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Jazz Night School launches ambitious campaign for new home

A group of young adults stands in front of keyboards, holding guitars and saxophones in a circle, and an instructor stands somewhat center, looking over the music with one of his fists in the air.
Michelle Smith-Lewis
Jazz Night School
Instructor Clif Swiggett leads the Jazz Night School Funk Ensemble in Room 5.

Jazz Night School, the south Seattle-based jazz education nonprofit, is hoping for a growth spurt. After nearly ten years in their 1,500 square-foot space on Rainier Avenue, Jazz Night School has begun the ambitious process of securing, financing, and building a much larger permanent facility.

Along with providing a debt-free, long-term home for Jazz Night School, this new facility will preserve a home for L.E.M.S, a vital Black-owned bookstore, and create affordable housing. The project also supports the cultural and economic growth of the city-designated Columbia Hillman Arts & Culture District and state-designated Rainier Valley Creative District.

“It's a landmarks district, and it's going to be a landmark building. It's really going to contribute to the arts and cultural district of Columbia Hillman City,” said Erik Hanson, executive director of Jazz Night School.

At present, Jazz Night School employs four staff members, more than 30 instructors, and serves approximately 200 students per quarter. The school offers a variety of music ensembles at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced level. They also hold online classes focused on ear training, instrument technique, rhythm, improvisation, theory, and jazz history.

Hanson first began the organization in 2008 out of his home. It’s taken a lot of persistence and perseverance to grow Jazz Night School, but he sees the “undeniable value” of offering people the chance to learn music in a positive environment, and of helping Jazz Night School’s student community understand the African American experience through jazz.

Hanson said that while Jazz Night School works predominantly with white students, their student community is 10% more diverse than Seattle's population overall, and that the faculty and board currently have a 30% and 50% BIPOC representation, respectively.

In recent years, Jazz Night School has outgrown their space, and Hanson has been thinking about the organization’s future for some time now.

“My job is to bring this organization to a place of permanence, where we're trying to create a permanent institution. But to do that it's got to be self-sufficiently sustainable,” Hanson said.

While ongoing donations are one path to financial sustainability, Hanson noted that the Jazz Night School is too niche to be on most people’s radar. The donations they receive are mostly from people within the school.

Thus, he’s looking at reducing overhead and maximizing class sizes, which a new facility will make possible. With bigger rehearsal spaces, the nonprofit could expand ensemble sizes, serve more people in the community, and increase tuition revenue.

“If we can move, if we can take this opportunity to get into a facility that the organization will own're reducing your costs. And, if it's a properly sized space, you don't have constraints on revenue capacity,” Hanson said.

Three years ago, Hanson got the green light from the nonprofit’s board to start searching for a new space. Soon after, Ben Rankin, a violin student at Jazz Night School and project developer in real estate, became Hanson’s partner in this project. Rankin and former Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin jointly run Conlin Columbia Partnerships for Cities, a business that facilitates the development of cultural and community facilities alongside affordable housing.

“It's so great to be to be involved in a project that involves thoughtful neighborhood impact, and when you can involve the arts or community services in some way, it allows [for a] good feeling at the end of the workday,” said Rankin, who said he found being a Jazz Night School student “deeply satisfying.”

In 2022, with Conlin Columbia on board, Hanson settled on a site that encompasses three parcels — 5021, 5015, and 5001 Rainier Avenue South —and began executing the purchase and sale, which they expect to be final imminently.

They’ve been considering how best to utilize this property in coalition with L.E.M.S bookstore, a BIPOC community hub that offers literature, classes, social events, community outreach, and currently exists on the site; and Southeast Effective Development (SEED), a 50 year-old nonprofit specializing in arts, housing and economic development in southeast Seattle.

Together, they are planning on a 21,000 square-foot facility that would provide Jazz Night School and L.E.M.S Bookstore with their own commercial condominiums on the ground floor and more than 100 units of affordable housing units above.

The property acquisition will be financed through a variety of lenders. Jazz Night School will initially hold the property while SEED gets their financing lined up to start the build of the affordable housing units. Then, SEED plans to buy the property from Jazz Night School and the final step will be to sell both L.E.M.S Bookstore and Jazz Night School their own commercial condominiums, which will be built to their specifications.

In Jazz Night School’s case, that means a performance space, six ensemble rooms, four practice rooms, an office suite and lobby, and more.

To cover the approximately $6 million custom-built 8,000 square-foot condominium, Hanson’s been fundraising aggressively within Jazz Night School. For the last two months, he’s asked students and other community members to pledge toward their fundraising goal of $700,000 in a campaign he calls “Building for Harmony: Brick by Brick.”

Seattle jazz icon Jay Thomas mentoring his advanced combo in a Jazz Night School rehearsal.
Michelle Smith-Lewis
Jazz Night School
Seattle jazz icon Jay Thomas mentoring his advanced combo in a Jazz Night School rehearsal.

If the $700,000 goal is met, Jazz Night School can apply for an institutional grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Building for the Arts grant. The program has provided significant funding for other jazz-friendly cultural facilities, including Port Angeles’ Field Arts & Events Hall, and KNKX’s new Seattle Studios. If they receive the grant, the state will match as much as 33% of the cost of building this new Jazz Night School facility.

“In our case, that's well over a million dollars,” Hanson said.

Hanson said they’re on track to meet their goal, so he’s started the process of applying for the Department of Commerce’s grant. From there, they’ll continue to drum up support, with the goal of having the new facility move-in ready in six years, at most.

As this vision comes to life, Hanson is optimistic about the potential of this project. Hanson’s beginning to design the performance space at the facility, which he hopes will host a variety of performances and boost the local economy. He’s also excited that the home will strengthen the bonds between the school and L.E.M.S — two organizations he says are devoted to Black culture on the south-end.

“I’m looking forward to just being in the space with them,” said Hassan Messiah, owner of L.E.M.S. Bookstore. “Because both Jazz Night School, as well as L.E.M.S., the programming and what they're doing, it matches to be sharing the building and be right next to each other.”

Messiah said that although this has been a complex project to work on at times, it’s also “really exciting” that they will eventually have a new space that better accommodates the various services they offer the community.

“Everything will be tailor-made in the new building, but right now we just pack it all into one space,” Messiah said.

For Rankin, this project is a counterbalancing force to the gentrification Columbia City has faced for years. Columbia City is in one of the most diverse zip codes in the country, but the rising cost of living jeopardizes that diversity and the existence of cultural institutions like Jazz Night School, changing the fabric of communities. That’s why this project is especially important, he said.

Sido Park, a student at Jazz Night School who lives in the Columbia City neighborhood, couldn’t agree more. This facility will be a “beautiful thing” for Columbia and Hillman City, and he’s happy to hear that Jazz Night School will be a permanent fixture in his neighborhood.

“I think the biggest thing [Jazz Night School’s provided] is a sense of belonging and community. I signed up to play music, and I ended up meeting a lot of amazing friends and mentors,” he said, adding later: “I think having more resources, space will allow us to create a bigger impact in the community.”

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.