Young, talented and the future of jazz, they were mentored by Portland music royalty. They learned to bang out “Back at the Chicken Shack,” “Green Dolphin Street” and “Autumn Leaves,” to listen carefully to the jazz greats, to practice diligently and often, and to master the mysterious art of improvisation. They went to Mel Brown’s summer jazz camps when they were teen-agers and attended some of the best higher-ed music schools, such as Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music , New York University and University of Southern California.
Most played in front of the red curtains at the former Jimmy Mak’s before they could vote — any young Portland jazz musician’s dream in the early 2000s.
THE JAZZ SCENE
But they left Portland, and never came back, other than for brief moments. Where did these young lions go? Here’s a brief history of some of the under-35 jazz musicians who Portland lost to New York, LA and Brooklyn, N.Y., where they are braving their ways into careers, many shaped around their own brands of indie music rather than jazz.
Though young and restless artists often move, this 30-something great migration might have started with Portland-reared music phenom bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding, now 37. A protege of the late Thara Memory, Spalding attended Portland State University and Berklee College of Music, and has gone on to win four GRAMMYS, write an opera with Wayne Shorter and teach at Harvard.
Meanwhile, these jazzers a few years younger are following closely behind her.
Instrument: Piano, composer
Based in: Brooklyn, NY., graduated from Berklee College of Music
Makes a living: Gigs, teaching (including two years in Japan), composing, making albums
On New York: “I’m in NYC because this is the nexus of jazz in the world and there are loads of great players here whom I’d like to play with or have the pleasure of hearing live somewhere. Super-competitive atmosphere and broad scene, but on the other hand lots of opportunities for both myself in music and (wife) Elizabeth in color/post-production.”
Significant early awards: Downbeat Magazine called him Best Solo Instrumentalist in 2004 and awarded him Best Arrangement in 2005-06 and Best High School Ensemble in 2007. Winner of Jimmy Lyons Scholarship in 2009 at Berklee College of Music. He has three studio albums including his latest, 2021’s Ballyhoo with Damian Erskine, Reinhardt Melz and Carmelo Torres. Taught in New Delhi, Tokyo and New York City.
Compare the NY and PDX jazz scenes: “Portland has lots of talented jazz musicians and great teachers like Randy Porter, Gordon Lee and Mel Brown, Alan Jones, George Colligan. The list goes on! There’s also a solid crop of younger musicians there like Charlie Brown, Noah Simpson, tons of others. Basically, NYC is a huge city, way bigger than Portland and obviously blows PDX out of the water in terms of the sheer number of venues with live music and the number of people playing all kinds of music at a very high level. Portland has a very warm and welcoming music scene, but for me at this time of my life, it’s a bit too laid back with too few places to play so that’s why I’m in NYC. Also here to study with some greats and hear music in historic clubs, etc.”
Contact and website: Grantrichardsmusic.com
Based in: LA for 3 years, NYC for 7, and Boston for 3.5, graduated from Berklee College of Music.
Instruments: Primarily saxophone; clarinet, flute, and now keyboards, vocals and percussion; composer
Making a living: Recorded five albums with more in the works, two under MaeSun; teaching; new gear demos with Roland; touring with numerous bands including in NYC, most frequently with Nikara Warren; performing with Clairo, a pop-funk-indie vibe musician, March 25 at the Arlene Schnitzer; played with (Charlie) Brown & (Domo) Branch big band concert at Portland’s Gerding Theater in December, 2021; bandleader of MAE.SUN.
What’s great about playing music in LA? “LA was another scene I was curious to get to know, and the added pull of proximity to nature and good weather was very appealing. I really love the music scene here and the variety of music work.”
What kind of music are you playing and composing?
“I call my original music `cosmic music.’ I can’t put it into a box or genre, as it is inspired by such a wide variety of music, sounds, and spiritual teachings. Because I am primarily a saxophone player who improvises a lot, it’s hard for people to not pin my music as jazz. It is very meditative music, yet sonically engaging. When I started birthing this new music, I felt like it was coming from a place that was so much more than ‘me’, it was a universal space. So I put the music out under a new moniker and go by MAE.SUN, rather than Hailey Niswanger.”
Notable achievements: Won the Mary Lou Williams’ saxophone competition at the age of 18; first album Confeddie was charted on Billboard, listed on NPR as a top jazz album of the year, and written about in the Wall Street Journal; toured with Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society; led international tour to China with Portlander Caili O’Doherty; toured in Asia with jazz master Harvey Mason; performed with jazz master Kenny Barron at SFJazz Center, recorded flute on Beyoncé’s GRAMMY-winning song, “Black Parade” and for Terri Lynn Carrington’s GRAMMY-winning album, The Mosaic Project.
What was good about learning to play jazz in Portland?
“My mentors, as well as the thriving youth scene that was so passionate about jazz. I learned so much from my musical peers in Portland. We all just loved the jazz idiom so much, and truly cared about going deep into the music. Thara’s band was the highlight, there were incredibly talented players in his band, and he would bring in amazing artists to give us master classes. We were so lucky, and played some really heavy music! I also was obsessed with the Mel Brown hang, Tuesday night at Jimmy Mak’s was the spot! I have so many memories of sitting in with the Mel Brown septet, and later with the B-3 band. The Portland scene had such a profound impact on me that I even came back to make my third album there with Thara in 2014. PDX Soul was recorded in Portland with 17 local players.”
Instrument: Stand-up and electric bass, vocals, composer
Based in: New York City, graduated from Manhattan School of Music
On early Portland mentoring: “The community of older musicians in Portland wanted to see the younger generation succeed. I don’t think that’s always the case. Ron Steen taught me how to be professional, a bandleader and to always eat the free meal. He’d bring legendary recordings of bass players to the gigs — that was my homework. In many ways, I learned more playing with Ron than I did going to music school.”
Music she’s playing and composing: Indie rock/pop. “As a songwriter and singer, I love song form, the rich history of pop music and the relationship between music and lyric. My music sounds like the artists and genres I love, and shares my emotional take on the world.” She has five albums, including Trophy and Strange Boy.
Where is jazz in your life now? “No more jazz. I will always love it, but it’s not my music to make! Grateful to the genre for helping tune up my ears.”
On New York: “I love NY so much that I never want to live anywhere else. I’ve been here 12 years and counting. NYC challenged me to grow into the artist that I wanted to be. It’s not easy here but I thrive in a constant state of discomfort. The scene here is so much more than music. It’s the pace, the people, the over-saturation, the chaos, and most importantly, a perfect grid city and transit system. The scene feels pretty global now, but I am the most comfy in NY as a human person.”
Notable achievements: Named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2009 while at West Linn High School. Recognized by MTV as one of the “Fifteen Fresh Females to Rule Pop” in 2014. In September 2014, she sang a cover version of “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor while playing double bass for Scott Bradlee‘s Postmodern Jukebox video channel; Bradlee played piano and Dave Tedeschi played drums on their 1940s jazz-style interpretation, called “All About That (Upright) Bass.” After three months on YouTube, their version had received 8 million hits. She appeared on the PBS special American Voices with Renée Fleming in January 2015. Davis stepped in for GRAMMY-winner Kurt Elling when he became ill with laryngitis and couldn’t perform.
Contact and more music: katedavismusic.com
Based in: Brooklyn, NY, graduated from New York University
Instrument: Sax, keyboards, composer, singer, songwriter
Music he plays these days: “A bit of everything I suppose, though honestly playing a lot less since COVID, things slowed down for me and never truly sped back up.” Part of the rock-ish and undefinable RTs (formerly the Rad Trads), who played at Mississippi Studios in December and previously toured Europe. Sargent adds that he “plays jazz and the band’s music is kind of impossible to categorize — fusion of a bunch of genres.”
Greatest achievement: “I’m still in love with music and more inspired than I’ve ever been and very eager to share that inspiration and emotion with the world. If COVID taught me anything it’s that external achievements like tour schedules and prestigious gigs can disappear in a moment and all that matters is your relationship to your own creativity.”
On Portland jazz audiences: Compared to the 1905, “I would say there’s maybe more young people at the two bars in Brooklyn I go to that have jazz but I have very little grounds for comparison.”
On returning to Portland: “I think it’s been so long at this point that I am no longer contemplating returning to Portland. My life and career is out here.”
Instrument: Trumpet, composer, songwriter
Based in: Los Angeles, graduated from Manhattan School of Music; Masters in Music, jazz trumpet at University of Southern California.
Mentors: Thara Memory, Ronnye Harrison, Ben MacDonald (“The holy trinity of Portland Music ed,” he says.)
Music he plays these days: Trumpet player in Phoebe Bridgers band, an LA-based indie rock band.
Greatest achievement: “I consider my whole career an achievement. I’ve been able to tour the world with some amazing artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, and AJR.” Participated in TV shows and movies, such as “Whiplash,” and “America’s Got Talent.” Composed songs and scores for feature films and TV shows, including “American Skin,” directed by Nate Parker, and “Being: Al Sharpton” on BET.
On the 1905: “It is currently the best jazz venue in Portland. Owner Aaron Barnes is a great advocate for the artists and has created a wonderful space for musicians without sacrificing the integrity of the product. Jazz is having progressively harder time finding a worthy platform. The 1905 was also on the forefront of live-streaming shows during the height of the pandemic which was vitally important to keeping the music alive and well.”
On leaving Portland: “I don’t think Portland has a robust enough scene to sustain my music career in its current state.I would like to move back someday because I love the city so much. Maybe in 10 or 15 years.”
Contact and more music at https://soundcloud.com/jimmieleejr; original music on Spotify@jimmie lee jr.
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