“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” ― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
So much of what ails America and Oregon has roots in our history. So much could be prevented or at least healed if we knew and listened to the lessons history teaches. But too many Americans find history boring, or irrelevant or maybe even threatening, and therefore make political choices that history will wind up revealing as dangerous, destructive or worse. It’s a big reason we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend.
Art can bridge that gap between history and action by making the past come alive. And art that reveals hidden but important history by telling the stories of people and communities is even more valuable, not just for what it tells us about yesterday, but about today — and tomorrow.
Which is why From Maxville To Vanport: A Celebration of Oregon’s Black History this Saturday night at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre promises to be such a valuable as well as entertaining show. Almost 70 years to the day after the Vanport Flood, this is the final performance of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert of original songs and film shorts inspired by the stories of the multicultural populations of Oregon’s lost, short-lived predominantly African American communities, Maxville and Vanport, after last month’s shows in La Grande, Enterprise, and Baker City.
Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County is where Maxville was built in 1923. Many of its loggers, homesteaders and ranchers came to Oregon in the Great Migration, when African Americans headed north seeking opportunity and equality denied them in the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, the Oregon they encountered turned out to host its own white racist refugees, who frustrated, too often violently, their aspirations for decades. As has become obvious in recent years, their hateful legacy lingers.
But along with the challenges, including the losses entailed by pulling up roots and moving far from their families, churches and other nurturing institutions, Maxville’s residents also registered triumphs and created their own vital community before the town was shut down in 1933.
The same goes for Vanport, whose ultimate fate, if not necessarily its rich history, is likely more familiar to more Oregonians. In its six-year existence before it was destroyed by the horrific Memorial Day flood of 1948, the city (briefly Oregon’s second-largest) harbored a thriving community of shipyard workers who helped build the warships that helped win World War II.
Those communities’ existence coincided with the rise of American jazz, much of which was also created by migrants from the south and their descendants, which makes PJCE an appropriate musical vehicle for this ambitious multimedia project. PJCE enlisted estimable Portland composer/pianist Ezra Weiss, renowned writer/lyricist/ speaker S. Renee Mitchell and Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame singer Marilyn Keller to create and perform original music with the dozen-member ensemble, accompanied by shorts by filmmaker Kalimah Abioto.
To its great credit, the creative team sought input from the descendants of the affected communities and from historical research, including Gwendolyn Trice, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Wallowa County. They sponsored community discussion events in Portland and Joseph last fall. Funded by the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights program, and sponsored by Oregon Historical Society, the show (part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival) happens in another area where African American Oregonians were displaced by another tide, gentrification. The project continues after the concert, too, with the documentary film and a studio album, which will help ensure that this artistic historical memory persists long beyond Saturday night.
Memorial Day is properly for remembering and honoring those who gave their lives defending our country in military service. This weekend, maybe we can also spare a moment to remember a couple of chapters of Oregon history, thanks in part to efforts like Vanport Mosaic and Saturday’s concert, no longer seem in danger of fading from our collective memory.
PJCE performs at 730 pm Saturday, Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St, Portland. Tickets available online or by calling 503-764-4131.
On Thursday, New York new music specialists Brooklyn Rider add their friend, the great Iranian kemancheh virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor to their performance at Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center. A founding member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Kalhor is a master of the traditional Persian fiddle, which he’ll deploy in both solo improvisations, in Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen’s powerful Beloved, do not let me be discouraged and A Mirror For A Prince, as well as in his own Silent City, Kalhor’s lament for another devastated city, the Kurdish Hallabjah. The quartet, which has collaborated with musicians from Joshua Redman to Bela Fleck, will also play Philip Glass’s two-viola seventh string quartet, which they recently recorded.
On Saturday, 45th Parallel brings one of Oregon’s longest-running chamber ensembles, the Florestan Trio, together with Oregon Ballet Theater Orchestra violinist Nelly Kovalev and nonpareil Portland composer Kenji Bunch in Florestan + Friends Saturday at Portland’s Old Church. Along with Bunch’s new violin and viola duo — his second world premiere in as many weeks! — the program features Schumann’s ever-popular Romantic Piano Quintet and an early Beethoven piano trio.
On Friday, Solstice Wind Quintet performs at Astoria’s Liberty Theatre, but none of the associated web pages bother to list what they’ll be playing.
And on Sunday at Portland’s Jack London Revue, Bossa PDX, Portland’s classic bossa nova and Brazilian jazz group, closing out a string of Brazilian music performances by various musicians around the state.
Please feel free, nay, even obliged, to suggest further live Oregon music events to our readers in the handy comments section below.