Throughout the summer our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Sherry Alves and George Colligan took place at Vestal School, located at 161 NE 82nd Ave in Montavilla, on June 21, 2019. Vestal School has partnered with Montavilla Jazz Festival since 2015, hosting our Jazz Artist-in-Residency pilot program in 2019…
Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.
SA: I’m from Oregon, but I spent a lot of time in the Salem area, performing teaching at Western Oregon University. I went to University of Northern Colorado for two years. And then before I finished my degree, I applied for the open position at Portland State. So, before I moved to Colorado, I did perform sometimes in Portland, and I have a lot of connections with Portland musicians, and I learned from Mel Brown and Gordon Lee, and Ed Bennett. Most recently my connection is as Professor at Portland State and right now I’m sort of in this funny, “in-between” where I’m I’m spending a lot of time at Portland State and spending a lot of time still trying to finish my own degree. So, my involvement with the Portland jazz scene is there, but it’s not what I want it to be. I just have a few things to finish. I think there’s there’s room for growth. But it’s nice to come home and be in the same town, not an hour south from all the people that I enjoyed working with before. It’s pretty exciting.
GC: Well, I grew up on the East Coast near Baltimore, in Columbia, Maryland, which was a progressive planned community. I started out as a classical trumpet player. Right now, I’m an associate professor and the Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State. When this job came up in 2011, I was like, Portland has a lot of great things going for it.
It’s changed a lot in the past eight years; The jazz scene changed a lot, some for the better, some for the worse. My own personal connection with the scene is as a bit of an outsider still, because I’m not from the area. It’s sort of hard to break into it. But I do think that it does have its charms, and a lot of potential. You don’t have to call for 10 years just to get one gig. You might have a chance of playing at these venues, and you can find parking and get there in 20 minutes. In the past few years, there have been a bunch of places closing, but there are some places that are popping up. That’s sort of been the feeling for the past couple years; a place will pop up and it will thrive, and then it will shut down. But there are a few places now. I feel pretty good about it, and things like the MJF of course are a step in the right direction, for sure. And I think the changes at PDX Jazz are encouraging.
SA: I don’t come from my particularly musical family, not in a trained sense. My mom was a dance teacher. And so I danced growing up, kind of everything from jazz and tap and pretty hardcore classical ballet classes. So I’ve always liked music and dancing, and my dad always played jazz on the radio. On Sundays, he’d make breakfast and my sister and I would dance on the carpet in the living room to jazz while he would take the family egg orders. So that’s probably my earliest recollection.
I think I could say that I always knew that I would be part of the arts or be some sort of performer. I just went on a limb and applied for music school in my senior year, and my choir teacher encouraged me, and I just went for it. I have no idea what it what would become of that many was really hard, but I stuck it out and it’s been worth it.
Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.
GC: Well, Sherry has the chops in a way that nobody else does in town, and I’ve worked with a lot of singers. It’s rare to have vocalists who are so professional and so flexible that they can do your music, or do some music that they haven’t seen for 10 years. The thing I noticed when Sherry auditioned for Portland State was the wide variety of things that she could do musically, artistically, and with a lot of precision and professionalism.
SA: I’m constantly on the lookout for is lesser-known material that moves me. I like to be technical and do things that just feel musically, and it feels good to be challenged, but I’m always on the lookout for material that makes me feel something and challenges me. But as far as just playing with George, it’s just always felt really natural. I’ve worked with a lot of great chordal players I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people in Portland and Christopher Woitach is one of my favorites, Dan Gaynor, there’s so many great folks out there that I feel really comfortable with, but when I played with George it was like an immediate comfort and trust. I could just kind of sit back and let it unfold. I’m inspired by the things he does. Hopefully it goes both ways!
Is there a story behind this project?
GC: All of the songs will have a distinct flavor. When I lived in Winnipeg, there was a music series at a bookstore, and the guy who ran it asked me if I wanted to be the songwriter in residence. I was more of a composer than a songwriter, and I hadn’t really tried to like write lyrics, but then I started doing it. I got it to writing songs kind of just got into not caring so much about whether it was like the greatest thing, you know, and I tried to be a little bit more improvisational about it.
I hired the vocal students at the University of Manitoba. I wrote like 60 songs… there’s nothing else to do in Winnipeg, you can’t go outside! So it forces you to be productive.
Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?
SA: Well, I love the B3 organ group and the Charlie Porter Quintet. And I just think Kathleen Hollingsworth is so cool and so giving of herself in so many ways. She’s always doing something for the community, for the students, and then finding the time to write her own music, so I’m always inspired by that.
GC: Kerry Politzer – I’m playing on her set. Mel Brown is a great connection with the tradition. The times I’ve played with Mel Brown myself, it’s like I really hear this depth of understanding of the jazz tradition, which is fantastic.
Ez Weiss is one of our faculty here at Portland State; he is a really great arranger and obviously this will show that off. Dana Reason did a master class recently at Portland State. So I’d be curious to hear that.
Gordon Lee and I have crossed paths. He has very interesting compositions. I have no idea what they sound like in a big band setting. I’m anxious to find out; in fact, that kind of gives me some ideas. At Portland State, we are developing our big band. One of my ideas is to have guest composers, guest performers, for our seasonal concerts. That might be a good thing to do.
SA: I have known Gordon since I was a kid. He was my sight-singing and ear-training teacher in college at Western Oregon. This sounds funny, but I hear he really likes to talk about me because he’s really proud of me as a pupil, so he tells me every time I see him. I look up to him and we’ve done a lot together over the years.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?
SA: I really feel that if you, the young musician, have the desire and the work ethic, whether that’s going to college or doing things on your own, it’s going to take work, but I think that there’s a place for everyone who wants to be an artist. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to perhaps even have your dream job, but I think that’s pretty average, but I think I think a lot of students come in wondering if they should even start, and I don’t think that’s the way to approach it. There’s room for everybody and if they if they want to learn they can learn, and then they then they can go and apply it to their lives however they want.
So I guess my big message is to go for it and do not be afraid of taking the time for yourself. We were in a jury last winter where a student wasn’t sure what they wanted to do. And one of the other people was like, do it now. You will come back to this at some point in your life and wish you’d stuck with it – you love this. Take the time now, while you’re young.
GC: My parents always told me and my sister to find something that we really love to do, I’m very lucky that I found something that I have a passion for. It depends on what is important to you in your life. I mean, it gets harder now because of the way our economy is working, or not working, I should say. But for some people it’s all about the money, and it just can’t be if you’re going to be an artist. The business of music is kind of a separate thing, but it’s something that I stress a lot. Being a great musician and having business success in music are kind of two different skills.
When you become a professional, you don’t necessarily put all your emotional eggs in the basket of every performance. It’s like, that was just a gig, I’ll have another gig tomorrow where I can play better.
SA: As a vocalist, I think it’s important to gather as many skills as possible. People respond to performers for how they connect or what they sound like, their storytelling ability all that stuff. But I I remember starting a pretty young age listening to what people said about vocalists, the stereotypes, and trying to do the opposite. So in one of my early gigs, there were no charts for the gig. I’d never transcribed anything, but I transcribed the parts for everyone in the band. And immediately, the band wanted to know who wrote it and they were shocked that it was me.
And I felt like I just like took a step up from that stereotype that people think about vocalists. Ever since then, I’ve tried to fill in those blanks. So I made sure I could read music, I can sight-read a gig. I just practically sight-read with the Chris Brown project last weekend, a full Steely Dan show. No rehearsal with that band.
And it’s so fulfilling to see those skills that you learned can be not just useful but empowering. I can write my own charts. I can write for horns. I can write a big band chart. I can write a choir chart. I can teach people how to do it. I know how to use notation. I know how to play piano. It’s so important. And you think, when are you going to use sight-singing, ear-training, when am I going to use this? When am I going to have to write a big band chart? You know what, what somebody will ask you. And you’ll be able to say yes.
What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?
GC: Could be better, could be worse.
SA: There is numerous talent and creativity going on in this community. But in order for it to survive and grow, hopefully, the community needs to invest in that art. It’s not free and if Portland wants to have an artistic community, they need to recognize that artists need the support to be artists. And I don’t think this is a Portland problem specifically; its universal. That we can afford to Invest – whether that’s paying a cover, or giving scholarships, buying a record. That’s a start. Artists need support.
Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contributions to Portland jazz during their careers?
GC: I know what they sound like as musicians, but I’d like to hear this big band, which can be very different. I’ve never heard Mel Brown play with a big band, so that’s going to be great.
SA: They are both dear to me, because I’ve seen them in so many different aspects as performers and as educators. They are very giving and kind, and have been, in my experience, very warm, and have inspired and supported me as I grew. So it’s nice to see them here and to be like hey, guys, we’re still in this!
Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.