UPDATE: The jazz club 1905 has now gone out of business, owner Aaron Barnes announced Thursday evening, Nov. 16. Robert Ham has the story in The Mercury, and Jashayla Pettigrew has this story on koin.com. We’ve updated the headline on this story to reflect the closure.
UPDATE 2: Employees of The 1905 were left with bounced paychecks or no checks at all, with unpaid wages and tips running to thousands of dollars, according to a story by Anna Del Savio published Nov. 29 and updated Dec. 1 on youroregonnews.com.
In mid-October, music fans received an email announcing that the snug beloved 1905 jazz club in North Portland’s Mississippi neighborhood was on the brink of financial disaster. The final show would be that night.
Earlier, in August, a similar email soliciting money had gone out to fans, naming Covid a significant culprit for the small club’s financial straits. Owner Aaron Barnes and Domo Branch, a onetime Portland drummer who has since moved to New York and is playing with Wynton Marsalis, set up a GoFundMe web page. It raised $50,000 in the summer, but it wasn’t enough, judging by the desperate October email. Barnes reminded fans of the GoFundMe campaign and donations reached $67,329 with a total of 837 donors by mid-November.
The future of the club, the only Portland venue that presents jazz seven nights a week, remains precarious. As much as musicians and patrons love it, the Portland jazz world won’t end if it closes.
“I’m extremely thankful for the 1905,” said musician Noah Simpson, a trumpet teacher at Reed College, by email. “I’ve played and seen countless shows there and would like to see the space flourish for years to come. Yet, if it closed today, most musicians would probably be in the same position. One space cannot foster this community. This scene thrives through DIY (think Blue Butler Studios, Creative Music Guild). These organizations are constantly trying to diversify programming and performance spaces so we can sustain a larger scene. Musicians will always find a space to play, and curators will find a way to bolster artists.”
Just 10 months ago, in January 2023, Downbeat magazine called the 1905 “one of the world’s top venues for live jazz.” Local news and arts outlets, including Oregon Arts Watch, praised and featured it. Grammy-nominated pianist Billy Childs, who performed there in May 2023, called it a “cool place to play jazz” (read our feature on Childs here). You can’t get much better endorsements than those.
So what’s up? One small club’s misfortune or the beginning of the end of Portland jazz?
Signs of a thriving jazz scene
Certainly there is no end in sight for Portland jazz, a longtime “jazz town”–though some musicians say no, it’s not, not really, especially if a musician has grown up on the East Coast or played regularly in New York. Portland pianist/composer/multi-instrumentalist George Colligan gigged in New York for 15 years, and wrote by email in November: “I’m not so sure how much of a jazz town Portland really is.”
Portland-born-and-bred drummer Christopher Brown, who spent time performing in New York and returned to Portland in 2012 after a military career, is skeptical as well. “We’re not actually a jazz town, unless people are thinking of PDX Jazz Festival and saw an ad in an airline magazine” putting it on the map.
Colligan explains further: “While I think there is a history here, there’s no way that Portland compares to New York in terms of sheer number of players and the level of musicianship. It’s not close — nothing is. That being said, there are a number of serious players here, and we do the best we can given the circumstances. My question is about the audience. I feel like jazz isn’t really in the culture. There are some jazz-lovers for sure, but they tend to be like the people who attend church on Christmas. They come out when it’s a big name from out of town but they rarely are seen otherwise.”
Then again, if you read Portland jazz writer Lynn Darroch’s Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest or listen to KMHD, Portland’s 39-year-old listener-supported jazz radio station, or reflect on the history of such greats as “walking bassist” Leroy Vinnegar in the mid-‘80s, or on the jazz community’s strong belief in passing down the art, you’ll agree that Portland has the strong bones of a very good jazz town.
This month, Portland jazz is doing quite well, judging by the Nov. 10 sellouts at the 550-seat Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton for Brad Mehldau’s trio, and at Lewis & Clark’s auditorium for longtime Portland guitarist Dan Balmer’s Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert promoting his newest CD, When the Night. It’s the latest of his15 CDs, including several with Portland arranger/pianist Clay Giberson and three Go By Train albums.
Consider as well the robust coffers of PDX Jazz, whose operating budget has doubled in the last few years under Executive Director Chris Doss and under the previous leadership of Don Lucoff, who left the nonprofit in the black after 11 years when he departed for Denver in 2020 to focus on his DL Media business promoting jazz artists.
Then there’s the impressive PDX Jazz Festival lineup for 2024 from Feb. 16 through March 2 that includes 40 ticketed shows (Jon Batiste, Dianne Reeves, Theo Croker among them) and 40 free community events. Last year’s festival, though pummeled by the city’s second largest blizzard in history, “made a strong rebound, still not quite back to 2020 levels but very encouraging,” said Nicholas Salas-Harris, the festival’s artistic director and part-owner of the downtown Portland Jack London Revue. With 18,000 tickets sold and an estimated 5,000 people attending free events, the festival’s 20th anniversary proved an all-around all-age success, considering there were 75 events at 30 or so venues to manage, 12 of them sell-outs. Sell-outs were eclectic, representing diverse “schools” of jazz and its changing repertoire. They included Bill Frisell, Budos Band, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dumpstaphunk, Thee Sacred Souls, Butcher Brown, Shabazz Palaces and Keifer. Storm Large, Charlie Musselwhite and Curtis Salgado, Mark Guiliana and Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group were postponed but sold out.
The 2023 festival audience skewed younger with a number of hip-hop musicians headlining concerts (read our coverage of PDX Jazz 2023 here). “I am seeing a younger generation engage with the jazz community,” said PDX Jazz’s Doss. “Several young jazz musicians are working professionally in Portland, and jazz audiences are trending younger over the last few years as well. This is a positive development for jazz. The music has evolved for more than 100 years and a new generation of musicians and audiences is taking jazz to its next iteration.”
Not to forget the most important element of a healthy jazz scene, even if clubs struggle to make ends meet: the musicians. The numerous nationally recognized Portland and Portland-bred jazz artists, including such young musicians as trumpeter Simpson, drummer Branch, and saxophone players Nicole Glover, Nicole McCabe and Hailey Niswanger. The three women will be playing Feb. 26 at The Old Church during the PDX Jazz Festival.
In short, Portland jazz “is an embarrassment of riches,” said former PDX Jazz Executive Director Lucoff, who partnered with the defunct Jimmy Mak’s to bring national acts through town, and who made the PDX Jazz season year-around. The talent is deep, and musicians are simply looking for places to play. And though Jimmy Mak’s, an undeniable jazz club success story since 1996, closed seven years ago due to owner Jimmy Makarounis’ death, a number of other places are hosting the music. Jazz clubs are really where jazz lives and flowers on a daily basis.
“Musicians nurture other musicians and Portland has no shortage,” said Rita Rega through email (we spoke with Rega and others for our 2022 history of Portland jazz, which you can read here). She is president of the Jazz Society of Oregon and longtime Portland deejay now hosting the World of Jazz on KBOO FM. “There are wonderful music teachers in this town who have helped to produce some of the most successful jazz musicians in the country. Of course we can point to Esperanza Spalding and Nicole Glover, but let’s not forget Chris Botti, trumpeter and composer. He came out of the jazz program at Mount Hood Community College and was nurtured in the jazz clubs of Portland and is one of our success stories. I’ve read that since 2004, Chris Botti has become the largest selling instrumentalist artist.”
Portland State University’s Colligan arrived in Portland in 2011 from the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada (which Colligan refers to as “Siberia”). He put his immense energy and artistry into the community and into PSU’s music studies department, already flourishing partly due to pianist/composer Darrell Grant’s musicianship and influence.
“Many of my former PSU students are doing amazingly well,” he said. “Nicole Glover is literally playing some of the top gigs in jazz right now. Nicole McCabe is doing amazing stuff in LA and also touring internationally. Jimmie Herrod almost won America’s Got Talent and tours literally all over the world with Pink Martini.”
And there are many high-profile musicians aside from his students, Colligan said. “Nancy King, Chuck Israels, Dave Friesen, Darrell Grant, are all people who have already worked with the heaviest people in the music, and they happen to live in Portland. There are a number of great young players who are still in Portland for the time being: Noah Simpson, Garrett Baxter, Jack Radsliff. Also my wife Kerry Politzer is a treasure for Portland; she is an amazing pianist and composer who spent many years in New York CIty.”
the 1905 since October
Barnes has since caught up fans with plans to restructure after his desperate October doom-and-gloom email about the 1905’s closing. He says he will work with a volunteer review group of “experts” in finance, accounting, business strategy, and in food and beverage.
The 1905 had grown fast in seven years — from an order-at-the-bar-pizzeria to a seven-nights-a-week jazz club (read our 2022 profile of the 1905 here). “I’m green, but I’m not stupid,” said Barnes, a former band leader and saxophonist, who spoke to me in October and in November, and calls his club “a home away from home — or maybe my home. We grew too fast. At first we were a restaurant not a jazz club. I’m not a particularly confident person. I allowed myself to accept advice from those who appear to be confident or experts. It wasn’t necessarily the right advice.”
“Aaron has always been playing catch-up,” said drummer Christopher Brown, son of prominent Portland drummer Mel Brown. The younger Brown regularly plays with his band at the1905 to sell-out audiences on Wednesday nights.
But the 1905 has always been too small to be a fiscally successful jazz club, even if the room turns over two or three times a night, and Barnes often has asked for loans in fighting off debt. “It’s a great place to hang,” said Lucoff in a phone interview.
But not to make money.
Fifty seats is not enough to make a profitable show, though Barnes has gotten some prestigious acts into the place, including John Patitucci with Steve Cardenas and Chris Porter, where Barnes charged $90 a head and sold out six sets. Pianist Aaron Goldberg performed with drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers another time. Billy Childs and his trio, and Jon Cowherd and Mercy Project with drummer Brian Blade have played there recently.
Even with national acts, such Portland musicians as Brown and Balmer say local musicians are the bread and butter for local jazz clubs, which include the Jack London Revue, Wilf’s, The Get Down, The Hoxton Hotel (on Thursday nights), Arrivederci, Key’s Lounge, Nicoletta’s in Lake Oswego, Jo Bar and several others, not including performance spaces like Revolution Hall, The Old Church, Star Theater, Alberta Rose, the Reser and the Aladdin Theater in southeast Portland.
Lately, though, hotels–once busy music venues–have cut back on presenting jazz, said David Machado, a restaurant consultant and former president of the PDX Jazz’s board of directors. His former popular restaurants that he closed during Covid included Nel Centro, which consistently presented jazz.
First you have to get the food and beverage down, then you add entertainment, he said in a phone interview, drawing on his long career as a successful restaurateur. “Having music was a much bigger risk after Covid.”
When Barnes asked Machado to give the 1905 a once-over, Machado told him the layout was risky and ill-conceived for a jazz place. Whole pizzas took up too much room on the small tables, which kept people from buying drinks. The kitchen was a bit big, the patron seating too limited. Instead of heeding the advice, Barnes asked Machado for a substantial amount of money. Barnes persevered with his own plan, and bought two other places, Scholar on Northeast Broadway, and Hopscotch, a bar that has since closed.
Still, other spots survive
The Jack London Revue that opened seven years ago about the same time as the 1905, has done OK despite Covid and a downtown Fourth Street location amid “an open air meth market” and “unhoused” problems, as one musician refers to it.
It has 175 seats — three and one-half times the 1905’s capacity — and does well with a younger demographic, selling out shows like the Oracle Sisters, Jalen Ngonda, Oz Noy with Dennis Chambers, and Daniel Villarreal.
“The older demographic has never really returned to downtown post-pandemic,” co-owner Salas-Harris, wrote in an email. He is also the artistic director of the Portland Jazz Festival. “Unfortunately until the narrative/perception changes about Portland’s current state that will likely continue.”
Running a jazz club is one of the most difficult businesses in the world, anyone who’s familiar with it will tell you. How does Portland improve and support its jazz scene?
More venues, say most musicians, with bigger and more-motivated-to-attend audiences would help. Entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and places that allow people to hang out. Here’s what a few have to say.
Dan Balmer, longtime Portland jazz guitarist and Lewis & Clark music teacher: “We could use another venue or two to create more opportunities for musicians and fans. Jo Bar and Jack London and other places DO present music and people need to make the effort to support them.”
Chris Brown, Portland drummer: “Musicians need to get more involved and see the business side of things. We need people capable of seeing things that others can’t. We have to pull ourselves up and out of whatever mess we find ourselves in. When things are at the lowest, the real leaders emerge.”
George Colligan, Portland jazz musician and PSU teacher: “If you can create a place where people like to go, then it’s not so much about who’s playing, people will be there regardless. It gives a chance to try some different things musically rather than going for obvious commerciality.”
And finally, Portland needs innovative community leaders to start jazz clubs, but also leaders who are savvy about the ins and outs and ups and downs of jazz programming as well as conscientious about the bottom line of food and beverage costs. Who is going to step up?