For the love of jazz: Commissioner Nick Fish’s lasting legacy – By Marcia K. Hocker

For the love of jazz: Commissioner Nick Fish’s lasting legacy – By Marcia K. Hocker

The late Commissioner Nick Fish said, “I have always believed that government can be society’s greatest force for good and that together we can do amazing things. As a member of the Council, I have insisted that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, and I have focused on partnership, collaboration and shared success. We can rise to this occasion and embrace inclusivity, sustainability and shared prosperity for all.” 

Nick won many awards during his twelve years on the Portland City Council including three from the arts community. They include the Angel Award from White Bird, the Community Partner Award from Metropolitan Youth Symphony and the McClendon Makarounis Award for Jazz Advocacy from PDX Jazz. He raised funds for and attended the Mount Hood Jazz Festival, PDX Jazz Festival, and Montavilla Jazz Festival in addition to Jazz concerts in Portland parks even though his demanding schedule often only allowed him to attend one or two sets. 

Recognizing that he was a champion for the Jazz community, he was given the title of “Portland’s Jazz Commissioner” by veteran Jazz Radio Host, Marcia Hocker. She was convinced to do so after he spontaneously joined her Monday 6-8pm show during one of KMHD’s membership drives. At that time, they were then located at Mt. Hood Community College. Nick told his wife, Portland State University Professor Patricia Schechter that one of his special Jazz experiences was “spending deejay time with Marcia on her program.” Nick revealed that he fell in love with Jazz when he heard the iconic Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson during a visit to Ireland.”

The United Nations Education and Science Cultural Organization-UNESCO, believes the culture of Jazz breaks down barriers and creates opportunities for mutual understanding and tolerance. It is a vector for freedom of expression, unity and peace while reducing tensions between individuals, groups and communities. Jazz fosters gender equality encouraging artistic innovation and improvisation while empowering young people from marginalized communities.

In alignment with these values, the mission of Montavilla Jazz, a nonprofit 501©3 organization, is to support and strengthen local music culture and enrich our community by showcasing the best of Portland talent.

In recognition of the enormous, enthusiastic contribution from Nick Fish, the Montavilla Jazz Festival will present, for the first time, the Nick Fish Jazz Community Award to Ron Steen in celebration of their tenth anniversary. This will take place on Saturday, September 2, 2023, at the Alberta Rose Theatre.

Submitted by: Marcia K. Hocker, a Montavilla Jazz Board Member and radio host currently on KBOO Community Radio 90.7 FM with Jazz Lives! which airs on alternate Wednesdays from 12:08-2 PM. George E. Hocker, Jr. was the Public Advocate for Commissioner Fish for six and a half years.

Ron Steen: In service to the community – By Lynn Darroch

Ron Steen: In service to the community – By Lynn Darroch

In 1983, the jazz drummer and bandleader Ron Steen defined his entire career in one sentence:

“The only goal I have,” he said, “is to play some honest, true music.”

And he has, whether on the road with jazz legends such as Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, or in Portland with visiting artists that have included 20th century masters Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, and Eddie Harris.   But for most of his career, Steen has played that honest, true music with his highly skilled Portland colleagues — a community he helps to sustain through the jam sessions he has led without interruption for 40 years. 

It’s for such contributions that he is receiving the inaugural Nick Fish Jazz Community Award from the Montavilla Jazz Festival. He’ll be presented the award in a brief ceremony before Darrell Grant’s “Pianos in the Dark” concert at the Alberta Rose Theatre on September 2, 2023.

That may be the crowning accolade for a drummer who received a “Portland Jazz Master” award from PDX Jazz in 2021, is a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame, and was named the 2020 Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Those honors all paid tribute to the impact he’s had on the local scene — an impact that goes far beyond his superb musicianship.

Portland has a remarkably active jazz scene for a city of its size and distance from the centers of cultural power. And though he is quick to deflect attention from his achievements and credit his colleagues, Ron Steen has played a leading tole in maintaining that status.

Because at the heart of every vibrant jazz scene is a jam session — a place where established musicians can try new things and interact with peers, while younger and aspiring players can test their readiness and learn from experienced artists. 

And every successful session needs a leader like Steen, who knows the community and whose voice is respected. The sessions he leads — currently three a week — are a model of inclusivity and an opportunity, he says, “for people to come and express themselves.”

Steen, who was born in 1949, was brought up in that tradition by supportive musicians from Portland’s first Golden Age of jazz in the 1940s and ‘50s. 

“We’d wait for hours just to get to sit in,” he recalls. But it wasn’t time wasted.

“You get to listen to guys who are better than you,” he explains. “And the ‘hang’ is just as important as the music. It’s not music school. It’s a cultural thing.”

That cultural information was passed along by the many veterans he worked with, like the bassist Omar Yeoman, whose advice ranged from the sartorial to the musical.

“‘Look at how I look, man,’ he’d say. ‘I’ve got this suit, and you look all raggedy,’” Steen recalls. 

“He also told me, ‘Stop thinking! When you’re thinking, you’re dragging. You’re supposed to just play!’”

Steen laughs, both with chagrin at the inexperienced player he was and with joy for lessons so freely given. And even though conditions have changed drastically since he first sat in at the Upstairs Lounge at age 16, he strives to keep that tradition alive.

Primarily through jam sessions.

Over the years, they helped develop a number of artists who have gone on to wider recognition, including international trumpet star Chris Botti, former Wynton Marsalis bassist and Juilliard instructor Ben Wolfe, and current Portland residents George Mitchell, who tours with Diana Ross, and bassist Phil Baker, a member of Pink Martini.

In 2005, Steen expanded his sessions to include a Singers Jam, where a set with the night’s featured vocalist is followed by an opportunity for other singers to sit in.

That decision owes a lot to the impact of two vocalists on his career. First, the singer/pianist Terri Spenser gave young Steen his first big break when she took him from busboy to musician at the Benson Hotel.

“I met her when I was 17,” he remembers. “She was having a party at her house in Lake Oswego  … i’d never met anybody like that; she was beautiful and intellectual and so gracious, it was like meeting Jackie Kennedy! But she heard me sitting in and hired me … and then we were working at the Benson Hotel — where I was a busboy! 

“I never did another job besides music after that. And it’s always been jazz.” 

The vocalist who most directly inspired his singers sessions, however, was the late Armonia Gilford. They are a way of honoring her memory.

“She was a fledgling vocalist when she started,” he recalls, “but she refused to accept that singers are anything less than other musicians. I was guilty of that myself,” he adds. “But half the population are women, and women are the majority of jazz singers. And that’s a good thing!” He laughs. “You don’t want a whole lot of masculine energy up there. And why segregate ourselves by gender?”

Or by generation — another chasm his jam sessions are designed to bridge. And they’re a way to give younger musicians the kind of boost he received.

“My generation had it much easier than kids in their 20s today,” he says, “because some of the gigs are paying the same as when I was coming up. They can work two gigs seven nights a week, and they’re still not able to pay off student loans, and they have to have roommates just to make the rent … In the 1980s, a jazz musician could afford to buy a house in Portland.

“I wish it was feasible to hire more younger players,” he says.

But he’s trying to make up for that by at least offering them musical opportunities similar to those he received.

In addition, the jam sessions are a way for him to discover young, upcoming artists who he then hires for the Singers Jams. “It’s a way to share the wealth, and a way to keep it fresh for me, too,” adds the congenial and supportive host.  

But in the end, as in the beginning, he’s doing it for the music.

“I feel extremely privileged to have the ability to play jazz,” he says. “I’ll never have enough time to repay all the joy I’ve felt being involved in this art form. There’s no greater honor than being able to carry it on.”

By Lynn Darroch

Artist Spotlight: Ezra Weiss at Bipartisan Cafe

Artist Spotlight: Ezra Weiss at Bipartisan Cafe

Throughout the summer the our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Ezra Weiss took place at Bipartisan Cafe, located at 7901 SE Stark St., on June 14, 2019. Bipartisan Cafe has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as a Festival Sponsor since 2014…


Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.

I moved here in 2001 right after finishing my studies at Oberlin. It’s been really neat to see the scene develop over the years. I used to go down to hear Mel Brown play at the original Jimmy Mak’s every Tuesday and Thursday night during my first year in Portland.


I never, back then, would have imagined that I’d be playing on the same festival as Mel. I feel very honored to be a part of this festival. Mel’s been a big influence on me. I’ve had a few chances to play with him over the years and that’s been really cool. I always get nervous and revert to being 22 years old. It’s really weird actually all of a sudden I forget how to play because I get so nervous. It’s been interesting seeing clubs come and go during that time though. Recently, seeing the younger jazz musicians coming up is really great.


Portland has a flourishing creative music and avant guard scene, as well as a straight ahead scene. I’ve been lucky to make friends in both. I’ve been blessed to work with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and teach at Portland State University.

Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.

Well, it is an original suite of songs and it’s the most personal piece I’ve ever written. It’s about being a dad in a time of political disaster. It’s written for big band and we’re celebrating the release of the album which was recorded at the first performance back in December of 2018 at the Alberta Abbey. The release date for the album, on Origin Records, is August 16th. I don’t think it’s going to be performed as a complete suite very often because it’s really challenging to perform logistically. This performance at Montavilla will probably be one of the only times we perform it in its entirety. I’m super excited and grateful for this opportunity.

Is there a story behind this project?

It was something I originally imagined in 2015. I got the RACC project grant to write it and then things politically in this country went south. That really affected the shape of the project. I probably wouldn’t even have attempted it if I had the idea after 2016, but because I already had the grant and the idea for it, I felt like I had to keep going in the face of it all.


I applied for a similar grant in 2015 but didn’t get it. I fixed the proposal and then the election happened. When I started writing it, I was still trying to make it work with the politics of 2015 because that’s what I had originally conceived. About part way through the process just stopped, it didn’t work anymore. I would hear all these voices in my head telling me all the things that didn’t work about it. Those voices in my head ended up becoming a part of the suite. There were all these issues that I felt I needed to be addressed, that I didn’t need to address in 2015, at least not in the same way. So that was a sort of revelation.


This is also the first I’ve written for my own big band and that was really exciting. Up till now I’ve always written for other people’s big bands. When you’re doing that–writing for more of a generic big band–you don’t think about the specific person that’s playing that part, you just think about the instrument. When I’m writing for my own big band I can write something that’s going to feature say, Renato Caranto, or something that’s going to allow John Savage to do his thing on flute. It totally opened up this whole new world for me as a composer.


I’ve come to realize it’s really special to get to do this again at Montavilla Jazz Festival, it’s one of the rare places where this kind of work does draw an audience. A lot of people I’ve talked to you now that the CD is out that say: “We think the CD is awesome, we’ll put it out there, but don’t get your hopes too high about how it’s going to do because people just don’t have the appetite for it, everyone’s kind of fatigued”. However, at Montavilla it’s a really special crowd that is seeking the music, seeking original things, seeking emotional stuff. That’s really cool. Montavilla is probably my favorite festival because of that.

Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?

All of them. I don’t know in reality how many I’ll make it to you because I’ll be stressing out about my big band and choir and making sure everybody shows up and all the parts are in order and stuff like that. I’ll probably be freaking out a little bit.


Some of the artists I know pretty well, some of them I don’t know. I’d love to hear all of them. Certainly Mel Brown and Gordon Lee with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, with Gordon doing the arrangements, that’s going to be cool. When I was younger, I took some lessons with Gordon. Mel and Gordon’s group the Mel Brown Septet had a real impact on me.

What is your favorite Bipartisan pie?

They have a strawberry rhubarb pie that is both my wife’s and my favorite. As a matter of fact, my wife and I had our first date here at Bipartisan Cafe a little over 10 years ago.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?

Keep the music first. Don’t play for applause because you have no control over whether someone will like what you’re doing. You have to make music that is important to you. and it takes a long, long time to develop that. There is an Ira Glass quote that I’ll paraphrase, it’s basically this: “You’re going to be disappointed in yourself for a while before you make any art that you feel good about and you just have to allow yourself to experience that”. If you can keep the music as the most important thing, then your ego will be able to handle that.

What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?

There are great musicians here making great music. The economics of it however are not sustainable in its current state. That’s one of the reasons that I appreciate Montavilla because musicians are actually getting paid and valued. I used to try to book as many gigs as I could. I basically stopped booking and have chosen to focus on teaching and writing for the most part because it’s not sustainable. There’s a lot of factors of why this is the case. We’re competing with Netflix, that’s one factor. Jazz is often times marketed like a history museum instead of like something new. I am all for history museums, but that doesn’t work for me because my music is not a history of music. Also, pop music reinforces people to like things they already like.


I feel that the jazz venue as a hang is less common. The 1905 is a hang, and some others, but too often there have been too many clubs where they book the artist for a night and they expect the artist to bring all their friends and family to their gig. The only people that are coming to the club are friends and family of the artist. That’s not sustainable. I’m not trying to dis current clubs. I’m speaking about the ecosystem. It’s not really anyone’s fault. It’s just this is what’s happened. It’s just turning out not to be sustainable.


If you want the club to be a hang, you need to be able to go to the club, not know who’s playing there, but know that you’re going to hear some good music and have a good experience. You can do that at The Village Vanguard in New York. I will happily go hear whoever is playing at the Village Vanguard tonight. I think the clubs need to invest in having a hang and allowing artists the opportunity to grow a hang.


The original Jimmy Mak’s was a hang. It was partly because Mel started with his Tuesday night band. Every Tuesday night people started coming in, but it started from nothing and then it gradually built, and built, and built, until they eventually out-grew the club.

Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contributions to Portland jazz during their careers?

I mentioned that I studied with Gordon, but in terms of their contributions to Portland Jazz, they have been at it for decades. Mel built up Jimmy Mak’s from a bar to a world-class music venue. And I remember the first time I came out to Portland, going to Jimmy Mak’s my first night in town, and hearing Thara Memory, Renato Caranto, Stan Bock,  Warren Rand, Gordon Lee, Andre St. James, and Mel Brown. Knowing that they were there every Tuesday night, I immediately said, “this is incredible, I’m going to go there every Tuesday night”. And I did. I would on Thursdays too, to hear Louis Pain, Dan Balmer, Renato, Stan, and Mel. Being able to hear them play that music live week-to-week over the course of years had a huge impact. It gave me a different sense that you don’t get from hearing those songs on the great records. Hearing Mel do some of those Art Blakey songs live every week, I got a different level of respect for the music.

Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019 Saturday Headliner
Ezra Weiss Big Band: We Limit Not the Truth of God (artist page)
Saturday, August 17, doors open: 7:55 p.m., set begins: 8:10 p.m.
Saturday Headliner Tickets, RSVP on Facebook!

Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.

Artist Spotlight: Mel Brown & Gordon Lee at Portland Piano Company

Artist Spotlight: Mel Brown & Gordon Lee at Portland Piano Company

Throughout the summer the our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Mel Brown and Gordon Lee took place at Portland Piano Company, located at 8700 NE Columbia Blvd., on July 5, 2019. Portland Piano Company has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as a Gold Level Partner since 2014…


Describe the project you’re bringing to the festival.

GL: Well, I’m very happy to be playing with Mel who has played with me in so many situations–thousands of situations–over the years. But this is actually the first time that we will have played my music together in a big band format. Though I believe he’s heard the big band and a couple of times, and Mel has played smaller group versions of some of these songs, because I’ve been working with the Mel Brown Septet for all these years, and before that the sextet, and before that that quintet–we keep multiplying, you know. Mel has played some of these songs, but I change the arrangements, the instrumentation, depending on who is playing the music. It’ll be exciting for me to do this music with Mel.


MB: Yeah, it will be exciting and new for me too because I don’t know what the charts are going to look like.


GL: They’re going to look okay (laughs).


MB: I’m looking forward to seeing the charts because, you know, I’ve been listening to the CD, and I’m reminded that when we used to rehearse, we would get together at Gordon’s house–this is with the quintet, and later with the sextet–we would take the music and pull it completely apart and put it back together again. Within an hour’s time we would come out with ten or twelve well-arranged tunes. The way we rehearsed, we didn’t just sit there and jam. We wanted to know exactly how the music was going to be played. We played it very slowly, and we would work out the quirks, and then play as fast as we were able, and then we would work at the tempo it was intended to be played on the gig. There were no solos in rehearsal so that when we went to work you didn’t know what that part was going to sound like, and that kept everyone’s attention. No one came to the gig and went to sleep.


You know, Gordon writes some difficult stuff but certain times you need a magnifying glass to see it because on his charts he would write so small!


GL: No, no, I use Finale now.


MB: Oh, yeah. Well that’s different. Well, that’s great.

Can you describe what it will be like to work with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) on this project?

GL: I’m excited to be working with the PJCE because I did a concert just a couple of months ago with them that I feel came off really well, which is great because it’s a jazz composers orchestra. They don’t want just the standard stock arrangements. They want something that’s going to be different. I’ve always thought of my writing style as a little different, and I think Mel would agree. Honestly, I’m so used to people looking at my music the first time reading through it and, seriously, they just go, “what the?” That’s almost always the first reaction and I say: “Let’s play it a few more times and you’ll start to hear it and then you’ll start to get it”. It happens so often that I expect that now.


I write a lot of counterpoint in my music for large ensemble. So that’s a little different than some jazz arrangers where everything happens as an ensemble. I’ll pit the first tenor against the second tenor sometimes which takes some getting used to.

Is there a story behind project?

GL: We’ll play a song that I played a lot with Mel in the septet called Vicious Cycle, and we will do a big band arrangement of that. I wrote that song when I was living in New York and it was a dog-eat-dog, very competitive scene. I was trying to survive working as a musician. “Vicious Cycle” was very appropriate for describing that scene at the same time. I think it’s sort of an upbeat positive song actually, but to me, the meaning behind it is you have to persevere. There’s also a pun there because the cycle of chords is not easy. So it is a vicious cycle of chords as well. We’re very fortunate to have John Gross and Renato Caranto in the band, and I’m going to try to match them up, maybe more than once. So we’ll have some serious tenor battles. Neither one of those guys is a slouch. When they square off there could be some heavy weight punching happening.

Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?

MB: I’d like to see everybody on the festival because the problem that I have around town here is that I’ve got the steady gigs and I don’t get the chance to get out and see these other groups play. By the time I finish up and pack up the drums, they’re packing up. It will be interesting to see it from beginning to end because some of these groups, I don’t know what they sound like. Oh yeah, it’s going to be good.


GL: I notice here that a few of the people here on this program were students of both Mel and I. Sherry Alves was a student of mine. Dana Reason was a student of mine. Ian Christensen, I knew him when he was this little young tenor player. He was at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp I think for several years.


So, you know Mel Brown and I had a jazz camp at Western Oregon University and I believe Ian was a student at the camp more than a few times. It’s cool when you get to be our age and you start to see your students as professionals. These are talented people, and look, they’re doing something with the music!


Sherry started as a counselor and then she went on to become the camp coordinator, and she also ran the vocal portion of the camp.


MB: I’m trying to put that list together of all our former students at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp because we did that thing together for nineteen years. We got the gig because of Gordon. Gordon got the job teaching down at Western Oregon. And we got the camp started there and all of a sudden the name Mel Brown Jazz Camp got really big. Yeah, and the next thing you know we were competing with Portland State, Mount Hood, Clark and we began to draw in all the best of the young High School talent down to Monmouth. So next thing I know I start getting phone calls: “Hey Mel, if you need an extra trumpet player or an extra tenor player to come teach at your camp give me a call”.

We’re here at Portland Piano Company, they provide the Steinway for our main stage. Tell us about the piano. 

GL: You know, I remember really enjoying playing this piano at the festival before and it’s so great that Portland Piano is our piano sponsor. There is a huge difference between playing a piano and playing a keyboard. So I relish the opportunity to play a real piano that responds. There’s a different energy coming out of an acoustic piano and I always prefer that that sound if possible. So I am so thankful to have that opportunity.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?

MB: That’s a good a question, because I would be speaking from my experience of what I did to get to where I am right now. The kids of today did not grow up the way I grew up. You have kids that are going to school and they learn to play their instrument really well, but they have not had a chance to work six nights a week playing in a band five hours a night. And they may not have the opportunity from that type of experience to learn how to work well with other musicians in a band. 


I’ve noticed that people don’t spend as much time practicing time like drummers do. Certain guitar players or saxophone players, they practice scales and everybody in the band might feel the time differently, and the first thing they’re going to do is blame the drummer, you’re dragging, you’re speeding up. So what we used to do with the quintet, and Gordon will tell you this, if someone in the band did something like that I would stop playing and leave him out there on a couple of choruses by himself. That’s when you’ll find out how well you play time by yourself.


So practicing playing time is key, but also knowing that this is a business. Just because you are an excellent musician, that doesn’t mean that if you get a record contract, you’re gonna make a million dollars. You have to deal with managers, the people booking shows, and the whole bit. If it’s something that you really like to do, please pursue the musical life, but you have to have something as a back-up plan. If you can’t make it in the music business, what do you do? So don’t lose the dream but also have other dreams that you can get into.


GL: Well from my perspective I think what’s consistent about creative music is that improvisation is very important. All the great composers going back hundreds of years, they were great improvisers and they got a lot of their ideas for composing their music from improvising. There should be a big focus on rhythm, your rhythm should be perfect or as solid as it can be. You need a complete understanding of melody and a complete understanding of harmony. I try to find what’s consistently present in a great hip-hop artist nowadays, in Miles Davis in the 80s, and in Coltrane in the 60s, in Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk in the 40s. The one thing that all these people have in common is their rhythm is or was great. They all have a great way of playing time and they really understand harmony and melody. So I think it’s important for young people to employ that understanding, use it in whatever style they want, but that it’s really important to understand those basics.

What’s your take on the jazz scene in Portland?

GL: When I first came here in 1977 because I had become friends with Richard Burdell, a trumpet player. I met Richard at Indiana University when I was a student playing jazz. He talked about Portland like it was the promised land. He would say: “There’s so many gigs and great players”. So I came here and I immediately fell into this thing, I started playing with all these really great players. So then by the 80s I had moved to New York and lived there for five years, I came back to Portland because the pace was slower, it was easier, it wasn’t as expensive. I think that it’s the lifestyle that attracts so many great musicians like Leroy Vinegar, Dave Frishberg, or Randy Porter, you know, great musicians that would stand out in any scene anywhere, and yet they live here because there’s something about the lifestyle. They realize maybe they’re not going to be rich and famous, but they’re going to have a good life and they’re going to play good music with good musicians. That’s a very rare thing. I don’t think there’s many other places, well maybe in the world, but certainly in America where that’s true.


MB: You know, I think what has happened is that there are a lot of people here in Portland that really enjoy the music and they like the idea of having places to go to hear the music, but they’re not going to be the first one to make a move. When I first got back here from New York in ’75 they had hardly anything going on around town jazz-wise. So I just went out and rented a place not far from the Crystal Ballroom. I was a big fan of Michael Corleone from The Godfather. I started something on a Sunday from three o’clock until eight o’clock, because here in Portland, in the winter time it rains, and after the football game, and after church, what do you do? You stay inside. But there was no place for guys that wanted to play so I just took my own money and rented a place––I think it’s a tuxedo place now over by I-405. People said: “Hey, Mel Brown came back and he’s the drummer that was with the Temptations, let’s see what’s going on”. So I started a group, a quintet, with a piano player from a group called Pleasure. We had a bass player who was a student at Mount Hood Community College, that was Essiet Essiet, and we had George Lawson playing alto, and I had Thara Memory playing trumpet, and myself.


We charged a dollar a head to come in and after a couple of weeks, I was paying the guys like eighty-five dollars per musician. Someone says: “This guy came back from New York, this black dude, and he’s semi-famous, let’s start something over here like what he’s doing”. So all of a sudden there was a place that was over by the old Candlelight Room and they started having sessions on Sunday: “Let’s compete with them over there”. Okay, cool, I thought, at least there’s another place opening up. That’s when I decided to change it up, I went to a place called the Prima Donna that was right on the corner, an Italian restaurant, and I started to play four nights a week. 


Then we had this place that eventually turned into the Jazz Quarry, they started having music. Somebody else started having some music at another place and all of a sudden the competition thing got to be real strong. I said: “Okay, I’m going to Japan with the Supremes. I’ll leave Thara in charge”. And then eventually I came back and things were not running as well as I would have liked, and I jumped back into it again.


At that time I wanted to do something to get away from the Motown thing. I love Art Blakey. So we started the group in ’86 with me and Gordon, Michael York, and Tim Gilson, and Thara. We started playing at this place called The Hobbit and what happened was that the band was so strong, that I wanted the group to do a show kind of like we did in Motown, which meant once we start playing we don’t stop. We used to play for two and a half hours non-stop, but you never knew what was going to come next. We didn’t just play tunes where everybody takes a solo and then we move on to the next song. We would have maybe two soloists and then maybe Tim (on bass) would set up something for the next tune. I did that on purpose because most of the time if you get down to a bass solo people start talking, then you have to get their attention again. My thing was that if you have to go to the bathroom, go now or you might miss something. We had everybody’s attention.


Then all the horn players in town starting trying to compete with what we were doing. At that time everybody was playing in trios in the small clubs. Gradually the horn players started getting together, and they started forming big bands like the Mount Hood Kicks Big Band and other groups. Yeah, and by building the scene we got most of the musicians really working. These guys are saying, “this is great, I’m starting to make some money now, I met a lady who’s got a nine-to-five job, I’ve got some kind of backup, I’ve got a house I can stay in, I’m not staying in an apartment sharing it with four or five other people” like we used to do in New York.


And plus you can go outside and see grass, you don’t have a train running outside your door. And then other musicians are thinking, “Hey, why don’t we move here to Portland?”


In Portland we welcomed musicians from New York and the East Coast because it’s somebody new the jazz community can learn from. They would say: “Hey man, nice to see you come into town, if you need a place to stay you can stay at my place until you get on your feet”. Musicians welcomed each other. There wasn’t a backstabbing type of thing like in some scenes.


That’s what caused the change musically around here. After a certain period of time of a lot of musicians who couldn’t get into the studio in L.A. started moving up here because they have relatives or they look at music scene and they think, “Hey, I kind of like this”. In Portland people like each other, they help each other out, whereas in L.A., it was totally different. In L.A. it was like: “Hey, listen, I’m in the studio if I get you a gig, you owe me. So next time you get a gig, you better call me or I’m going to defriend you”. And all of a sudden they started moving up here.


We didn’t have the social media thing, people just knew where we were playing because of the regularity. That’s what’s missing right now. We just need more venues.

Mel Brown and Gordon Lee with the PJCE (artist page)
Sunday, August 18, doors open: 8:00 p.m., set begins: 8:10 p.m.
Sunday Headliner Tickets, RSVP on Facebook!

Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.

Artist Spotlight: Dana Reason at Montavilla Sewing Centers

Artist Spotlight: Dana Reason at Montavilla Sewing Centers

Throughout the summer the our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Dana Reason took place at Montavilla Sewing Centers, located at 8326 SE Stark Street in Montavilla, on July 14, 2019. Montavilla Sewing Centers has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as a Concert Level Sponsor since 2015…


Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.

I’ve come up to Portland several times working with Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series and working with several of the different musicians that are involved with that organization, namely Michael Gamble, Matt Hannafin and Catherine Lee. Sometimes they get to come down to Corvallis and do gigs down there at Interzone Cafe, Site of Sound, OSU Noontime concerts, Bombs away, to name a few. It’s always been my hope that people coming in to our town can know that there’s another home base for them in Corvallis where they can play or crash at someone’s house. I always think of my involvement is larger than myself and my own work. We’re all working artists, we all wear many hats. So when there’s a possibility to share a gig or something like that or promote someone else’s work, I see it as my artistic responsibility to support my colleagues.


Before I moved to Oregon I was in San Diego and Los Angeles County area as well. I had an opportunity to come up to the Willamette Valley and I got the job teaching at Oregon State University in 2008.

Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.

The title Torque Songs is sort of a play on “torch songs”. When we think about torch songs, we think about a kind of sentimentality around things, an emotional investment. I’m very interested in thinking about ways of representing female and female-identified voices in not only jazz music but in non-traditional experimental kinds of music. I see Torque Songs as an opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. Historically we’ve seen women in jazz music as piano players and singers, but maybe not as much as the lead improviser or the composer of a group. So I’m taking this opportunity to re-examine “torch” songs. Torque is a physical principle around centralization, and let’s say tension, but things move if we decentralize them, then the variability changes, the mechanism changes. I’m thinking about women’s work in particular, about torque––meaning there’s a bit of tension in torque––and what does that mean when women are no longer the muse, as they are in torch songs, where they are the subject written about as objects of feeling and sensing. We’re here at Montavilla Sewing Center today and it makes me think about threads. Female work or female-identified creativity is the backbone of many things that are not necessarily in your face, but quietly working. I think about the notion of changing things and there’s a lot of hope and optimism on that front as well.


Last summer I was commissioned to create An Apple for My Teacher with the Improvisers Summit of Portland (2018) and several of the performers [for Torque Songs: Holland Andrews, Alessa DeRubeis, John Savage, and artist Melody Owen] worked with me on that project. I like the idea of many voices on my projects. So I like to create templates for the musicians in my projects, but I also want to honor their practice in what I’m trying to do. So on stage we’ll have piano (myself), bass (Todd Sickafoose) and drums (James West), the nucleus is the piano trio, and then add to that a vocalist (Holland Andrews), guitar (Mike Nord) flute (John Savage) and also he’ll double on saxophone. We will play off those orchestral elements and have Alissa DeRubeis on her synthesizer with pre-made samples that I want her to have, and she will loop some things but then also modulate those with her synthesizer––she’s such a sensitive player. When we’ve worked together before I loved how she would understand when I wanted a space to grow and she was so tuned in to the organic way I work and write. It’s always a bit risky, you know, things are not completely teased out in my work because I like the idea of “the making of the now”. I really want to have those players be in that mindset. It’s not slick, I really like it a little bit gritty. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think that the people playing with me have the answers. They have a lot of questions usually like, oh my gosh, is this really going to work out?


Visually I have two components. OSU art student, Paris Myers will have some premade animation material and she’s going to be using an iPad where she’s going to be drawing in real time over the animation. Artist Melody Owen, is also providing video art footage for visual remixing and I also have footage from a choreographer/dancer that I’ve worked with Paula Josa Jones and she will be lending her footage from some of the dance that she’s done called Fluid. We will be reimagining that as well. So cutting up some of that into the images and using those images in the animation. And again, we’re demonstrating women’s work, but we’re telling many stories. We’ll have quotes and stories that are processed through A.I. apps. We take text and reconfigure those texts (lyrics/text setting by Allison Layague) and we figure out what the lyrical mechanism is within the texts. One of the reasons I’m using that is because a lot of artists’ work is both carefully crafted and simultaneously open to serendipity. We don’t have a lot of control, we just know that we’re doing our work and hopefully the work can connect with people and kind of come full circle for me. Having a reception of the work creates that holistic sensibility for the artist. It gives the artist more courage to keep going. It’s like you throw a stone [into a body of water] and those ripples [resonate outward] and this is how I see the life of a working artist. So that’s why I like the idea of variables. So we think things are getting set in motion, but there’s always an opportunity for them to be shape-shifted. And again when Paris will be working live, she’ll also be digging in the sounds. So we’ll have opportunities to see the visuals as well and have moments in the work that we can respond accordingly. If someone is totally moved in that space, in that contingent moment, then they need to take that space and do a solo thing. So being sensitive to the temperature of the room all at all times. So different artists I’m culminating collaged text from include Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and the Bauhaus artist, Otti Berger, she used to touch fabrics because she had a sensitivity to the touching. We’re in the Sewing Center and thinking about the tactility of fabric and larger sensitivities in the moment.

Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?

I know Gordon Lee from playing piano because I actually went to him to do some private coaching with him. So I got some lessons from him on rethinking harmonizations. So that’s wonderful to see him there.


I heard Ezra’s music at Oregon State went Doug Detrick brought his project with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, Maxville to Vanport. I loved the harmonies that he writes and that’s a very beautiful band.


I know Wayne’s playing because he’s been down in Corvallis playing at Squirrels. It’s like a restaurant and club and a pretty funky space.


I just met George Colligan when I did a little workshop with ReSoundings Trio at Portland State University and I got to meet him and then of course right after, I went and watched a whole bunch of YouTubes of his playing because it’s always exciting to hear what people are doing.


And of course Mel Brown, I mean he’s a staple.

Talk about a little more about the connection of work to our sponsor here, Montavilla Sewing Center.

My mother’s mother came over from the Czech Republic and she used to actually make her own cloth out of flax, and literally loom the cloth and then do all the embroidery on the cloth. So I’ve got things from her like bed sheets with embroidered peacocks on them. I grew up around that knowing that her hands did a lot of things (family farming, building and sewing). For me, this is one way of demonstrating creativity. I was speaking with my mother and she said that my grandmother never used a pattern and basically sewed all her clothes. My mother didn’t know it know it was “high culture”, but my mother always had her own original clothing. It wasn’t seen like that, it was seen like making something from nothing right to survive as immigrants in Toronto, Canada. My mother herself sewed, she’d sew me all the Barbie clothes and I always had like little fancy fun things and she’d sew her own clothing as well. And then my husband’s family still has one of the oldest running bridal shops in downtown Toronto started in 1944 called Becker’s Bridal, and they have designed bridal gowns since the 1940s, family-run. So they have in their basement four-six sewing machines and their main floor is where you pick out the gowns. It’s the oldest running Bridal Shop in Canada still to this day.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?

Well, I can say that sometimes it’s just a single meeting with someone maybe even in passing that gives a young person the courage to decide to continue with music. It can make a difference to help someone decide if it’s worth the time to save some money and get a new instrument, or support oneself with lessons.


When I was in high school band (I played trombone) we had a substitute teacher come in one day and said, who’s the piano player in this room? And it was me, apparently, and he wanted me to play. The next thing you know, he made a phone call to Interlochen Arts Academy, and said to me, you need to go there, this is where you need to be. It was a one-day substitute teacher. He just finished at Juilliard and came in and that chance one time meeting changed the direction of my life. I went to Interlochen.


So sometimes just getting the courage to say hello as a young person is what it takes. Or even for us mentors, our part is noticing a child/teen and going up to them and just saying hey I heard you playing, what are you thinking of doing? Because we don’t know what they’re hearing (encouragement, wise). So I think it’s our duty to see that the children get whatever they’re going to need in that moment. Just try to be open and help them and, you know, maybe we can help them find that new door or opening for them.

What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?

Well, I see it as something that’s going forward. I feel like there’s kind of a collective group of individuals that are sharing leadership roles and helping the community, like the Creative Music Guild, programming musicians who are coming through town and connecting those people with local performers. So in that way they are helping our local artists as well as promoting touring artists. So I feel that that’s really exciting. I think that it takes a lot of educating to get people to recognize that we need to help each other when we’re presenting individualized new works. This is how we build a future for the art. It’s how we build on the cultural understanding of what it means to be an artist in 2019. We’re the experts on living through this time period. We are directing the way we’re going to put sounds together. It’s like an archival historic snapshot sonically.

Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contribution to Portland jazz during his career?

I think that celebrating artists like Mel and Gordon that have been at this practice for a long time is really important for everyone to see and bear witness to that. You know, I like to think that we all write one song. We write one song and we make iterations, and if you follow the earlier work of artists you see that there’s some DNA that kind of follows up the work. So I’m really excited that the festival is noticing that we can all be part of that for inspiration, to think about what to do going forward, how to keep being awake for everyone that were working with, our neighbors, our communities, and looking for opportunities for each of us to do this next piece and be present with it. I’m excited.

Dana Reason: Torque Songs (artist page)
Saturday, August 17, doors open: 1:00 p.m., set begins: 4:10 p.m.
Saturday Day Passes, RSVP on Facebook!

Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.

Artist Spotlight: Kathleen Hollingsworth at Hungry Heart

Artist Spotlight: Kathleen Hollingsworth at Hungry Heart

Throughout the summer our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Kathleen Hollingsworth took place at Hungry Heart Bakery, located at 414 SE 80th Ave in Montavilla, on July 5, 2019. Hungry Heart has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival by providing wonderful desserts for our last two Season Reveal fundraisers…


Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.

Well, I came here to teach at Clackamas Community College when I got the full time position there. I had just come from Miami for three years where I was working on my jazz chops. So I came here to teach at Clackamas and then started going to jam sessions and meeting people, and now I’ve kind of established myself with my own band, writing music for PJCE. I’m definitely not a side-person, I’m not usually hired as a side person, I’m more of a front-person who writes and sings and plays. I’ve gotten to know people through my music but also through collaborating with PJCE, going to jam sessions and hanging out with people.

Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.

Mad love is a band that performs mostly my own compositions and arrangements and we don’t generally do standards that much, that’s not what we do, things are more arranged and composed. I write a lot of music that is usually inspired somehow by nature or things I like to do in nature like riding which allows me to write. I love to write. If I weren’t a musician probably would have been an English major because I love writing. Writing lyrics over time has become my way to express how I see and feel in this realm. Putting the music together allows me to meld a lot of genres like jazz, from a harmonic perspective, and from a form perspective, but I’m definitely not straight ahead by any means. There’s some rock and little bit of country and a little bit of Americana all kind of fused in there.

Is there a story behind this project?

So when I first got here, I started playing with Brent Follis pretty early on like within the first two years we met. He just called me out of the blue and he said hey, I hear you’re looking for a drummer. So then we started playing in a duo at Nonna for a year or two. And in that time I really learned to trust him as a human being and as a musician we just had a vibe going.


Through that trust building process and through his allowance of my music to develop and the fact that he really likes my music, I decided to take it a little more seriously until I chill I gained enough trust with him that I started looking more seriously for bass player and then starting to think more about putting out another album with just this music. I started seriously looking for a bass player and then the name of the band came about pretty magically and so here we are.

Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?

All of them. Well, I’m psyched for Sherry that she’s at PSU. We kind of both did the same thing academically with taking the doctoral route. She sounds great. She’s doing the straight ahead thing and she sounds great with George (Colligan). I like it when people take time to really work up their stuff, you know, and it takes a long time to do a doctorate and it’s not easy.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?

You know everyone should have some piano chops, all musicians, in addition to whatever instrument that happens to be your main instrument. All singers should have experience with the keyboard because everything is right there and it makes you confident to be able to speak the language. Everything is right there. And if you can understand that then theory is easy, communicating with the band is easy, writing becomes easier.


In this day and age for Millennials when everything is so easy because of technology, understand that one of the things that’s so brilliant about music is that it takes a long time. It takes time. It is an art that you craft over years and years. I don’t think that we value that as much, the younger generation, because everything so quick. They get everything at the touch of a button, you don’t download this, it’s really important and it takes time.


We want everything so fast and so quick now and the younger generation really needs to remember through ART we have longevity. Through music: dedication.

What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?

Thank God for PSU, and thank God for PJCE, and thank God for PDX Jazz and all these organizations that are really trying to keep things moving. And the nice thing is because Portland so hip right now a lot of people moving here from towns where you just can’t make it and survive as a jazz musician. Here you can sort of piece together a living as a musician. I think that there is actually a great audience here for jazz. There’s a great audience here in Portland for music in general. There’s so many times I go out and play and the audience is listening and attentive. Not always, but a lot of times there’s this vibe in Portland that is very attentive to art and creativity. So that’s a plus.


The million dollar question, that I continually ask myself is how do serve that audience, how do you keep them coming back? How do you push that compositional envelope so that people want to continue to hear you?

Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contributions to Portland jazz during their careers?

Oh man, it’s deep it’s meaningful. Those guys are the real deal, they’re playing the real deal and thank God for that, we need to hang on to that too. And that history is good for Portland is good for the scene to have all of that melded into the soup pot of jazz.


Whenever I hang out with Gordon, I love him. He’s the hang you know, and there’s always laughter, there’s always carrying-on. That sense of the hang is so important to this music. As somebody from through education world, I know that that connection that roots communication, that roots hang, if that’s not part of the music then everyone is a bunch of  jazz-holes, you know what I mean? You got to be fun to hang around, and those guys are.

Kathleen Hollingsworth: Mad Love (artist page)
Sunday, August 18, doors open: 1:00 p.m., set begins: 1:30 p.m.
Sunday Day Passes, RSVP on Facebook!

Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.