PPH Passing Strange

‘One space cannot foster this community’: December jazz with Mel Brown, Christopher Brown, Arietta Ward, Noah Simpson, Domo Branch, and more

Following jazz around Oregon, from Jack London Revue to Jo Bar & Rotisserie and beyond.

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Chris Brown at The 1905. Photo by Karney Hatch.
Chris Brown at the 1905. Photo by Reed Ricker.

Ever since the 1905 imploded a few weeks ago in a flurry of panicked appeals for financial salvation and reports of unpaid wages, we’ve been thinking of something trumpeter Noah Simpson told Angela Allen last month in her ArtsWatch profile of the erstwhile Portland jazz club and pizza joint:

I’m extremely thankful for the 1905. I’ve played and seen countless shows there, and would like to see the space flourish for years to come. Yet, if it closed today, most musicians would probably be in the same position. One space cannot foster this community. This scene thrives through DIY (think Blue Butler Studios, Creative Music Guild). These organizations are constantly trying to diversify programming and performance spaces so we can sustain a larger scene. Musicians will always find a space to play, and curators will find a way to bolster artists.

Oregon in general, and Portland in particular, has always had a public space problem. Venues are always closing, or moving, or both. Remember Doug Fir Lounge? Jimmy Mak’s? Hell, remember Satyricon? Your Old Portland buddies surely do. This void is part of the reason for all the house shows and warehouse shows, the invisible lifeblood of Oregon’s musical world. It’s why so many concerts happen at churches and in academic settings; it’s also why we have so many fairweather festivals (“mini” or otherwise) in parks or squares, or on farms; it’s why we have such a focus on “alternative” performance spaces like record stores and libraries. And then of course there’s the bars. There’s always the bars.

In a sense, none of it really matters anymore, because you don’t actually go out and listen to live music, do you? The present author surely doesn’t. Easier to stay home, stay comfortable, leave the mask on the shelf by the door with the shoes and the raincoat, listen to records or watch that Miles Davis documentary on Netflix. For those of you who do go out, however–and for those of us who just need a little kick in the pants to get over the agoraphobia and put on our dancing rainboots–we’ve assembled this little guide to where and how you can still hear live jazz in Portland.

Jack London Revue

This spot in downtown Portland is awesome. The nightclub part–the Jack London Revue, properly situated in a basement, with neon signs and a janky marquee and everything–is big-but-not-big, cozy enough to feel really vibrant while still having a bit of room to spread out in (you can get 200-plus people in there on a busy night). And it’s downstairs from the Rialto Poolroom, so if you’re feeling extra salty you can play a little pool or poker before, during, or after the music. And don’t be scared by the downtown location–it all just adds to the special speakeasy charm.

The Mel Brown B3 Organ Group–a fantastic quartet that was practically Jimmy Mak’s house band, and should be familiar to literally every jazz fan in Oregon–plays Jack London on Thursdays. Their lineup up consists of four musicians who are all in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. You got Mel himself on drums, a hotshit player and local legend who studied with Philly Joe Jones (Miles’s favorite drummer, the one on Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet et alia); Mr. Brown did stints in Motown and toured with George Benson and The Supremes and The Temptations (the latter during their post-David Riffin “psychedlic soul” era, 1968-73 or so). On the titular Hammond B3 organ, you have Louis “King Louie” Pain, a sideman’s sideman who knows how to protect the vibe at all times. On sax, Renato Caranto, perhaps best known for his work with Esperanza Spalding. And on guitar, Dan Balmer, a fine electric jazz player and Oregon jazz legend who’s just released yet another album (on the PJCE label), When The Night:

These four are performing every Thursday in December at Jack London, always with a special guest. This week, on the 14th (tonight, if you’re reading this on Thursday, December 14), it’s a special special guest: Mel’s son Christopher, an Oregon jazz titan in his own right. Two drummers on one stage is always a good time, even without a family vibe, and this is sure to be simply astounding. Here’s what Christopher has to say about it:

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It’s not often that my father and I get to perform together. But when we do, it’s always an event to remember! And since the holidays are the time in which most people’s fondest memories are made, we want to encourage you to come make them with us as well.

The following Thursday, the 21st, the quartet is joined by another Oregon Hall of Famer: singer Andy Stokes, the “Northwest King of Soul Music.” Get your tickets for that right here. And on the 28th the quartet has two guests, both singers: King Louie’s San Francisco pal Sean Holmes and Arietta Ward, aka “Mz. Etta,” who also has an album of her own up on Bandcamp:

Get your tickets for that one right here.

Two other upcoming shows at Jack London stand out. On the 22nd, it’s the somewhat misnomered Bridgetown Sextet (a seven-piece now that founder Andrew Oliver is back from London) celebrates the release of its new album Functionizin’, available December 15 digitally (snore) and on CD (hmm) and, yes, on vinyl–huzzah!

This is a funny group, dear reader: They do that super old timey jazz, that whole Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke sound, the sort of thing that still sometimes got asses shaking and occasionally got nightclubs shut down (for indecency, not because of gentrification, although that’s always been two sides of the same coin). When classical musicians do this kind of thing, we call it “period instruments” and “Historically Informed Performance.” Key & Peele fans might think of it as “that ooooold school.” The band’s “new” stuff sounds like this:

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On the 30th, Chicago’s LowDown Brass Band comes to town for an almost-NYE show. These guys have to be experienced in person to be believed: it’s a brass-and-percussion band in the New Orleandsy tradition of Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the like. But they do a very contemporary twist on that whole thing, bringing in hip-hop and rap and reggaeton and all that jazz, a little like the German techno marching band Meute but a helluva lot dirtier, sexier, and more American. You can hear their albums (and buy them on vinyl) on Bandcamp right here. They dudes even have a Christmas album.

As if that weren’t enough, opening for LowDown is a Portland septet called The Bandalus with the audacity to call itself a ska band in 2023. You can get their music on vinyl too: listen to their 2020 album Love A Woman right here:

Everywhere else

Phew! That’s a lot of music happening at one little jazz club in a basement under a pool hall. Where else can you hear live jazz?

Let’s start by following some of the musicians we’ve already mentioned. Mel Brown plays with his trio every Friday night at Salty’s on the Columbia. Dan Balmer has a string of shows coming up: He’s playing with fellow guitarist and singer Adlai Alexander on the 16th at Corkscrew Wine Bar in Southeast Portland; with legendary Portland vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on the 20th at Jo Bar & Rotisserie on Trendy-Third in Northwest Portland; and with bassist Andrew Jones on Christmas Eve at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Lake Oswego.

Christopher Brown has two other shows on the calendar this month. He’s part of the astonishing Low Bar Chorale’s holiday show, Snow Bar Chorale, at Mississippi Studios on the 15th. But he can’t be there for the second Snow Bar show on the 16th because he’s playing at HiFi Wine Bar in McMinnville with his own quartet (John Nastos on sax, Greg Goebel on piano, Garrett Baxter on bass). Here they are playing “Human Nature” at Jimmy Mak’s in 2016:

Arietta Ward is singing in the Snow Bar Chorale too, and has a few other noteworthy appearances on the December calendar. Another: the Eighth Annual Stumptown Soul Holiday Spectacular on the 16th at Catfish Lou’s Fallbrook Event Center in Beaverton. And another: Outer Orbit’s New Year’s Eve concert at the McMenamins Kennedy School in Northeast Portland. You may know this band from its all-star lineup: Sarah Clarke, Damien Erskine, Galen Clark, Tyrone Hendrix, and so on. Also on the bill that night: PDX Jazz faves greaterkind with singer Lo Steele, another member of Oregon’s jazz royalty.

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Follow this process one step further: follow these musicians, or follow the places they perform, or both. Jo Bar has live jazz every Wednesday and Sunday (check out its calendar here). Corkscrew has music (mostly jazz) several nights a week, and you can plan accordingly by consulting its calendar here

And then there’s PDX Jazz Fest, which starts in February and spills over into the beginning of March. As always, there’s plenty of top-shelf names on the calendar, spread across thirtysomething venues around Portland, alongside tons of locals. You’ll hear more about it from us next year, when we’re closer to the starting line: For now, you can get into the lineup (and buy tickets, which always sell out) right here.

Returning to Mr. Simpson and his trumpet: he’ll be performing a CMG Outset Series show this month, on the 26th at No Fun on Hawthorne. Domo Branch, a fierce drummer and frequent Simpson collaborator, will join him. Completing the lineup is Mike Gamble, artistic director of the Guild and one of Oregon’s most consistently astonishing guitarists. More info and tickets right here.

We leave you with Mz. Etta and her sisters, performing “In My Mind” at Alberta Street Pub in 2021:

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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3 Responses

    1. Inexcusable! Thanks for the heads up Jan.

      Dear reader, Wilf’s has live jazz every Wednesday through Saturday, including a ton of holiday shows this month. John Gilmore on Christmas Eve is sold out, but you can still spend New Year’s Eve with Tony Pacini Trio. Drummer/bandleader Ron Steen normally does his thing every Tuesday, and he’s at it this Tuesday the 20th, but December 27th is a holiday jazz vocal showcase featuring Paula Byrne, Paul Ward, Kaytlin Hansen, and Kurt Deutscher.

      Check out the complete Wilf’s calendar right here: https://wilfsrestaurant.com/events/

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