“Boy, has it changed.”
Rita Rega is talking about Portland jazz, which she has watched, nurtured and promoted since 1985. “I have a pretty long view of this scene.”
Rega works as KBOO’s jazz music director and as the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival’s artistic director. She’s on the board of the Jazz Society of Oregon, with a membership that was once as many as 5,000 but is now far lower. “For a variety of reasons membership is down. It appears we are going away from a member-based to a contributor-based organization.”
THE JAZZ SCENE
The changes she has seen in the last 40 years since she attended her first Mount Hood Jazz Festival in 1982 are manifold. (The festival has survived for decades and went virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic.)
“First off,” Rega says, big changes include “the lack of venues. In the time I’ve been in Portland (since 1985), you could go to ten clubs on a weekday night in summer, fewer in winter and more on the weekends. There were more big bands playing, more college programs devoted to jazz exclusively, more jam sessions, more jazz record shops, more jazz on the radio, more jazz festivals, more publications devoting space to covering jazz, etc. Despite all this, we’ve probably got more jazz happening here now than a lot of other places.”
There are other factors affecting Portland jazz’s slow fade. The Oregonian’s arts section pretty much went away in the early aughts due to massive newspaper-industry changes, and its statewide reach, in which people like Marty Hughley and Lynn Darroch wrote regularly about jazz, shrunk.
Darroch–KMHD’s syndicated “Bright Moments” deejay, journalist, and author who has covered Portland jazz since 1978–sees the last 15 years as critical in Portland’s longtime one time vibrant jazz scene. It used to be, since the 1930s, all you had to do was get a degree from the University of Williams Street (North Portland’s jazz birthplace) and wait out the economy’s ebbs and flows.
Colligan and Brown, among others
But in 2008, when the economy tanked, so did the jazz scene. Then, Darroch says, composer/musician George Colligan arrived from the University of WInnipeg in Manitoba, Canada (which Colligan refers to as “Siberia” ) in 2011 and infused his energy into the community and into Portland State University’s music studies department, already thriving partly due to pianist/composer Darrell Grant’s musicianship and influence. (Grant and vocalist Rebecca Kilgore will be playing Feb. 18 at the Old Church.as part of the PDX Jazz Festival.)
Colligan, who Darroch says has “the musical power to bring it all together,” is a game changer. He plays in countless Portland jazz gigs and projects, and on albums, making everybody sound better. He encouraged his students, such as saxophonist Nicole Glover, to take the stage — in the longtime traditional way of passing on the art — and she has since gone off to New York to play.
Christopher Brown, son of eminent Portland drummer Mel Brown, returned from the East Coast and a military career in 2011 and settled in with his quartet, now a signature Portland jazz band. (The Browns with the B-3 Organ Group have a gig at the PDX Jazz Festival Feb. 24 at Jack London Revue.) Portland guitarist Dan Balmer, part of B-3 and inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and Oregon Jazz Society Hall of Fame as well as a Lewis & Clark jazz studies teacher, never left since he started playing gigs as a teenager at coffee clubs, “when gigs were plentiful, “ as he says.
Both Colligan and Brown have stirred up a lot of action and brought East Coast contacts with them. Saxophonist John Nastos moved back from New York where he studied at Manhattan School of Music, and musicians like sax player Devon Phillips moved from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
A bit later, accomplished drummer Michael Raynor moved in 2012 to Portland from Chicago. Raynor plays at the 1905 with different musicians: one night with pianist Randy Porter, trumpeter Justin Copeland and bass Christian Ramirez; another with saxophonist Nastos, pianist Greg Goebel and bassist Bill Athens; and a third with Colligan’s piano trio. “It’s pretty remarkable to have a selection of world-class players in a town of this size, “ Raynor says. “In some ways I feel more connected to the people I play with here, rather than in Chicago. The pace of life is slower and I have more time to get to know people.”
The reliable stream of long-timers–such as bassist Dave Friesen and guitarist Balmer, pianists Randy Porter and Tom Grant, drummer Ron Steen, and vocalists Rebecca Kilgore and Marilyn Keller–are still hustling and nailing gigs. PDX Jazz, the Pacific Northwest’s largest non-profit jazz organization that promotes music and jazz education, continues to grow its yearly February festival—this year’s marks its 19th— and in 2012, it added year-round programming.
Jimmy Mak’s closed
Still, Portland jazz was never silenced. The 1905 popped up the same year Jimmy Mak’s closed, and now it’s the only Portland club dedicated to jazz. And it’s the dedication of the jazz musicians, Darroch says, that keeps Portland jazz alive.
The pay is lousy as it has always been — not often more than $75-$100 a gig for musicians — but jazzers do other things in order to play music when they can. They teach, write method books, create apps, do private instruction, sell real estate, work at wineries — anything to make ends meet so they can play.
Playing the music is the pay-off, and dedicated jazz musicians will do, and sacrifice, a lot to play it.
“The beauty of jazz is it’s constantly evolving,“ KBOO’s Rega says. “That’s why it keeps my attention. It’s an art form that is never static. The best practitioners of the craft are unpredictable. For those young fans, you have to keep listening. It takes awhile to develop an understanding of the vocabulary before you start to understand what’s happening on the bandstand. It’s a journey of appreciation. “
And, of course, Portland needs more “real” jazz clubs so people can listen and appreciate the uniquely American form of music that never stops changing.
Vocalist Mia Nicholson, echoing her jazz colleagues, says “heck yes,” we need more jazz venues. Nicholson, who occasionally sang with the late pianist/composer Dave Frishberg at Tony Starlight’s Supper Club, adds that Portland has “a paucity of true music spaces, especially places where people really come to listen. And the number of places that have a good piano and acoustics are nearly none. I honestly don’t know how we can get more. The only thing we can do is celebrate each and every new venue that genuinely supports jazz.”