Of course the story goes on.
After the dust from the bulldozers had settled along Williams Avenue, after the clubs that sustained Portland’s golden age were replaced by freeway ramps and Emmanuel Hospital, the story of jazz went on. After the mid-60s, when the African-American community was fragmented by physical and social change, the story went on.
Quietly at first, though.
In the late ’60s, there wasn’t as much jazz in town as there had been, and the scene was slow to rebuild. In fact, the story of the post-Williams Avenue era in Portland doesn’t really start to take off until 1973, when Mel Brown, who had cut his teeth along the Avenue, came back to town, the Jazz de Opus began presenting live shows, and a jazz renaissance got underway that culminated in the boom of the ’80s.
Out of the Rubble
“There was no jazz here then,” Brown recalls of his homecoming. “I couldn’t even find a jam session. So I talked to George Fracasso at the Prima Donna, and Friday of the week we started there was already a line around the place.” Though he exaggerated the music’s plight somewhat, Brown was right about his appeal: 30 years later, he continues to be one of the city’s biggest jazz attractions. More than any other single figure, Brown, who was born in 1944, best represents the story of post-Williams Avenue jazz in Portland.
While he was still in high school, he began to play professionally and attend jam sessions in the community. “At that time,” he recalls, “Bobby Bradford and Cleve Williams would wait for me after school, and they’d show me how to set up certain figures with the Walter Bridges Big Band. Later, Julian Hinson probably taught me all of the basics about what’s happening musically. Omar Yeoman brought me along, too. During that time, that kind of teaching of younger musicians was what everybody did,” he adds, “because they were helped that way themselves.”
Brown attended Portland State University and played with Billy Larkin and the Delegates, one of the Avenue’s premier organ trios, with whom he made his first album. Soon after, he went on tour with Earl Grant, where he was recruited for a job with Martha and the Vandellas. That began his eight-year association with Motown, when he toured and recorded with the Temptations and the Supremes.
Then Brown decided to come home, where the scene had changed.
Though the music had indeed fallen on hard times everywhere and had nearly dried up in the black community, there was still jazz in the city during the late ’60s and early ’70s. A few first generation beboppers, such as Warren Bracken, continued to work and mentor younger musicians, including native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. And there were new players coming to town, such as trumpeter and composer Thara Memory, who has served as a passionate educator for many of his 30 years here and currently directs an award-winning band at Beaverton’s Arts and Communication Magnet Academy.
In the late ’60s, some of the Avenue’s jazz had moved south on what is today Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, to the Upstairs Lounge, where Ron Steen, Tom Grant and Pepper performed while still in high school. Nationally touring acts that included Gene Ammons and organist Shirley Scott also played the club. Pianist Mary Field played the Candlelight Lounge, the reincarnation of Sidney’s on Southwest Fourth Street, and singer/pianist Terri Spenser also led a popular group. Bassist Andre Garand, pianists Harry Gillgam and Dick Blake (aka Richard Applegate) and drummer Tom Albring were also active.
Saxophonist and composer Pepper also played Portland frequently during this period, though he had moved to New York in 1964. Of Kaw and Creek descent, his powerful style wedded Native American culture to jazz so effectively that he won a prominent place in Europe’s post-bop scene before his death from lymphoma at age 50 in 1992. His best-known tune, “Witchi-Tai-To” (based on a healing chant of the peyote religion), which was also performed regularly by the Tom Grant Band a decade later, reached the Top Ten on jazz charts in 1971. A challenging personality, Pepper was a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion and profoundly influenced several Portland players, including pianist Gordon Lee, who figured prominently in the Mel Brown Sextet of the late ’80s.
The scene remained small, but changes were brewing.
New jazz studies programs in colleges and universities in the early ’70s injected vitality and added legitimacy to a music long associated with the underworld. Mt. Hood Community College, for instance, turned out a group of players who went on to become leading figures, including Steve Christofferson, Gary Hobbs, Phil Baker, and several years later, the bassist Ben Wolfe, who subsequently worked with Wynton Marsalis and Diana Krall. Big bands such as Stan Kenton’s soon came to depend on such programs to provide fresh horns, and many Portland players spent time in such groups before returning to town with skills sharpened.
Likewise, the founding of the Jazz Society of Oregon in 1974, and the group’s subsequent and continuing activities — which include a 20-page monthly newsletter (currently produced by Wayne Thompson) as well as promotion of concerts and a scholarship program — helped support the growth of jazz. The group’s early success in presenting jazz concerts demonstrated to club owners that an audience did exist. And that was crucial, because nothing has yet replaced the steady nightclub gigs that are the music’s life blood. The number of eating and drinking establishments willing to present live jazz continued to grow.
In 1976, the Jazz Quarry opened on S.W. Jefferson near 12th Avenue, and over the next 11 years became one of the most important venues in the city for a variety of styles: the New Orleans sounds of Stumptown; the bebop and ballads of the house band, the Eddie Wied Trio; and a variety of nationally-touring stars that included Herb Ellis, Red Holloway and Mose Allison. It also hosted the Walter Bridges Big Band, a unit active until the former Williams Avenue bandleader’s death in 1984.
Wied settled in Portland in 1970, after earning a master’s degree in art and spending 15 years accompanying Las Vegas show bands. He became known as “The Professor,” however, as much for his teaching skills as for his mastery of the keyboard. The ease, intelligence and fluidity of his sound capture the essence of modern jazz, and though he has recorded infrequently, Wied has been influential.
Stumptown, an extension of The Castle Jazz Band, was led by Gary Peterson and trombonist Pat O’Neal and kept the New Orleans sound alive with performances at the Quarry and other locations during the ’80s. Clarinetist Jim Beatty also led a popular New Orleans-style group.
The Hobbit, in its original location on Southeast 52nd Street, also began to feature live jazz in 1976 with a performance by bassist David Friesen and guitarist John Stowell. An intimate room in its first location, with leaded glass windows and ivy-covered exterior, The Hobbit became a more important venue for both local and touring musicians after its later move to a larger space on Southeast 39th Street.
Though Brown led a popular trio at the Hobbit in those years (sometimes featuring vocalist Shirley Nanette), the club’s early success was also built on Friesen, who settled in Portland in 1969. Often on the road, he established a pattern of touring mixed with local club dates that continues to the present. With melodic scope and rich sound, Friesen, born in 1943, developed his career via associations with established players, including pianist Mal Waldron, saxophonist Joe Henderson and flutist Paul Horn. Friesen toured the former Soviet Union in 1983 with Horn’s quartet, the first group of Americans to play concerts open to the Soviet public since the 1920s.
Also on that historic trip (and on eight albums with the bassist) was Stowell. Renowned among teachers and guitar enthusiasts for his innovative approach to harmony, Stowell (born in 1951) moved to the city in 1976, but like Friesen, the globe-trotting minstrel spends more than half the year outside Portland, playing in Europe, Latin America and around the U.S. Still, when in town he’s a regular at jam sessions and local clubs, and since the late ’90s, he has led the city’s annual Guitar Summit. Partnered with him several times has been guitarist Jerry Hahn, another immigrant with a storied past as a pioneer of jazz fusion.
During the mid-70s, keyboard player and composer Jeff Lorber — one of the most successful jazz funk stars of the ’70s and a power in Los Angeles studios today — found his voice and his confidence when he moved to town. “As soon as I got to Portland,” he recalled in 1978, “I started getting a lot of encouragement by the musicians. I was getting work, and all of a sudden I was considered to be a well-respected piano player. I never really enjoyed that status in Boston .”
By 1977, Lorber was sitting behind an electric keyboard at Ray’s Helm, flanked by thumb-slapping bassist Lester McFarland and funk drummer Bruce Carter. Two years later, Kenny Gorelick (now Kenny G) joined on saxophone and Lorber’s career took off.
The supportive nature of Portland’s jazz scene, noted by Lorber and other immigrants, grew out of the golden years on Williams Avenue. And it retained that cooperative, small town character even as jazz grew into a major cultural force in the city.
The 1970s produced a population increase in Portland comparable to the growth spurt of WWII. During those years, Portland’s image as a leader of “Ecotopia” — a maverick, progressive region blessed with a magnificent natural environment and a vibrant central city — drew members of the arts community, among them jazz musicians and those likely to support them.
And they did. As a result, jazz began to appear in unusual places.
Portland Center for the Visual Arts, for instance, dedicated primarily to curating forward-looking visual arts shows, developed a jazz series that brought the likes of progressive musicians Archie Shepp, Max Roach and Roscoe Mitchell to town from 1979 to 1985. Portland’s avant garde scene was also well-represented in the late 70s and into the early ’80s as drummer and composer Dave Storrs and saxophonist-composer Rich Halley released several albums. Other experimental groups, such as Freebop, played The Kingston on West Burnside, where pianist Gordon Lee also led a post-bop trio.
For the most part, however, Portland remained a town primarily interested in what had been the Avenue’s stock-in-trade: straightahead jazz. That’s what the majority of musicians played and what the majority of clubs required.
Indeed, an audience was developing again, and the musicians came to them. In April of 1975, for instance, Dizzy Gillespie, Terry Gibbs, Mongo Santamaria, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham and Weather Report appeared in Portland. By comparison, that’s more than have appeared in any single month (outside the festivals) in 2004. By 1979, 25 clubs were presenting live local jazz at least some days each week, and several others, including The Jazz de Opus, The Earth and Euphoria, occasionally booked national acts such as the Pat Metheny Group and the Heath Brothers.
In 1978, the Jazz Society joined promoters Jim and Mary Brown to inaugurate the Otter Crest Jazz Weekend, a three-day version of what’s come to be called “jazz parties,” where some two dozen musicians spend a weekend performing for several hundred dedicated fans in a retreat or resort setting. Those concerts brought more nationally-known players to the area and demonstrated that an audience for jazz existed outside the nightclubs.
Then, in 1979, the Oregon Zoo initiated a series of summer concerts called Your Zoo and All that Jazz that presented primarily local players to crowds of as many as 3,500 people in a grassy amphitheater near the elephant house. Though the series changed its musical focus in the late 1980s, the years it presented jazz were important in building public awareness and support for the music. Jack McGowan, who got that series off the ground, would later promote the first Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz.
Jazz was gaining respectability, and Portland was on the cusp of a new golden age, when, as guitarist Dan Balmer put it, “Musicians called Portland the place where jazz players own houses.”
The Boom — Kansas City on the Willamette
Despite the recession that slowed the state’s economy in the early 1980s, a jazz boom accompanied it. The number of celebrated artists of all styles who played Portland was increasing, but what led Portland to be called “Kansas City on the Willamette” was primarily the nightclub activity — over 40 presenting live jazz weekly by 1981, supporting over 120 regularly active players. Chief among them at the time, in terms of influence and prestige (in addition to the Jazz Quarry, the Jazz de Opus and The Hobbit, which were equally active) was Delevan’s, a popular supper club located in a former firehouse on Northwest Glisan Street. Known for its food and ambience, Delevan’s hosted national names such as Sonny Stitt and Eddie Harris. Accompanying many of these performers was the house trio: drummer Ron Steen, bassist Phil Baker and pianist Peter Boe.
Baker went on to tour with Diana Ross, composed for and performed with Tom Grant, and is still one of the most active bassists in town; Boe followed bluesman Robert Cray onto the road. Steen, however, has remained in Portland for most of his career. Besides a tour with Harry Connick, Jr. and a stint in New York, he has dedicated himself to leading jam sessions that keep alive traditions he absorbed from players who once frequented the Avenue.
That fact helps account for his election to the Jazz Society of Oregon’s Hall of Fame in 2002. But it’s his musicianship that gives Steen authority. He has worked with Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, John Hammond and Woody Shaw, has appeared on many local recordings, and performs nearly every night of the week.
During the boom years, two important outdoor summer festivals — both still alive in 2004 — added variety and new listeners to Portland’s jazz scene. In 1981, a group of volunteers were looking for an event to commemorate the construction of Cathedral Park under the St. John’s Bridge, and since Hank Galbriath — son of Howard Galbraith, who was known as “the mayor of St. John’s” and led the drive to build the park — was in the jazz business as owner of the Hobbit, the group started the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival in 1981. A people’s festival with free admission, the three-day event continues to present national names in addition to a roster of local musicians.
The major-league Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz began in 1982 with a more ambitious agenda — three days of jazz by some of the greatest living players. The festival has gone through many changes: today it is held at the Gresham City Park ball field instead of the football stadium at Mt. Hood Community College where it began, for instance. Its biggest years were in the mid to late ’80s, when more than 20,000 people attended during a weekend. The festival brought many performers to town who would not ordinarily appear here, and it also attracted many people unfamiliar with jazz who were out for fun in the sun with musical accompaniment. After the move in 2002, however, crowds have averaged less than 3,000 for the revamped two-day event.
An additional sign of the increasing public profile of jazz was the start of the Museum After Hours weekly concert series in the Portland Art Museum in 1986, which initially featured local jazz exclusively and invited listeners into the exhibit halls to eat, drink, schmooz and listen to music.
Perhaps the abundance of jazz in such non-traditional venues contributed to the problems nightclubs were experiencing. And some observers claimed that the summer festivals, which brought big-name artists to town for only a few days, were in part responsible for their decline at other times of the year. Nationally, the record business slumped in the early ’80s as well. All of those conditions, in addition to increased liquor liability premiums, contributed to the loss of jazz clubs — between 1981 and 1984, the number of venues offering live jazz declined by nearly half. Cousins, a downtown club that regularly hosted the Tom Grant Band, closed in 1986. The Jazz Quarry closed in 1987. And other clubs cut back to duos instead of trios and quartets.
Nevertheless, some did thrive.
The Hobbit, for instance, presented a series of touring stars in the late ’80s that included McCoy Tyner, Ray Brown and Jim Hall. More important, however, was the development of the Mel Brown Sextet at the club during those years. Modeling his group after Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Brown’s tight ensemble segued seamlessly from one hard bop tune to the next, creating a local following and winning the national Hennessey Jazz Search in 1989, when it opened the Playboy Jazz Festival and released “Gordon Bleu: The Mel Brown Sextet Plays the Music of Gordon Lee.”
The boom was also supported by four jazz radio stations, two of them full-time. All-jazz radio station KMHD-FM began broadcasts in1984, and, with KOPB-FM (the Oregon Public Broadcasting network), community radio station KBOO-FM and commercial broadcaster KKUL-AM, 170 hours a week of jazz aired on Portland radio during the mid-’80s. As was the case during Portland’s golden age, dedicated disc jockeys communicated their knowledge of the music to listeners. At KMHD, for example, George Fendel and Homer Clark created thoughtful, informative shows. At KOPB, this book’s author, Bob Dietsche, led the way in the ’80s. At KBOO, which played jazz when no others did, George Page, Rick Mitchell, Don Manning, Jim Andrews and Garth Miller were prominent. Those associated with KKUL included Pat Pattee, Ray Horn — who earlier worked as a drummer on the Avenue — Rita Rega, Steve Brockway, Cliff Katanick and Ted Hallock, who had written about jazz on the Avenue for Downbeat magazine.
Big bands continued to rehearse and perform, even though they have not been economically viable since the golden age, because big bands allow musicians to hone their reading and ensemble skills. Several of the most active of those groups during the ’80s and ’90s include The Wody Hite Big Band, The Mt. Hood Kicks Band, the Art Abrams Swing Machine and the Carlton Jackson-Dave Mills Big Band. Drummer Chris Conrad also led a notable big band at a coffee shop called P.C. & S in the early ’80s. Several other players have cut recent big band recordings of original work, including Gordon Lee and saxophonist Rob Scheps.
Don Mayer also bucked the trend to open The Village Jazz in Lake Oswego in 1985, where many national acts, including Mal Waldron and Barney Kessell, appeared. Also playing the Village Jazz was Charlie Rouse, the saxophonist for Thelonious Monk during his heyday; Rouse lived in the area until his death from cancer in 1988. But the nightclub market had become saturated, a trend that continued into the early ’90s, when both the Hobbit and Remo’s (the former Delevan’s) closed. Many musicians found ways to survive and even prosper, though, as the economy of the ’90s brought more opportunities.
The ’90s – An Era of Excellence
Some of those opportunities were what musicians call “corporate gigs” — private parties sponsored by businesses. These usually pay better than nightclub work, and they increased as the state’s economy expanded. The big story of the ’90s, however, was the rise of the Jazz de Opus as the hot spot for local jazz.
One of the groups that played regularly through the decade and built a following there was the duo of pianist and composer Steve Christofferson and vocalist Nancy King. They also appeared regularly at The Riverplace Hotel on the Willamette, which also featured pianist Jessica Williams, who resided in Portland for a period in the ’90s.
Christofferson, who has several albums of his own as a leader, received co-billing on King’s most significant album of the decade, “Straight Into Your Heart,” recorded with the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands.
King, born in 1940, has been considered the top jazz singer in the area ever since she emerged as the leader of a band at the University of Oregon that included Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, who went on to international stature as members of the group Oregon. Moore, who returned to Portland in the ’90s, made a series of whimsical CDs with King singing lyrics by Moore’s wife, Samantha. Moore, who teaches and tours most of the time, also occasionally plays in Portland clubs while in town. Moore has two solo CDs in addition to his work with Oregon and has played on contemporary classical music projects. Though she won the Talent Deserving Wider Recognition award in 1994 from
Downbeat magazine, King, on the other hand, has never attained that kind of success.
During the same period, drummer Dick Berk, who had played with legends such as Billie Holiday, moved to the area and remained active until he left for Las Vegas in 1996. Another drummer — Alan Jones, a Portland native who attended Berkelee School of Music in Boston and worked in Europe and Canada before returning to town in the ’90s — composed for and developed a hard-bop sextet that built an enthusiastic following at the Jazz de Opus. In fact, with the Leory Vinnegar Quartet and the Dan Balmer Trio, the Opus had a cadre of regular groups that drew crowds enough to create a real scene at the Old Town club. Many of the listeners were under 30 years of age, a welcome turn for a music whose audience had been aging. The youth crowd also came out for Vinnegar — the beloved and respected master of the walking bass who appeared on hundreds of recordings during his years in L.A. and moved to Portland in 1986. Before he died in 1999 at age 71, Vinnegar’s impact was felt throughout the local scene, and Jones composed and recorded a CD titled “The Leroy Vinnegar Suite” in his honor.
Younger listeners did turn to jazz in the ’90s, but many of them were drawn to the style known as Smooth Jazz. In Portland, the leader in that genre was singer and keyboard player Tom Grant, who developed his radio-friendly sound in local clubs as well as on the road. With guitarist Balmer, drummer Carlton Jackson and bassist Jeff Leonard, Grant made a number of popular CDs before returning to the straighgtahead style after 1995; after all, he’d grown up on that music at his father’s Madrona Record Shop, which served the Williams Avenue community in the ’40s and ’50s. By 2000, the Smooth Jazz radio station that operated in town in the 90s had closed and the Smooth Jazz festivals that drew partying crowds in the summers were no more. But Grant has remained one of the city’s biggest attractions and best-known musicians.
Another singer-pianist with an impressive disscography who had a major impact on the local scene during the ’90s was Dave Frishberg He settled in Portland in 1986 but didn’t develop a notable local presence until a three-year run at the downtown Heathman Hotel from 1991-94 with singer Rebecca Kilgore and a repertoire of jazz tunes from the ’30s and ’40s. The Heathman has continued to offer piano jazz and occasional vocalists. Kilgore, who has recorded and toured with traditional jazz ensembles, got her start in the ’30s-style swing band, Wholly Cats, led by cornetist Chris Tyle.
Since the ’70s, there has always been some Latin Jazz in Portland, and though Hispanics increased to more than seven percent of Multnomah county’s total population by 2004, they are not the primary audience. The leading Latin jazz band of the ’90s was the Bobby Torres Ensemble, which mixed jazz, R&B and Latin influences. Few Latin Jazz stars besides Poncho Sanchez visit Portland, and his appearances are almost all at summer festivals, including another new entry that began in the ’90s, the Vancouver (Wash.) Wine and Jazz Festival, which also featured Cuban expatriate trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Vibraphone player Ric McNutt led a Latin group before he joined Tall Jazz (which has remained active and popular to the present), and on radio KBOO, Nick Gefroh and Molly Little have kept Latin sounds available.
The avant garde found a local champion in the Creative Music Guild in the ’90s, and through the organization’s fund-raising and publicity efforts, a series of European and American practitioners of innovative jazz have appeared in small local venues such as The Old Church downtown or the Community Music Center on the east side.
Despite the caliber of musician available and the many opportunities for listeners to hear them — usually in nightclubs with little or no cover charge — musicians continued to report that there was not sufficient work to support them. And the number of nationally-touring players performing in Portland declined from its peak in the early ’80s as well. Coupled with budget problems at the Mt. Hood Festival, on one hand, and the de-funding of music programs in city public schools on the other, the scene’s precarious foundation became clear.
But where one dropped, another rose to take its place. The brightest moment in recent nightclub jazz came late in 1996, during a conversation between Mel Brown and Jimmy Makarunus about the organ trio sound of Billy Larkin and the Delegates. Their mutual delight in that style led the recently opened Jimmy Mak’s to become an incubator for a new generation of jazz players attracted to the grooving sounds of funk jazz. Following Brown but seeking their own sound, bands such as the Jive Talkin’ Robots and Groove Revelation played funk jazz from a Generation X point of view, reminding listeners that they come from rock as much as jazz. But Jimmy Mak’s managed to attract both the young listener and fans who had heard music like this at the Cotton Club on Williams Avenue in the early ’60s.
The New Century — The Avenue Within
Though Brown provides a stylistic link to the Williams Avenue golden age, pianist and educator Darrell Grant has worked in other ways to maintain a connection to that heritage. A composer of funk jazz for his People Music Project, a mainstream recording artist (his Twilight Stories was No. 3 on jazz radio charts in 1998), and a hard-bop improviser (his CD “The Black Art” was named one of 10 Best Jazz Albums of 1994 by the New York Times), Grant has made his mark on the community he adopted in 1996 by organizing a series of “Old Cats” concerts at Portland State University that put student musicians on the stand with Williams Avenue veterans.
In that atmosphere, a new group named The Original Cats emerged that featured Bobby Bradford, Cleve Williams, Bob Fernandez and James Benton, all of whom had all been active on the Avenue. Their drummer is often Mel Brown. One of the venues they play is The Blue Monk, which opened in 2002 with a mural of Brown and other local musicians in the stairwell and photos of jazz players on the walls. Another temporary resident who helped connect jazz to the community again was Grant’s predecessor in the jazz studies department at PSU, pianist Andrew Hill. An iconoclastic composer, Hill was commissioned to write a piece commemorating the new Japanese-American Historical Plaza on the city’s waterfront.
Physical links to the past also remain. Downtown, the Brasserie Montmartre and the Benson Hotel Lobby Lounge continue to present live jazz, and in fact the Benson, where Jean Ronne has held the piano chair since 1974, is Portland’s longest continuously running jazz venue.
A new annual festival also got its start in 2004. The Portland Jazz Festival, whose artistic director, Bill Royston, formerly directed the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, brought Wayne Shorter and other name artists to town in the winter for a hotel-based series of concerts downtown. Though the festival’s first year was an artistic and financial success, the downturn in the economy after 2001 has affected the amount of jazz available in Portland. The most visible symbol of that downturn was the closing of the Jazz de Opus in 2003. When a stage for exotic dancers took the place of the city’s most storied jazz club, it not only marked the end of an era but revealed how public perception of the music had changed since its days at the Dude Ranch, when “shake dancers” were a regular part of the entertainment.
In some ways, jazz in Portland has become respectable, has moved away from its association with vice and the underworld. But jazz is still rooted in the drive for freedom and self-expression, though it is often supported by universities and arts commissions and is used as entertainment at corporate parties. Most musicians still view it as an outsider’s art, and jazz record sales don’t even represent five percent of the national market. The number of black musicians in town has declined markedly, and several attempts to present jazz in Portland’s historically black neighborhood (including Geneva’s and Steen’s Coffeehouse) have met with mixed results. But in other ways Portland’s 21st century jazz scene reflects the city’s original golden age, and the spirit of the Avenue remains in the sounds of today.
The effort to capture 40 years of jazz in Portland in one chapter means that not all who contributed can be mentioned. My apologies to all the musicians, club owners and managers, disc jockeys, and other supporters of the music who haven’t been included here.