History of Jazz in Portland

Portland has a rich and vibrant jazz history. The emergence of jazz and funk was born out of frustrations and has become one of the purest forms of freeness that the music scene has ever experienced.

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.