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George Colligan and Kerry Politzer: ‘Jazz Immigrants’ impact the Portland Scene

The married pianists have enriched Portland's jazz landscape since relocating here in 2011. Both have album-release shows at the 1905 in May, and their Driveway Jazz Series is coming up.

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Married pianists George Colligan (left) and Kerry Politzer (photo by Rachel Hadiashar, Zing Studio) have made their mark on Portland’s jazz scene since arriving in 2011.

They came in from the cold in 2011, a married couple with resumes full of accomplishments and ambitions tempered by a young child and a steady job. Yet now, 13 years later, George Colligan and Kerry Politzer, both pianists, composers, singers and educators, have not only increased their individual creative output, they’ve also played leading roles in a changing Portland jazz scene.

It’s not the first time jazz immigrants (or returning natives) have made an outsized impact in this relatively small city, even with its deep pool of quality musicians. In the 1970s, Mel Brown returned to his hometown to revitalize a scene that had receded from its glory days. The arrival of the legendary bassist Leroy Vinnegar and singer/songwriter and pianist Dave Frishberg in the 1980s boosted the city’s reputation and gave local artists opportunities to absorb their knowledge on the bandstand.

Although he was young when he arrived in 1990, pianist and composer Randy Porter has been strikingly influential, too. In the mid-1990s, Darrell Grant brought to the city his national reputation, ambitious compositions, and a model of excellence. Homegrown talents like David Friesen, Jim Pepper, Alan Jones, Tom Grant, and Ron Steen have shaped the scene as well. But since 2011, no new arrivals have had a greater impact than Colligan and Politzer.

The arrival of the late legends Dave Frishberg (left), composer and pianist, and bassist LeRoy Vinnegar in the 1980s gave a boost to Portland’s jazz scene. Photos courtesy Oregon Jazz Society.

Like Colligan and Politzer, pianists Darrell Grant (left) and Randy Porter have enriched Portland’s current jazz scene.

After spending two years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Portland looked like paradise to Ms. Politzer, “a lovely, fertile and verdant kind of place,” she says. It’s a place they’ve thrown themselves into wholeheartedly, and a place that’s embraced them warmly. It’s a place where they could afford a house, too — “a luxury for me,” says Colligan, who grew up in row houses in a Baltimore suburb and later lived in tiny New York City apartments. But it still doesn’t exactly feel like home here. 

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“I can’t say I feel like a Portlander,” says Colligan. “I’m too connected to the East Coast. It’s just part of my nature.” With a smile, Politzer adds, “I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m always wandering inside.”

But that hasn’t seemed to matter, because they don’t appear to be going anywhere soon (“Kids need stability,” says Colligan of their 9- and 13-year-old sons). Their contributions continue to enrich the community, and they show no sign of slowing down.

Kerry Politzer — Finding the Time

“I’m not happy unless I’m active,” Politzer says. “I’m always trying to find new opportunities and come up with something interesting. The challenge is to have enough time.”

The primary demand on her time since she’s been in Portland is her children. “I was surprised at how much everything changed and how much my focus moved away from my ambitions,” she told an interviewer for LondonJazz magazine about motherhood. “I think I was in denial about how little time I would have to do things I used to do more of, like composing.” 

But she has managed to find the time, even with a husband who has a full-time teaching job, travels several times a year to New York and Europe, performs almost nightly when he’s in town, and takes on private students as well. 

Pianist Kerry Politzer. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar, Zing Studio
Pianist Kerry Politzer. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar, Zing Studio

In 13 years, besides raising the boys with Mr. Colligan, she has earned two Masters degrees; taught classes and individual piano students at Portland State University and the University of Portland as well as online for Jazz at Lincoln Center; released four albums and two online specials (on Brazilian piano masters); and performed several times a month, both in Portland and, increasingly, out of town. In addition, she’s composed several pieces for the 12-piece Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

Perhaps more important for the community, she has also curated two concert series, one at the Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church for two years (with another pending), and the ongoing Driveway Jazz Series, a project that best illustrates her goal “to create community with music and help out musicians.”

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Building Community in the Neighborhood

The driveway series, which this summer will include 10 concerts, is staged on the Southeast Portland street where Politzer and Colligan live. She initiated it in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. “It really saved my mental health,” she says. “Just to see people outside and hear music and build community — that helped me a lot because I felt really isolated.”

And though the pandemic has ebbed, she feels the concert series, funded by grant money, is needed as much as ever. “There still aren’t enough opportunities for musicians to play,” she says. “There are not enough places where young people not of drinking age can come hear music. And there are not enough places that are in people’s budgets.

“I give all the money to the artists,” she adds. “It’s nice to have a model where the artists are paid but the public can come for free.”

Being outside in a residential neighborhood, she believes, makes the experience even more inclusive. “Anyone can come, whether for five minutes or an hour; they can walk their dog or just pass by. It’s good for the neighborhood, too. It’s good just to have music in the air.”

Before the series opens on June 7, Politzer will fill the air with music of her own at the release concert for her latest album, Ruminations, May 23 at the 1905. As on most of her albums, Ruminations presents her own compositions and features Mr. Colligan on drums.

Singer Marilyn T. Keller and keyboardist Wes Giorgiev in a 2023 Driveway Jazz Series concert.
Singer Marilyn T. Keller and keyboardist Wes Giorgiev in a 2023 Driveway Jazz Series concert.

Her restless musical mind has involved her in several collaborative projects during her time in Portland as well. In March, she and the Cuban-American singer Jessie Marquez performed a concert called Amigas. Marquez explains why everyone likes to work with Politzer.

“She’s a wonderful musician,” says Marquez, who also knows something about what it takes to navigate a relationship between two musicians (with her husband, the pianist and composer Clay Giberson, they are raising a 10-year-old). “I really admire Kerry; she’s really special and amazing. There are so many dimensions to her; she’s like a polymath. She reminds me of a kind of goddess, or a philosopher.

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“She’s also kind and humble and very understated, a very generous colleague and mentor and friend with all people.”

Vocalist Sherry Alves agrees. She’s the Zina & Edna Professor of Jazz Voice at PSU, and works in the same department as Mr. Colligan. As a new mother who is teaching and trying to develop a career as an artist, too, she’s found Politzer very supportive.

“She put together a little group of ‘jazz moms’ who have young children,” says Alves. “We see each other out there doing all this stuff and we know how incredibly hard it is, and we wanted to support each other and just get together. But the joke is we are all too busy to meet. We only have time to cheer each other on through an Instagram group. But still, just that little step goes a really long way for me. It’s like you’re not alone.”

Kerry Politzer's newest album, "Ruminations," will have a coming-out party May 23 at the 1905.
Politzer’s newest album, “Ruminations,” will have a coming-out party May 23 at the 1905.

Despite her self-effacing nature, Politzer is a powerful model for women in what has been a male-dominated field. Maybe that’s why she related to a powerful woman in the historically male-dominated field of union organizing. When she was commissioned by the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble early this year to write a piece for a concert honoring labor leaders, she chose Dolores Huerta, the farmworkers union leader.

Two years ago, in another collaborative effort, she was contacted by a classical pianist looking to work with composers of Brazilian music. So Politzer, in her typically generous way, rounded up a group of composers and even wrote a through-composed piece for the project herself. In fact, Politzer began her career as a classical piano student at the New England Conservatory. It didn’t last long.

“I got tendonitis and quit the classical program after less than a year and went into the jazz program,“ she says. And there she found greater opportunities for freedom and self-expression. A similar twist of fate brought her together with Colligan.

“Just like my tendonitis precipitated my moving into jazz, George getting mugged in the doorway to his building in Brooklyn precipitated him moving in with me.” She laughs. “All of a sudden he was at my place. Then, a few days later I saw a television in my apartment, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess he’s really here.’”

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The Workingman’s Pianist

Unlike Ms. Politzer, Colligan didn’t go to school to learn piano. He attended the Peabody Institute as a classical trumpet student, but realized along the way that, as he says, he “wasn’t the best trumpet player.” And so, because he wanted to be a composer, he began using the piano to get ideas out that he couldn’t on the trumpet. “And then eventually people said, ‘Hey, you sound like a piano player,’” he recalls. “So it just snowballed, and I started to get gigs in Baltimore as a pianist.”

And although he completed his degree on trumpet, and continued to play the instrument until a few years ago, the piano quickly helped him achieve a higher status than he otherwise might have attained in the world of jazz.

“I went from classical trumpet and music education right into playing gigs with top-level people in Baltimore and eventually New York,” he says. “I was on the road half the days of the year. That was how I made my living. I was just freelancing and going to Japan and Europe and being a side person and trying to be a leader and make records. I once went to Siberia for one day,” he laughs. “Took two days to get there and two to get back, all for a one-hour performance.” 

But in the early 2000s, he decided he had traveled enough and began looking for teaching jobs, a search that eventually brought him to Portland, where his national reputation and the credibility conferred by his artistry made an immediate impact. 

Pianist George Colligan in the studio. Photo courtesy of George Colligan.
George Colligan in the studio. Photo courtesy of George Colligan.

The Nightclub vs. the Academy

The presence of a nationally recognized musician always serves to raise the level of the whole scene, especially when they perform as often as Mr. Colligan. And since he and Ms. Politzer arrived together, that impact was doubled by her considerable keyboard artistry and compositional depth. It’s notable that Colligan — both on recordings and in live performance — often accompanies her on drums, another instrument he picked up on his own.

Equally important to the Portland jazz community as Colligan’s superb and versatile musicianship is his bandstand mentorship of the young jazz artists he hires on some of his gigs. 

“There’s the school and there’s the streets,” he explains, “and the streets is where the music happens. Nobody ever asked or cared about my degree. They said, ‘Can you get on the bandstand and deal?’” 

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“I got my education by being a sub,” he continues, pride in his voice. “You get a call on a Wednesday and they say, ‘We’ve got a gig on Friday. Can you make it?’ They email you the music, and you have a couple days to learn it, you play the gig, and you’re in the band — or not!”

And of course he was in. That’s how he got to make his first record, too, the first of 33 as a leader. He’ll release number 34, You’ll Hear It, on May 31 at the 1905. (He’ll also do a May 22 show a the 1905 with singer Holly Resnick, and Politzer will play a pair of shows at the 1905 on May 23.)

He brought that approach to his role as Jazz Area Coordinator at PSU. But the considerable energy he puts into working with younger players hasn’t slowed his individual output.

Besides attaining the rank of full professor, he’s received grants from the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation and from PSU’s College of the Arts, which also named him Researcher of the Year in 2021. In 2015, he won the Downbeat Magazine Critics award for Best Keyboard. And during his time in Portland, he has released 10 albums as a leader and toured frequently with such stars as Jack DeJohnette, Buster Williams and Lenny White.

But he feels it’s his responsibility to also perform with advanced students and a few other young musicians, even taking three of them on a West Coast tour and recording an album with them two years ago.

“Most recently,” observes Ms. Alves, “he’s done a lot of work with {the young singer} Zyanna Melada. He included her on his album The Phyllis Wheatley Project, which involved a recording and tours and video work. And she was also included in a Downbeat review — that’s incredibly difficult to get on your own. That means so much when you’re trying to build your resume and establish some credentials. It’s a gift for these young musicians who are looking for a way into the business.” 

George Colligan's commitment to bringing young musicians into the work world includes his collaboration with the singer Zyanna Melada (right) on his album "The Phyllis Wheatley Project."
George Colligan’s commitment to bringing young musicians into the work world includes his collaboration with the singer Zyanna Melada (right) on his album “The Phyllis Wheatley Project.”

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Why not hire his peers? “I wouldn’t have had a shot if Gary Bartz had said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to keep using the same people,’” Colligan explains. “Buster Williams played with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt when he was 16. Maybe if he hadn’t had that chance, he wouldn’t be Buster Williams.”

Passing the music along on the bandstand in the way he received it from his elders is like a sacred duty to him. “If there is a student who’s doing everything they’re supposed to do, and I have an opportunity and I don’t give it to them, I feel that’s irresponsible. They need to see a way in. They need to feel this is something they can be a part of. If I see somebody who has potential, throw them in the pool and see what happens.”

Not every jazz student earns the chance, of course. But those to whom he’s given those opportunities — including currently working professionals Nicole Glover, Noah Simpson, Micah Hummel, Nicole McCabe and Wes Georgiev — “they were all ready to step in and be a part of it,” he says.

“I can’t guarantee any sort of monetary success or career. A life in music and financial success are different things. Some people can combine them, some can’t — I have.”

Part of that’s due to his genuine passion for teaching. And he is very proud of that work. But the artist in him always comes first. “I just want to play music on a high level and feel I’m developing musically,” he says. “That’s my life’s purpose. Getting accolades and being in academia are OK for my career. But most of the music I’ve written has been just for me. Composition is a way to create my own universe where I can do whatever I want. If I can’t do that, then I don’t want to do it.”

Two Pianists, One Piano

A lot of his composing is done on the fly, whenever he can grab the time. But that’s not a problem. “If I want to write something, it doesn’t take me long,” he says, “because I don’t think of it as something precious. When I write it and I like it, then cool!”

For Politzer, composing is also a highly personal process, but it takes a little more time. “I can only think about composing when I’m by myself,” she says, “and that’s really rare these days. I’m just so busy, and when the kids are in school, George is often home giving lessons.” And there’s only one piano in the house.

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In fact, they rarely have time to discuss music at all. “We’re usually talking about what’s happening with the boys,” she says. But they’ll be making music together on May 23, when Politzer debuts her new album, with Colligan on drums.

It’s a rare occasion when their professional lives intersect like that, but in their own distinct ways, they have increased opportunities for others while carving out a space for themselves as artists. And stay tuned. There’s more to come.

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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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