When most people think of jazz, Portland, Oregon, is not the first place that comes to mind. And yet, for a golden decade following World War II, the Eliot neighborhood, a thriving African American neighborhood that would soon be bulldozed for urban renewal, spawned a jazz heyday. Such luminaries as: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and local talent; Wardell Gray and Doc Severinsen headlined Portland clubs. The fact that Portland was a port city with a busy railroad, and had a bustling shipbuilding industry, made it ripe to become a jazz Mecca. Jumptown, by Robert Dietsche is a fascinating blend of music, politics, and social history.
“Action central was Williams Avenue, an entertainment strip lined with hot spots where you could find jazz twenty-four hours a day” writes Bob Dietsche. He sentimentally recalls, “you could stand in the middle of the Avenue (the Rose Quarter, where the Blazers play basketball today) and look up Williams past the chili parlors, past the barbeque joints, the beauty salons, all the way to Broadway, and see hundreds of people dressed up as if they were going to a fashion show. It could be four in the morning. It didn’t matter; this was one of those streets that never slept.” Any reader, but especially residents of Eliot, past or present, will get a nostalgic feeling, thinking about how very cool it all was, how sad that it was so short lived, and that almost all of those beautiful buildings are gone. One building that remains is the Dude Ranch, the triangle shaped structure on the pie shaped block that divides Weidler from Broadway, now known as the Leftbank Building. “There never was and there never will be” according to Dietsche, “anything quite like the Dude Ranch. It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, Las Vegas, and the Wild West rolled in to one.” In July of 1945, the Dude Ranch, with its tap dancing MC and its celebrity clientele, its strippers (called shake dancers), ventriloquists, comics, jugglers, and torch singers, was the hottest club in town. Less than a year later, the doors were locked. Some people downtown thought it was a public nuisance. Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and a host of other all-stars, had to be canceled. There were hatcheck girls, cigarette girls and cowgirl waitresses dressed to look like Dale Evans, with cardboard six-shooters snug in their holsters. Massive hand-painted murals of Black cowboys lassoing Texas longhorns covered the walls. The Ranch was packed, like every other place in this postwar boom town. Thousands of service men were passing through, home from the islands of the pacific and crazy for entertainment. Among the well dressed shipbuilders, maids, and Pullman porters, were Bugsy Siegel-like characters dressed in sharkskin suits and broad Panama hats, in from St. Louis for a friendly games of cards or dice, and a racially mixed party of people who couldn’t care less that they were on the cutting edge of social reform through integration, in the city that had be called “the most segregated north of the Mason-Dixon line” (Dietsche, 2009).
Find out about: The Acme, The Chicken Coop, Paul’s Paradise, The Cotton Club, McElroy’s Ballroom, The Castle, The Frat Hall, Uptown Ballroom, and the Golden Canopied Ballroom at Jantzen Beach, where Louis Armstrong played for eight years. It is a fun read about the amazing energy and history that was happening in our beloved Eliot neighborhood during the 40’s and 50’s.