History of PDX Jazz & Portland Jazz Festival

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PDX Jazz is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing world class jazz to the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the year and with the annual PDX Jazz Festival in February our mission is to inspire, educate and develop future jazz audiences for generations to come.

Your generous contributions and sponsorship helps PDX Jazz as it strives to curate events throughout the year, and in bringing you the critically acclaimed Portland Jazz Festival in February.

In 2011 PDX Jazz @ The Mission became a monthly series focused on exclusive tribute programs by Portland artists including Ramsey Embick: A Tribute to Joe Zawinul, The Bridge Quartet: Crossing Into The Monkasphere, Dan Balmer: “Far Wes” A Tribute to Wes Montgomery, George Colligan: “Hands On”: A Tribute to Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, and two John Coltrane tributes by Devon Phillips.

The monthly series has also featured acclaimed nationally and internationally recognized artists such as Tin Hat, In The Country, Cuong Vu, Nik Bartsch Ronin, Miquel Zenon, Cyrille Aimee, Amina Figarova, among others.

After the conclusion of the 2012 festival, PDX Jazz began a partnership with Portland’s most prestigious jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s. PDX Jazz @ Jimmy Mak’s presents emerging and established national artists through routing opportunities while artists are touring the west coast.  PDX Jazz has presented Thelonious Monk Competition Winner bassist Ben Williams, singer Tierney Sutton, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Matthew Shipp, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, harmonica player Grégoire Maret, and the famed Clayton Brothers.

Every February, The Portland Jazz Festival kicks off its celebration of jazz, Black History Month, and the City of Portland, Oregon. We celebrate Black History Month with a series of jazz education and outreach programs that extend into Portland’s schools and community centers. Throughout the Festival schedule, there are dozens of ways to experience jazz, through performances, both paid and free, lectures, films, exhibitions and jam sessions.


2004 | In its first year, Portland Jazz Festival was awarded the Portland Oregon Visitors Association’s President’s Award in acknowledgment of its innovation in cultural tourism.

2005 | Presented the North American premiere of Andy Narell & Calypsociation, a Paris based 16-piece steel drum orchestra on February 19 which was recorded by National Public Radio (NPR) and was broadcasted to over 100 affiliates throughout North America, April 2005. Native American musician Jim Pepper best known for his composition Witchi-Tai-To, was honored on a program supported by the efforts of Jack Berry, the program’s MC. The show also coincided with an announced partnership with Portland State University, which was in part due to the 2005 senate resolution honoring the life and achievements of the acclaimed altoist.

2006 | Coordinated NOLA 2 PDX in partnership with Azumano Travel and Mercy Corps. After Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, NOLA2PDX provided travel, housing, donated instruments and work opportunities to musicians from New Orleans.

2007 | Produced Crystal Silence: The History of ECM Records, a series of lectures, panel discussions, Jazz Conversations, and performances featuring Chick Corea & Gary Burton, Charles Lloyd, and the North American premier of the Trygve Seim ensemble.

2008 | Portland Jazz Festival this year started with Ornette Coleman and ended with Cecil Taylor presenting movements in avant garde with the theme of  The Shape of Jazz to Come.  Artistic Director Bill Royston nominated as Jazz Producer of the Year by Jazz Journalists Association.

2009 | Portland Jazz Festival presented the north American celebration of the Somethin’ Else: Blue Note Records at 70.  Blue Note Records—one of the world’s most legendary labels celebrated the 70th anniversary of the label’s founding by Alfred Lion, as well as the 25th anniversary of the its re-launch in 1984 under then President Bruce Lundvall. The Festival featured performances from Blue Note’s past and present roster, as well as panel discussions about the label’s legacy with Bruce Lundvall, Michael Cuscuna, and various jazz artists, writers and historians. Bill Royston is again nominated as Jazz Producer of the Year by Jazz Journalists Association.

2010 | The Festival focused on new Norwegian and Scandanavian music, and called itself  Is Jazz dead, or has it moved to a new address? It showcased U.S. premieres by Trygve Seim and Frode Haltli, Christian Wallumrod, and In The Country.

2011 | This year Bridges and Boundaries introduced a modern twist on a historical collaboration between African American and Jewish musicians.  The first integrated jazz band evolved when Benny Goodman, a Jew, hired guitarist Charlie Christian. Later, when Charlie Parker formed his classic jazz quintet, he invited Jewish trumpeter Red Rodney to join his band. This year’s festival featured Dave Frishberg, The Three Cohen’s, Randy Weston, Regina Carter,  and Joshua Redman, just to name a few; plus Portland Jazz Festival’s new Artistic & Community Ambassador Esperanza Spalding.

2012 | For Portland Only, the Festival kicked off with Esperanza Spalding emotionally introducing her former teacher, this year’s Portland Jazz Master, Thara Memory, in a sold out program titled “Artfully Miles,” which boasted over two dozen student and professional musicians, and two spoken word griots. This festival put a strong focus on local artists interacting with headliners Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo, Roy Haynes, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter, Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitt, Enrico Rava, The Jazz Passengers, and Garth Fagan Dance through various concerts,  guest appearances and outreach/educational programs. Various performances were curated and performed only for Portland audiences.


History of Jazz in Portland

The dynamic sounds of jazz have electrified the Portland area since the days of World War II when tens of thousands of African Americans, many from Texas, came by rail to work in the Kaiser shipyards. After the war ended, the black population resided in an area that ran north from the river to North East Fremont and east from North Interstate to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. This area was often labeled as “Little Harlem” and was controlled by the black vice lord, Tom Johnson.

One of the most notable jazz scenes during the post-war era could be found on Williams Avenue. The street was lined with clubs that thrived on entertainment and jazz could be heard up and down the strip 24/7. This was the place to be for all aspiring musicians, for it was where some of the best jam sessions of the Northwest could be found. Portland, conveniently located between two of the best jazz scenes in the United States, Seattle and Los Angeles, was a hideout for many of the early jazz legends who traveled back and forth between the two big cities. A local jazz pioneer, Sweet Baby James Benton who hosted jam sessions in his own backyard, recalls that Portland in the 50′s and 60′s was the best-kept secret for all who loved to get down and jam. Many musical styles were shared and improved upon during the infamous backyard jam sessions. It was a chance for the elders to mentor and the hopeful youth to learn.

In the early days, the club scene was extremely intense. Even though Williams Avenue has been bulldozed down to make room for I-5, the Rose Garden and the Memorial Coliseum, the memories that have been passed along will continue to live in the hearts of all who love the musical genre of jazz. The clubs that lined Williams Avenue all have stories and claims to the many pioneers of Portland jazz. Frat Hall was home to Don Anderson, Sid Porter, Julian Henson, and Al Pierre. Places like Savoy and Lil’ Sandy’s was the stomping ground for musicians such as T-Bone Walker and Cleve Williams. Jackie’s was the joint that Leo Amadee showed Lorraine Walsh Geller how to play bebop piano and Paul’s Paradise hosted battles between Seattle’s Jabbo Ward and Portland’s Roy Jackson.

In 1945, the Dude Ranch, which was designed after “black cowboy” establishments in Texas, was the hottest black and tan supper club west of the Mississippi River. On December 4, 1945, producer Norman Granz brought an early edition of Jazz at the Philharmonic, a traveling jam session named after its place of origin in Los Angeles, which included Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Thelonious Monk.

When the Dude Ranch closed it became the Acme Club “the house that bop built” and opened its doors with acts such as Carl Thomas (Portland’s version of Charlie Parker) and Leo “Dark Eyes” Amadee who came from New Orleans as a boogie-woogie mastermind. The Acme became a learning center for six whiz kids from Fort Vancouver High School. Bonny Addleman (bassist) went on to play with Don Byas in Paris. Keith Hodgeson (bassist) had a long and distinguished career with the Washington (DC) Symphony. Quen Anderson (trombonist) became one of the best arrangers the city has ever produced. Norma Carson (trumpeter) went to New York and received rave reviews from the dean of jazz critics, Leonard Feather. Lee Rockey (drummer) went on to play with Herbie Mann and Neal Hefti.

Underneath Acme was a pool hall where you could always find Ed Slaughter – jazz historian and honorary mayor of Williams Avenue. He was most remembered for his jukebox that would be stacked full of the most recent recordings of national blues and jazz artists. This was the place where most of the aspiring musicians heard their very first jazz records.

In 1947 the Acme became the Savoy which was then bought in 1949 by Bill McClendon, who was the driving force behind the development of Williams Avenue. Under new ownership, it was then called the Rhythm Room. Warren Bracken played there with tenor sax Roy Jackson, guitarist Warren Black and drummer Ray Horn. In 1953, Duke Ellington celebrated his birthday there with some of Portland’s most talented musicians. In 1952, McClendon booked some of the most extraordinary names in jazz: Wardell Gray, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic featuring John Coltrane with local trumpeter Bobby Bradford, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson. McClendon notes the impact that the Oscar Peterson performance made. “Oscar played two shows every day for two weeks, and we turned thousands away at the door. They were coming from everywhere ~ North California, Idaho ~ and I began to think how important all these big jazz names were in the area of human relations and about how for the first time white folks from the West Hills and downtown saw that what we were doing here was valuable.”

We would like to thank Bob Dietsche for his help in documenting this capsule of Portland history. His recent book is titled Jumptown: Golden Decade of Portland Jazz.