Deep in the heart of Portland’s jazz scene sits Ron Steen, behind his trap set, leading a jam session.
A Portland native, he was brought up in the jazz tradition by supportive family and community members, in a culture that he has helped sustain. In the music he plays as well as the weekly jam sessions he has run since November, 1983, Steen represents the best qualities of jazz in Portland.
Steen, 52, spent a period New York when he was younger, and he worked with Ted Curson and Woody Shaw, among others, before touring with Joe Henderson for more than three years. But his major work is grounded right in the city where he grew up.
It is on the local level, after all, where most jazz in the country is performed, where new players are formed, and where live music reigns.Â And it is for his contribution to the vitality of local jazz that Steen will be honored when he is inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon’s Hall of Fame at First Jazz on Sunday, January 27, at the Benson Hotel. Naturally, Steen will lead a jam session at the event.
Though the bandleader and drummer has primarily acted locally, his standards have always been global, and he would have us judge his success by the quality of musicians with whom he has worked. They include Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and John Hammond, as well as Portland-based collaborators such as Phil Baker, Peter Boe, Steve Christofferson, Bill Beach and Tom Grant.
He’s proud of those accomplishments, but Steen is adamantly self-effacing.
“The only goal I really have is to play some honest, true music,” he said nearly 20 years ago. “If you take care of that, then you’re doing all you can.”
And he always has. His desire to serve the music rather than a personal agenda, remains unchanged.
“I feel extremely privileged to have the ability to play jazz,” he said in 1983, when he led the house band at the hottest club in town. “I’ll never have enough time to repay all the joy I’ve felt being involved in this art form. There’s no greater honor than being able to carry on (this music) That’s payment enough.”
Today, Steen can look back and say that’s exactly what he has done. It has always been the music itself that was important, and as we ask him to comment on his work today, what stands out is the consistency of that message and the clarity of his vision of jazz as a team sport.
“I’m just a small person, and this music is a really big thing,” he says. From that perspective, though, he doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind on jazz matters. Often, he voices a message the community needs to hear.
The Early Years — “Some of the best drum lessons I’ve ever gotten have not been from drummers.”
No matter what aspect of his work Steen addresses, he quickly shifts the subject from himself to those who helped him. He attributes much of his success to happenstance, including his first professional job, which he landed because he happened to attend a party with a friend, and they happened to sit in, and then a club manager happened to hear them .
” and I haven’t stopped working since,” Steen recalls. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to be a musician at that time. I was thinking about being a dentist and all that, I didn’t know what I was going to do.” His voices rises. “Since then, I have never, ever not worked. I mean steady. And it’s always been jazz.”
“The only thing I know how to do is play jazz!” He laughs. “I can’t play funk, I’m not a very good big band drummer. At this point, I just love what I’m doing. I can’t wait to go to work. I could work every night of the week! I just love doing it. I can’t wait to work tonight,” he says, and then he repeats it three times: “I can’t wait.”
Besides the family and friends who introduced him to jazz records and a cousin who showed him some rudiments of drumming, beyond the early assistance from older jazz players such as Cleve Williams and Bobby Bradford, Steen can recall some seminal lessons that made him the musician he is today. And those lessons came mostly from non-drummers. The late George Page, for example, a broadcaster and jazz supporter, took an active part in steering kids to music and holding their feet to its fire.
“I was walking from high school, with George’s younger brother, Phillip,” Steen recalls, “and George was looking out his door, and he says, ‘You think you’re a drummer, dontcha?’ And I said, ‘I know I’m a drummer.’ So he says, ‘You come in the house, I’m going to play you a real drummer.’Â He put on a record by Jackie McClean, “One Step Beyond,” and he always had this great hi-fi equipment, so he had that thing cranking, and it was Tony Williams on drums. I just started crying. He says, ‘I want you to hear a real drummer.'” Steen laughs. “Then he says, ‘Guess how old he is? He’s 17!’ One of the best lessons I ever got.”
The young drummer also received a series of lessons from bassist Omar Yoweman, which ranged from the sartorial (“‘Look at how I look, man,’ he’d say,” Steen recalls. “‘I’ve got this suit on, and you look all raggedy.'”) to the lyrical.
“Omar told me, ‘Make all your stuff rhyme. Everything’s call and response in jazz. You listen to Miles, all those guys, Blakey, Philly Jo, they throw an idea out there and then they resolve it, they answer, they make it rhyme. So you sing, “Ham-bone, Ham-bone where you been? ‘Round the world and back again.” You throw it out there and then you answer.’ And that big light bulb went on in my head,” Steen recalls, elaborating on the implications of his mentor’s words.
“There’s a certain patience there. When you’re younger, you want to play everything you know and you don’t resolve anything; you’re just throwing out a whole bunch of stuff. It makes sense to you, because you’re thinking it up, but to the person listening it sounds like a bunch of sounds. So making it rhyme makes you slow yourself down. You do it, you answer, you do it .. it’s a discipline.”
The memories come in a rush now.
“Omar Yoweman . He also told me, ‘Stop thinking! There you are, thinking again! When you’re thinking, you’re dragging; I’ve told you about that damn thinking — you’re supposed to just play.'” And Steen laughs again, both with chagrin at the inexperienced player he was and with joy for the lessons so freely given, for the chance to be so well-instructed in the tradition to which he has devoted his life.
Evan Porter, a friend of Steen’s family, nephew of local legend Sidney Porter, and a trumpter player and pianist, also offered the young drummer one of his most profound lessons:
“Evan never told me much about what to do with a drum, but it was the conception, how to play, how to listen. Music’s not a monologue, it’s a dialogue, which means different voices interacting with one another.”
While the major lessons came from local people, Steen was inspired to play by hearing the stars.
“One of the most important musical experiences I had,” he says, “was hearing really great musicians. I remember seeing Charles Lloyd in 1967 at Reed College — one of the best bands I’ve ever seen in my life, some of the most incredible music I ever heard.
“I can remember getting goose bumps when I saw Miles Davis in May of ’66 for one dollar at the Oriental Theater,” Steen goes on. “The best concert I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing Stan Getz at the Memorial Coliseum opening for Bill Cosby. I ran home from playing a Pony League baseball game — I didn’t live that far from the Coliseum, I lived on Vancouver Avenue — so I just literally ran down there. And it was incredible. I almost quit playing drums that day. I said, ‘Man, that drummer sounds so good. If that’s how drummers sound, I might as well quit.’ And then they said, ‘Our drummer, Roy Haynes.’ I was relieved he was somebody I had heard of.”
And of course he learned by eventually playing with the stars as well.
“I’ve been fortunate to play with many of the people who are my idols. I made a record with Charles Lloyd (that wasn’t released), I was with Joe Henderson for three and a half years, Woody Shaw, Johnny Hammond
That’s why the dearth of nationally touring jazz stars visiting Portland these days has Steen worried.
“I don’t know who the young kids get to see like that now,” he says. “You don’t really learn about jazz from schools. You can learn certain things, but it’s a cultural thing, and that seems to be broken up now. We used to be taught by hanging out in clubs, having that desire, and learning by hanging around cats who could play. And if you had that desire, you’d go home and practice all day long . That’s how it used to be.”
The Art of the Jam Session — “You’ve got to love the hang, too.”
“What you need is a major hang,” Steen says about the qualities that make a great jam session. “In my day, we’d wait for hours just to get to sit in. When Billy Larkin would play the Upstairs Lounge, he’d say, ‘The heavyweights are gonna take a break and now we’re gonna invite the lightweights up to the bandstand. Little Ronnie Steen lightweight’s gonna try to play the drums, little lighhtweight Lester McFarland is gonna play the bass .’
That’s the way it should be,” Steen continues. “Because everyone is not equal — I’m older than you, you’re still a kid. His band did not start ’til 3:00 a.m. I’d wait an hour and a half after that to play. So what? You get to listen to guys who were better than you. Now these young guys come up to me and say, ‘Ron, I’ve got to go to work tomorrow,’ or ‘Ron, I’ve got an early class.’ I don’t care.
“That’s what I like about (former Portland resident) Dick Berk,” he says. “Dick’s old-school all the way, one of the greatest drummers in the country. Dick loves to hang. This is as important as the music. And that’s part of the lesson, too, man. It’s not just music school, it’s the whole she-bang. It’s more complicated than that. And Dick thoroughly understands hanging — you gotta hang!”
Though Steen’s jams have helped developed a number of great players over the years — including bassists Phil Baker and Ben Wolfe, singers Mary Kadderly and Marilyn Keller, and pianists George Mitchell and Jed Wilson — his jams these days are often filled with the city’s most experienced players, including Gary Hobbs and Tom Grant. “Guys who want to play!” he exclaims.
“Where are the young people?” he asks, gesturing around the bandstand area at Billy Reed’s where his regular Thursday jam will move to Sunday nights beginning in January. “No cover, no smoking, and you don’t even have to be 21. And all the guys who come down, they have students. So where are they?”
Though he works with a number of groups around town, the jams remain central to Steen’s life. He is especially pleased, for instance, that the move of his Billy Reed’s jam to Sundays, combined with his Produce Row jam session on Mondays, will cover musicians’ two off nights, allowing the city’s working players a better chance to drop in. “That’s something I’ve wanted for years,” he says.
Steen’s Coffeehouse — “It was like a family.”
Steen almost secured the ideal situation when his name was up on a coffee shop on MLK Boulevard, where he booked a variety of local players at Steen’s Coffeehouse, including singers Kadderly and Nancy King, who held classes there and brought their students to afternoon jam sessions.
“Families would come every week to the coffeehouse in the afternoons,” he says. “There wasn’t much money, and they had to pass the tip jar, but there was room to play, and we have so much talent here that people kept asking if they could bring a band in.
“I loved it, it was like a family,” he says again, and for a moment pain crosses his face as he recalls the business partner who brought the enterprise down. Still as handsome and extroverted as he was 20 years ago, Steen’s eyes sit a little deeper in his face these days, but gravity has not slowed the sticks nor crushed the desire. And he makes it clear: “I don’t regret anything.” Especially not his decision to stay in Portland. Musically, everything he needs he has found in his own backyard.
Bright Moments — “I’ve just had the luck to play with a lot of really good musicians.”
The conditions have varied over Steen’s 30-plus years on the bandstand, but whatever the situation, he has always managed to create a satisfying musical experience, primarily by performing with quality and compatible players right from the beginning.
“I played with Glen Moore and Ralph Towner at the Benson Hotel for years when I first started. I only got hired on the weekends,” he remembers, “so on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays I just played for free. I started with Jim Pepper and Tom Grant when I was 19,” he adds. And though he recalls with pleasure his work with nationally touring stars, it is the trios he’s led with Portland-based musicians that stand out today as his brightest moments, beginning with his houseband at Delevan’s in the early 1980s, with pianist Peter Boe (who later went on to national prominence with bluesman Robert Cray) and on bass, either Rob Thomas or Phil Baker.
“That’s one of the best bands I’ve ever had in terms of telepathy and playing as a unit,” Steen says. “It was one of the most democratic situations I’ve ever been in. We played so often and so much and we thought so much alike, and Peter was writing all kinds of really great sounds, it was amazing. And having a forum to play was just wonderful.”
Occasionally, pianist Steve Christofferson sits in for Steen’s regular keyboard jam session partner, Bill Beach, and that causes Steen to remember his great trios with Christofferson, who has several CDs of his own as well as a seminal recording with Nancy King. “I was the leader on Thursdays, and I hired Steve and Phil Baker, and on Friday and Saturdays, Steve was the leader and he hired me and Joey Siefers.
“Steve Christofferson this guy is ridiculous. I hardly ever worked with him until we started doing the Riverplace gig in 1997,” Steen recalls. “And then I realized, here’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with. This guy is teaching you without teaching you. He doesn’t say a word, but I’ve learned more playing with this cat — he’s so strong and so subtle . Like, (pianist) Jessica Williams would come down (to the Riverplace), and you know how she is, she’s like Art Tatum. Most piano players have a hard time following somebody like that, but Steve gets up, he just does what he does, and it’s totally his own.
” But this guy listens as well as anyone; he is so responsive. He really embodies what jazz is about; this cat is a real, to-the-bone jazz musician.”
And that’s the highest compliment Steen can give. Equally important to him is the “fit” — “There are some really great musicians I can play with really easily,” he says, “and there are some really good musicians it doesn’t feel quite as easy with, even including incredibly famous musicians. But certain people I’ve worked with fit like a glove.” Among them he numbers Dexter Gordon and Milt Jackson.
“I only played with Dexter one time,” Steen says, “but playing with him was so easy. You just have to listen to what he’s doing and respond to him; he’s doing it all. Milt Jackson was like that: from the first note it’s so definite. He’s got such a sense of internal logic. A lot of the real heavyweights, as complicated and as intricate as their solos are, there’s logic to them.
“One of the tests for me is, when I’m hearing a guy like that, I can’t think of anything that would be better than what he just played. All the great drummers have that. Every time I hear them, I think, ‘That’s the best I’ve ever heard! Best I’ve ever heard!’ If there’s one thing I could extract from the players who I’ve really liked, it would be that added dimension of magic. Some guys can be playing really well, and I just don’t care. But all the great people were memorable. That’s what makes the magic.”
And Steen finds something like that magic, he says, every night he plays, because he’s always working with team players with whom he has worked for years.
“Phil (Baker) and Tom (Grant) and I have played together a lot over the years (currently the trio plays monthly at the Jazz de Opus), so we go way back, and again it’s that telepathy thing. As a bandleader, Tom is one of the best — there’s totally no pressure. Like at the (Mt. Hood) Jazz Festival (last summer) — there was no set list, he just starts calling the tunes, let’s just do it! With him, though, it always works out. And Phil is one of the best bass players around, and I’ve been playing with him since he was a teenager; he can handle any musical situation, too.
“Bill Beach,” he goes on,” I’ve been in bands with him for 16 years. Again, it fits like a glove. Bill is a very sensitive cat, he’s a considerate musician in all ways. Musically he’s very unselfish, and he plays extremely well. He gets as much enjoyment comping behind somebody as soloing.”
And there’s another standard that Steen strives to live by. “He really listens,” is his highest praise.
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“Jazz is not a monologue,” he says. “True musicians can tell if you’re really listening, if you’re really playing from your heart. And that’s the musical standard .”
“I can’t wait to go to work tonight,” he says. “You’ve got to have that desire.”
“I feel blessed,” he says. “My whole life has been fortunate. I’ve gotten a lot of help along the way At this point,” he says, “I just love doing what I’m doing.”
Who could ask for anything more? The decades roll by, but Ron Steen remains at the center of the city’s jazz culture, his love for the music and his dedication to passing it on evident in every stroke on the drums, every jam session, every song. Even on his off nights, Steen is out listening to music, encouraging his cohorts and living the jazz life that he learned from a supportive community, a life he embodies and promotes today.
“My standard is keeping this alive,” he says. And he has.