The host/pianist at the jazz open mic at Tula's in Belltown is going to favor the crowd with a piano instrumental. Everyone applauds. "You haven't heard it yet," he demurs.
"I didn't clap," the bartender intones, deadpan, to his mini-audience at the bar across the room. He's got a beautiful snow-white mustache; he's cursed (or blessed) with one of those faces that, at rest, looks unapologetically homicidal, making his smiles all the more gratifying. Between songs, he says he worked his way through college playing in piano bars, back when the bar was actually the piano or built right around it, with the spilled drinks leaking inside eventually changing the tuning. Who's the big round table in the back with the handwritten "Reserved" sign for? He just laughs.
A woman sits alone at the bar with a stack of sheet music and a pink drink with lots of speared fruit in it. Another woman has brought her own microphone. A gentleman wearing a Hawaiian evening shirt, palm trees on black, takes the stage—a low platform, with more tables beyond the spot-lit piano and singer—and launches into some hypnotically soothing, proprietary patter. "Welcome to Tula's," he says. "It's a Monday night thing"—pause—"that happens every Monday." The bartender joins in, nonchalant, for the last four words. Tula's has been around for 16 years, and it seems possible that this patron/performer has said the same thing for 832 consecutive Mondays. He then launches into a rendition of "Paper Moon" that contains a good amount of soulful scatting.
When people sing on Monday night at Tula's, a reverent silence reigns. Plates of just-arrived food sit neglected in the dim; tinkling of the ice in your drink and a very occasional murmur (preferably appreciative) are acceptable, clinking cutlery is not. As with a single consciousness, the audience ignores the infrequent but insanely loud ringing of the bar phone, the sporadic ding of the oblivious order-up bell, and, for a while, a sound from the kitchen like something's being beaten to death on a metal table.
The place is unremarkable, well-worn. It's the intense focus of the room that alchemizes what's happening—regular people singing songs about love, with varying levels of skill, merely because they love doing it—into something heart-explodingly good. When Hawaiian-shirt man finishes singing, he looks very happy, sits down, and (silently) eats a salad. One woman's wavering notes are tiny, wrecking tragedies. A guy's story about the first time he fell in love, leading into "I Just Found Out About Love," goes exactly, perfectly nowhere. The pianist's work gets looser, more miraculous, as he gets into the scotch.
When asked in a whisper for the bill, the bartender replies, sotto voce, "Four hundred and ten dollars." He jests! But there is an $8 cover charge.
Tula's, 2214 Second Ave, 443-4221.