‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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DanceWatch: A rich cultural stew

What's happening in Oregon dance now

Welcome to DanceWatch for March, the month that enters like a lion and retreats like a lamb, or so they say. While it’s still cold and dark outside, you can think of this month’s dance offerings like a warm winter stew: hearty, rich, varied, and soul-soothing. And don’t forget that spring is a mere 22 days away!

Let’s start this month’s column with Native American dance. Last fall, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art caught my attention with this statement in its Time-Based Art catalog: “The land now known as Portland rests on the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia (Wimahl) and Willamette (Whilamut) rivers.”

I didn’t know this. Did you? I was struck. I rarely hear about the native tribes of Portland and the surrounding areas and I even more rarely see dance representing these cultures. I feel weird about this. I can’t go back to not knowing. In fact, this information made me want to learn more about Native American dance artists in Oregon and beyond, and recently, I did.

This past Sunday, I attended the Alembic artist performance at Performance Works NorthWest, where choreographer Olivia Camfield, a resident artists and a Muscogee Creek Tribal member from Texas Hill Country, choreographed and performed a powerful contemporary piece about indigenous people reclaiming their narratives. She welcomed everyone with this statement, a reminder to be respectful when we’re visiting someone else’s territory.

“Hensci (hello), estonko (how are you), Olivia Cvhocefkv Tos (my name is Olivia). I come from the Muscogee Creek nation of Oklahoma. Originally we come from the southeastern region of this continent. I would like to acknowledge that I am a visitor here today and in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to bring medicine and movement prayer to this land and the people of it. These nations include the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tumwater, Watlala Bands of the Chinook, the Tualatin Kalapuya, and many other indigenous nations of the Columbia River valley region. I would like y’all to acknowledge whether you are a settler occupier of this stolen land, an indigenous visitor, or you are of this land and this is your ancestral territory. I would like to ask to come here and be in a good way and walk this land as a caretaker and a medicine giver. I would like y’all to do the same, be here in a way that is respectful and honorable to the people and spirits who have taken care of this land since time immemorial. Mvto (thank you).”

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MusicWatch Weekly: global musical tour

Sounds from Africa, Japan, Ireland and more join jazz and classical music on Oregon stages

If America, or at least its government, seems a little crazy these days, and you can’t afford to skip the country, the week offers several opportunities for virtual world travel through music.

• PDX Jazz Festival’s irresistible double feature The Soul of Africa – Habib Koite + Bassekou Kouyate features two of the planet’s finest musicians from the musical hotbed of Mali. Kouyate has helped revive the centuries-old ngoni lute, the enchanting little plucked precursor to the banjo —adding strings, new approaches to picking, plucking, and note-bending, and incorporating influences from blues, rock, bluegrass, and jazz, perhaps partial compensation for his native Mali basically giving the West the blues (in a good way). He’s played with everyone from fellow griot Toumani Diabate to Taj Mahal to Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Bela Fleck, and Youssou N’Dour.

Habib Koite and Bassekou Kouyate team up at PDX Jazz Festival.

One of Mali’s most renowned musicians and one of the world’s great guitarists, Koite’s bubbling acoustic guitar-driven melodies and socially conscious lyrics won fans among Western pop stars like Raitt and in the 1980s and ‘90s made him one of Africa’s biggest crossover successes in the West. He’s continued to evolve, changing bands, styles and even instruments. But what hasn’t changed is Koite’s focus on contemporary issues (he sings in four languages, including English, about war, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, but also happier subjects like soccer), melodic hooks, and gentle, pulsating groove.
Wednesday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

•  Lúnasa get us warmed up early for St. Paddy’s Day. The all-star Irish quintet  has reached the highest level of the Celtic music world, selling a quarter million records of vibrant Celtic instrumental folk music over the past two decades, and they keep the tradition current by adding original compositions and non traditional instrumentation (bass and guitar) to the classic mix of flute, whistles, uilleann pipes, and fiddle.

Wednesday, The Shedd, Eugene and Thursday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs in Eugene .

• The famous voices of South Africa’s multiple Grammy-winning choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing Zulu music from across their four-decade career, probably including cuts from their two latest Grammy nominated discs and their renowned collaborations with Paul Simon. Beyond their beautifully blended voices, the group’s shows are graced by their choreographed dance steps, colorful costumes, and enthusiasm for bridging the divide between artists and audiences. Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch story about their last Oregon tour.
Tuesday, Aladdin Theater, Portland, and next Wednesday, The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall, Eugene.

Oregon Koto-Kai’s annual concert is Sunday at Portland State University.

• Led by one of the state’s global music treasures, Mitsuki Dazai, Oregon Koto-Kai annually showcases the performances of other masters of the koto, that most ravishing Japanese zither. This year’s So-Shun Koto Concert theme, “雪⽉月⾵風花”(Setsu Getsu Fu Ka or Snow, Moon, Wind, Flower perfectly describes this Oregon winter and also means the beauty of nature, which is the theme of most of the traditional compositions on the program. The show also features shamisen (three string lute) and ikebana flower arranging.
2 pm Sunday, Lincoln Recital Hall (Room 75), PSU, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.

JAZZ

PDX Jazz Festival concludes this week with another brilliant batch of improvisational masters. Read my ArtsWatch previews of Darrell Grant’s double bill with Terence Blanchard (whose E-Collective brings the funk, blues and R&B on their sizzling new album) and Portland Jazz Composers’ Thursday and Sunday From Maxville to Vanport shows.

• Stephan Crump busted out of his sideman role in Vijay Iyer’s acclaimed trio with his own, very different trio: his own acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitars (Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox). Rosetta Trio’s 2005 debut earned ecstatic reviews, and although Crump has gone on to lead other bands, he keeps returning to Rosetta, including their brand new album Outliers. It’s easy to hear why: the unusual but versatile instrumentation allows intricate interplay, unweighted by drums or piano. At times floaty, at times funky, it’s a string band for the 21st century.
Friday. Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave. Portland.

• Don’t wait for the inevitable posthumous tribute when you can still hear the real thing. Legendary bassist Stanley Clarke returns to the festival, this time bringing one of the music’s rising stars, LA keyboardist Cameron Graves (who has his own PDX Jazz Festival showcase), plus drummer Shariq Tucker. Best known for his contributions to ‘70s fusion pioneers Return to Forever, Clarke has ranged all over the field in various other projects, including funk, post-bop and more. His latest album includes everything from beatboxing to Bach. With youngsters Graves and Tucker aboard, expect even more contemporary sounds along with jazz-rock classics.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene, and Sunday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

Bass boss Stanley Clarke plays Eugene and Portland.

The festival also continues its tribute trail with a quartet of contemporary saxophonists in the band Wide Angles, plus brass and strings celebrating the great Michael Brecker Saturday, a Grover Washington Jr. tribute led by Portland’s Eldon “T” Jones Friday, Toots Thielemans and Hank Mobley tributes Sunday, a couple of Blue Note label celebrations and much more, including some of our finest Oregon jazz artists. Check the whole wonderful lineup.

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‘From Maxville to Vanport’: redressing erasure through music

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project revives the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state

The story of African Americans in Oregon has too often been a tale of erasure. From the frequently unacknowledged racist origins of the state’s long legal exclusion of black immigration, to obliteration of neighborhoods and displacement of communities of color, to stifling of voices of protest, stories of African American Oregonians that don’t fit the dominant culture’s whitewashed utopian image have been suppressed, ignored, or forgotten.

As more Oregonians — and Americans in general — belatedly recognize the stubborn persistence of our legacy of racial injustice, calls for change grow louder. Yet it’s hard to move forward without knowing where you’ve been. And Oregon’s African American history contains stories of inspiration as well as intolerance. “Things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” wrote Zadie Smith, “and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us.”

PJCE performing with Kalimah Abioto’s short film ‘Water’ in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From Maxville to Vanport resists Oregon’s racist erasure through music, stories and film. Premiered last spring and returning Thursday to Corvallis and Sunday to Portland, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s production tells the story of two now-vanished Oregon communities with significant African American populations whose legacy still resounds today.

It’s the culmination of an extended collaborative process involving a team of Oregon artists and historical organizations that began with producer Douglas Detrick, executive director of PJCE, and Portland singer Marilyn Keller, a Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame member who became what Detrick called “the face and voice of this project.”

“Having performed old time blues and jazz from the ancestors,” as lead singer in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, Keller insisted that “it had to be a project that spoke directly to my African American heritage.”

Vanished Towns

Built in 1923, Maxville, a railroad logging town near Wallowa that operated until the early 1930s, included 50 or so African Americans and their families. Vanport, hastily created in 1942 to house workers who came to Portland to build warships, numbered at its peak 40,000 inhabitants, making it Oregon’s second largest city, according to the Vanport Mosaic project. (Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch feature about the flood and the project.) The city was wiped out in the notorious 1948 Memorial Day flood, drowning or displacing thousands of African American residents.

PJCE performing with video of the Vanport flood.  Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

“Both were places of refuge and opportunity to Oregonians of color, immigrants, African Americans especially, all coming to a state where they were not very welcome otherwise,” Detrick said. “We wanted to explore creatively why these places played outsize roles in the state’s African American history.”

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Come from Away: the true tale

As the Broadway hit comes to town, the inside story of the town that took care of 6,500 passengers stranded by the terrorist attacks of 9/11

[Editors’ note: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff, founder/CEO of Austin’s EnviroMedia marketing company, was returning from a vacation in France with his boyfriend. As their transatlantic flight approached New York City, the plane suddenly turned north. Half an hour later it landed in Newfoundland, a large Canadian island in the North Atlantic ocean. For the next 11 hours, Tuerff, his boyfriend (called Evan here), and 248 other passengers remained aboard the plane – one of 38 forced to land at the Newfoundland airport – as they learned the horrifying news of the terrorist attack on New York. As night fell, they were finally allowed to disembark. They were stranded in the small town of Gander.

What happened next would change Tuerff’s life forever — including becoming one of the subjects of the hit musical Come from Away, which opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday, March 3, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Portland/New York producers Corey and Jessica Brunish are among the producers of the Broadway production.

There’s another Portland connection. “Portland was introduced to this story in 2009, two years before I met the writers of the musical,” Tuerff remembers. “That’s when EnviroMedia had an office in the White Stag building and we brought our Pay it Forward 9/11 effort to the Pacific Northwest.” He visited the city often over the next few years. Now living in New York City, Tuerff is a public speaker, CEO of the marketing and public relations firm Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC, and author of the new book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 about his life-changing Gander experience. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3, Where Am I and Who Are These Nice People.]

*

By KEVIN TUERFF

After finally stepping off the plane, walking down the stairway onto the tarmac, I felt a great sense of relief. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and the air temperature felt cool, considering I was wearing shorts. I turned my camera on, capturing the airport’s Gander sign. I spoke into the microphone, “We’re free, we’re free! After I-don’t-know-how-many hours on that awful plane, we’re free. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going.”

I turned the camera to Evan. He said, “We’re in Gander, and all I know is they better have CNN here.”

Inside the airport, security was very serious and tight, and there were just two Canadian immigration and customs authorities available to check passports. The airport staff would work nonstop around the clock for days to deplane the 6,500 stranded passengers. We were among the first. After the immigration screening, we entered the main terminal, which was barely bigger than a high school auditorium. And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party! There were dozens of volunteers present. Some were wearing their Salvation Army or Red Cross uniforms and sat at ten-foot-long tables. Their job was to make sure every stranded passenger was documented and taken care of. Most of them were older adults, perhaps looking a bit Irish, like me. There were dozens of volunteers at tables set up with food that had everything from home-baked cookies and squares to buckets of KFC fried chicken.

First National Tour of “Come from Away.” The Broadway touring company opens in Portland at Keller Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

The Air France flight crew had distributed all the food they had, so we weren’t hungry. Thinking we might be headed to a tent camp, Evan and I grabbed lots of food and drinks, unsure of when we might be fortunate enough to have these items again. We were told to immediately head outside to a waiting school bus that would take us to our shelter.

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Darrell Grant: jazz master and more

PDX Jazz Festival concert honors renowned Portland jazz pianist / composer who's improvised a creative life in music, teaching and activism

It’s a little ironic that composer and pianist Darrell Grant is receiving the 2019 Portland Jazz Master at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival. For while the jazz he’s played since arriving in 1996 certainly merits the city’s highest jazz honor, Grant has devoted much of his life here to breaking out of the narrow mold of “jazz musician.” Improvising a multifaceted career as teacher, mentor, activist, composer — and yes, jazz artist — Grant may be Portland’s most significant man of music.

“Darrell is a supremely gifted communicator across all media platforms, a gifted composer, educator and improviser, and an accomplished tennis player,” says PDX Jazz’s artistic director, Don Lucoff. “He embodies all that our Jazz Master lineage represents, a relentless searcher and action-oriented role model for our community to absorb and celebrate.”

Darrell Grant. Photo: Thomas Teal Midres.

Grant’s festival concert Thursday (a double bill with the great trumpeter/composer/bandleader/2019 Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard) allows him to complete a circle by revisiting the music that put him on the jazz map a quarter-century ago.

Black Art

Growing up in Denver in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grant started classical piano lessons at age 7. Even then, he pushed against prescribed constraints, noodling improvised melodies while his elementary school band’s other pianist played the specified chords. Jazz soon called. “I think it was the freedom of it,” he remembers. Enchanted by classic jazz pianists from Nat Cole to Herbie Hancock, he joined a teenage all-star jazz band, won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, at age 17, then earned a master’s degree at University of Miami.

He headed to New York City and quickly rose in the city’s revitalized, competitive jazz scene, landing plum sideman gigs with famed singer Betty Carter and legendary drummer Tony Williams‘ quintet. In 1989, he recorded his major-label debut with the jazz-fusion group Current Events, which embraced funk, world music and other non-jazz influences.

Then came his big breakthrough: Black Art. Named one of 1994’s top 10 jazz albums by The New York Times, it helped propel the Darrell Grant Quartet (which included fellow future stars drummer Brian Blade, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Wallace Roney) and to jazz stardom while its leader was still in his early 30s. He’d eventually perform with several generations of jazz giants — Roy Haynes, Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Jack DeHohnette, Terence Blanchard, Art Farmer, and many more.

But as he’d done with those classical tunes as a child, Grant couldn’t stay on the prescribed path. When an unsolicited job offer to succeed the storied jazz pianist Andrew Hill on Portland State University’s music faculty unexpectedly arrived in 1996, Grant seized it.

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Minh Tran’s journey to rebirth

In his first new piece in eight years, the choreographer/dancer creates a luminous evocation of a soul's passage to the next life

When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.

Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

Company members circle Carla Mann, who represents the “death soul” of Minh Tran’s mother in “Anicca: Impermanence.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.

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