One night, pianist Tom Grant is taming the Yamaha C3 with “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” And the next, it’s multi-instrumentalist —though primarily pianist and Portland State University Jazz Studies professor — George Colligan pulling another tune out one of his many musical hats. Wednesdays, Christopher Brown’s quartet is stirring it up, with stellar saxophonist John Nastos improvising on Brown’s clever arrangement of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Young turks pianist Charlie Brown III and drummer Domo Branch—who will play with pianist Gerald Clayton Feb. 25 at the PDX Jazz Festival —sold out the club in separate shows on New Year’s Eve.
THE JAZZ SCENE
It’s all happening at the 1905 in NoPo’s Mississippi neighborhood, a restaurant which has emerged as Portland’s one and only exclusively-jazz club. The spot has been open since 2016, the same year that Jimmy Mak’s–Portland’s long-time signature jazz club–closed in the Pearl District, after owner Jimmy Makarounis died and jazz went dark for awhile. Since then Jack London Revue popped up in downtown Portland, and places like Wilf’s, Amalfi’s, Jo Bar, Laurelthirst Pub, Doug Fir Lounge, Mississippi Studios, Holocene, Clyde’s Prime Rib, Good Foot, Tony Starlight’s, Corkscrew Wine Bar and others continue to host jazz occasionally.
The 1905, named for the year that pizza went commercial in the United States, opened as a pizzeria and bar accompanied by hip-hop deejays. By the end of 2016, owner Aaron Barnes had asked longtime Portland jazz drummer Ron Steen to take the stage. Steen, after all, grew up in the area, and if anyone could get the word out that jazz was coming to the 1905, it was Steen.
Barnes–a longtime high school band leader and a pizza lover with five ovens in his garage–says Steen “knows everyone. He’s a community-maker.” Five and a half years later, there was Steen, sitting tall on the small stage in Barnes’s snug 50-seat 1905 club, backing pianist Tom Grant to a full house and heated patio of 70 or so more jazz-lovers.
The 1905 is fully established now as a jazz club: the Yamaha has replaced the early $200 electric piano, and the acoustics have been tuned up to standards jazz musicians like to be heard in. “It’s got a perfect small-room vibe that really makes a performer feel a strong connection to the audience,” says saxophonist Nastos, part of the Christopher Brown Quartet. (Drummer Chris Brown is well-known drummer Mel Brown’s son, and Nastos played since high school in the elder Brown’s Jazz Messengers-like band at Jimmy Mak’s in earlier years.)
Nastos calls the 1905 “just big enough that it feels like a significant event when it’s packed full of people but small enough that a performer can make a connection with everyone in the room musically and socially.”
“People go to the 1905 to listen, so you can count on being heard rather than struggling to entertain in a background situation.,” says vocalist Mia Nicholson, who sings frequently with pianist Randy Porter at Wilf’s. “You get to perform for an engaged crowd in a small space; you can see and feel the presence of individuals.”
Max Roark, 23, who joins pianist Charlie Brown III at times and is a former Lincoln High School band student of Barnes, has played his sax at the 1905 and says, “I really love the place.The minute you walk into the 1905 you know that it was a labor of love. On a perfect night when you’re performing with your friends, for your friends, and those lights dim, it’s a beautiful venue.”
But, like most jazz clubs, the 1905 is not perfect
“The acoustics are just OK,” Nicholson adds. “Like so many venues, the original Jimmy Mak’s, for example, the 1905 building was not designed for music.”
Though the acoustics aren’t engineered precisely, vocalist Marilyn Keller appreciates the ongoing sound system improvements. “I believe that I am the one vocalist that kept singing after the wireless mic cut out. The song was `Summertime.’ I thank my vocal Instructor, Mr. Tom Blaylock, for teaching me how to use my instrument correctly — and I was able to project to the room, un-amplified.”
In the early days the club had no table service and the menu was minimal. Now Barnes has expanded it to include more than pizza, and he’s hired chef Grahme Meneses–and Barnes, though he loves to do it, has stopped rolling pizza dough. The bar is full and managed by Colin Jensen, and many Portland jazz musicians consider the club their new home. Since 2018, Barnes has lured national acts including Aaron Parks, Little Big, Taylor Eigsti, Ari Hoenig and John Pizzarelli. Singer Jane Montheit is on the schedule.
Mondays are jam nights, and any jazz musician can join in. Guess who runs them?
“A rock in my shoe”
A 43-year-old vegetarian-pizza lover, Barnes is the unassuming guy partial to plaid shirts who made the 1905 happen. He knows just about everyone who walks in the club, or makes an effort to introduce himself–and knows all of the musicians by name, of course, including beginning jammers and longtime jazzers. He calls the club “a longtime rock in my shoe” — something he was determined to find a way to put together if he ever gave up directing bands at such places as Lincoln High School, Heritage High in Vancouver and Southridge High in Beaverton. He is joined by nine investors, all music educators whom Barnes knows through his band-leading days and occasional sax performances, though he admits he’s better at running clubs than playing his horn. Though Barnes calls most of the shots, he is proud that this investor group has a sincere interest in music and the well-being of musicians.
George Colligan, whom jazz journalist/KMHD’s “Brights Moments” deejay Lynn Darroch says can “make anybody sound good,” is a regular at the club. Colligan calls Barnes “ambitious—his programming speaks to that. He’s not just into New York players, but likes a mixture of New Yorkers and Portland-based players. He’s serious about the music. His place is more about the musicians than the branding.”
Drummer Michael Raynor, who moved to Portland in 2012, first met Barnes in 2011 when Raynor was visiting Portland and sitting in with longtime Portland guitarist Dan Balmer at Jimmy Mak’s. Raynor tells the story that Barnes “heard someone say I was from Chicago and he walked over and asked if I was the drummer on `Live in Chicago.’ He recognized my playing from a record I made with Kurt Elling that was a favorite of his. That’s the kind of ear and enthusiasm he has for music.”
But the music isn’t free, and these days, you have to pay for more than a drink. Barnes started a cover charge and food minimum in 2018 to make ends meet. The cover varies, and goes up when out-of-town marquee musicians are on stage. On Monday nights, listeners pay $10 for the jam sessions but musicians pay nothing to participate. There are usually two sets a night, sometimes three. Check out the 1905 website. The cover and food minimum might limit the younger crowd, some say, but even during Covid the audience stretches over many ages 21 and over.
Singers like Portland’s Rebecca Kilgore, another regular, loves the club’s smallness, saying that its size “lends to the intimacy. And I like that … sort of like a New York kind of cabaret feel, like Mezzrow’s or Smalls.”
Like many Portland jazzers, Kilgore would love to see more venues solely dedicated to jazz “preferably within walking distance. I envision a similar situation to New York’s 52nd Street (also dubbed `Swing Street’) in the 1930s to the 1950s. A section of it was known as the city’s center of jazz performance. One could hear Louis Prima, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Marian McPartland. But I’m dreaming on.”
Colligan thinks only part of that vision is a dream.
“Aaron’s vision is to make the 1905 a Smalls or Village Vanguard in Portland,” Colligan says. “He’s on his way. He’s really stepped it up in the past four or five years. We thank our stars for the 1905. There would be extremely slim jazz pickings without it. And it’s been tough with the pandemic. He’s really hanging in there.”
The 1905 is not Jimmy Mak’s —it’s too small for that and doesn’t have the capital or space to draw big national acts, though it does draw prestigious artists. But it’s making a place for itself and for Portland musicians.