Jazz in the Pacific Northwest grew up in cities with rough and tumble origins and small African-American populations, far from centers of influence and power and shaped by the water and mountains that surround them. In his new book, Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, 2016), journalist and performing artist Lynn Darroch chronicles the development and remarkable character of the region’s jazz community. In the process, he helps define the broader culture of the Upper Left Coast.
As the latest Portland Jazz Festival kicks into high gear, ArtsWatch celebrates the history and culture of jazz in the Northwest by reprinting the introductory chapter of Darroch’s book. He performs stories and other passages from the book live with pianist Tom Grant at 7:30 p.m. February 24 at Classic Pianos, and reads from the book at 7:30 p.m. March 2 at Powell’s City of Books downtown.
By LYNN DARROCH
Introduction: We Live Here
“Every day I can see the mountains—St. Helens, Rainier, Hood, Adams—and I want to climb. A lot of what makes a great climber is the same as what makes a great improviser: courage, strength, creativity, total awareness of environment, the ability to focus pin-pointedly and generally at the same time—and finally, to let go of all ambitions, inhibitions, thoughts … and play.”
Esperanza Spalding didn’t want to waste any time after her surprise win for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards. She’d grown up hard in Portland and knew how unlikely the award was for a young black woman playing jazz. So she was in a hurry to put her fame to use—and knew exactly what she wanted to do: “Help the pillars of my jazz community gain the recognition they deserve.”
It took only two years.
At the 2013 Awards ceremony, Spalding shared another Grammy—this time for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)—with Thara Memory, her Portland mentor, for his arrangement of her song “City of Roses.” From her multi-award-winning album Radio Music Society, the hometown tribute also featured students from Memory’s American Music Program.
If a single moment can capture the story of jazz in the Pacific Northwest, this might be it.
At the podium to receive the award, Memory leaned on his former student’s arm. He was sixty-five and had lost a foot and parts of two fingers to diabetes. The Grammy was the culmination of a path he’d been on since age twelve, when he fell in love with the music of Miles Davis and started hanging around backstage whenever the leading man of jazz played nearby.
One day, Davis approached.
“You’re that trumpet player, aren’t you?” His voice was challenging. “I bet you can’t play worth a shit.”
Memory was stunned but quickly took heart—the man had sought him out, recognized him. His reply became a vow that determined the course of his life.
“Well, no, not compared to you I can’t,” he said. “But I can hold down my own thing; I can hold down my own thing and bring some people up with me.”
He did, and there he was, fifty years later: an underdog African American musician and teacher, originally from the South, accepting a Grammy Award with a former student who shared her success with the folks back home.
It’s a heartwarming image. And it does represent the way musicians work together here, an alternative to the star system that supported the likes of Miles Davis. It also reflects the wider culture of the region—a culture distant from centers of power and influence and as distinct from them as the landscape that shaped it.
Many other images could capture the scene just as well: an afternoon in 1959, when Bobby Bradford and Cleve Williams waited outside Roosevelt High School to make sure teenage drummer Mel Brown got to a rehearsal of the Walter Bridges Big Band. Or young drummer D’Vonne Lewis playing a tribute concert in 2012 for his grandfather, Seattle organist Dave Lewis. Or the 2013 debut of Darrell Grant’s The Territory, a jazz suite that depicts the region and its history in sound. Like many musicians from this region, Grant feels a deep connection to the jazz that came before him here—music that embodied an approach shaped in part by its distance from the mainstream.
Not everyone finds that distance useful to the scope of their ambitions, including jazz artists who, like Spalding, have left to become international stars: Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey decamped before a full-fledged jazz scene developed in the region; Quincy Jones always had his sights set on leaving. They were followed by Larry Coryell in the late 1960s, Chris Botti in the 1980s, and Aaron Parks in the 1990s. But growing up in the Pacific Northwest did shape the musicians they became. As it did Ray Charles, who got his start in Seattle, where Jimi Hendrix grew up and learned to play the blues and Kenny G the saxophone. But it’s not big names that define jazz in the Pacific Northwest. Quite the opposite.
What has developed here was shaped by and reflects the environment, the economy, and a jazz community that grew up in a kind of isolation often found out West, where artists are aware of movements elsewhere, but are not always in step with them. This is no place to gain fame and fortune playing jazz. It’s rare for artists who remain in the Pacific Northwest to establish a national reputation without first attaining it elsewhere.
Some of the established players who relocated to the Pacific Northwest did so because they value the very qualities that have given the local jazz community its identity. That’s the key: the values shared by artists who choose the Pacific Northwest, whether native-born or immigrant, determine the character of the region’s jazz scene, whether the style is gypsy swing or avant-garde, chamber, funk or straight-ahead. The region some call Cascadia, that rainy country from the Southern Willamette Valley to Bellingham Bay, between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific, has shaped its music just as the culture and landscape of Southern California or the Mississippi Delta influenced music made there.
It’s a tale of port cities on the Pacific Rim and kids from the hinterlands drawn to them, where small African American and Asian communities found a crucial niche and native culture filtered in almost unnoticed. It chronicles the impact of economic boom and bust, and the powerful influence of the landscape. Most of all, it’s the story of the artists themselves, and the remarkably supportive communities they created.
Maybe it’s something in the water. Or just all the water everywhere here in Cascadia—the land of falling waters.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world,” says bassist Phil Baker, who toured with Diana Ross early in his career and is a longtime member of the pop-jazz band Pink Martini. “No place better than Portland in all respects. It’s a user-friendly size, but not too small to have a lot of cultural activities and a deep bench for every instrument.
“Nobody’s getting rich here,” he adds, “but there’s really a sense of community and camaraderie.”
That was evident immediately to Darrell Grant, who was raised in Colorado and came to Portland from New York. “When I moved here, I was impressed by the community nature of the music,” he says. “It’s very much an ‘all for one, one for all’ kind of feeling.”
Even those who have moved on agree.
“The jazz scene in Portland is very nurturing for youngsters; the people are very open,” says trumpet player Chris Botti, who was raised in the Willamette Valley, got his start in Portland, and went on to international success. “Part of learning music is having a good relationship with mentors when you’re young—it makes you progress tenfold. That was what the wonderfully supportive Portland jazz scene provided me.”
And that supportive community stretches back to the 1930s, when Floyd Standifer hitchhiked to Portland from the little town of Gresham to hear jazz on Williams Avenue. Years later, after he’d moved to Seattle, Standifer toured Europe with his friend Quincy Jones. Unlike Jones, Standifer chose to stay in the region.
“Among musicians, there was a kind of respect around here that you didn’t run into in New York,” Standifer recalled. In New York, he found, other players would undercut a fellow musician’s fee just to get the job. “That was not the case out here,” he explained, “because everybody knew each other. There was no such thing as anonymity, because Seattle was too small a community for you to alienate anybody …
“We all knew we were here in the Northwest because everybody’s fiercely independent. How do you maintain your independence? You don’t maintain it by separating—you maintain it by cooperating to an extent with those who have like causes to yours. And so, if you didn’t cooperate, you weren’t gonna get anywhere.”
Standifer, with many others like him, passed on those values to later generations of musicians who also chose to make their art distant from the centers of power. In fact, that distance makes the region more hospitable to artists who want to pursue, among like-minded peers, a vision more effectively shared on a smaller stage—or where the stage is small but the landscape grand.
That’s certainly true for avant-garde saxophonist and composer Rich Halley. His albums have consistently received critical acclaim, yet he worked a full-time job outside music for years to support his art and stay in Portland. “He’d be a star on the avant-garde scene if he lived in New York,” writes Bill Milkowski in JazzTimes. But in New York, Halley, who is an active outdoorsman, might not have become the player he is.
“There’s an advantage [to living here] in that you don’t necessarily get overwhelmed with whatever the current trend is,” Halley says, “and you can just do what you do. You can still absorb things that you listen to, but in some ways, it gives you a little bit of freedom to create your own world.”
Of course, artists in the Pacific Northwest are influenced by music made elsewhere and work within a tradition that originated in other places. While in his twenties, for instance, Halley played in Chicago with avant-gardists from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as well as with R&B bands. And musicians who migrated to the Pacific Northwest, such as Grant, renowned guitarist Bill Frisell, or legendary bassist Leroy Vinnegar, have also brought influences unrelated to the region.
But not everyone chooses to come. And those you work with everyday—who have chosen this place, too—leave the deepest mark. You are what you eat, they say—what you breathe, see, touch, and hear. So jazz in the Pacific Northwest naturally reflects its geography and the communities shaped by it. That may be more important in jazz than other music. Because in jazz, your approach—maybe even your sound and stylistic preference—is powerfully influenced by the company you keep.
That company is usually found where jazz has always been made—in urban areas. But even in the cities of the Pacific Northwest, the landscape is an inescapable presence. It colors ambitions and gives flavor to artistic visions.
As Seattle grew, it climbed the hills from the mudflats of Elliott Bay, filling the narrow neck of land between Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound. Today, the freeway cuts right through the middle, though it has been partly covered with green spaces, and the central core is dense with the office buildings and condo towers that replaced low-rise neighborhoods. But every street corner offers spectacular vistas.
To the southeast, massive Mount Rainier; to the north, rising above Lake Washington, are Mount Baker and the jagged peaks of the North Cascades. To the west, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains stand above Puget Sound; and just beyond, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Alaska, the Pacific, and all of Asia.
Portlanders need only look north and east to see the volcanic peaks of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens—the mountain that erupted in 1980, filling the sky with ash and shearing off the peak in a blast that leveled forests and clogged rivers with debris. The chain of volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest is called “The Ring of Fire.”
Communities from the Willamette Valley to the Canadian border are favored by such settings, and they are tied psychologically and economically to the region’s icons: the Cascade Mountains with forests of Douglas fir, spruce, and cedar; broad valleys and the rocky coast of the Pacific; apples, mushrooms, blackberries; clams, oysters, Dungeness crab. And salmon, the totem animal of the Pacific Northwest. These are part of daily life, even in the major cities, where the system of public parks and tree-lined streets also contribute to the ambiance.
“In addition to sounding like a person, music should always sound like a place,” says Portland composer Gordon Lee. And pianist Steve Christofferson also considers the natural beauty of the landscape important to the music he makes. A Seattle native, he has spent his career in the area. For years, he’d drive along the Columbia River from his home in a small town on the Washington side to the RiverPlace Restaurant in Portland, where floor-to-ceiling windows framed his view of the Willamette River from the grand piano.
“This music was composed to give expression to the uniqueness and the natural gifts we have here in the Pacific Northwest,” says outdoorsman Alan Jones about the compositions on his 2010 album, Climbing.
“Growing up in Portland,” he explains, “I’ve always recognized how lucky I am that I can drive fifteen minutes and be at the foot of the rocks. Drive an hour and be at the foot of the mountains. Every day I can see the mountains … and I want to climb.”
In a DownBeat article about pianist Dave Peck, Paul de Barros suggests we look at the world Peck lives in to understand his work. “Seattle’s reputation rests on rain,” he writes, “but folks who live there know it for the gentle contours of its clouds and mountains, its soft mists and almost mystical sense of natural intimacy. All that comes through in Peck’s playing—lyrical and pastel, swinging and bluesy, with a ringing, crystalline touch.”
Glen Moore, bassist in the pioneering chamber jazz group Oregon, grew up chasing salamanders in the woodsy canyon of Johnson Creek by day and listening to Stravinsky on the radio at night. He traveled the state in a high school swing band called the Young Oregonians with American Indian saxophonist Jim Pepper, who’d highlight the program with a dance in full tribal dress.
Ralph Towner, fellow founding member of the band Oregon, grew up on the east side of the Cascades in the little town of Bend, below the ten-thousand-foot peaks of the Three Sisters and Broken Top. NASA sent the band’s recordings to the moon on the Apollo spacecraft in 1978; they named two of its craters for Towner’s tunes. Towner and Moore’s classmate at University of Oregon, the Grammy-nominated singer Nancy King, grew up playing drums on a Willamette Valley mint and wheat farm.
In Portland, they moved in the same circles as African American club owner and pianist Sid Porter and his wife, Japanese American singer Nola Bogle. She started her career in little eastern Oregon towns surrounded by sheep ranches. Her accompanist was the American Indian Jack Lightfoot. As a child, she’d been interned during World War II in the Idaho prison camp Minidoka. She fell asleep to the sound of a swing band, carried by the wind across the prairie.
Out of that melting pot came jazz in the Pacific Northwest.
Copyright 2016 Lynn Darroch; reprinted with permission
Lynn Darroch is a jazz journalist, spoken word artist, and radio DJ who has covered jazz and other music in the region for local and national publications since 1979. He hosts the weekly radio show Bright Moments! on KMHD-89.1 FM. In collaboration with area musicians, he has developed a unique method of telling stories in an interplay with live jazz and Latin music, captured on three albums: Local Heroes/American Originals (2009), Beyond the Border – Stories of the Latin World (2008) and Jazz Stories Heroes of the Americas (2006). His performances are available in both audio (https://soundcloud.com/