old building is a registered historic landmark, and has the feel of early 20th-century elegance-meets-Old West saloon. The hardwood floors creak as servers walk by, and the rooms are embellished with dark wood wainscoting and booths. Five nights a week, Boxley’s features live music open to the public. On the other two nights, it moonlights as a music classroom for kids interested in instrumental and vocal jazz performance.
Danny Kolke’s vision stems from a personal love of music. He began on the piano at age 7, adding violin and trumpet during his teen years, but the jazz hooks captured him when his older brothers (seven and nine years his senior) fulfilled their fraternal obligation and introduced him to cool music. A casual flick of the wrist and a “check this out” was all it took to get Dizzy Gillespie spinning in Kolke’s imagination.
“And the Red Hot Ray Brown Trio with Gene Harris on the piano! Oh man, I wore that one out!” he said.
In 1987, his high school teacher’s union went on a long strike. Thirty days in, the teachers still had not returned to the classroom. Kolke was already playing piano with the Edmonds Community College big band in the evenings, having been recruited at 15 by Bob Nixon, so he decided to drop out of high school and pursue his diploma at the college full time.
“This was pre-Running Start. My high school diploma says, ‘Edmonds Community College,’” he said. “I also completed my AA degree at the
He played with the group Soundsation (now run by Kirk Marcy) and spent extensive time touring and performing.
“It was a great experience,” he said, wary of a life on the road. “Not many marriages survive.” So, he gave up touring, choosing to nestle into family life with his wife and their three kids.
During a 10-year hiatus from music, he started a telecommunications software company called Etelos. Investors took the company public in 2008, which wasn’t the best of years for the economy. As his role in the company lessened, he again felt the siren call of jazz.
Originally, Boxley’s was just a restaurant and performance venue.
“The first night we opened, I was so distracted I could barely play,”Kolke said. Music, particularly improvised jazz, requires a musician to be fully present in the moment. Worrying about who needs a menu, customers at the door, and other restaurant concerns did not help him get in the zone that night. But as the family adjusted to the rhythm of club life, he was able to hone in on the magic.
They began to make relationships with kids in the community and soon offered private lessons, group classes, workshops, and performance opportunities where kids play alongside professionals.
“There are so many things about jazz to be proud of,” Kolke said, referring to the many boundaries it crosses. “It is so cool to see multi-generations involved — you don’t get that in sports because it’s not practical. Improv jazz teaches teamwork, collaboration in real time, communication during performances, public speaking skills, and even business negotiation skills when kids book gigs.”
“The first night we opened, I was so distracted I could barely play.”
The club has been member-supported since its inception, featuring different levels of sponsorship. Membership fees subsidize the music and provide scholarships for financially needy students. As a benefit, members never pay a cover charge for local events. Currently, more than 200 families on the Eastside are regular supporters.
Until recently, the organization has been volunteer-run. However, due to increasing interest in replicating the North Bend model throughout the state, he decided to pursue a more professional organization. He rebranded Boxley’s under an umbrella nonprofit called JazzClubsNW and hired Gregory Malcolm as executive director.
When asked why he didn’t take on the role, he jokes that he’s neither that smart, nor that dumb.
“I know what I’m good at, and it’s not being an administrator. I want to be the guy working with the students playing music. Let someone else take care of the logistics,” he said.
Malcolm has been a supporter since the club’s inception, and his children were students at various points. He is excited to take the organization to the next level, improving fundraising and nurturing the new clubs to success.
“I’m really proud to be part of this,” says Malcolm. “The impact this has on kids is really powerful. Imagine being able to think and play ‘on your feet!’ It is such a skill. Imagine how much confidence these kids will have!”
JazzClubsNW already runs two successful festivals in North Bend — the North Bend Jazz Walk and the North Bend Blues Walk. Ticket holders receive a wristband and can wander between more than 20 venues during the evening. During 2016, the Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center in Bellingham and the Tacoma Jazz Association, clubs recently added to the JazzClubsNW family, are hosting two additional festivals. The organization is also considering adding clubs in Edmonds and wherever else there is a “critical mass” of interest.
During the fall of 2015, musician Marcus Printup of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center partnered with Kolke to put on 15 clinics and five concerts around the Puget Sound. Printup even played a live session with one of his student ensembles for a KPLU broadcast.
“It was awesome!” Kolke said.
That phrase sums him up nicely. During a winter Sunday night jam session that happened to coincide with his 45th birthday (a birthday he shares with Frank Sinatra, incidentally), he bounced between the ivories, keeping the beat on drums, a little upright bass, and finally a trumpet solo. In between sets, well-wishers clapped him on the back with obvious affection. On stage, several high school students, backed up by musicians their grandparents’ age, took turns busting out solos on trumpets and trombones, including Kolke’s 14-year-old son, who was taking a break from seating guests.
Age clearly doesn’t matter to these jazz cats. It’s all about the music. And it is awesome.
Not many art forms can claim American parentage. Jazz is the notable exception, even recognized by Congress as a significant part of American culture. It broke racial boundaries, spurred collaboration, and improvised its way into the fabric of our country. Of the thousands of jazz clubs throughout the world, a DownBeat Magazine Top 150 is tucked away in North Bend just down the street from “a damn good cup of coffee” (Twin Peaks, anyone?).