Home Jazz The jazz scene, first part: Boy, it has changed

The jazz scene, first part: Boy, it has changed


“Boy, that has changed.”

Rita Rega talks about Portland Jazz, which she has watched, nurtured and promoted since 1985. “I have a pretty long view of this scene.”

Rega works as Jazz Music Director of KBOO and as Artistic Director of the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival. She is a board member of the Jazz Society of Oregon, with a membership that was once 5,000, but is now much lower. “For various reasons, the number of members is declining. We seem to be moving from a member-based organization to a contributor-based organization. »


The changes she has seen in the past 40 years since attending her first Mount Hood Jazz Festival in 1982 are manifold. (The festival survived for decades and went virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic.)

“First of all,” explains Rega, the big changes include “the lack of rooms. Since I’ve been in Portland (since 1985), you could go to ten clubs on a weeknight in the summer, less in the winter, and more on the weekends. There were more big bands playing, more university programs devoted exclusively to jazz, more jam sessions, more jazz record stores, more jazz on the radio, more jazz festivals, more publications devoted to jazz coverage, etc. Despite all that, we probably have more jazz going on here now than in a lot of other places.

Rita Rega at KBOO.

There are other factors affecting the slow fade of Portland Jazz. The Oregonian’s arts section all but disappeared at first due to massive changes in the newspaper industry and its statewide reach, in which people like Marty Hughley and Lynn Darroch regularly wrote. on jazz, declined.

Darroch, KMHD’s syndicated “Bright Moments” DJ, journalist and author who has covered Portland jazz since 1978, considers the past 15 years crucial to Portland’s long-standing vibrant jazz scene. It used to be, since the 1930s, all you had to do was graduate from Williams Street University (the birthplace of North Portland jazz) and wait out the ebbs and flows of the economy.

Lynn Darroch (center) with Alfred Muro and the late Carlton Jackson.
Lynn Darroch (center) with Alfred Muro and the late Carlton Jackson.

Colligan and Brown, among others

But in 2008, when the economy crashed, so did the jazz scene. Next, says Darroch, composer/musician George Colligan arrived from the University of WInnipeg in Manitoba, Canada (which Colligan calls “Siberia”) in 2011 and poured his energy into the community and into the Department of Studies. music schools at Portland State University, already in full swing. in part because of the musicianship and influence of pianist/composer Darrell Grant. (Grant and vocalist Rebecca Kilgore will perform 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 jazz gigs and projects in Portland, and on albums, making everyone better. He encouraged his students, like saxophonist Nicole Glover, to take the stage – in the long-standing tradition of passing on the art – and she has since traveled to New York to perform.

George Colligan at the 2013 Ballard Jazz Festival.
George Colligan at the 2013 Ballard Jazz Festival.

Christopher Brown, son of prominent Portland drummer Mel Brown, returned from the East Coast and a military career in 2011 and settled down 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, B-3 member and Oregon Music Hall of Fame and Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee Oregon Jazz Society Hall of Famer as well as a Lewis & Clark jazz studies teacher, whom he has never left since he started playing gigs as a teenager in coffeehouses, “when the concerts were numerous”, as he says.

Colligan and Brown generated a lot of action and brought East Coast contacts with them. Saxophonist John Nastos returned from New York where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and musicians like saxophonist Devon Phillips left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Chris Brown at 1905. Photo by Karney Hatch.
Chris Brown at 1905. Photo by Karney Hatch.

A little later, accomplished drummer Michael Raynor moved to Portland from Chicago in 2012. Raynor plays at 1905 with various musicians: one evening with pianist Randy Porter, trumpeter Justin Copeland and bass Christian Ramirez; another with saxophonist Nastos, pianist Greg Goebel and bass Bill Athens; and a third with Colligan’s Piano Trio. “It’s pretty remarkable to have a world-class roster in a city this size,” Raynor said. “In a way, I feel more connected to the people I play with here than in Chicago. The pace of life is slower and I have more time to get to know people.

The reliable stream of longtime musicians — such as bassist Dave Friesen and guitarist Balmer, pianists Randy Porter and Tom Grant, drummer Ron Steen, and vocalists Rebecca Kilgore and Marilyn Keller — continue to rock and nail gigs. PDX Jazz, the Pacific Northwest’s largest nonprofit jazz organization promoting jazz music and education, continues to expand its annual February festival – this year marks its 19th – and in 2012 it will added year-round programming.

Guitarist Dan Balmer.
Guitarist Dan Balmer–in, according to Balmer, the younger days “when the gigs were big.”

Jimmy Mak is closed

Other touchstones occurred that took steam from the jazz scene. Most importantly, Jimmy Mak’s, Portland’s iconic jazz club that regularly hosted national artists, closed in 2016.

Yet Portland jazz has never been silenced. 1905 popped up the same year Jimmy Mak closed, and it’s now Portland’s only club dedicated to jazz. And it’s the dedication of jazz musicians, says Darroch, that keeps Portland jazz alive.

Pay is lousy as it always has been – often not more than $75-100 per gig for musicians – but jazzers do other things to play music when they can. They teach, write method books, create apps, do private lessons, sell real estate, work in vineyards – anything to make ends meet so they can play.

Playing music is the reward, and dedicated jazz musicians will do a lot and sacrifice a lot to play it.

Michael Raynor.  Photo of Michael Jackson.
Michael Raynor. Photo of Michael Jackson.

“The beauty of jazz is that it’s constantly evolving,” says KBOO’s Rega. “That’s why he’s got my attention. It is an art form that is never static. The best practitioners of the trade are unpredictable. For these young fans, you have to keep listening. It takes some time to develop an understanding of the vocabulary before you begin to understand what is happening on the bandstand. It’s a journey of appreciation. “

And, of course, Portland needs more “real” jazz clubs so people can listen to and enjoy the ever-changing, uniquely American form of music.

Singer Mia Nicholson, echoing her jazz colleagues, says “hell 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 lack of real music spaces, especially places where people really come to listen. And the number of places that have a good piano and good acoustics is almost nil. Honestly, I don’t know how we can get more. The only thing we can do is celebrate every new venue that truly supports jazz.

Mia Nicholson.  Photo by Gary Norman.
Mia Nicholson. Photo by Gary Norman.

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Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to students in Oregon and, in 2009, was Eastern Oregon’s resident writer for Fishtrap. A published poet and photographer, she is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism Fellowship. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later earned her master’s degree in creative writing/poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and her often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.