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