Throughout the summer our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Charlie Porter took place at Montavilla Brew Works, located at 7805 SE Stark Street in Montavilla, on June 14, 2019. Montavilla Brew Works has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as our exclusive beer sponsor since 2015…
Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.
I’ve only been here…well, let’s see, it dates back to about six years or seven years ago when I lived in Portland for 11 months. And that’s when I was brand new to the scene and I had met Chuck Israels––actually I reached out to him and he was in the process of finding a new trumpet player anyway, because his former trumpet player left, so it kind of worked out. But then for personal reasons I ended up moving away.
While I was here, I met Alan Jones and I met Chuck Israels––how diverse can two groups be, you know? So that was pretty cool. And at that time there were like seven clubs open. But then for personal reasons I left and went up to Washington, but even though I was living up on Orcas Island, I was coming back once a month to do gigs in Portland. So I was still on the scene pretty much the entire time and then two years later after getting divorced I moved back here. So I’ve been here for almost four years. And so that’s my history in terms of how long I’ve lived here. But it’s funny because as soon as I moved here all the club started closing, so I thought maybe it had something to do with me (joking).
As far as the jazz scene goes there’s gigs that pop up from time to time whether they’re at the 1905 or there at Ben Fajen’s House Concerts, however there’s just not a whole lot of venues right now. But what’s nice about that is there’s always a ton of people coming out. So I see a lot of the same people over and over again and they’re really hungry for the music, you know. I’ll go check out shows that 1905 or some other places, but in terms of being connected on the scene through playing it’s unfortunately more limited than I would hope that it would be. There isn’t a deficit in terms of people wanting to hear music. That seems really strong.
Also we have a really great scene of youth playing the music there doesn’t seem to be any problem with that either. There’s plenty of young people wanting to play and it’s great that Alan (Jones) is making a space for them young musicians to perform over at Teutonic Wines with the music series that he’s putting on there, as well as mentoring young artists through his program, Alan Jones Academy of Music (AJAM).
Every person I see coming out of AJAM has something special going on if they are in there long enough because they get a piece of Alan (Jones) inside of them. And so in terms of getting tied into the community that way with the younger players, sometimes I teach at a jam and just being associated with Alan. I’ve met a lot of the younger players on the scene as well. So that’s been really cool.
In terms of community, it’s not really jazz related, but we also have a pretty good little community of trumpet players here in Portland. I teach trumpet and sometimes I’ll have these trumpet hangs at my house––I need to start doing this again––I invite younger trumpeters over and I take them through the whole practice routine just the way that I did when I was studying in Paris. I studied in Paris at the Conservatory for a year with Guy Touvron who was basically a prized pupil of Maurice Andre. So Guy used to teach these classes––and he still does––in the conservatory method of having everybody together in a classroom, playing for each other. By doing that it kind of enriches the sense of community that you have with all the trumpet players. Whereas over here in the United States by and large trumpet players are kind of at each other’s throats. You know, there are a lot of jokes actually about being a trumpet player because trumpet players tend to be very competitive. But I like that on this scene here in Portland all the trumpet players are cool and we all get along. It’s kind of like a Brotherhood of trumpet.
Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.
So I’m going to be releasing an album soon called Immigration Nation. The official release unfortunately isn’t going to be until October, but I’m going to place some of the material from that recording on this concert. The focus is basically all of us. It’s kind of twofold. It’s focusing on the history of our ancestry. Well specifically the people that have an immigrant ancestry history. So that won’t really apply obviously to Native Americans or even I think also you have to make a distinction between black Americans who were brought brought over through slavery because that wasn’t really immigration in the sense of moving of their own volition, right? So we have to make a distinction there but by and large everyone else is here because somebody decided to make a change and to move and to create a new life somewhere. And so this is kind of celebrating that. Celebrating the diversity that we have because of that it’s also celebrating the modern-day immigrant experience and struggles and hopefully inciting a little bit of empathy for that and giving us some common ground so that we know that we’re all kind of in this together.
I see that word immigration kind of be like a four letter word. You know, it’s like it’s been so tainted by bad media and the headlines in the news are kind of making me sick. So of course with the current political climate, I just felt like I needed to do something for this next album that wasn’t just music for music’s sake. That’s basically what that’s about and it gives me a chance to explore some of my own heritage too, which is cool.
So on the album when you listen to it, you’ll hear Lebanese influences. You’ll hear stuff that is coming out of what I am, which is Lebanese, Greek, Italian, and English. So yeah, but not limited to that.
Is there a story behind this project?
I wanted to do this project in New York. New York felt important to me because I lived there for 15 years and I had a lot of great musician friends out there. I’ve always wanted to do something with David Wong and we’ve been talking about it for a long time and he literally had two days available until he was going to be a not available for six months. And I also have a really, really, good friend Nick Biello who’s just one of the most burning saxophone players who you may not have ever heard. So anyway, the impetus was wanting to do something specifically with a couple of key players and the timing needed to be just right.
Are you doing stuff beyond Immigration Nation on the festival?
For sure, some stuff like the Korean music influenced stuff that I’m writing. My writing is kind of a musical diary––I can’t keep a diary to save my life. I sit down and write entry number three: Today I ate breakfast, you know, I just can’t do it. But the musical diary makes a lot of sense for me and it’s the only way I feel like I can process old ideas and get new ideas to come through. I got to get it rid of all the old ideas. So in fact, I have a pad literally in my shower. It’s a waterproof pad because that’s when I get the most ideas. My girlfriend bought it for me. It’s changed my life. Some of these songs were written in the shower. One of them was written on the airplane going to DC. I just did a fundraising gig for the DC jazz festival. I showed up and we just had just a tiny bit of time to rehearse, but we didn’t rehearse this one tune and funny enough, it was that tune that the audience liked the most of all the stuff, you know, but you never know. It’s just weird that way––written on the way to the gig. Like the story that Art Blakey tells about 19 year old Dizzy Gillespie, writing a tune on the back of a garbage can lid, it’s amazing. So I just had this memory as if I was there watching him do that.
Unlike Immigration Nation, this music doesn’t really have any kind of specific target. It’s just really different. I like riding with Concepts, you know. One of the songs is called Contrary Motions and it explores one line going up [sings the line], where as the whole Rhythm sections going down [singing]. It’s a real simple idea, but the whole tune kind of comes out. That nice for me. It’s like if I’m listening to a song and I can’t grab onto a concept and it’s just Randomness. Then it just doesn’t hold my attention. Yeah, so we might play a song or two from another project which is going to come up which will probably be the next recording project that I do and that’s going to be with Portland musicians. It’s going to be called Stranger Than Fiction: Songs from the American Sci-fi Songbook. I love sci-fi and music and I feel like you know growing up watching lots of sci-fi movies and TV shows. I feel like there’s a real wealth of music in that specific genre that hasn’t really been tapped into.
We’re probably going to do a couple of things from that as well. So maybe one thing from that I’d like to make it like half stuff from Immigration Nation.
Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?
A lot of these people are my friends. So of course, yeah, you know, great. I love Bobby (Torres) and I love his music. I’ve known Sherry (Alves) for a few years. She’s a great singer. I first worked with her up actually this camp that I teach at every year but you know what other than hearing her at that camp. I’ve never heard her do her own thing, especially hearing George, that is gonna be amazing. Some of these I have to admit I don’t know so that’s kind of a good sign. Yeah, it’s great to see a mix of things that are familiar and unfamiliar seems to be the perfect balance. I love how you guys are holding space for local groups.
One of the things that I feel like about other festivals don’t feature local acts in a way that actually improves or enriches the local Jazz scene, you know, it kind of treats them as if we aren’t really important.
While other festivals focus on people from out of town. My thinking is that George (Colligan) is one of the most killing musicians you could get anywhere. So you should have a feature of local musicians like those. You know what I’m saying? There are people that should be featured and should be given a prime-time spot on a festival. So I’m glad you guys are doing that. Let people know that we are all composers and music makers in our own right. Because all these people, you know, John Coltrane is not John Coltrane because he was doing Lester Young tributes, you know? Yeah, just you know, holding space for individuals to express themselves as individuals is important, you know, especially in music like this. Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece.
What’s your favorite Montavilla Brew Works beer?
It would have to be the Porter that I’m having right now. It might be the Bipartisan Porter. Yeah, coffee notes, definitely some coffee notes. What’s that one? Probably the Cascadian Dark Ale. Pretty good. I have to have at least two beers before I can give an honest answer. Yeah, I’d have to say the Porter compared to the CDA.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?
I guess the biggest thing would be to listen a lot and play what you hear like transcribing. It’s the intravenous if there was a way to like play the music at the highest level, that’s the way that all the older players did and I see a lot of younger players nowadays going straight to the books, are going straight to the how-to videos or to the in and they bypassed the way that seems like the longer way but it ends up actually being the shorter way because there’s so much context that you get out of playing along with something versus just, you know, getting one-dimensional transcript of it on a piece of paper.
So that would be the first thing that’s a that’s the first thing Wynton told me when I saw him when I was 13 He said go home and listen to Louis Armstrong and other players and play what you hear just play what you hear and Got me in the music faster than anything. Nobody had to tell me to love Louis Armstrong. I did just became self-evident. I just you know, I had that, you know, fire lit under me to listen to him in the first place from hearing how good Wynton sounded but then that’s just it when something is that great, it really is self-evident and you start to hear it, you just have to have somebody break down the wall and say hey check this out.
The other thing would be don’t do anything half-ass Do everything full-ass. Finish things you start. It took me a long time to figure that one out. You know, I’d half-write a song or I’d have to do this or half-practice. But the people that really get ahead they’re putting a hundred and ten percent into everything that they’re doing. So and Life’s too short to just do it halfway.
What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?
There’s lots of fans of the music here and there’s lots of people that want to make the music.
Yeah the bad or at least temporarily not good would be just having more venues but not having the venues. But again, maybe that’s even a good thing in a sense because it kind of stirs up the pot a little bit because it forces us all to find new venues. And maybe then the people that don’t get as much exposure through the previous venues will get more exposure through these new venues, you know, I mean as see the double edged sword of having someone awesome like Mel Brown is he becomes the staple and then people only want to go out and see Mel Brown every week, you know, and but there’s there’s always new people coming up like people need to know about Andres people need to know about Charlie Porter or whoever, you know, yeah, like so I think we all need to have our shot basically at being able to get on the scene and this kind of does help that in a sense.
Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contributions to Portland jazz during their careers?
The only thing I can say honestly about that is that well, you know Mel’s on my my last record. Mel Smiles, I wrote it for Mel. I saw I got the pleasure of seeing Mel do kind of a four drummer duel. Alan was on it and Carlton was on it and so was Christopher (Brown). There was lots of fancy drumming going on loud drumming and but the drumming that really caught my eye the whole night was Mel. He just had this kind of this delicate touch and this real sensitivity musically that was just super attractive and I found that to be the case every time that I watch him play as well as the joy in watching him play––just his smile is infectious, which is why I called that song Mel Smiles.
So I knew that I definitely wanted to do something with Mel after hearing them. Even the first time and I got to play with his sextet, you know, back in the old Jimmy Mac’s when it was open that was kind of that was one of my first experiences hearing Mel was actually sitting in with his band. So I hadn’t really heard them before that and he was super cool and nice about it.
Gordon Lee’s arrangements, I don’t know much about Gordon Lee, but I know he’s a hell of a writer and arranger and I really respect what he does with that. I’m sure that’s partially at the core of that group sounding the way that they do, but also just hearing Mel talk about stories, you know playing with the Beatles and like just all the crazy stuff, all the ladies.
Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.