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.