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Unique Tacoma bar Bob’s Java Jive jazzes up its live music calendar

A motorcycle parked outside a round white building with a red spout and handle that makes it look like a coffee pot.
Gabe Pancho
Bob's Java Jive
Bob's Java Jive, a coffeepot-shaped bar in Tacoma, better known for its punk scene and karaoke expanded its live music line up in 2023 to include other music genres, including jazz.

For nearly 70 years, Bob’s Java Jive, a roadside, coffeepot-shaped tavern, has been a treasured hub for culture and community in Tacoma.

Originally built in 1927 as the Coffee Pot Restaurant, Bob’s Java Jive came to be in 1955 when Bob and Lylabell Radonich bought the place and transformed it into a Polynesian-themed nightclub and music venue, complete with two live monkeys.

The now-dive bar, known colloquially as “The Jive,” has been an important landmark for local musicians and pop culture: In the ‘60s, notable local bands like The Wailers and The Ventures performed there; for a while, singer-songwriter Neko Case was one of the bartenders; and in the ‘90s it was a favorite hang-out of Kurt Cobain’s and rumored to be the place Nirvana asked to hold the album release party for Nevermind.

Richard Walden purchased Bob’s Java Jive from the Radonich family in 2022. Under Walden’s ownership, it remains a dive bar with live, local music and ultra-popular karaoke, but they’ve decided to branch out and present regular jazz for the first time in their history. Almost every month since last January, The Jive’s held a jazz night on the last Sunday of the month, featuring a set from a local artist.

Up until this point, most of The Jive's live music nights featured hard rock. But Gabe Pancho, who is responsible for booking most of the music, said he never felt that The Jive was only a metal and punk venue.

“I just feel like the vibe of the bar is…a totally different scene for different types of music, like say, jazz, even a light form of hip hop, if you will, or some reggae music,” he said.

Pancho has worked at The Jive as a karaoke host and audio engineer for 12 years. He took a break from The Jive during the pandemic shutdown, when the pandemic restrictions drastically reduced their cash flow and the bar almost went under. Ultimately, The Jive was saved by community donations, and when it reopened after the pandemic, Pancho added marketing and booking to his list of responsibilities.

“When I started booking bands again, I was really trying to take it serious without being complete tool about it. And try[ing] to branch out to like different genres of music, and different bands,” Pancho said.

When Tacoma-based Rainier Quartet reached out and asked Pancho if he booked jazz, he ran the opportunity past Walden and found that they both were looking to go in a fresh musical direction. From there, jazz night was born.

In January 2023, The Rainier Jazz Quartet performed, kicking off jazz night. Over the last year, they’ve featured an assemblage of local talent, including tenor players Ted Dortch and Cliff Colón, and the Tracy Knoop Quartet. On Nov. 25, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Casey MacGill performed swing and early R&B tunes with bassist Birch Pereira and guitarist Vince Brown.

The stage inside Bob's Java Jive, which was built in 1927. New owner Richard Walden has fixed up the patio, plumbing and added liquor.
Gabe Pancho
Bob's Java Jive
The stage inside Bob's Java Jive, which was built in 1927. New owner Richard Walden has fixed up the patio, plumbing and added liquor.

MacGill first became aware of Bob’s Java Jive through the regular Tuesday night open mic. The November show was his second jazz night appearance.

“When I first heard about [Bob’s], I had heard it was really rundown and a really weird place,” MacGill recalled. “Then it got new owners. They cleaned it up, started selling food and it was a tavern up until maybe six months ago, now they’re selling hard alcohol. And so, this thing has just kind of evolved.”

Sure enough, Walden got Bob’s Java Jive a liquor license last summer, a first for the historic bar. Pancho said the new owner also fixed up the back patio, redone the plumbing and added a new roof.

The Jive also added a more robust food menu, including a special from-scratch Italian pasta menu offered on jazz nights. Pancho noted this was a much-needed improvement in the fare.

“We used to only have burgers and corndogs and fries,” he said.

Still, building momentum for jazz night has proven difficult. Pancho said it’s hard to convince customers to pay the cover charge, which ranges from $8-15, for any live music, let alone for jazz. And it’s been challenging to prove to regulars that Bob’s Java Jive can be more than what it’s been for so long.

“It's very hit or miss because, since the Jive is known for its karaoke and the karaoke crowd, I feel like a lot of folks don't want to give the live music a chance,” Pancho said.

However, about 40 people, ranging in age from their late twenties to early eighties, attended MacGill’s most recent show. They listened attentively from red and white checkered tables, sipping red wine and occasionally getting up to swing dance under the party lights.

The audience included Lakewood residents Bernie Pelker and Marilyn Slade, who have been to eight of the jazz nights over the last year. They relish the chance to hear live jazz regularly in Tacoma, something they say is more difficult to come by these days.

Since 2020, music venues in Tacoma, like The Swiss, have closed. Tacoma Jazz Walk, which was canceled in 2020, has not returned.

Slade added that they don’t always know the bands that are playing jazz night, but they like to discover new groups and do a little people watching in the unique space. Jazz night attracts a lot of “characters,” and while they’re predominantly people over 50, she said younger people attend too.

Devin Dahlke, 28, is a good example. She decided to give the jazz night a try after attending The Jive’s open mic night.

“I think Bob's Java Jive is such a Tacoma staple. It's just such a fun, welcoming environment. And I just love it,” Dahlke said.

In the end, these are Pancho’s biggest aims with jazz night: that people learn to trust Bob’s Java Jive to curate great music for them, no matter the genre, and that everyone’s minds become a little more open in the process.

“Music has always been like a healing thing,” Pancho said. “Like, you know, frequencies. You expose yourself to new frequencies like jazz music, you never know what those frequencies will do for you.”

Bob's Java Jive will host its next jazz night on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m.

Learn more about events at Bob’s Java Jive on their Instagram.

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.