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Albina Community Archive: Recovering Portland’s Black Music History

The Albina Music Trust celebrates its trove of recordings, photos, memorabilia, articles, and oral histories with a searchable archive and a Feb. 3 release party at Oregon Historical Society.

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Portland funk band The Gangsters, c. 1970. Album cover design by Brian Mumford.
Portland funk band The Gangsters, c. 1970. Album cover design by Brian Mumford.

The recovery and preservation of a vital piece of Portland’s Black history has recently culminated in the Albina Community Archive. This remarkable repository of neighborhood culture was the fruit of the “memory activism” of Bobby Smith and Calvin Walker, who were supported by elder Black musicians and others close to the scene. Since 2015, they have been working to bring to light the story of Albina’s funk, soul and gospel music from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Albina Community Archive may be the most extensive contribution to the history of Black life in Oregon. With contributions from more than 150 organizations and individuals, it ultimately required two 16-terabyte hard drives to hold its carefully curated, digitized and searchable collection of recordings, photos, memorabilia, newspaper and magazine articles, and oral histories that chronicle the music and culture in what was once Portland’s majority Black neighborhood.

Albina Music Trust, L to R: Calvin Walker, Ken Berry, Paul Knauls, Norman Sylvester, J.W. Friday, Jeddy Beasley, Rickey Brame, Bobby Smith seated. Photo by Eric Mast.
Albina Music Trust, L to R: Calvin Walker, Ken Berry, Paul Knauls, Norman Sylvester, J.W. Friday, Jeddy Beasley, Rickey Brame, Bobby Smith seated. Photo by Eric Mast.

The Archive will be on interactive display in several kiosks and neighborhood elders will participate in a story-telling panel about the materials in the collection at 6:00 pm Saturday, February 3 at the Oregon Historical Society. Admission is free. The Archive will be available online beginning February 1.

Although the Archive is one of a number of projects nationally that are designed to recover and preserve Black culture (including the current exhibit “Black Artists of Oregon” at the Portland Art Museum), it is first of all a uniquely Portland story, built on the “small is beautiful” model.

The grassroots process of outreach and discovery that led to the resurrection of this nearly forgotten history is a story of building community from the shards of a fractured neighborhood. On a personal level, that’s also the story of the partnership between a young white school teacher and broadcaster, and an elder Black musician who performed during that era and grew up in Albina.

And it took the skills and community connections of both men to make it happen.

Bobby Smith and Calvin Walker at Clyde's Prime Rib on NE Sandy in Portland. Photo courtesy of Albina Music Trust.
Bobby Smith and Calvin Walker at Clyde’s Prime Rib on NE Sandy in Portland. Photo courtesy of Albina Music Trust.

“Humble beginnings”

Smith grew up in Canby and attended college in Eugene. But a move to Portland in 2006 set him on a journey that culminated in his role as Archivist and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Albina Music Trust, the organization he and Walker founded to coordinate building the Archive. 

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“We had humble beginnings,” Smith remembers. “I settled in the Alberta neighborhood … and as somebody interested in music and digging for vinyl, I began to wonder why I wasn’t able to find any records by Portland’s Black artists. Fortunately, I had a lot of great neighbors saying, ‘Yeah, my brother was in this band,’ or ‘You need to know about Pleasure.’”

In the years that followed, Smith helped to found the radio station XRAY.fm, which is located in the Albina neighborhood. He invited Black musicians to talk about their experiences on his weekly show, “Night School.” In the process, he met Walker. And a plan for the Archive was born.

“Calvin laid out an encyclopedia of funk, soul and gospel bands in the community that we could reach out to and learn more about,” Smith recalls. To accomplish that goal, the Albina Music Trust became a program of the World Arts Foundation, co-founded by former Secretary/Treasurer of the Board, Kenneth W. Berry, another Smith mentor. His community connections and guidance helped them to secure funding to digitize reel-to-reel tapes, photos and other material that document the neighborhood scene.

Ken Berry in the Black-owned Albina radio station YSOL, 1970s. Photo courtesy of Ken Berry.
Ken Berry in the Black-owned Albina radio station YSOL, 1970s. Photo courtesy of Ken Berry.
Calvin Walker, Ken Berry, and Bobby Smith at Oregon Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Albina Music Trust.
Calvin Walker, Ken Berry, and Bobby Smith at Oregon Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Albina Music Trust.

Once word spread, musicians and others began bringing them all sorts of memorabilia and other artifacts in addition to tapes and photos discovered in basements and closets. They made it clear — this was a story that needed to be told in full.

“While we’re listening to this buoyant, uplifting music,” Smith explains, “it’s important to explore the stories of elder musicians that reflect the resilience of this community in the face of the historic and on-going barriers that they faced while advancing this art form.” 

It was of immense value to the project that Walker was one of those musicians. He played in youth bands in the late 1960s, attended Reed College on a Rockefeller scholarship but left to tour the country playing disco, and in the 1980s was a prominent local bandleader who also played in other popular groups. Ultimately, he traded the stage for a desk at Mt. Hood Community College. He is a Smith supporter as well as trusted advisor.

“Bobby has done a tremendous service to all those musicians and the community that lived within the confines of the neighborhood for decades,” Walker says. But the story the Archive presents is not simply about music. It also includes materials that offer insight into the social, economic and political conditions that affected the artists.

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“It’s all the things that enabled that community to thrive that had nothing to do with the music,” Walker says, referring to the Black businesses and organizations that served the Albina area, and to the construction of the East Side freeway, Memorial Coliseum, and Emanuel Hospital that broke up the neighborhood, as well as to the gradual disappearance of the banking and real estate practices that kept people of color confined to that area . The Archive documents the impact of those events, too.

“We had the time of our lives”

But the role that music has played in Black life should not be discounted. 

In the 1960s, when Walker was growing up, funk, soul and gospel were integral parts of the Albina community, running parallel to and sometimes intersecting with the jazz scene that developed there earlier and spread throughout the city. But for the most part, it was music made by and for the community. “People weren’t coming from Boring or Hillsdale to hear this music,” Walker says.

He was a member of one of those bands of neighborhood youth called The Gangsters. The Albina Arts Center was their crucible.

Calvin Walker in the 1980s. Photo by Mark Rabiner.
Calvin Walker in the 1980s. Photo by Mark Rabiner.

“That’s where all of us came together,” says Walker. “It was a block from my house on Killingsworth where I lived with my grandmother. The days when I wasn’t working my busboy job at the Imperial Hotel, I’d spend at the Arts Center practicing drums. Dr. Rufus Butler was the Director, and he’d let us play there on Friday and Saturday nights for the other kids.” 

In the course of the Albina Music Trust’s work, a tape The Gangsters recorded in the early 1970s was unearthed. They issued it on vinyl in 2018, at which time it was featured on Bandcamp. It was the first of the organization’s nine releases to date, all on vinyl with multi-page booklets that include archival photos and comments from the musicians. 

“We weren’t the first funk or soul band, but we were the most influential,” Walker says. “Because we had Thara Memory.” A Grammy winner in 2012 (with his former student Esperanza Spalding), a teacher and trumpet player who settled in Portland in 1969, Memory had an out-sized influence on jazz and funk in the city. When he arrived in town, he had the musical discipline of the Florida Marching Band tradition where he’d gone to college. Plus, he’d played with James Brown. 

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So when Memory met the Gangsters at the Arts Center, Walker remembers, “We were just learning songs off the records by rote. But he taught us to read music, and it changed the trajectory of our lives.” In addition to several other bandmates who built careers locally, like Ural Thomas and Jimmy and Johnny Saunders, who also toured with B.B. King, Gangsters bassist Lester McFarland later played with the Crusaders.

Memory also helped the band leave the confines of the neighborhood.

One of the films in the Archive captures the Gangsters performing at Vortex, a music festival staged in the summer of 1970 to draw crowds of young people out of Portland to a park on the Clackamas River during an American Legion convention. It was the first festival they ever played.

“The Arts Center had this old flatbed truck we could use for moving our equipment,” Walker remembers. “So on Saturday morning we loaded it up and drove out to Vortex. We didn’t have an invitation, but because we had a truck and were a band, they just let us through. We drove right up to the stage and said, ‘We want to play.’ So Jack McGowan, who had been picked to run the festival by Governor Tom McCall, said, ‘These bands have been booked for months. You can’t just show up and play.’ And Thara goes, ‘Yeah, but none of these are all-Black bands.’ And McGowan said, ‘You know, you’re right, Let’s see what we can do.’” Not long after, they were called to the stage. “And we had the time of our lives,” says Walker.

Memory activism

Many other bands like the Gangsters formed and broke up in Albina during those years, a number of them that reflected the mixed-race neighborhood, including the Gangsters, whose guitarist for a time was Rob Manning — “Our token white,” laughs Walker. Unlike Walker and his bandmates, or soulman Andy Stokes, however, most of those musicians didn’t become known outside their community.

“The Archive pays homage to those musicians, the ones you never heard about,” says Walker. And if you spend some time in the Archive, you’ll get a glimpse of their world, a place that — only a few years ago — only existed in the memories of those who had lived it.

The Albina Music Trust’s memory activism has also resulted in several other projects: a series of “Soul Conversations,” where elder Black musicians speak to audiences about their experiences during that era; “The Albina Soul Walk,” a phone app that allows you to listen to Walker and blues artist Norman Sylvester reminisce about the neighborhood while you take a one-mile trip to the sites where the music was made; the “Summer of Sound,” in 2022, that presented five events, including performances at the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival and the Washington Park Rose Garden; and an exhibit called “Wall-to-Wall Soul” covering the walls of Clyde’s Prime Rib with poster-size archival photos.

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Paul Knauls and Calvin Walker at Cathedral Park Jazz Festival 2022. Photo by Eric Mast.
Paul Knauls and Calvin Walker at Cathedral Park Jazz Festival 2022. Photo by Eric Mast.

In addition to the public debut of the Archive on February 3, the Albina Music Trust will host an Archive Listening Party on February 7 at the Leftbank Building in Northeast Portland.

Like to browse the Albina Community Archive? Try looking up The Legendary Beyons, who started out harmonizing in the halls of Jefferson High school in the 1960s. The cover of their album, originally recorded in 1977 and including the nationally-known Portland funk band Pleasure, pictures the quartet in front of the Forcourt Fountain, dressed in matching gold and brown plaid jackets and bell-bottom trousers with gold silk shirts. They sound much like The Delphonics.

“When people hear this stuff,” Walker says, “they go, ‘Where was all this hiding?’ It was never hiding. It was out in the open, but only a select audience heard it. Now, a lot more people are going to get recognition for what they contributed to the music and to the community. That’s what’s cool about the Archive.”

Lynn Darroch will conduct an interview with Bobby Smith, including music from the Archive, from 6:30 – 7:00 pm on Sunday, January 28, on KMHD 89.1 FM (stream @ kmhd.org).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lynn Darroch has written about jazz and other music as well as producing general arts features for The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Jazz Times and other magazines and newspapers. His book, Rhythm in the Rain - Jazz in the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, Portland State University, 2015) covers jazz in the region - and how it was shaped by social, economic and geographical conditions.

His work on jazz also appears in books such as The Encyclopedia of United States Popular Culture (Popular Press) and Jumptown: The Golden Age of Jazz in Portland (Oregon State University Press). He edited the Jazz Society of Oregon's monthly, Jazzscene, for seven years.

Darroch also edited the book Between Fire and Love: Contemporary Peruvian Writing, has contributed articles to the Oregon Encyclopedia Project on Oregon artists, and he hosts a weekly show on KMHD 89.1 FM. He was on the faculty at Mt. Hood Community College, 1989-2007.

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