Howard Bulson takes an index card out of his pocket and starts laughing. "That's the first question people always ask me," he says—the question being, "When did you start playing piano?" Bulson hands me the card, which is slightly crumpled and has been handwritten with blue ink. "A cousin sent me this. Since so many people ask, I figure I'll just let them read this, because people don't believe me when I tell them." The postcard reads: "The last time I saw you you were about five years old, playing Grandpa Bulson's organ."
Last week, Howard Bulson turned 70, which means he's been playing piano for 65 years. This isn't terribly surprising to anyone who's heard his fluid readings of standards and light classical fare—and in Seattle, that's more people than not. Bulson is a local institution; he currently holds two regular gigs, at the Capitol Hill restaurant Julia's and at Lower Queen Anne's newly opened Mirabeau Room, and has been gigging regularly around town for 43 years.
Bulson got his start on his grandfather's pump organ; as a child, he'd stand up to work the foot pedal, picking Sunday-school hymns out by ear. The son of a firebrick plant–worker father and factory-girl mom, he grew up on a farm in central Missouri, studying piano in addition to his regular schoolwork. His first paid gig was with a traveling evangelist during the summers of eighth, ninth, and 10th grade. He took to the musician's lifestyle immediately. "After 11th grade, I didn't go back to school, which alarmed everybody," he says over a Dewar's on the rocks following a Thursday Mirabeau gig. "I played primarily for a religious quartet. I played in Miami, Oklahoma; the leader had a brother with a quartet in Texas, so I went there afterward. Then I went back home and finished school a year late."
After attending high school, Bulson went to college in Columbia, Mo., and began working for Hanson Publications, doing paperwork, playing regularly on the side. Then, in 1961, he was transferred to a sister company in Seattle. "It was easy finding work [as a pianist]; I was playing somewhere within a month [of arriving]," he says. His first gig was at the Moore Hotel downtown, in a lounge called the Firelight Room, where he completed a guitar-drums-piano trio. "The place was not like it is today—it was rather plush, with nice booths," he says.
Soon, Bulson was accompanying a singer named Mary Towne Smith, gigging at Pete's Poopdeck, the Barb, the Gold Coast, and Grosvenor House in addition to the Moore. In 1965, Bulson began playing five nights a week solo at Gimling, in the International District. "I finally quit my day job in 1969," he says. "I was afraid I was going to kill myself. I did make more money at night than in the day for years [before playing full time]. But you always wonder about the stability of the music business." The Gimling residency lasted through 1975, after which he went to the Silver Dragon, Simonetti's, and Charlee's, before coming aboard Sorry Charlie's in July 1987.
Bulson was still playing at the Lower Queen Anne venue when local club booker and nearby resident David Meinert began checking the place out last summer. "I'd seen him down here a bunch," says Meinert, "and I loved what he was doing." When Meinert and Showbox owner Jeff Steichen decided to buy and renovate Sorry Charlie's, they opted to keep two things: the back lounge area, with its old-fashioned wallpaper and wood paneling, both of which are still intact, and Bulson, who plays Monday through Friday from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
"I like old-man bars," says Meinert. "There was a great group of customers that were regulars here for years. We wanted to keep them, and we also wanted younger people, to create a space for new music." To that end, the front room of the Mirabeau, where Bulson performs, has been renovated with a stage, an excellent sound system, and decor that's loungey without feeling kitschy.
"Lower Queen Anne has been exploding; there's a really good feeling about it right now," says Meinert, mentioning Easy Street Records and the forthcoming branch of the used bookstore Twice Sold Tales as examples of an influx of hipster businesses like the Mirabeau. "I'm a big fan of laptop [electronica] and UK garage, and wanted to have that. [It's] a small club; you can't do 1,000 people a night with new music, because people don't know about it yet."
Bulson, on the other hand, is a known quantity, and with him aboard, Meinert seems to be getting his wish. Late weekday afternoons have been doing well, with a predominantly older crowd (presumably regulars from the Sorry Charlie's days) as well as a handful of 30-ish hipsters. And in the corner sits Howard Bulson, doing what he's done best for 65 years.