Ernest James “Jim” Brown, born around 1891 in Tennessee, arrived in Spokane in the mid-1920s as the chauffeur for H.D. Lee, the businessman responsible for Lee overalls.
Lee was sickly and stopped traveling soon after that. But Brown came back.
Staked with some money from Lee, Brown opened the Sawdust Trail, a cafe at Sprague Avenue and Havana Street in Spokane Valley, in 1927.
The small cafe was a hit because of E.J.’s fried chicken and his wife’s lemon meringue pies. Brown served spare ribs as a side dish.
“People didn’t know what barbecued spare ribs were,” he told the Spokane Chronicle.
In 1929, the Browns built a 350-seat restaurant, The Pirates Den, on the hillside above the intersection of Fancher Road and Sprague Avenue, which was called Apple Way at the time.
The billboard-sized marquee lit up with the words “Dine” and “Dance.” It could be seen for miles down Sprague Avenue.
“Sizzling Syncopation” was the slogan for the club with live jazz, a floor show and dancing every night they were open.
The club was the place for raucous revelry, according to Brown’s daughter, Doris Mae Aaron.
“There were fights every night. Every night! That used to be the fun of it,” Aaron told The Spokesman-Review in a 1997 article.
The joint became legendary as a jazz club where prominent black entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey brought a touch of the Harlem Renaissance to Spokane.
Brown changed the name to Club Harlem, or Harlem Club, around 1936.
At least five nights a week, the clientele of Club Harlem was white.
African-Americans came to the club on the other nights for informal parties and music.
The black community seemed to understand it as an economic decision by a black businessman. In that era, most restaurants and stores wouldn’t serve black customers.
In 1950, Brown faced charges of selling alcohol to minors and staying open too late. He usually just paid the fines.
In July 1951, the club was destroyed by fire, ending an era of jazz entertainment and good food in Spokane.
Brown worked at McCollum Ford until his death in 1965.