Jazz de Opus Closes — September 2003

When callers phoned the Jazz de Opus in early August, they got a message saying the club was closed. Mixers Café had opened in its place.

It appeared to be a sudden and unceremonious end for Portland’s oldest jazz club and the last remaining jazz venue in Old Town. Opened in 1972, it once hosted touring jazz legends as well as local music seven nights a week. Literally and symbolically, it was a pillar of Portland’s jazz scene.

According to current owner Gus Samander, who purchased the club in 1999, the Jazz de Opus operated in the red for the past 10-12 years, and the decision to change (it now presents recorded music and a menu featuring small portions priced from $.99-$4.99) was based on a declining audience from area hotels after 9-11-01 and the lack of near-by parking. “The younger crowd who go out to nightclubs around us doesn’t listen to jazz,” added Samander.

Of course nightclubs come and go, responding to passing fancies, changing demographics and economic downturns, and the city’s robust jazz scene has weathered the loss of previously key nightspots while still retaining its reputation as one of the best places to play and hear jazz outside New York. But the loss of the Jazz de Opus means much more than a temporary inconvenience for fans and musicians.

“It’s a serious assault on jazz in Portland as we have known it,” says guitarist Dan Balmer, whose trio played Sunday nights at the club for 13 years. “It’s a huge loss,” agrees drummer Alan Jones, whose sextet played the club regularly in the late ’90s. “It was Portland’s Village Vanguard,” he says, comparing it to New York’s venerable basement club.

And Jones is right to evoke history. Because history tells us who we are, and when we lose that connection, our identity is diminished. The closing of the Jazz de Opus affects more than the jazz community. It was a cultural nexus that for 30 years reflected changing political, social and economic conditions through the mirror of music. The Jazz de Opus contributed to our sense of place, to the image of Portland. Its passing marks a shift in the cultural landscape.

 

The club’s original owner, Sam Pshue, was a jazz lover. He even hired musicians, who worked day jobs as carpenters, to finish the space with natural wood and dark paneling, bean bag chairs and fire pits. The next door restaurant, the Opus Too, offered the same ambience: stained glass ceiling, beveled crystal windows, worn wood booths and a “Louis Armstrong filet.” Seated at the counter, you could watch both the cooks and the musicians.

On the walls hung autographed photos of the legends who had played there, including Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, and Earl Hines. A small space, it was often crowded and sometimes noisy, but the proximity to the musicians lent an intimacy prized by jazz fans.

“The club always played a great selection of jazz LPs,” remembers historian Bob Dietsche, who notes that “it takes a long time to establish a reputation as a place with a certain kind of jazz and certain kind of crowd. Out of town musicians playing Portland knew about the club and would go there after their shows.” Chart-toping singer Diana Krall, for instance, sat in with Opus regulars Steve Christofferson and Nancy King several years ago.

“It was the quintessential jazz club,” says Jones. “It looked and felt like a jazz club, it had a reputation as the place to play. We used to hang out there even when there wasn’t any music.”

 

The Jazz de Opus was joined by other major clubs over the past 20 years to make Portland one of the best cities for both jazz players and listeners. That reputation attracted musicians to locate here, including the late bassist Leroy Vinnegar, whose quartet had a long run at the Opus that kept the club hopping.

“Musicians used to call Portland ‘the place where jazz players own houses,'” says Balmer, recalling the days of affordable housing prices and jazz gigs so abundant that a musician could afford to buy a home.

While other clubs came and went, the Opus remained. It was crucial to the vitality of Portland’s jazz scene because it was one of the few clubs to provide a guaranteed fee, a regular weekly gig for an extended time, and complete musical freedom. For bandleaders and composers, those paid, steady gigs provided an essential incubator for the development of original ensemble music.

“The gig at the Opus was integral to the development of the Sextet,” says Jones, whose CD, “Unsafe,” grew out of those club dates. His band continues strong today, he believes, because they had two years together at the Opus to lay a foundation.

The money was almost secondary.

“Anyone in my trio could make the same money in one and a half hours of teaching as he could from five hours for a club gig,” explains Balmer. “But we do it to develop our music, to increase our skill and to bring it to the people. This is what musicians do; we present our music.”

 

The closing of the Jazz de Opus also highlights the main problem jazz performers face everywhere: Unlike classical music, which requires an equivalent level of skill, dedication and audience sophistication, jazz has not developed corporate or government funding. It’s got to take its chances in the nightclubs like pop music. “This leaves jazz in dangerous waters,” says Balmer. “If people like your music, come see you and buy drinks, you will survive. If not, hello day job.”

Some in the music community suggest that newer clubs, such as Jimmy Mak’s in the Pearl district, and The Blue Monk on southeast Belmont Street, will fill the void. Both have the essential ingredient for longevity — owners who are committed to and understand the music. As promising as their future may be, however, they lack history.

“I saw Dexter Gordon there when I was in high school,” recalls Jones, who sneaked in an upstairs window to soak up the music before he was caught and ejected. And keyboardist George Mitchell met drummer Chris Lee when they were still teenagers standing in the rain outside the Opus listening to the Heath Brothers. That kind of attachment to such fondly remembered places bonds us not only to others who have shared the experience but to previous generations as well.

For all its emphasis on innovation, jazz has come to revere its history, and many of today’s players consciously evoke the tradition in their work. It means something to them to play the room where Dexter Gordon and Jim Hall once performed. Beyond the music, though, the existence of clubs such as the Jazz de Opus contribute to Portland’s identity and national image. Change is inevitable in the entertainment business, but when a visible symbol of community history disappears, we need to ask ourselves who we are and, more important, who we want to be.

“Many nights at the Opus, the audience would be made up mostly of people from out of town sent there by hotel concierges,” Balmer says. “‘We don’t have anything like this in Santa Barbara (or wherever they came from),’ they’d say. We have been truly blessed to be part of the scene here,” he adds, “but at the current rate of support from clubs and listeners, Portland will be no different from Tucson or Sacramento or other cities that never thought they had a scene at all.”