Richard Basi, a longtime Eliot resident who only recently moved a block beyond the neighborhood’s bounds, loves jazz. Hailing from England, Richard fell in love with swing dancing when he moved to the US. As Richard improved in his dancing, he became entranced by the jazz that allowed swing dancers to be so expressive in their movements. Soon, Richard progressed from being a casual listener of jazz to becoming an eager student of the genre. Richard argues passionately that jazz provokes a broader range of emotional responses than any other genre of music—from sheer bliss, to utter disappointment and sorrow. He has dedicated much of his energies to learning about the history of jazz, and how it has evolved over time alongside shifts in society. Through this research, Richard learned a great deal about the history of jazz in Portland, and specifically, the jazz scene that once existed on Williams Avenue in Eliot. Now, Richard is one of the most prominent advocates in the city for “bringing jazz back to Williams”.
When Richard and I spoke, we discussed at length the rich history of jazz in Portland. At the intersection of Russell and Williams was once the heart of a rich African-American community and jazz scene. Arguably one of the liveliest and biggest jazz scenes on the West Coast, big acts–including Louis Armstrong– performed at Portland’s jazz clubs along Williams. This expansive scene was decimated by the razing of blocks of homes and the destruction of jazz clubs and Black-owned businesses when Legacy Emmanuel sought to expand their campus– an expansion that ultimately didn’t happen.
Richard began a concerted effort to increase jazz’s presence in Portland nearly two years ago, when he led the organization of Louis Armstrong Appreciation Day, one of only a few such celebrations west of the Mississippi, and which broke the record for attendance for a Portland Parks’ summer music event. As an organizer, Richard worked to assemble a jazz band that could play some of Louis Armstrong’s tunes. The result was phenomenal: the band assembled was superb, comprised of some of the best and most talented jazz musicians in the city. The sound the band created was unique to the city and attendees of the Louis Armstrong Appreciation Day concert were deeply moved by the performance. Richard said that he and the musicians in that day’s band agreed; it was too difficult to leave all of their work and effort aside, and their sound was too powerful to be abandoned after only one public performance together. Thus, the musicians and Richard agreed to begin a band to play around Portland, with a particular emphasis on playing in NE Portland and the Williams corridor, once the heart of the jazz scene in the city. Thus, the Cherry Blossom Orchestra, a band playing predominantly New Orleans style traditional jazz, was born.
Richard, the self-described musical director of the band, plays a prominent role in the band’s performances, although he doesn’t play an instrument in the band itself. Instead, Richard determines the Cherry Blossom Orchestra’s repertoire, which he carefully crafts depending upon listeners’ feedback and mood. Richard, highly knowledgeable about the history and evolution of jazz, often provides a narrative about a piece to provide audience members with more insights into the significance of a song or its composer. While Richard wants to promote an appreciation of jazz in Portland listeners, equally important to him is providing an education about jazz, and specifically, the significance of jazz to Portland.
The band, ranging in size from the full orchestra to a trio depending on the venue, has played a number of gigs including for swing dances and the Lindy Exchange, a large swing dance conference that attracts dancers from across the country. The band has been playing a monthly evening show at Poshette’s on N. Greeley, and has also played at Crisp on Williams. Most recently, the band has secured a monthly residency at the Secret Society on Russell Street on Mondays. This monthly performance will feature the full eight-piece band.
When I asked Richard what Eliot residents can do to support jazz in the area, he had a number of suggestions. First and foremost, he suggested that resident convey their enthusiasm about jazz to their friends, and get groups of people to come and see live jazz acts in the area. Conveying true excitement is the most important measure of the worth of the music being played. Richard also suggested that residents make a concerted effort to patronize businesses that offer live music, and to communicate with business owners how much the live music is appreciated and loved. Richard also suggested engaging in conversations with businesses that currently do not feature live music to convey an interest in seeing that featured.
Lastly, Richard encourages all members of Eliot to try to get out and listen to some Jazz, and to honor jazz’s rich legacy in the city that we call home. The band will be playing in the heart of Eliot, at the Secret Society on June 19th in what will hopefully become a monthly appearance—so be sure to lend support and check the band out!
Get out and see/dance to some Jazz with the Cherry Blossom Orchestra! At Crisp every 2nd Wednesday and Poshette’s every 2nd Saturday of the month. Don’t miss them at the Waterfront Blues Festival on July 4th on the Front Porch Stage 3:45-4:45pm. And in our own Eliot neighborhood bar, Secret Society, on July 24 and August 17 at 7:30pm. Check out happyfeetjazz.com for an up-to date listing of the band’s appearances, and join the email newsletter while you’re at it!
By Alexandra Weinstein