All Classical Radio James Depreist

Mr. Oliver’s Wild Ride: Pianist, composer, and Early Jazz enthusiast Andrew Oliver

The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble co-founder talks about his love for Early Jazz and his recent return to Oregon.


Pianist and Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble co-founder Andrew Oliver. Photo by Jordan Henline.
Pianist and Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble co-founder Andrew Oliver. Photo by Jordan Henline.

Pianist and composer Andrew Oliver talks fast. Probably because he’s got a head full of ideas and a lot of accomplishments to talk about. He’s Portland’s most wide-ranging jazz artist, and, since he just turned 40, the most prolific for his age, with 33 albums as a leader or co-leader and appearances as a sideman on many more. He’s considered one of the top players at prestigious festivals in Britain and the U.S. And though he’s composed and recorded straight ahead and avant-garde as well as chamber jazz, West African-influenced music, and tango, most of his recognition has come in the Early Jazz field.

The Complete Jelly Roll Morton Project, his CD with clarinetist David Horniblow, was named one of the 10 best jazz albums of 2019 by The Times of London. He made a number of other recordings and led Early Jazz groups while living in England. And here in Portland, with The Bridgetown Sextet, he’s planning a series of Early Jazz and related activities at Tango Berretín called “The New Old Fashioned” that will debut on April 14, 3-6:00 pm.

Tango Berretín is located at SE 53rd and Foster, in Oliver’s new neighborhood; it’s an easy bike ride, he says, to a job downtown as an urban planner — a job that marks the latest turning point in his life and music. It’s been an interesting journey so far, and he’s looking forward to more twists and turns. It also raises questions that all artists face, including the difficult choice between a full-or-part-time career. For Oliver, it comes down to finding a way to sustain a life in the arts while still maintaining the magic that originally compelled him to pursue it.

He thinks he’s found that sweet spot now. But equilibrium has never been his default mode.

From Jelly Roll to Modern Jazz

It all started when he began asking his dad to check out Eastern European folk and other unusual music from the library. He took piano lessons, but at age 12 decided classical music wasn’t for him.

“And then in high school,” he says, “I discovered Jelly Roll Morton, and that got me hooked. That’s been the foundation, the most constant style for me.”


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But in music school at Loyola University, where he studied until Hurricane Katrina drove him back to Portland to complete his studies at Portland State University, Early Jazz was not highly regarded. “I was young and impressionable,” he says, “and I got excited about what I was studying and thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing, playing modern jazz.” 

While at PSU, he studied with two of Portland’s top modernists, Randy Porter and Darrell Grant, and found the music to be “intellectually very fascinating.”

“I wasn’t so concerned with making connections with audiences then,” he explains, “and I was around people like Dave Douglas, who was creating community around modern jazz.”

And that inspired his founding (with fellow PSU grad Gus Slayton) the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in 2007. According to the PJCE website, the organization (which became a non-profit in 2010) premiered more than 20 new compositions by Portland composers in its first few years. In 2013, Oliver and guitarist Dan Duval, who had become part of the PJCE administrative team, co-founded PJCE Records. In its first year, they released one album per month, often recorded in informal live sessions. The label continues to document established and emerging area composers with regular — and more carefully curated — releases today.

Establishing the PJCE was just one example of Oliver’s organizational skills. His long-time bandmate, the woodwind player David Evans, calls Oliver “a creative person who is also very effective. He’s organized, he’s energetic — he’s very good at making things happen.” Evans also worked on another project with Oliver — the live performance of a soundtrack, composed by Oliver, for a Japanese monster movie. “He had the idea, and he just made it happen,” says Evans, a member of the ensemble that performed the score at the Hollywood Theater.


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Many Balls in the Air

Those were busy, style-hopping years. In 2008, he and childhood friend Scott Kennedy started The Bridgetown Sextet, the Early Jazz band that Oliver still leads today. His co-op band, Tunnel Six, released three straight-ahead albums, beginning with Lake Superior in 2011. All featured several Oliver compositions. He also led the Andrew Oliver Sextet, which took a more progressive approach on its albums, including 82% Chance of Rain, released in 2010. That year, he and his Kora-playing partner, Kane Mathis, released their second Kora Band album, Cascades, which included several Oliver compositions as well as his arrangements of traditional Gambian and Malian material.

And if that wasn’t enough, in 2011, he and Duval created a chamber jazz ensemble called The Ocular Concern and recorded two albums. “Maybe I’m just ADHD at heart,” Oliver laughs. “I’d say, ‘Well, I like this, so I’m just going to go do it. I’m not content to just listen; I’ve got to play it, too.”

All the while, though, he kept a hand in Early Jazz, primarily with The Bridgetown Sextet, whose music the band’s website describes as “1920s and ‘30s jazz, stomp, blues, and swing.” In 2011 — a big year for Oliver — the band released the second of its four CDs, The New Old Fashioned.

And don’t forget tango. In 2011, with his partner, the bandoneón player Alex Krebs, Oliver appeared on the CD, Stumptandas, which was followed the next year by Looking Ahead on the Shoulders of the Past, a collection of original tangos by Krebs and Oliver, performed by a quartet that included Oregon Symphony players Erin Furbee (violin) and Jeff Johnson (bass).

What connects all this apparently disparate music? “Well, I like things that groove really hard, that have a rhythmic feel that makes you want to dance,” Oliver explains. “And I like things with some degree of intellectual counterpoint on top of that. The West African music of the Kora Band certainly had multiple things happening on top of a rhythmic foundation, and we tried to maintain that strong rhythmic feel with the modern jazz we played with the Andrew Oliver Sextet and The Ocular Concern, too. And Early Jazz certainly has it.”


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The Lure of Early Jazz

And so his life in music continued at that whirlwind pace until 2013, when his wife got a teaching job in London and he was faced with navigating a new kind of uncertainty.

“When Andrew was getting ready to move,” Evans recalls, “he told me, ‘I’m not going to play any old jazz when I move to London. I’m going to sell my cornet (he also played drums in addition to cornet and piano with Bridgetown) and just play modern music.’” Evans laughs. Things didn’t turn out that way at all. Oliver says:

When I got to London, I started going to the jam sessions and meeting people who were playing modern and straight ahead jazz, and I discovered that what I had to offer that scene wasn’t as strong as what I had here. Whereas when I started working with the Early Jazz guys, it was a return to my roots and what got me into jazz in the first place.

I found them at a regular Wednesday gig at a semi-illegal club in a derelict factory where people would just come and dance to rotating groups playing old-style jazz and hang out. I met a lot of people there, playing high-quality music, and I became friends with them pretty quickly and easily.

And I started getting a lot more deep into it — checking out the records more carefully, transcribing more stuff, and understanding the wide variety of styles and influences in the 1920s and ’30s.

And there he prospered, recording four albums with his co-op group The Vitality Five, and two more with The Dime Notes, going on several European tours, and performing for the past several years at the prestigious Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party in the UK.

What’s the appeal of Early Jazz? Oliver explains:

It has a blend of complexity and simplicity that people don’t necessarily understand on a technical level, but it comes through very effectively. The rhythm and the upbeat energy can pull you in, like rock, but at the same time it has that collective improvisation and a lot of stuff on top of that beat.

The melodies are singable and easy to remember. It’s got a positive feel. It’s got a lot of blues, too, and everybody likes the blues. And because the solos are very short and concise, leading to a climax where everyone improvises together … somehow that comes across, and this music is like a bunch of people working together to make something happen.

So he built a good life as a full-time musician in London, and he was very happy to be playing with the country’s top Early Jazz practitioners. But alas, the great players couldn’t work together often enough to support a full-time career, so he ended up filling his schedule with bandleaders who weren’t quite as good musically, but quite good at getting jobs. And gradually, that prepared the ground for the change that was coming.


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Turning Point

When the pandemic hit, Oliver thought music would never come back the way it had been during his first five years in London–and that, together with his growing dissatisfaction with the work he was getting, pushed him over the edge.

“I had a lot of mediocre gigs, but at first I thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do — just play gigs,’” he says. “So it took me a long time to realize that what I wanted to get out of music was being taken away by playing music I didn’t want to play with people I didn’t want to play with. And I realized, ‘I don’t want it to be like that.’ The whole reason I wanted to play music at all, ever, was because it was fun.”

So when he and his wife returned to Portland in 2020, he earned a Masters degree in Regional and Urban Planning from PSU and took a full-time job with Leland Consulting Group.

“It’s been a huge shift,” he admits. “But I still have the opportunity to play, and play what I want.” And he’s still getting plenty of recording and festival slots, too: in February, he was in Austin, recording direct to 78 rpm disc as Andrew Oliver and his Texas Strutters. In May, he’ll perform at the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, and in October he’ll be back at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party in the UK. Plus he has two new solo albums: Ragtime, New Orleans Style (Vol. 3) and No Local Stops, the latter on the Rivermont label, which also released The Bridgetown Sextet’s new album, Functionizin’.

And since he returned from London, The Sextet has become a different band.

“When he came back,” says Evans, “there was a fresh breeze of scholarship blowing through the band, and the Sextet changed from being a pedal-to-the-metal blowing band to a band that plays precise arrangements.”


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Those arrangements are just one aspect of the control that Oliver has gained in his new role as part-time musician. He’s organizing the “New Old Fashioned Jazz Party” for a similar reason. “At a dance, you have to play what the dancers are used to hearing,” he explains; “you have to be careful of the speed, and there’s no opportunity to interact with the audience by talking about what’s interesting about the tunes; they just want the music to keep going. And when we play at the Jack London for the burlesque dancers [of Storyville Confidential], it’s super high-energy and a raucous old time because people are taking their clothes off. But it’s not really about us.”

What he wants is a regular performance for The Bridgetown Sextet that’ll help build their audience, where they can play what they want, and he can even control the sound. He hopes to get some of the neighborhood businesses involved, too. “I want it to be a vintage scene hang,” he says, “a jazz era party with live music.”

Urban Planning and Early Jazz

An interesting parallel has emerged between his work and his music, too. Planning, he’s found, is a lot like playing Early Jazz. “One thing I like about Early Jazz is there’s a relatively clear box within which you have to work. Within those boundaries, I find a huge amount of room for creativity. With planning, there’s the same opportunity for creativity within a framework that’s hemmed in by elected officials, zoning, precedent, and the way the industry fits within municipal government. So you can’t just do whatever you want. But you do have the opportunity to make change and improve communities within that framework.”

There’s one problem with his new life, however: “I feel I’m behind all the time. I have all these projects, but I don’t have all day to sit down and learn repertoire and make charts. And I don’t have any time to practice. So I have to balance things so I don’t feel panicked all the time.”

So think of his life as a part-time musician and full-time planner as another Oliver project. And like all the others, he’s throwing himself into it with his usual energy and efficiency. And if it doesn’t last forever, don’t worry. He’s got a head full of ideas, he just turned 40, and he’s getting pretty good at improvising his way through the changes.

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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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