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Montavilla Jazz Festival spreads its wings

Community-based jazz fest expands into a ninth summer of big names, passion projects, youth ensemble concerts, and more.

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Marilyn Keller with PJCE in 'From Maxville to Vanport.' Photo by Kimmie Fadem.
Marilyn Keller with PJCE in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo by Kimmie Fadem.

It’s been nearly a decade since Neil Mattson called Ryan Meagher to tell his fellow jazz guitarist about a buzz going around his Montavilla community. The neighborhood association president, Fritz Hirsch, wanted to showcase the east Portland area’s artistic talent, and to create an arts event to bring the community together. And, Mattson said, Hirsch was a jazz fan. You should come talk to the association, he told Meagher.

Meagher had just started working with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which was becoming a fountainhead of original improvised music in the metro area. Meagher, still relatively new to town, was surprised by the number of talented young creator/performers — and frustrated by the lack of opportunities for them to showcase and develop their art in jazz’s traditional creative crucible: live performances, making music in the moment.

“I was seeing all this talent, some really great players,” Meagher remembers. But while existing jazz institutions provided stages for classic jazz sounds (Jimmy Mak’s and other clubs, for example), for national touring stars (PDX Jazz Festival), and for out-there avant gardening (Creative Music Guild), too few outlets existed then for creative homegrown sounds by emerging jazz composers. Maybe, Meagher thought, Montavilla could fill that niche.

Ryan Meagher at Montavilla Jazz Festival in 2019. Photo by Bryan Smith.
Ryan Meagher at Montavilla Jazz Festival in 2019. Photo by Bryan Smith.

Starting with a meeting at Montavilla’s Beer Bunker, Mattson, Meagher, Hirsch and fellow neighborhood association leader Aaron Hayman eventually concocted a weekend festival that would focus on “original, forward thinking, genre bending music from local jazz artists,” Meagher, the festival’s programming director, says. “We favor things left of center, played at a high level. That doesn’t mean we don’t have stuff that swings. I love traditional mainstream jazz, but you tend to see less original composition in that area, and it already gets a lot of play around town. We were trying to fill a hole and get more exposure for music that’s a little more challenging.” 

They also resolved to keep ticket prices accessible to neighbors while paying musicians a fair wage.

Now in its ninth summer, what started as a little weekend neighborhood music gathering is expanding. This year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, offers performances at two of Portland’s most prominent music venues along with smaller shows at its usual venue. And it’s adding New York jazz pros to its traditional mix of leading local jazz lights.  

As the festival approaches the end of its first decade, can it achieve its artistic ambitions and grow beyond its roots — while maintaining the solid neighborhood foundation and emphasis on originality that have made it a unique institution in Portland music? Can Montavilla Jazz Festival simultaneously stay grounded — and take flight?

Community cornerstone

Portland is a city of neighborhoods, but attention and funding for the arts have long concentrated primarily on the central city. MJF offers a useful lesson for other communities that might want to build walkable, bikeable affordable local arts hubs: involve local businesses and organizations. The neighborhood association offered extensive connections with local businesses and other institutions as well as nonprofit status that helped with fundraising.

“It was really propped up by businesses in Montavilla,” executive director Mattson explained. “They’ve been incredibly generous,” with sponsorships, publicity, and other support.

Mattson remembers that first 2014 festival at Milepost 5 art gallery’s black box theater space, featuring short sets by a baker’s dozen bands as “really hot, there was no air circulation, people were ducking outside to catch a breath and cool off, and then coming back in. The musicians were determined to be there.” 

“Even the first year, it was astonishingly well-organized,” remembered pianist Kerry Politzer, who performed there and several times since, including this coming weekend. “Neil and Ryan worked so hard to make it professional from the get-go.”

Kerry Politzer at Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser.
Kerry Politzer at Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser.

Growth curve

After earning credibility during the first few editions, MJF was able to attract grant funding from various arts-support foundations. “That evolution is really key to be able to bring in that regional support for a neighborhood event,” said Mattson, whom Meagher calls “the unofficial mayor of Montavilla.”

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They also garnered more neighborhood support. “From the very beginning, we were always asking, how do we get the community involved?” Mattson recalls, and he’s continually developed those connections, including partnering with other local organizations and efforts such as Politzer’s Driveway Jazz series, and getting festival artists teaching residencies in local schools. Although the festival remains a one-weekend affair, the institution operates year-round.

And they could draw on a deep pool of musical talent, for concerts, teaching gigs, jam sessions. “A lot of artists live on the east side, not downtown,” Politzer explained. “More cool things are happening on the east side as people get pushed farther and farther out” by soaring rents, “but you might not hear about how vibrant it’s becoming because it’s not happening in the [downtown] Cultural District.”

Over the ensuing years, the festival moved to the 130-seat Portland Metro Arts building, brought in most of Portland’s top jazz artists, including legendary singer Nancy King and pianist Randy Porter, Mel Brown, Darrell Grant, George Colligan and more, often pairing them with lesser-known acts to build exposure for the latter. Last year, National Public Radio’s Jazz in America podcast featured the festival twice, airing shows from 2019

It’s not just jazzheads who appreciate the festival. Often, Meagher says, neighborhood residents who don’t necessarily know much about contemporary jazz will show up out of curiosity and become converts to the music. 

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I didn’t even like jazz before I came to this,’” he says. “People were getting involved for community reasons, and then volunteering turned some people into jazz fans. Like anything, it’s exposure. They don’t know they like something till they’ve been around it. Jazz is easier to understand when you can see the constant communication and interaction happening live.”

Audiences also tend to be younger than at most jazz shows, said Politzer, who also teaches at Portland State University and the University of Portland, in part because of the festival’s increasing emphasis on showcasing young performers from its educational programs and other youth jazz ensembles. 

The festival’s young artist programs have featured musicians from middle school age through college. Players hail from such well regarded incubators as Alan Jones Academy of Music, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Portland State University and more. A new partnership commencing earlier this year places festival artists in residence at Vestal Elementary, which has branded itself a school for social justice, Mattson says. It hosted the festival’s first Social Justice Night earlier this year, and Mattson plans to continue the project. 

Montavilla Jazz Festival co-instigator Neil Mattson.
Montavilla Jazz Festival co-instigator Neil Mattson.

Outgrowing its origins

After eight years, the festival has secured a unique niche in the Portland jazz scene — more programmatically diverse and artistically ambitious than Cathedral Jazz Festival, more locally focused than PDX Jazz’s touring shows, more accessible than Creative Music Guild’s offerings.

“We all think of it as a really supportive environment for newer, original voices who might not have been heard before,” Politzer said about the festival’s reputation among Portland jazz musicians. “Montavilla is maybe willing to take a few more chances with new artists doing experimental work. They’ll invite bigger name people who are sure to draw an audience, and while [audience members are] there, they can take a chance on something they’ve never heard before.”

This year’s edition brings festival concerts to the 1905 as well as Alberta Rose Theater, along with shows at the usual Metro Arts venue — maintaining its grounding in its original neighborhood birthplace. 

“The difference this year is that we’re growing into our confidence,” Mattson explains. “We’ve spread things out a little bit over the different venues. We’re learning to pace ourselves a little better. We had a lot of challenges with growth in that space,” especially with Covid concerns discouraging packed-in crowds, and the festival’s rising reputation drawing bigger names and audiences. Some shows will be screened at Tinker Tavern down the street from Metro.

“They’re spreading the community out from Montavilla and taking over the town,” Politzer said. “Eventually that exposure will draw more attention and resources to Montavilla.”

Passion projects

Just as Montavilla takes programming risks by showcasing new and original music, Meagher likes to invite — or challenge — performers to take chances — not just play their familiar sets, but to raise their artistic sights. 

That sounded sweet to this year’s headliner, Politzer, who could have easily delivered a solid set of the breezy Brazilian jazz she’s been performing for the past few years. Instead, Meagher urged her to pursue the new direction she’s forging in a new album coming out next month, In a Heartbeat.

“It’s a passion project,” she said. “It deals with themes of birth and death, including the birth of my second son and the loss of a dear friend and relative during the pandemic, when I couldn’t attend their funeral. I wanted to have a tapestry of life, from beginning to end, and Ryan was very supportive of it.” So much so that the festival agreed to fly in Alex Norris, one of New York’s hottest rising trumpeters, to play it with her quintet Sunday.

Other highlights: 

• another New York star, avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp and trio, joins one of Portland’s most nationally renowned jazz artists, saxophonist Rich Halley, a potent partnership that erupted in their acclaimed recent album. 

• Friday’s opening night concert at Alberta Rose Theater, ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ features Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble big band in newly commissioned creations by Portland jazz songwriters Marilyn Keller (with collaborator and jazz eminence Darrell Grant) and Rebecca Sanborn. 

• Mhondoro, featuring saxophonist Idit Shner, a University of Oregon faculty member, elegantly blends contemporary jazz with percolating traditional Zimbabwean sounds.

• the Portland/Canadian ensemble Tunnel Six’s excellent concept album inspired by the Columbia River. 

• trombonist/composer James Powers’s Relativity Ensemble, a new large-scale project that name checks science fiction and Sun Ra, social issues and Shostakovich, Squarepusher and modern myths.

Trombonist/composer James Powers. Photo by Douglas Detrick.
Trombonist/composer James Powers. Photo by Douglas Detrick.

The festival continues its focus on young jazz musicians in late night sets at the 1905. PSU prof and internationally admired pianist George Colligan leads Friday night’s show featuring the young players of Jazz Millennium, while on Saturday, Barra Brown Quintet stars one of the city’s most artistically adventurous young drummer /composers, this time in a jazzier setting than some of his recent electronica outings. One of the most promising emerging jazz trumpeters on the Portland scene, Noah Simpson, gets a showcase too. And student ensembles perform all three nights at Vino Veritas wine shop at 6 pm.

Those young artist shows, and really the entire festival, belie the dated canard that jazz is old people’s music. In Portland — and one neighborhood in particular— jazz artists are creating a wide range of vital, forward-looking, music. 

Meagher envisions still more expansion. Like many observers, he thinks Portland needs a small, flexible theater that holds around 250 souls — why not in Montavilla? It’d be an ideal host for MJF and many other arts events. Or “maybe one day it’s in a park,” Meagher muses. “We’re not scared of bigger audiences.” Meanwhile, the festival has just won a major grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust to support its upcoming tenth anniversary edition. More shows, more venues, more musicians (local and international) to showcase–Montavilla Jazz may always stay nested in its place of origin, but it’s also spreading its wings wider and wider.

Montavilla Jazz Festival 2022 runs August 19-21 at various venues. Tickets.

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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