PDX Jazz Festival preview: Signs of life

Portland jazz scene remains vital despite popular club's sudden closure

The word is out: Jazz is dead. Why, it says so in La La Land, one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Even legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff died last month, shortly after Portland’s — and one of America’s — finest jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s, closed its doors for the last time, the latest in a string (Ivories, Brasserie Montmartre, Blue Monk, etc.) in recent years. Jazz record sales are tiny compared to hip hop and rock, and it’s been decades since the music occupied the center of popular culture. So long jazz, been good to know ya.

Not so fast. Jazz music and musicians are insinuating themselves into pop music (Kendrick Lamar) and movies (La La Land, Miles Ahead). Jazz musicians are embracing contemporary pop sounds and winning new audiences without selling out (Robert Glasper, the Bad Plus, Kamasi Washington, who played to a packed, diverse crowd at Roseland ballroom in December, and many others). Contemporary classical and pop musicians, including the late David Bowie on his last album, are including jazz musicians and ingredients in their work. In Portland, reports jazz’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. The music still resounds in the city’s cafes and clubs, and the 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, which begins this weekend, offers one of its strongest lineups (see our recommendations below).

Mel Brown performs and leads ensembles at PDX Jazz Festival.

Rather than a crisis, what Portland jazz is going through now is actually “a hiccup,” says veteran drummer Mel Brown, a Jimmy Mak’s mainstay who’s leading several bands at this year’s festival. He worries that jazz mostly happens in restaurants with no stages rather than dedicated venues like Jimmy Mak’s. But having grown up in Portland playing jazz in Northeast Portland’s legendary Jumptown scene as a teenager, he’s seen these cycles before.

“We had a lot of clubs here, then rock came and everything went away,” Brown recalls of the days before went off to study with legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, perform with Motown, tour nationally before returning to Portland in the mid-1970s. “Now it’s trying to come back. We’ve got enough people pushing, but it takes time to really get the whole thing together.”

Kamasi Washington’s band drew a big, diverse audience to Portland’s Roseland Theater in December.

Jimmy Mak’s closing “does not reflect on the state of jazz in Portland,” insists festival director Don Lucoff, noting that the club closed not because it was faltering financially but because its building sold and its owner fell ill with terminal cancer before he could complete plans it to a new location this month. “Jimmy’s numbers, [local jazz radio station] KMHD’s numbers were up, our sales are up. It’s nothing to do with people not being interested in the music.” The festival shifted its Jimmy Mak’s performances to other venues, and the club’s former managers are busily putting together a new incarnation that jazz lovers hope will open before the year’s out.

“These things go in cycles,” says alto saxophone master Steve Wilson, who plays with some of jazz’s biggest stars like Chick Corea and Maria Schneider (who’s also performing in this years PDX Jazz Festival) and visits Portland often. “Clubs open and close, they come and go. I’ve seen this happen just about everywhere including New York. I don’t think the closing of one or two clubs as a barometer of things in general. In the history of the music and the business, there’s always some proprietor who steps up to the plate and opens some club or nonprofit organization to replace them.”

Jazz Revival

Meanwhile, Portland jazz is springing up in new places. Lucoff, Brown and others cite new or imminent clubs like The 1905, Club Rialto (in the old Jack London bar) and Solae’s Lounge on Northeast Alberta Street, where Alberta Abbey also welcomes jazz. PDX Jazz regularly stages shows at Southeast Portland’s newish Revolution Hall. Even McMenamins’ Mission Theater, which jettisoned jazz in favor of films a few years ago, is back in the jazz orbit. The venerable Mt. Hood Jazz Festival may be gone, but the Montavilla Jazz Festival recently arrived to fill the summer jazz slot along with the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, which continues in its 37th year.

Keyboardist George Colligan and saxophonist Joe Manis are two Oregon jazz stars performing at this year’s festival.

Moreover, the city boasts a solid corps of top-notch jazz artists. “When I moved here from New York, I was worried I’d be the biggest fish in a small pond,” recalls jazz guitarist Ryan Meagher. “I’m so glad I was wrong. The talent pool of musicians here is almost comically deep.”

Wilson, who teaches at City College of New York and The Juilliard School and numbers several Portlanders among his top students, says Portland’s jazz future looks strong. “The foundation is there. Portland State has a very good program with (pianists and composers) George Colligan and Darrell Grant and teachers like Thara Memory and Alan Jones. I know there’s some great musicians there. Portland seems to be very conducive to creative music and creative activity.”

Saxophonist Steve Wilson plays the festival with Maria Schneider’s ensemble. Photo: John Abbott.

“For a city its size, there is no city America that has as vibrant a jazz scene as Portland,” says Lucoff, who splits time between Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, New York and Los Angeles. “We have a three legged stool: an active jazz festival, presenting organization, the top rated jazz radio station. We had the national club here, and I firmly believe were going to have a new Jimmy Mak’s within 12 months.”

“It’s a wake up call,” Brown says about Jimmy Mak’s closing, “but we’ll get it back.”

Brown credits the jazz festival with stoking interest in jazz by bringing national and local performers. ”Thanks to Don Lucoff, Portland is getting exposed to top people we don’t have locally,” Brown says. “It’s like a smorgasbord: people are getting a chance to see something and lock into it and then they want to go see more of it.”

Tomorrow’s Tranes

But isn’t all that jazz for old people? Not according to Portland jazz guitarist Ryan Meagher. Jimmy Mak’s closing is “more symbolic of current state of affairs than actually representational,” says Meagher, who helps lead Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and Montavilla Jazz Fest, edits Jazz Society of Oregon’s Jazzscene monthly magazine and is jazz director at Metropolitan Youth Symphony. “Jimmy Mak’s wasn’t where the scene was thriving,” as it primarily booked weekly performances by in house bands like Brown’s and the occasional touring band. “We had to find our own places to play anyway because Jimmy’s wasn’t available,” including the Creative Music Guild’s series at Turn Turn Turn!, and other venues like The Old Church.

Portland guitarist, composer and teacher Ryan Meagher.

PCJE, which is a community partner of the festival, will book five or six shows this year featuring 21st century music composed by a younger generation of Portland jazz creators than the venerable artists and mid 20th century standards you’d typically hear at Jimmy Mak’s. “We’re all about jazz composition,” Meagher says. “We want to get younger generations involved.”

At its February 24th show at The Old Church, PJCE’s 12-member ensemble, comprising some of the state’s finest jazz musicians performs new music by accomplished performer/teachers (longtime PSU prof Charley Gray, Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra’s Michelle Medler, and Mt. Hood Community College’s Meagher) with student jazz composers they’re mentoring.

Along with PJCE’s shows, PDX Jazz frequently brings top young talent to Portland both at the festival (LA’s Kneebody on Feb. 18 and Aaron Parks Trio on Feb. 24, Portland’s own Ezra Weiss on Feb. 20 and Bridgetown Sextet on Feb. 22 and more), and throughout the year. Other young jazz acts appear outside its auspices, like the terrific young Armenian American composer pianist Tigran Hamasyan on March 3.

Meagher acknowledges that jazz audiences tend to be older than those for hip hop and other culturally current pop music, and “when there are younger people there they are usually music students and sometimes professional musicians. That speaks to the state of the music, not just in Portland.”

Where he does see younger audiences is in new music informed by jazz but not necessarily fitting squarely into the template established in the last century. “A lot of the stuff on PJCE reflects newness and modernity because that’s what the composers are feeling,” Meagher explains. “We grew up hearing indie rock or funk or whatever. That’s who we are so we write that into the music. That’s when you see it become more successful.”

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performing at Portland’s Montavilla Jazz Festival.

PJCE’s recent collaborations with Portland indie rock songwriters produced bigger, younger, more diverse crowds than standard jazz offerings. “But when you do that,” Meagher acknowledges, “you get pushback from traditionalists. I love bebop as much as anyone but if you play that, you’re only gonna get a certain audience — and it’s gonna be old.”

As a teacher, Meagher seeks to combine traditional jazz’s rigorous commitment to musicianship and virtuosity into contemporary forms his students are listening to, like Portland native Esperanza Spalding, Snarky Puppy and others. As with any art form, jazz will thrive not by trying to preserve its golden era (say the 1930s through mid 1960s or so) in amber — a narrow minded attitude that still impoverishes too much of the classical music establishment — but by responding to changes in the culture that nurtures it. Jazz as we’ve known it will live on in recordings and videos and tribute bands, but jazz as a living, vital art form will evolve to fill the needs of the 21st century. Or it won’t, and it’ll die. What’s less important than the survival of “jazz” or “classical music” per se is the extent to which their artistic values and accomplishments enrich 21st century music.

That’s what’s happening in Portland now. Alongside preservationist old jazz played by contemporary artists, the artistic elements that made jazz so powerful are finding their way into today’s musical forms. Artists like Portland’s own Esperanza Spalding understand that and are using jazz’s riches to make new, 21st century treasures. With new venues emerging and old ones returning, and new generations of musicians creating jazz-tinged music for the 21st century alongside traditional jazz masters, Portland’s jazz scene appears less to be dwindling than evolving.

We’re not retreating,” declares Lucoff. “We’re in a transition time. It’s really just a matter of logistics.”

Festival Highlights: For Nerds and Newbies

With dozens of commendably diverse shows covering emerging, established and legacy artists, including 30 headline concerts, the 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival is, like jazz itself, too big for a listener to take it all in. So we’ve broken this guide into two categories for different kinds of jazz listeners.

Portland Jazz Master Mel Brown also suggests listening to Portland’s first rate-jazz station, KMHD, or the nonprofit community radio station KBOO (90.7) to learn about more jazz you might want to check out in person — always the best way to experience this in-the-moment music.

• For Newbies.

If you’re jazz curious or new to the music, PDX Jazz Executive Artistic Director Don Lucoff suggests checking out multi Grammy-winning composer/arranger/bandleader Maria Schneider’s Feb. 17 show with her regular sextet.

Maria Schneider. Photo: Dina Regine.

“Her music comes out of wellspring of [legendary jazz arranger] Gil Evans and out of her home state of Minnesota: pastoral, impressionistic, approachable,” Lucoff says. “People will come away with a real optimistic feeling.” Lucoff also recommends the Feb. 19 Yellowjackets show with guest guitarist Mike Stern, whose “fire and juice and melodicism” might especially appeal to pop and rock fans.

The Heath Brothers’ straightahead, funky Feb. 18 set featuring 91 year old saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Tootie offers a once in a lifetime chance to hear renowned siblings who between them have performed with practically all of post-World War II jazz’s biggest names — Miles, Dizzy, Trans, Rollins, Hancock and dozens more. It’s double billed with Javon Jackson’s popular Sax Appeal band.

Guitarist John Scofield’s Feb. 24 show offers a quite different sound — reimagining country music classics from Dolly to Shania — than the former Miles/Mingus etc. sideman’s many earlier festival appearances.

Amina Claudine Myers gives a solo recital at the festival.

Portland Jazz Master Mel Brown’s Feb. 22 big band show featuring famous trumpeter Jon Faddis pays tribute to Faddis’s mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, while Brown’s opening act reassembles most of his original Jimmy Mak’s house septet. Roy Ayers’ Feb. 23 concert brings the funk/soul vibes pioneer Roy Ayers, whose music has been sampled in more hip hop songs than any other. Local  funk-soul ensemble Farnell Newton & The Othership Connection opens.

• For Nerds.

For experienced jazz fans looking to expand their horizons, Lucoff suggests emerging stars and musicians’ musicians not as widely known as they should be. Drummer Ralph Peterson’s late show with TriAngular on Feb. 17 brings a veteran who’s played with everyone from Art Blakey to the Marsalis brothers. Solo pianists Amina Claudine Myers (Feb. 19) and Bill Mays (Feb. 23), one just emerging, the other long acclaimed —highlight the piano concerts at Classic Pianos.

Award winning keyboard master Craig Taborn’s quartet features terrific players like The Bad Plus’s Dave King and saxophonist Chris Speed performing Feb. 23.

Aaron Parks Trio’s Feb. 24 show offers the opportunity to see both a rising, national prize-winning young Northwest jazz pianist who’s played with Terence Blanchard and Joshua Redman, and an ageless, versatile drummer, Billy Hart.

Oregon’s Ralph Towner.

Classical/world music fans will want to hear the Feb. 21 solo set by pioneering Rome-based acoustic guitarist and University of Oregon alum Ralph Towner (who founded the global jazz band named after his longtime home state, Oregon), double billed with cello/piano duo Anja Lechner and François Couturier. For a heavier, bluesier electric guitar sound, try James “Blood” Ulmer’s Feb. 19 solo set.

No matter how much jazz you do or don’t know, take the festival’s once a year chance to break out of your comfort zone. Try names you don’t recognize, and check out the free or low cost festival shows featuring local acts who enrich our city’s enviable jazz scene year round.

A shorter version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/O Live. PDX Jazz Festival runs through Feb. 26 at locations around the city. Tickets and info online.

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