Rhythm in the Rain

Rhythm in the Rain

As the Portland Jazz Festival kicks in, Lynn Darroch's new book charts the history and culture of jazz in the Northwest. An excerpt.

Jazz in the Pacific Northwest grew up in cities with rough and tumble origins and small African-American populations, far from centers of influence and power and shaped by the water and mountains that surround them. In his new book, Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, 2016), journalist and performing artist Lynn Darroch chronicles the development and remarkable character of the region’s jazz community. In the process, he helps define the broader culture of the Upper Left Coast. 

As the latest Portland Jazz Festival kicks into high gear, ArtsWatch celebrates the history and culture of jazz in the Northwest by reprinting the introductory chapter of Darroch’s book. He performs stories and other passages from the book live with pianist Tom Grant at 7:30 p.m.  February 24 at Classic Pianos, and reads from the book at 7:30 p.m. March 2 at Powell’s City of Books downtown.

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By LYNN DARROCH

Introduction: We Live Here

“Every day I can see the mountains—St. Helens, Rainier, Hood, Adams—and I want to climb. A lot of what makes a great climber is the same as what makes a great improviser: courage, strength, creativity, total awareness of environment, the ability to focus pin-pointedly and generally at the same time—and finally, to let go of all ambitions, inhibitions, thoughts … and play.”

Alan Jones

Esperanza Spalding didn’t want to waste any time after her surprise win for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards. She’d grown up hard in Portland and knew how unlikely the award was for a young black woman playing jazz. So she was in a hurry to put her fame to use—and knew exactly what she wanted to do: “Help the pillars of my jazz community gain the recognition they deserve.”

It took only two years.

At the 2013 Awards ceremony, Spalding shared another Grammy—this time for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)—with Thara Memory, her Portland mentor, for his arrangement of her song “City of Roses.” From her multi-award-winning album Radio Music Society, the hometown tribute also featured students from Memory’s American Music Program.

Esperanza Spalding, 2011 Grammy Artist of the Year winner, was born and raised in Portland. Photo courtesy Andrea Mancini.

Esperanza Spalding, 2011 Grammy Artist of the Year winner, was born and raised in Portland. Photo courtesy Andrea Mancini.

If a single moment can capture the story of jazz in the Pacific Northwest, this might be it.

At the podium to receive the award, Memory leaned on his former student’s arm. He was sixty-five and had lost a foot and parts of two fingers to diabetes. The Grammy was the culmination of a path he’d been on since age twelve, when he fell in love with the music of Miles Davis and started hanging around backstage whenever the leading man of jazz played nearby.

One day, Davis approached.

“You’re that trumpet player, aren’t you?” His voice was challenging. “I bet you can’t play worth a shit.”

Memory was stunned but quickly took heart—the man had sought him out, recognized him. His reply became a vow that determined the course of his life.

“Well, no, not compared to you I can’t,” he said. “But I can hold down my own thing; I can hold down my own thing and bring some people up with me.”

He did, and there he was, fifty years later: an underdog African American musician and teacher, originally from the South, accepting a Grammy Award with a former student who shared her success with the folks back home.

Continues…