In 2015, when Mt Hood Community College named jazz musician Dan Davey director of jazz studies, he had a rebuilding project on his hands. Once nationally renowned for both its jazz education curriculum and the annual jazz festival to which it was intimately connected, the school’s once-storied jazz legacy had faded. The position he’d just assumed had been vacant for three years. And the declining festival had left the campus years earlier, and finally met its demise the year before Davey arrived from Boston.
“When I was hired at the college,” Davey recalls, “the president who hired me said one of her goals was to have the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival back, so it became part of my mission”–along with rebuilding the jazz studies program. This weekend, jazz fans, students and music lovers from East Multnomah County and beyond can experience the public side of the college’s jazz revival, as the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival returns.
It’s no surprise that the festival’s roots stretch deep into the college. The original music department, founded in 1966, boasted faculty such as Larry McVey and Hal Malcom — jazz musicians who’d performed with mid-20th century legends such as Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Mel Torme. “They were really pioneers in jazz education in this country,” remembers saxophonist Susie Jones, a former MHCC student and faculty member who was involved with the festival from the beginning, as performer, volunteer, and eventually board member. Davey says MHCC students often sat in with their bands when they toured the Pacific Northwest, and some–like well-known Portland drummer Gary Hobbs–even joined Kenton’s band. The college started Portland’s first vocal jazz choir.
The festival itself sprang from the college radio station KMHD (still Oregon’s main over-the-airways jazz source) and a nonprofit association in 1982. “The Gresham Chamber of Commerce wanted to have a major event for the city, because Gresham didn’t have a signature event” like Portland’s Rose Parade or Hillsboro’s annual air show. “Since the college was known for jazz and had a really strong jazz program, they said ‘let’s have a jazz festival,’” Jones recalls.
Held each August, the festival quickly became a mainstay of the Northwest jazz scene, featuring both local luminaries (Darrell Grant, Dan Balmer, Art Abrams Big Band) and world famous legends including Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, and many more — an astonishing achievement for a small community college in the nation’s upper left hand corner. (Check out this smokin’ video of now-world-famous trumpeter Chris Botti, then a young student, sharing the horn frontline with Portland jazz legend Thara Memory at the 1983 festival.) Singer Rosemary Clooney gave her last performance there. At its height, Davey says, the festival drew around 30,000 listeners over three days.
“It was extremely successful in the beginning,” Jones says. “It was known worldwide. We had people coming from Japan and Europe just for the festival. It really put Gresham on the map for years.”
As jazz’s popularity faded, so did the festival’s fortunes. Jones attributes its decline to forces both national (the music’s move from mainstream to esoteric) and local (mismanagement). The nonprofit organization that managed it went bankrupt in 2007. Former festival staff helped start its spiritual offspring, the annual PDX Jazz Festival, while the festival itself staggered on, moving off campus to downtown Gresham and lingering in a shrunken state till its demise in 2014.
But some supporters refused to bury the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. A small group of arts-oriented community leaders formed the Gresham Mt Hood Jazz Association. “They recognized the festival was good for the community and also good for the arts,” Jones says, name-checking Sue O’Halloran, Mary McSwain, Diane McKeel, and others. “They did all the legal work needed to keep the name and records going. They really kept the embers burning so that when the time was ripe, the festival could re-emerge and spring to life again.”
That time came in 2019, after Davey had helped rebuild the MHCC’s jazz program. The former festival board, including Jones, “decided the best caretaker would be the college, and the music department.” They conveyed the festival’s name and logo to the school’s music program, and Davey set about rebooting it.
“In my opinion, this secures its existence for the foreseeable future,” Davey says. “It has always been connected with the college in the eyes of the community, so having it back ‘home’ is the best scenario.”
But in what form? Should he try to re-create the festival in its original form, or its final incarnation — or create something entirely different?
Although jazz remained on the margins of popular culture, the city’s jazz scene had evolved since the last time the college hosted the festival. Montavilla Jazz Festival had expanded into the city’s premier summer stage for local and regional jazz artists. Cathedral Park Jazz Festival maintained some of the old outdoor jazz vibe.
Davey neither wanted to compete with those institutions nor recreate the old days like a museum. Instead, he looked to what made its new home — the college — and his own perspective distinctive: education. For over four decades, MHCC had hosted a different jazz festival, an educational gathering that brought hundreds of high school students from dozens of schools around the region for classes and competitions. They in turn often invited friends and family — a built-in audience base.
Davey decided to build on that foundation, and create a professional festival connected to the educational festival. (In some respects it resembles the Oregon Bach Festival‘s pairing concerts featuring top professionals with choral, conducting and early music education programming.)
“I completely agree with combining the student competitive festival in May with the professional festival,” Jones says, pointing to similar successful models at the University of Idaho (Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival) and University of Nevada-Reno (Reno Jazz Festival).
“It provides a scaffolding of levels and experiences people can have,” Davey explains. “[A student] can perform, get feedback, take master classes — and then watch what the pros do. It’s an immersion for these students in jazz culture.”
It would also benefit the East Multnomah County community that had suffered when the original incarnation folded — another difference between Davey’s new version and existing festivals in central, North and Southeast Portland. “The community can enjoy a whole weekend of performances,” Davey says. “Educators bringing students there, especially from out of state, can stay over, catch a weekend of shows, experience the culture of the area, and make a great weekend out of it.”
New sounds, new grounds
Along with a new vision, the festival also has a new venue. The college had just been donated the sprawling nearby estate (on the banks of Troutdale’s Sandy River) of teriyaki sauce king and philanthropist Junki Yoshida. While preserving the alfresco aspect of the old festival, with its lush gardens, striking cliff wall, and open grass amphitheater (for the main, two-hour sets), the new venue’s sylvan setting should provide a sweeter experience — “a natural oasis,” Davey calls it. “Instead of sitting on a track on campus,” as back in the day, “you’ll be surrounded by beautiful vistas and gardens.”
Yoshida Estate had hosted another festival, so it already had the infrastructure to support food carts, amplification and so on. Gazebos, banquet hall and other small buildings provide second stages, a green room, and a retreat from rain. Shuttles will run between the estate grounds and nearby parking facilities at the college and elsewhere. While the main stage is being reset between major acts, audience members can stroll over to the gazebo to sample the food carts and Saturday Market vendors while another band plays the adjacent smaller second stage there.
“It’ll be an Edgefield concert vibe,” Davey says, comparing it to Troutdale’s nearby McMenamin’s lodge and outdoor concert venue. “People can bring the kids, make a whole day of it.”
That was the original idea, anyway, and it might still come to pass in future. Unfortunately, this weekend’s threatening forecast forced a precautionary move to indoor performances — the risk of scheduling outdoor Oregon shows in May.
This year’s festival is technically the second under Davey’s leadership, as the college staged a pandemic-mandated virtual festival last year. In programming this one, “I wanted it to be something that connects fans who feel nostalgia from the old festival with those who have never been there,” Davey explains.
The lineup reflects Davey’s desire to mix local and regional artists with touring pros, and to provide a diversity of styles to broaden the appeal to jazz heads and casual fans alike. Well-known local stalwarts such as Mel Brown’s long-running, ever-popular organ trio, his son Christopher’s Quartet, Tony Pacini’s trio, Bridgetown Sextet and Shanghai Woolies (updated pre-WWII hot jazz) all offer various strains of straight ahead jazz that even the most casual fans can enjoy. Guitarist/composer Ryan Meagher’s trio, guitarist Dan Balmer’s Trio Uncontrollable (jazz power trio) and pianist/composer Ezra Weiss’s big band play homegrown new music at vastly different scales, from intimate to expansive. I’ve not seen this quartet led by a pair of Northwest masters–flugelhornist and frequent Portland visitor Dmitri Matheny and vibraphonist Mike Horsfall–but, separately, both have long combined solid chops with audience-friendly, emotive expression.
This year’s two national artists may lack the widespread name recognition of earlier festival headliners, but true jazz heads most definitely appreciate the extroverted, virtuosic and accessible artistry of Helen Sung (Friday) and multi-instrumentalist (and sometime Pat Metheny sideman) Chris Potter (Saturday). The latter, appearing with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, has recently augmented his tenor sax mastery with electronic keyboard effects and more. Award-winning composer/pianist Sung draws on her classical training to inform her sturdy melodies and harmonies (evident in last year’s fine album with the superb Harlem String Quartet), but never sacrifices swing or exuberance. Her quartet includes John Ellis (sax/flute), bassist David Wong and busy drummer Rudy Royston.
Davey’s emphasis on accessibility underlies another theme in this year’s festival: dance. Most musical forms arise out of dance, and most draw brickbats from conservative critics when they start to evolve beyond those roots, as jazz did during the advent of bebop. Davey too originally preferred to play and listen to jazz rather than dance to it, but a swing dance class changed his tune. Like players, jazz dancers learn a language of movement that they then use to make in-the-moment decisions about how to physically respond to the sounds around them. The physical experience of moving and improvising dance moves to the music gave Davey new tools to abet his instrumental improvisations.
“It was one of the greatest things I could do as a musician,” he says. When he teaches jazz history, he makes students learn the basic language of jazz dance. Accordingly, Davey programmed a pair of veteran local trad jazz bands, Bridgetown Sextet and Shanghai Woolies, and also brought in members of the Portland Lindy Society and other regional associates, who’ll bust out their swingin’ moves for the edification and delight of the dance-besotted as well as dance-curious. They’ll also host a quickie basic jazz dance lesson between the sets.
Davey, who’ll be too busy running the show to actually perform in this year’s festival, still plays piano and trumpet with the college jazz faculty group, the Mt. Hood Jazz Collective, the Shanghai Woolies, and his own groups. He says the local response has already been encouraging. As soon as he put the word out about the festival’s imminent return, “I started getting these phone calls from people wanting to see it come back and succeed,” he says. “It had been such a part of East county’s identity for so long that when it was gone, it left such a void.” Now that’s coming back, “they want it to be the community’s festival.”
The cities of Troutdale and Gresham have signed on as sponsors. “I am blown away with the amount of sponsorship that Dan has been able to get for the festival,” Jones says. “They have some big sponsors — TriMet, AAA, Gresham Sanitary. That shows how bad the community wants this to happen.”
Davey’s already brewing up plans for future festivals, such as master classes that he decided not to hold this year because of pandemic uncertainties. “In the future, I’d love to see some children’s artists who do jazz versions of kids’ songs,” he muses. He hopes teens involved in the educational programming might someday attend, volunteer for, or even perform at the festival, and bring their own kids, so that the festival “grows its own audience,” he says.
Jones endorses the Festival’s new direction. “I think they are on the right path,” she says. “For the long term sustainability of this event, the college is the right entity to make it work. This has the potential to be a signature community public event for East County.” She hopes to play at the festival again in future.
Jones and the others who kept the flame alive during the festival’s dark ages don’t expect it to ever reach its earlier heights. “It’s never going to be what it was in the heyday, but it is going to be a significant part of the culture of the area,” she says. MHJF’s descendant, PDX Jazz Festival, now occupies its former central role in Oregon jazz performance. But the presence of thriving, community-based festivals in North and Southeast Portland and now once again Gresham provides opportunities for musicians and fans from across the region, and gives local neighbors easy (even bikeable and walkable) access to the music, fortifying the region’s jazz ecosystem. MHJF’s strengthened ties to music education also promise to infuse this classic American art form with some needed young blood, fans and players alike.
“I think it’s a sleeping giant and just needed to be woken,” Davey says. “Especially coming out of the pandemic, with people here cooped up for so long, I think it’s going to mushroom. I hope it will continue to bring in national artists that so many people here don’t have access to in this underserved area, and also to celebrate musicians we have here who are also world-class artists.”
The Mt. Hood Jazz Festival returns May 6-8 at Yoshida Haven Estate, 29330 SE Stark Street, Troutdale. Kids under 12 free; day passes $25, weekend passes $50; discounted rates for students participating in the educational festival. Tickets, lineup, and more info here.