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Holden, Oscar (1887-1969)

Image Courtesy of Grace Holden
Oscar Holden, often called the patriarch of Seattle jazz, was one of the earliest of Seattle, Washington’s influential jazz musicians.  Holden was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1887. Before moving to Chicago, Illinois to escape from the South, Holden had played on Fate Marable’s famous Mississippi River riverboats, where legends such as Louis Armstrong would eventually perform.  Holden’s children recall that he rarely talked about his southern life, except to say he purposely did not marry until he fled Dixie, so his children would not be born there.  

Holden played clarinet in Jelly Roll Morton’s band, and arrived with the group in Seattle in 1919.  Although the band moved on, Holden remained in the city.  He did form his own band which toured cities in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.  

Holden was a powerhouse player with a deep classical background.  Another Seattle musician, Palmer Johnson, said of Holden: “Anything you set before him, he’s gone!  He had a wonderful musical education.  He was a great, great performer.”  

Holden met his wife, Leala, in 1928 while they were playing at different clubs in North Seattle.  The couple had seven children, five of whom pursued musical careers.  According to Holden’s son Ron, a vocalist whose rock ‘n’ roll hit “Love You So” hit Billlboard charts in the 1950s, “Every Sunday, the family would get together and play the same music that they played for dances.”  Holden’s daughter, Grace adds, “We ate music, we lived music.”

Holden had great endurance, in between his day shifts at Todd Shipyards and night shifts playing at clubs, he would regularly swim two miles across Lake Washington.  He continued performing until he suffered a stroke in 1966.  Oscar Holden died in Seattle in 1969.  

Paul De Barros, Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993); Historylink interview of Oscale Grace Holden, Seattle, Washington, May 17, 2000,


University of Washington

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