The last time I saw Janice Scroggins she was playing the blues. It was a Monday night, March 3 of this year, at the regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition on the Main Stage at Portland Center Stage. While the competition judges were deliberating and getting ready to send three of the 15 high-school contestants on to the national finals in New York, the singer Marilyn Keller, in a long blues-diva gown reminiscent of the imperial title character’s in Wilson’s great play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was singing from the bottom of her soul. And Janice, with that trademark energetic thump that had a little bit of Oklahoma and a little bit of Oakland and a little bit of gospel and a whole river of American musical history in it, was driving the songs with rolling clarity from the piano bench.
Most people in the crowd were stretching their legs or chatting or taking a break in the lobby or just too excited about the competition to pay much attention. But for anyone who cared to actually listen, there it was: the sound of a nation, genuine and jumpy and unalloyed, the rhythm and passion that also suffused Wilson’s great dramas of African American life, piercing the fog of corporate-pop and playing down to the bones. Janice loved doing that.
Janice Scroggins died on Tuesday evening, May 27, 2014, in Portland, apparently of a heart attack. She was 58. Her death came as a shock: She had been as active as ever on the music scene, and just last year had been inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Oregon Music News announced her death, but not before word already had begun racing around social media.
Whenever you saw her name on a musical bill, it was almost a guarantee that something enlightening and real was going to happen. Janice played all over town, and out of town, in churches and outdoor festivals and clubs and theater halls. She was a fixture, and sometimes fixtures are taken for granted, but anyone who took her music-making for granted was missing the boat. Her playing was smart, and historically informed (she was nominated for a Grammy for her 1987 album Janice Scroggins Plays Scott Joplin), and passionate, and clean. She understood rhythm from the inside out, and she excelled by putting the music first.
I didn’t know Janice, really, and I didn’t see her perform often enough. But I chatted with her now and again when I bumped into her, and even reviewed her a time or two. For a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ more than 20 years ago I noted that “Scroggins’ piano is always where it ought to be” – contained but not constrained, taking the lead and letting fly when it ought to, playing support when support was called for. She was a musicians’ musician, loved by fans but appreciated the most by those who knew the most.
I learned a good deal from Janice in the early 1990s when I was researching a story on the flowering of gospel music in Portland and on the late singer/pianist Willa Dorsey, who lived in Portland but performed for massive gospel gatherings worldwide. Janice was known mostly as a jazz and blues pianist, but often traveled back to her gospel roots, too. She talked about growing up in the small town of Idabell, in the southeast corner of Oklahoma, and going to the all-black Booker T. Washington School, and hearing gospel superstars like Sister Rosetta Tharp and Brother Joe May when they swung through town, but also soaking up the honky-tonk that was all over the local radio. Later she moved to Oakland, California, and realized her own music was somehow a little bit different – “and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that country-western stuff.”
She was a student of music. Black music, certainly, but she was able to connect it to all kinds of music. She told me about what she called “long-meter hymns,” based on African rhythms – simple songs that suddenly abandon the constraints of time. “They take a song and they stretch the time out,” she said. “Some people look on it as not having any time; there’s no steady measure. They can take that line and stretch it forever. It’s very emotional.” And they resonate, she pointed out, with other traditions as far-flung as North African music, traditional Jewish music, even Gregorian chant.
Church music, she believed, was part of the flow, an essential part of the African American experience. Gospel? “I look on it as the medicine that helped a nation survive.”
“The church is used in the black community for everything: meeting place, therapy, whatever,” she added. “It’s like trying to keep in touch with yourself. You turn on the TV and see all white shows, all white commercials, and you’re not there. In the church you can feel like yourself.”
The great and remarkable thing is, through her music she made all sorts of people feel like themselves, and maybe even something a little bit more than they’d realized they could be. I wish I had known Janice better. Other people did, and have their own memories, which are both more personal and more reflective of her vital role over the decades in seeding Portland’s musical scene. I hope the stories flow out, lovingly and with great spirit and affection, the way her music did. We’ll miss you, Janice. Rest in peace.
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