Portland’s Jazz Scene Yesterday and Today

Williams at Russell 1937
Paul’s Paradise, was around the corner at 19 N Russell Street—now a grass lot. Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives

In the early 1940s, Floyd Standifer could be found playing his trumpet to the hills. He would listen as the sound came echoing back. This was the way, in the farmlands outside of Gresham, he worked on perfecting his tone. However, he also learned a lot from Williams Avenue in Portland.

He would hitchhike in to listen to the music here, which took place at any of the numerous clubs on or near this street: The Keystone, The Olympic, Paul’s Paradise (19 N. Russell St), Jackie’s, Lil Sandy’s, McClendon’s, The Frat Hall (1412 N. Williams Ave). Standifer would have been able to see big names in jazz music at the time, including Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, and Roy Eldridge. This was a common way for Jazz musicians of that time to learn the craft, and it hasn’t changed much today either. One can imagine a young Standifer hitching a ride back home after staying up until early in the morning to see Eldridge play. Maybe he’s thinking about a musical phrase he’d just heard; maybe he’s fidgeting with anticipation to know how it sounds against the hills just before the sun brings the morning.

None of the clubs from the 40s are around today. Some of them were a flash in the pan, like The Dude Ranch, which opened in 1945 and closed a year and a half later. This establishment was located in the brick building on 240 N. Broadway and it successfully served and employed an integrated group of people. OPB’s documentary, Jazz Town, states that it was one of the most prominent black-owned businesses. Its popularity drew crowds away from other downtown business and also roused concern from city hall. Jazz historian Bob Dietsche attributes city hall’s concern to the club’s reputation for the mixing of races. He cites this as the reason for the club’s hasty closure.

Many clubs continued to thrive despite these tensions. Some of that success can be ascribed to Tom Johnson, a gangster that ran a gambling den in Vancouver. He colluded with much of the powers that ordinarily shut down race-mixing businesses. This kept clubs running on Williams, and gave it a reputation for being one of the rare areas in the northwest where this kind of culture could survive.

Along with those clubs were musicians that stuck around in Portland to become mentors of younger players. People like Warren Bracken, who came to Portland in 1950 to escape the heroin epidemic impacting many of the other jazz scenes in the country, or Frank Martin, who came from Kansas City to stay in Portland and help others learn the business. An infamous jukebox in Ed Slaughter’s pool hall on North Williams avenue helped to supplement these mentors. It was the only Portland Jukebox where you could hear Bebop music. This provided a resource to hear the newest and most exciting sounds of the Jazz scene from other parts of the country.

Even through to the 1960s, jazz remained a major part of Portland’s cultural landscape. The Cotton Club referred to itself as “the only nightclub on the west coast with wall-to-wall soul.” It’s owner, Paul Knauls, Sr., remembers it as a place to see and be seen. It served as a hub to the thriving jazz scene of the 1960s in Portland, Oregon, and it was located in the southwestern corner of the Eliot neighborhood at 2125 North Vancouver Avenue. Knauls remembers the business failing after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. A club that previously served white patrons during the week and black patrons on the weekend now served neither. Racial tensions had skyrocketed, and many didn’t want to risk getting in an altercation.

The lack of venues for live jazz has a dramatic effect on the ability for aspiring players to truly learn the craft. Jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, is a necessarily live form of art. When it is only living in classrooms and on recordings, it isn’t living much at all. I spoke with local jazz musician Christopher Brown about the state of jazz and jazz education in Portland today. He helped paint an important picture of where jazz lives in our city, and how we can support the contemporary off-spring of the culture that once thrived in our Eliot neighborhood.

Brown first heard Wynton Marsalis’ 1985 Black Codes (From the Underground) in the morning, on the way to Wilson High School. His best friend at the time, Jason Anderson, put the album on. What began in Jason’s parents’ burgundy Audi became a nagging attraction that Brown could not ignore. He compared it to sitting next to a beautiful woman—you’ll try to convince yourself she isn’t so hot. That way, you don’t have to consider how badly you’d like to know her, and how much you may not measure up. But he couldn’t shake it; something in Marsalis’ 1985 album stuck with him and urged him to make music that pushed boundaries like Black Codes did.

This is not to say that a single album defines Brown and his development as an artist. For one, he is the son of the great local Jazz drummer, Mel Brown. When listening to him play the drums, it is impossible not to hear that blend of laid-back and controlled rhythm that his father has. There is a noble brand of modesty in this style of drumming—it plays a vital role in creating a confident band whose sound sails right through the room to you. Brown recounts his three commandments: be in time, be in tune, and know how to play a song. If you don’t have those three, he says, nothing else matters. One can see where he developed this view of music: his father, who can be seen playing at Jimmy Mak’s every Wednesday night, faithfully follows this creed.

Besides his father, there are other Portlanders that shaped Christopher Brown’s musicianship. Thara Memory, who runs the American Music Program in town today, was a major influence when Brown was a teenager. According to his website, Memory first came to Portland in 1970 while he was playing with the R&B artist, Joe Tex. Since then, he has been one of the most consistent forces keeping Jazz music education and interest alive in Portland. Brown says that Memory greatly influenced the way he thinks about music.

Ron Steen was another inspiring educator in Brown’s Portland years. Brown explained that in the 80s and 90s, Steen was running seven jam sessions around Portland at one time. At a jam session, amateur musicians are provided an opportunity to play jazz standards with more experienced players. Much of jazz music is built around an ability to be able to improvise over these standards, so getting the chance to play those songs before an audience is valuable practice. Brown felt that some of his most important jazz education came from these jam sessions because it gave him the ability to see what professional musicianship looked like. There was a jam at a place called The Hobbit that he used to go to with his father. That was located on 39th and Holgate. The session he remembers playing in most was at Produce Row, on SE 2nd and Oak. The first song he played on Saxophone there was most likely Miles Davis’ “So What.” Drummer Ron Steen was an encouraging mentor, Brown says. Some jam sessions can have a competitive and intimidating atmosphere, but Steen was, as Brown puts it, fair. He struck a balance between high expectations and healthy encouragement.

Produce Row is still open, but no longer features a jazz jam session. The Hobbit is now a Walgreens. Ron Steen is no longer holding 7 jams in venues across the city, but he can be found at one. It is at Clyde’s Prime Rib on NE 56th and Sandy, and you can find some of the city’s most promising young musicians trying their hand at jazz standards every Sunday night. Portland’s jazz scene has changed since Christopher Brown’s teen years, and certainly since the genre’s heyday on Williams Avenue.

After several years in New York City and elsewhere on the east coast, Brown came back to Portland. He returned more as a duty to his family than in search of artistic fulfillment. The passing of his mother made him the executor of her estate, as well as a caretaker for his brother. Now, he focuses on creating a demand for smart music and a more discerning consumer. His ends lie not in music, necessarily, but in the way that music can impact the people who listen to it. By using music as a medium, he hopes to influence people to find pleasure in what is not immediately coherent. This vision combines with that intentionality from his “three commandments” to create one of the many distinct sounds Portland has to offer. A sound that was shaped, in part, by the influence of a high school friends’ CDs, by local educators and mentors, and by a strong sense of family. It can be heard pouring out the open door of Solae’s Lounge on NE Alberta and 18th every Friday night from nine to midnight. Whether you’ve been playing your trumpet for the hills of Gresham or you’ve only heard jazz piped through the elevator speakers, getting out to see these shows may be the best way to both enhance your knowledge of the music today and support the local scene in its current idiom. The Eliot and Portland jazz scene remains a unique part of our city’s history, and the people keeping it alive today are a direct result of that past.

By Dylan Stringer