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Insider Profiles

His Seattle Roots Reach Back to the City's First Residents

James Rasmussen"You hear people say they have family that have been here or there five generations or six. On my mother's side, we've been in this area 10,000 years."


Here's a bit of unsolicited advice: Don't get in a debate with West Seattle's James Rasmussen over how deep your ancestral connections are with your town. It's a sure loser.

"You hear people say they have family that have been here or there five generations or six," Rasmussen, 54, says with a chuckle. "On my mother's side, we've been in this area 10,000 years."

Indeed, the Duwamish Tribe not only provides for Rasmussen's personal history and deep connection to Seattle, it also is the inspiration for the town itself. Seattle is named after the Duwamish chief Seattle, also known as Sealth.

"This is why it is difficult for me to understand what people mean when they talk about home," says Rasmussen. "And I think it is difficult for them to understand what I mean when I say it. It's generations upon generations upon generations of connection to the area."

Still, Rasmussen, who is also an accomplished jazz musician, composer and teacher, isn't saying he has a superior local claim — just a different one. He wasn't raised on a reservation, but in urban Seattle. And while he has been instrumental to such Duwamish tribal efforts as cleaning the river that bears the tribe's name and helping to rebuild a traditional longhouse, he's also found a connection to a thoroughly modern Emerald City.

And that connection is jazz.

"Well, you look at a place like Tula's, and it's happening there, of course," says the Berklee College of Music graduate. "But this always had been a town that supports jazz and produces great musicians.

"That place has been going strong for 15 years, but [jazz has] been a part of Seattle culture for much longer than that."

Indeed. Rasmussen notes that back in the 1920s and '30s, law enforcement authorities called Seattle "Sin City" for its thriving vice industries, including prostitution, speak-easies and illicit nightclubs. Remember, this is the town where the term "Skid Row" originated.

"That gave the city its rich character. That's where the jazz scene took hold. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles came right after that." And eventually, so did Rasmussen. Seattle-based Earshot Jazz magazine not long ago awarded Rasmussen's jazz band, the Jazz Police, honors for best acoustic jazz band and best jazz concert.

The New York Times recently hailed the city's homegrown jazz scene as vibrant. "It's part of our shared civic history," says Rasmussen.

Rasmussen's great-great-great-grandfather, a Civil War hero, met the woman who would become his wife (and Rasmussen's great-great-great-grandmother) in the 1880s in what now is considered West Seattle. The home Rasmussen lives in was built 20 years later.

He knows that his dual natures — his two primary connections with the city — don't, on the surface, appear to have common ground. There's the deep history of the Duwamish, who hold stories dating back to the ice age, when the region was covered in glaciers. And there's jazz, sometimes called the only true modern American art form. It only dates back 90 years or so in Seattle.

"But both are Seattle to me," says Rasmussen. "Because both are me."

Check out James' Seattle.