PORTLAND — Kenny Garrett clutched his horn as he might have held a writhing python. Rocking back and forth, now in musical conversation with pianist Vernell Brown, now swapping notes with drummer McClenty Hunter, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist played a ceaselessly intense 90-minute set last week at Portland's Dolores Winningstad Theatre.
Blasting original post-bop riffs as he moved from melodic to improvisational, from intricate world beats to wistful balladry — and mixing in a series of arched-back, deep-knee bends that must have delighted his personal trainer — Garrett and his quintet earned a rousing standing ovation from 300 music lovers during the annual Portland Jazz Festival.
The 10-day music fest, now a decade old, has become one of the “go-to" events for leading jazz musicians. Held every year in mid to late February, it presents events in 30 different venues, from tiny tea rooms to the multiple stages of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (PCPA). Hotels, restaurants and universities also get into the act, hosting workshops and conversations as well as numerous small-combo shows and student recitals.
Big-name artists, such as Garrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Wayne Horvitz and vocalist Patricia Barber, mostly perform at the PCPA. I caught three shows there in a full weekend of music, accented by visits to a half-dozen small clubs and lounges. But I missed shows at Jimmy Mak's jazz lounge, the Crystal Ballroom and the Aladdin and Mission theaters, to name but a few other locations.
But it's not just 10 days in February when Portland swings.
In fact, Oregon's metropolis has become one of North America's leading hubs for popular jazz music, rivaling such cities as Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. (New York and New Orleans are far at the top of the list.) On any given night, mid-week as well as weekends, local and touring artists stretch the boundaries of music — swing, funk, fusion, bebop, progressive and Latin jazz, as well as many other styles.
I make no apology for being a jazz fan. I was a mere 13 years old when I was introduced to the genre at a concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, whose jazz anthems “Take Five" and “Blue Rondo a la Turk" opened a whole new musical door to me.
When I personally met Brubeck more than 40 years later — the pianist died three months ago on the eve of his 92nd birthday — he recalled the very show, at Eugene's McArthur Court, at which I had become a disciple.
Over the years, I've become enamored with the music of many other jazz greats, from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Count Basie to Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. At jazz clubs and concert halls, including Bend's own Jazz at the Oxford series, I have found jazz artists to be far more approachable than most rock musicians. They freely discuss their art and are generous with their time in conducting workshops for budding student musicians.
Jazz, which has roots in Southern plantation spirituals and blues, is widely regarded as the most purely American genre of music. Born from a mix of African slave chants with the harmonies of English-language church hymns, it later absorbed Afro-Latin music and rhythms from the Caribbean. New Orleans became the hub. During the Prohibition era, ragtime melodies begat swing music; following World War II, syncopation and improvisation began incorporating elements of American popular music.
Jazz came to Portland during the World War II era, when large numbers of African-Americans came from the Southern states to work in the shipyards. According to historian Bob Dietsche, author of “Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz," north Portland's Williams Avenue was lined with jazz clubs that bustled day and night. Nationally known artists like Duke Ellington, T-Bone Walker, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk made it a regular stop on the circuit between California and Seattle.
Clubs come and go, but none in Portland has the longevity of Jimmy Mak's in the Pearl District. Owned by drummer Mel Brown, a former Motown session musician for artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, Jimmy Mak's is the city's premier lounge for live jazz nightly except Sundays.
Portland guitarist Dan Balmer plays every Monday; Brown's own band performs Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Weekends bring a variety of national acts. This month, that includes guitarist Stanley Jordan on Thursday (after having played in Bend tonight), singer Martha Reeves (of Vandellas fame) on March 14 and Northwest bluesman Curtis Salgado March 29-30.
Other Portland jazz clubs include downtown's Brasserie Montmartre; Ivories, Wilf's and the Camellia Lounge, all in the Pearl; the Blue Monk in the Belmont neighborhood; and Tony Starlight's in the Hollywood district. And hotel lounges — among them, the Benson, the Heathman, The Nines and the Modera — feature regular performances.
Rich jazz scene
“On a per capita basis, Portland has one of the richest scenes anywhere," said local saxophonist Patrick Lamb, whose single “Maceo!" is currently No. 3 on Billboard Magazine's national contemporary jazz chart.
“Portland just needs to be bold and say that! Because it's true! But we don't put a Los Angeles sheen on our music. We're somewhat humble in that way."
Lamb is one of many Portlanders who have made a name for themselves in international jazz circles. In addition to Balmer, trumpet player Chris Botti, vocalist Esperanza Spalding and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger are making splashes on the national scene.
Internationally acclaimed musicians who have settled in Portland include Brown, who has lived here since 1973; keyboard player George Colligan and guitarists Eddie Martinez and Jennifer Batten. That doesn't include such performers as Thomas Lauderdale's jazz-influenced Pink Martini or dynamic vocalist Storm Large. And many other names are worth acknowledging.
“Some notable talents seem to come out of here fairly regularly," said Lamb, a Portland resident since he was a youth, when his schoolteacher father moved the family to Oregon from Mississippi. “That's usually indicative of the culture of the city, and some density of the arts. Portland is a really creative community, friendly and diverse."
Lamb, who often performs in Bend and Sunriver, has a worldwide reputation. He tours with such artists as Gino Vanelli and Diane Schur, and in the past year alone has presented concerts in London and Milan, Tokyo and Jakarta.
Not surprisingly, he speaks passionately of his chosen path.
“Jazz is complex," he said. “It's like a great book, 'War and Peace,' versus the funnies.
“It's a deep music involving a lot of cerebral abilities and voices to play. It makes us think and get outside the box. It takes us away from our typical day-to-day activities. In fact, it takes us on a journey."
And Lamb is invested in leading young musicians into jazz, even as federal funding for the arts is challenging the future of music education.
“There's always going to be a few passionate people who keep the flames alive," Lamb said. “I do school workshops any time that I can, any time I'm available. It's a personal philosophy. If I'm around and can lend a hand, I will be there."
The Portland Jazz Festival is a sort of annual summation for the city's jazz scene. It's presented by a not-for-profit organization named PDX Jazz, established “to present, preserve and promote jazz in the Pacific Northwest," according to managing director Don Lucoff.
PDX Jazz presents a wide range of concerts throughout the year, exposing Portland-area audiences to both internationally acclaimed artists and local acts. Through jazz education and outreach programs, the agency strives “to inspire, educate and develop future jazz audiences for generations to come," said Lucoff.
Among its regular presentations is a monthly series at northwest Portland's Mission Theatre, featuring local musicians in tribute shows for jazz luminaries; and concerts at Jimmy Mak's, PCPA's ground-floor Art Bar, Tony Starlight's and the RiverPlace Hotel.
During the final weekend of the jazz fest, I caught three separate shows in the PCPA's Winningstad and Newmark theaters. As well, I circulated to several other venues to see Portland-area artists: vocalist Hallie Lorin and her trio at the Benson Hotel, Latin singer Jessie Marquez in a duo at The Nines, the extraordinary double bassist David Friesen at the Camellia Lounge, and small combos both at Ivories and at the Hotel Modera's Nel Centro lounge.
Garrett's performance — with a fist pump, he encouraged audience applause — was nothing short of astounding. Drawing heavily upon his recent “Seeds from the Underground" recording, the 16th album of his stellar career and one that earned him his fourth and fifth Grammy nominations (he won for a previous recording with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin in 2010), the 52-year-old Detroit native dazzled the audience.
Garrett cut his musical teeth working with such genre immortals as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders. His current band — with Brown on keyboards, Hunter on drums, Corcoran Holt on stand-up bass and Rudy Bird on percussion — puts a group of remarkably gifted musicians on stage together. The quintet is as tight as one can be.
I was not impressed by the improvisational notes struck two nights later by drummer Jack DeJohnette and his quartet. As much as I appreciate experimentation in jazz, this concert was over the top — scattered noise without a rhythm or melody that I could connect to.
In between however, I loved the Friday-night performance by the seven-piece Jazz Message, playing a tribute to the late drummer, composer and bandleader Art Blakey.
For more than a half-century, until his death in 1990, Blakey's band, the Jazz Messengers, was one of the most acclaimed ensembles in the world. The Portland festival inspired alumni of his band to regroup for a world-premiere show.
If one man stole the show, it was saxophonist Bobby Watson, a Kansas City native who played three sold-out shows last March at Bend's Oxford Hotel. Always dapper and playful, unmistakable in his horn-rimmed glasses and wide-brimmed hat, Watson anchored a horn line that also featured musical director Javon Jackson (sax), Eddie Henderson (trumpet) and Curtis Fuller (trombone).
The work of pianist George Cables and bass player Buster Williams was unforgettable, and the masterful Lewis Nash ably filled Blakey's old role on drums.
Stay and eat
During the jazz festival, I was pleased to be able to stay in the heart of downtown.
The luxurious Heathman hotel is a mere block from the PCPA. It's a bit pricier than many other downtown hotels, but I was willing to pay a bit more for the convenience — and the valet parking. This is a hotel where personal concierges handle your check-in and valet service, and where original Andy Warhol lithographs of zoo animals hang at each elevator landing.
The dining scene is continually evolving in Portland. In recent months, several new restaurants have opened in the heart of the city, and my visit gave me a chance to sample a range of establishments.
Raven & Rose made its debut in January in the historic 1883 Ladd Carriage House, opposite The Oregonian news building on Broadway. Much like a grand Irish tavern, complete with strains of Celtic music, it boasts gourmet “cottage cuisine." My favorite dishes were a cured salmon-and-crumpets appetizer and a rotisserie chicken entree with a parsnip-and-potato mash.
Local celebrity chefs are doing well in downtown Portland. The charcuterie platter at Little Bird, a casual bistro owned by Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon fame, was one of the best I've seen anywhere. Vitaly Paley's Imperial offers three hearty meals a day in the Hotel Lucia — quite a switch from his upscale Paley's Place in northwest Portland. Meanwhile, Tasty n Alder, a tapas-style restaurant from Toro Bravo's John Gorham, has won raves since opening on Jan. 30.
I felt a little jazzier at Oba! The bright lights of the nuevo Caribbean restaurant are just around the corner (actually five blocks) from Jimmy Mak's in the heart of the Pearl District.
But the creme de la creme on this visit was newly opened Quartet on the South Waterfront, a quick cab ride from the heart of downtown. Promising great food, hospitality, ambience (a wall of windows facing the Willamette River) and music, this restaurant (replacing Lucier) lives up to its billing. Hawaiian chef Adam Kekahuna combines a Pacific Rim heritage with a French culinary sensibility in dishes like jade halibut (on vegetable sushi) and sea scallops (on apple-leek risotto).
I think any Portland visitor can get jazzed about food like this.