steve wilson

PDX Jazz Festival preview: Signs of life

Portland jazz scene remains vital despite popular club's sudden closure

The word is out: Jazz is dead. Why, it says so in La La Land, one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Even legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff died last month, shortly after Portland’s — and one of America’s — finest jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s, closed its doors for the last time, the latest in a string (Ivories, Brasserie Montmartre, Blue Monk, etc.) in recent years. Jazz record sales are tiny compared to hip hop and rock, and it’s been decades since the music occupied the center of popular culture. So long jazz, been good to know ya.

Not so fast. Jazz music and musicians are insinuating themselves into pop music (Kendrick Lamar) and movies (La La Land, Miles Ahead). Jazz musicians are embracing contemporary pop sounds and winning new audiences without selling out (Robert Glasper, the Bad Plus, Kamasi Washington, who played to a packed, diverse crowd at Roseland ballroom in December, and many others). Contemporary classical and pop musicians, including the late David Bowie on his last album, are including jazz musicians and ingredients in their work. In Portland, reports jazz’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. The music still resounds in the city’s cafes and clubs, and the 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, which begins this weekend, offers one of its strongest lineups (see our recommendations below).

Mel Brown performs and leads ensembles at PDX Jazz Festival.

Rather than a crisis, what Portland jazz is going through now is actually “a hiccup,” says veteran drummer Mel Brown, a Jimmy Mak’s mainstay who’s leading several bands at this year’s festival. He worries that jazz mostly happens in restaurants with no stages rather than dedicated venues like Jimmy Mak’s. But having grown up in Portland playing jazz in Northeast Portland’s legendary Jumptown scene as a teenager, he’s seen these cycles before.

“We had a lot of clubs here, then rock came and everything went away,” Brown recalls of the days before went off to study with legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, perform with Motown, tour nationally before returning to Portland in the mid-1970s. “Now it’s trying to come back. We’ve got enough people pushing, but it takes time to really get the whole thing together.”

Kamasi Washington’s band drew a big, diverse audience to Portland’s Roseland Theater in December.

Jimmy Mak’s closing “does not reflect on the state of jazz in Portland,” insists festival director Don Lucoff, noting that the club closed not because it was faltering financially but because its building sold and its owner fell ill with terminal cancer before he could complete plans it to a new location this month. “Jimmy’s numbers, [local jazz radio station] KMHD’s numbers were up, our sales are up. It’s nothing to do with people not being interested in the music.” The festival shifted its Jimmy Mak’s performances to other venues, and the club’s former managers are busily putting together a new incarnation that jazz lovers hope will open before the year’s out.

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