Montavilla Jazz Festival: turning crisis into community

This weekend's festival shows how arts can help build community in an unaffordable city


With rents and property values continuing to rise astronomically in Portland, the affordability of physical space and the role that space plays in the arts ecosystem is coming into sharp focus. The space is sorely needed, yet many arts organizations with limited budgets can’t afford it.

The affordability crisis is a reflection of Portland’s growing pains, but instead of just complaining about the problem, perhaps our arts community can see this crisis as an opportunity. With some creative problem solving, we can help to make Portland a better place to live and also make it a better place to perform and experience the arts.

Portland drum legend Alan Jones performed at last year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser.

This is indeed a crisis, though it’s not unique. Even a quick study of the city’s history will reveal other crises in the past, especially the challenges that people of color have faced when seeking housing in the days of redlining, after the Vanport flood of 1948, and up to the present. But even as poorer Portlanders struggle in an increasingly expensive housing market, there are encouraging signs that the arts community is waking up to its power as a force for positive change in our neighborhoods. This weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival is one of them.

Setting aside differences to create community

From my vantage point as the Executive Director of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, I’ve seen new partnerships evolve as direct answers to the lack of opportunity that lack of space creates.

Jazz is an overwhelmingly diverse music, so diverse that often we don’t agree even on the very definition of our music. From its beginnings as an African-American art form enjoyed in African-American neighborhoods, jazz has grown into a global music with myriad variations of styles and players, and that is true of Portland’s community as well. And with such a diverse body of practitioners, how can we expect to unanimously agree on any one issue?

We can’t. But fortunately, there’s no need to do so. In my view, the answer is not to ignore the issue, or to argue it to death, but to incorporate this argument itself into the core values of our art. We’re a community of people who love this American musical form, even as it grows and changes into things we don’t all feel the same about.

We like to fight about it sometimes, but overall, we want this music to thrive and continue to make our lives more colorful, and I think most other arts communities are the same. We’re a big messy family of musicians, fans, business owners, media, and non-profit leaders—we get together to feast on this amazing music even as we argue about who has to set the table, what exactly we’ll eat, and who has to clean it up afterwards.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performs with Jasnam Daya Singh Saturday at Montavilla Jazz Festival.

Different groups in our community stake out different turf under the jazz tent:

  • Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble has been commissioning, performing and celebrating new music by Oregonian jazz composers for ten years with our ensemble, our record label, and now our podcast, Beyond Category;
  • Creative Music Guild has been creating opportunity for the jazz avant-garde for over twenty years;
  • PDX Jazz brings celebrated artists to Portland every February and is doing more to stimulate the local scene throughout the year;
  • Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra teaches jazz through big band performance;
  • and in a most amazing achievement, the Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra recently won the Essentially Ellington contest, adding to the list of world-class achievement in jazz taking place in Portland.

I could list plenty of others. And this is just our little jazz corner of the arts community in Portland. It’s doing great things, and I’m inspired by it. But I think we can do even better, and I know that we will in the coming years. The first step in realizing our power as a community, is simply to see ourselves as a group, even as we recognize our differences.

Breaking new ground in Montavilla

I left this weekend’s the Montavilla Jazz Festival off my laundry list of notable Portland jazz institutions because I want to give them some special attention. I’m particularly inspired by this festival because its organizers are attempting to do two things that haven’t yet been done in this town, to my knowledge.

First, they are creating professional opportunity for creative jazz bands to play to a much bigger audience. In all except rare cases, these artists don’t have a festival to play. They are too small for the PDX Jazz Festival, too “out” for the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, and too “in” for the Creative Music Guild’s summer festival, the Improvisation Summit of Portland. But, just like all the bands playing at those events, they are doing good work and deserve to have it heard outside of living rooms and tiny clubs. The festival is serving a community that hasn’t yet found a champion in Portland, and that’s a big deal.

Andre St. James and George Sams perform with Lori Goldston and Tim DuRoche Sunday at Montavilla Jazz Festival.

Second, the Montavilla Jazz Festival is tying its success to the success of its home neighborhood. What I found most impressive about the third year of this festival was the support it received from an impressive group of local businesses. Thanks to those sponsors, the event has been fully funded before a single note was played. They used that opportunity to create a new fund to help support music programs in the public schools nearby.

It’s exciting that last year the bands played to even bigger audiences than the year before, and for a few hours on Saturday night, the festival had a line out the door waiting to get in. That kind of energy can change a neighborhood, and I think the Montavilla Jazz Festival has its heart and mind set on making that change a positive one.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

That phrase, attributed—probably erroneously—to Winston Churchill, applies to Portland in 2017.

Like a lot of neighborhoods in Portland right now, Montavilla is rapidly gentrifying. There’s a long way to go before a Starbucks on every corner crowds out all the mom and pop businesses, but the changes are already taking place. I’m no expert in urban development, but I see the flow of investment into our city as positive overall. The challenge of the situation, that is so often unmet,  is to find ways to keep the neighborhood affordable for the people who were there before the change.

Quadraphonnes play music by Portland composer Andrew Durkin Sunday at Montavilla Jazz Festival.

With the Montavilla Jazz Festival, we have an opportunity to ride this wave of investment, to get a piece of the money that’s coming in and using it to build infrastructure to support our music. I’d love to see the festival continue to grow, to continue supporting professional artists, to continue bringing people to the Montavilla neighborhood to patronize its businesses, and continue investing money in arts education in the neighborhood schools. This is the power to effect positive change that our community is waking up to. Let’s continue to move in this direction.

We are agents of change, not victims

I want to challenge the Portland arts community to think bigger, and to think deeper. It begins by recognizing how big and diverse our community is, even in the context of a small city like Portland. As the city grows and changes, as it deals with crisis, let’s take this opportunity to build bridges from our community to others in the social justice community, in the business community, in the government, and the philanthropic community and beyond. Let’s continue to find new supporters, and let’s continue to show them how worthy we are of their support. Our work is a powerful uniting force, but only if we choose to see it that way. That’s how I see it, and I look forward to being a part of it.

Montavilla Jazz Festival features bassist Essiet Okon Essiet’s quartet with Sylvia Cuenca, Rich Halley 5 (with L.A. sax star Vinny Golia), Blue Cranes, David Friesen Quartet, Quadraphonnes with Andrew Durkin, Ezra Weiss Sextet, Andre St. James Sound Ensemble with St. Louis avant-garde trumpeter George Sams, Rebecca Kilgore, sax titan Joe Manis, Trio Subtonic with guitar great Dan Balmer, and more.
Friday-Sunday, Portland Metro Arts, 9003 S.E. Stark St.

Douglas Detrick is a Portland-based trumpeter and composer, and the Executive Director of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. A version of this story appeared in Jazzscene.

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