Ruby Bishop (1919 – 2019)

Ruby Bishop
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Ruby Bishop
Image Courtesy of Ruby Bishop

Ruby Carol Bishop is a legendary jazz performer in the Pacific Northwest.  Graced with ebullient humor, loving her adoring audiences, and always dressed in sparkly sequins, Bishop at 94 continues to play piano in Seattle nightclubs while belting out jazz standards.

Ruby Carol Cogwell was born on December 22, 1919 in Thurston County, Washington, the eighth child on the family farm. Dancing for country fairs at age five and mostly self-taught on a piano carted home by a brother, she led the Centralia Buccaneers Band at the age of 12.  After graduating from high school, her parents sent her to the University of Washington in Seattle where they hoped she would be trained as a pharmacist. Within a year she left the University to start her music career.

Settling in Seattle, Cogwell played solo gigs at many of Seattle’s well-known jazz venues. Because of restrictions imposed by the white musician’s union, black performers were limited to the south part of town on or below Jackson Street. This is where touring jazz greats could stay, play, and hang out in sessions at the black Musician Union Local #493 building. Over the years Bishop befriended and hosted many of these performers who looked forward to both her music and a home-cooked meal. These greats included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and especially Louis Armstrong, whom she often escorted when he played in Seattle.

Although her plans for a career in pharmacy never materialized, she married druggist Alex Bishop. During World War II she, like many women in her era, became a Boeing B-17 mechanic and draftsman. After the war she learned steno-typing in preparation for becoming a court reporter, then studied to be a beautician. She later took up cabinetry-making, becoming one of the first women in the Pacific Northwest in that field. That expertise paid off in the 1950s when she rebuilt the entire family kitchen.  Whatever jobs she held to help support the family however, she always looked to her nighttime music career as her main profession.

Over time others recognized her musical ability.  By the time she was nearly in her 50s, Bishop had achieved enough prominence to be recruited by the U.S. Army to entertain G.I. troops stationed in South Korea and South Vietnam. By this point she was also performing before audiences in London, Paris, and Stockholm.  Despite that success Bishop continued to view Seattle as her home.  By the mid-1970s, both national and international travel became less frequent as she concentrated on performances in Seattle area supper clubs.

After her first husband died, Bishop married a second time at the age of 82.  She briefly abandoned her career to care for her spouse before being widowed again at the age of 84.  She returned to performing although the routine was now interspersed with mentoring eight grandchildren and their innate talents in music and math.  Ruby Carol Cogwell Bishop continued to perform at Seattle-area jazz venues until her death at 99 on June 23, 2019.