Scott Koh loves jazz music. The man, who this summer opened the Standard, a jazz club in the International District, with a few partners, talks about the neighborhood's jazz roots. "There were speakeasies and jazz clubs all over," Koh says outside his club, pointing in every direction.

He is thrilled about the building's history, too--jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan have performed at the Sixth Avenue and Main Street spot. Koh refurbished the place so it looks like a jazz club circa 1940, with deep black booths, seductive lighting, and a cool shade of blue on the walls. He proudly shows off the club's front-page review in Seattle's Jazz Steps newspaper.

But live jazz music isn't as profitable as it was in the '40s. The owners are losing money hosting bands during the week, so they changed Saturday night's music. A DJ now spins Top 40 and hiphop, music that's popular with younger people. "We do this [music], though it's not what we want to do," says Koh, a 35-year-old with a baseball cap over his rumpled hair. "We are woefully unschooled when it comes to this music. It's dance music. I listen to 88.5, NPR."

Though he's not a huge fan of the music, Koh doesn't mind playing it. On Saturday nights, over 300 young, sharply dressed people--most of them Asian--usually attend. For the most part, Saturdays have been a success. But two shootings outside the club in the last month have changed everything. Now the city is pressuring Koh to change the music or close on Saturdays, two options he doesn't want to be forced into.

Two weeks ago, Koh hired rabble-rousing local attorney David Osgood, who's earned a reputation standing up for clubs that play hiphop. That, in turn, has upset officials, who see Osgood as a threat to the city's "change the music" solution--a fix the police and city attorney's office have pushed, with mixed success, on numerous clubs in town. Now the club and the city are at an impasse. Koh wants help, but the city seems content to stand aside until another violent incident spells the end of the business. The Stranger has heard that city officials have hampered the Standard's efforts to keep the peace. One cop who was hired to guard the club while off-duty told Koh what happened: The cop's superiors, perhaps at the bidding of the city attorney's office, warned the officer verbally and in writing to stay away from the club.

The troubles near the Standard started a few weeks ago: On Saturday, November 16, a large fight broke out a block away at 2:00 a.m. Someone shot a man twice in the leg. A week later, the Standard's security turned away four young men because they didn't pass the strict dress code (no hats, sneakers, or sports attire). The men threatened to "smoke" the security guards, who then called the police. Cops found the guys with guns in their car, and the club's owners pressed charges.

A week later, on November 30, a friend of the arrested men stopped by and told Koh to drop the charges. He refused, and two hours later there was a drive-by--a man was shot in the chest. Koh was outside the club when it happened. "I ducked," he says. "A bullet missed me by about two feet." Koh is worried, and doing everything he can think of to curtail the violence, like adding extra security guards.

After the first shooting, Koh met with city representatives at an International District coffee shop. Shelley Hickey, the West Police Precinct liaison for the city attorney's office, asked Koh to sign a "good neighbor agreement," outlining things like closing times and crowd control measures. "They were concerned about the incidents, and wanted to know how we run the club," Koh says. "But then I mentioned hiphop. That's the magic word, hiphop. The conversation shifted to 'You're bringing in the Asian ghetto.'" The hiphop music was quickly blamed for sparking the violence, according to the owners. "There are some forms of music that attract violence," Hickey said later, stopping short of pointing at hiphop. "We leave it to club owners to determine what they might be doing differently on a Saturday night."

Koh, who hasn't signed the agreement, didn't hear from Hickey again for a week. She called after the second shooting and asked to set up a formal meeting between the owners and the police. Koh says she wanted to discuss changing the hiphop music, or closing on Saturday nights for a while. (Hickey's version of the agenda: to "find out what we can do to assist them within the [police] and the city's capability, and find out what the club plans to do to turn it around.")

The music, however, is not the real problem. Hiphop is played everywhere: at dance clubs all over the city, in heavy rotation on Seattle's top-rated radio station, KUBE 93-FM, and even on soft-drink commercials. The real cause of violence is large crowds of young people gathered on a Saturday night. (Ironically large crowds of young people also caused problems at the 1930s and '40s jazz club that Koh digs so much.)

And in fact, Koh has tried to address the real issues that come with large, young groups who end up outside causing problems at closing time. Koh has offered to hire a few off-duty police to patrol the entire neighborhood (and the club), but the city won't relent on its "change the music or shut down" mantra. And the city certainly isn't helping to quell the street violence in the International District.

So he hired Osgood, which freaked out city officials. Hickey has reportedly said that she cannot be in the same room with Osgood, and that hiring him is tantamount to not cooperating with the police.

And since Osgood came on board, it seems the city is hampering the Standard's own efforts to keep the peace. On December 7, cops stopped by the club nearly 40 times, harassed the owners (Koh says the cops suggested he wear a bulletproof vest in the "firing zone," and also pressed him to ditch hiphop), and pestered the three off-duty cops Koh had hired. "They said things [to the officers] like 'Why are you down here? You know this place is going to get shot up tonight. You might as well walk in front of a shooting range,'" Koh says. "It's as if they were trying to get rid of our off-duty police." It worked--last weekend, the off-duty officers didn't show up. (One of the officers dropped by at closing time to tell the owners about the orders to stay away; Hickey cited a police policy barring cops from working off-duty for liquor licensees.) The regular cops also backed off. Only one squad car drove by all night. "They're going to let this place fester," Osgood predicts.

As we went to press the club's owners and Osgood met with city officials and opened up a line of communication. "We're cautiously optomistic," Koh says.

Support The Stranger

2021 Social Justice Film Festival: ACTIVATE | REFUGE Online
Screening 50+ films that inspire and demand community action, October 7-17 at