• At The Portland Jazz Festival, Delicate Issues And Joyful Audiences

    March 4, 2011. Posted by WBGO.

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    Clarinetist Don Byron leads his The Music of Mickey Katz project, with vocalist Jack Falk, at the Portland Jazz Festival in 2011. (Image Credit: Fran Kaufman/Courtesy of the Portland Jazz Festival)

    After 10 days of world-class performers, the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival wrapped up last weekend. WBGO blogger and production assistant Alex Rodriguez, a Portland, Ore. native, recently returned to his hometown for the event. He helps us make sense of this year's incarnation, themed "Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together."


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    One panel at the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival featured (L-R) Don Byron, Oran Etkin, Darrell Grant, Anat Cohen and Yuval Cohen. The festival was themed "Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together. (Image Credit: Fran Kaufman/Courtesy of the Portland Jazz Festival)

    It takes place in Portland. But like many of the city's residents, much of the Portland Jazz Festival is really from somewhere else.

    Artistic director and co-founder Bill Royston hails from Philadelphia; managing director Don Lucoff grew up in Los Angeles. The local jazz radio station is run by Pittsburgh native Matt Fleeger, and local jazz patriarchs such as Denver-raised Darrell Grant (a pianist) and Tampa native Thara Memory (a trumpeter) grew up in another part of the country. And, of course, many of the festival's musicians call New York home.

    That's nothing new for this small western city, which has always identified with the do-it-yourself ethos of manifest destiny. As NPR recently noted in its profile of Portland for the Cities in Transition series, "Oregon is one of only a dozen states where the majority of its residents aren't from there. Each year thousands of 20-somethings move to Portland." So a jazz festival that imports top talent from East Coast jazz hotbeds doesn't seem out of place.

    The audience, too, comes largely from out of town — nearly a third of the audience travels at least 100 miles to attend the festival. Bill Royston says he was asked to start an event which could impact tourism during the quiet winter season — hence, the February date. "The tourism end of this is largely what has kept us going and made us successful," Royston says. "In 2008, we sold over 1,200 weekend hotel packages in Portland in February — that's impressive!" Having spent many cold, wet Februaries growing up in the Rose City, I can personally attest to this fact.

    But what the NPR piece also highlights is that Portland has become one of the most ethnically homogenous cities in America. In importing jazz — a musical tradition fraught with racial fault lines — during Black History Month, the Portland Jazz Festival wades into this murky territory.


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    The 3 Cohens — siblings Anat, Avishai and Yuval Cohen — led a band at the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival. (Image Credit: Fran Kaufman/Courtesy of the Portland Jazz Festival)

    These delicate issues were further highlighted by the festival's choice of this year's theme: "Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together." In his festival preview for the Seattle Times, Paul De Barros reacted quizzically to the theme: "It's a rich idea, though not particularly well fleshed out in the programming and also oddly irrelevant to Portland, which, according to the U.S. Census has one of the smallest African-American populations of any major American city and a small (less than 1 percent) Jewish population, as well." A handy map illustrates the breakdown of race and ethnicity in the city.

    Furthermore, despite its many bridges (the city sits at the confluence of two large rivers,) Portland's Jewish and African American communities couldn't be farther apart. Although Royston points to the communities' shared history of marginalization in Portland (each having their neighborhoods decimated by freeway construction in the 1960s, for example) the programming choice struck me as odd at first, too. Oregon's insidious history of racism — from its place as the western hub of the KKK, to its laws prohibiting African American immigration, to our own version of Hurricane Katrina, the 1948 Vanport Flood — makes it a strange site for a celebration of African American music.

    But as Darrell Grant has observed, "Portland is a place that welcomes engagement." Even though the city lacks a history of interracial dialogue, a healthy slice of its highly-educated population was eager to consider it in the jazz festival context. The Saturday musicians' panel discussion, hosted by Grant and available online, drew a sizeable crowd and offered some insightful banter from Yuval Cohen, Don Byron, Esperanza Spalding and others.


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    Portland native Esperanza Spalding (right) leads her Chamber Music Project group at the Portland Jazz Festival, with backup singer Leala Cyr. (Image Credit: Fran Kaufman/Courtesy of the Portland Jazz Festival)

    Perhaps most importantly, the festival booked an amazingly talented lineup. I only saw about half of the festival, yet managed to catch Damian Erskine, Don Byron, Esperanza Spalding, The 3 Cohens, The Kora Band, Devin Phillips, the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra and Joshua Redman. But the plethora of activities meant that I missed out on a lot of great shows too, such as Regina Carter, the SFJAZZ Collective, Gerald Clayton and countless free shows hosted by the downtown hotels. In that sense, planning the route was half the fun, giving it a similar vibe to New York's Winter JazzFest.

    "The more we got into it, the more fascinated we were with the peculiarities of Portland. And I do think that it has brought more dialogue to the scene," Royston said. "The participation is much greater and less passive than if you went to a big outdoor summer festival where you sat in the same place. Jazz is an experiential art form, and the festival forces the audience to choose ... and people feel a greater sense of adventure, of being a part of something."

    Joyful enthusiasm permeated the audience at nearly every show that I attended. Still, some local musicians and educators were more lukewarm about the festival. Nobody complains about the influx of interested listeners, but there is a sense that the festival organizers are too focused on the national acts to highlight the local scene. The festival does book many local musicians — saxophonist Devin Phillips and pianist Andrew Oliver are two young locals, for example, with the talent and vision to set up shop in New York — but only one Portland band, the Blue Cranes, received top billing (which they shared on a double bill with Nik Bartsch, from Switzerland).

    Like its northern neighbor Seattle, Portland nurtures a robust jazz education scene. Many high-school-age musicians also had a chance to perform at the festival's weekend jazz education showcase, and fresh off her Best New Artist Grammy, Esperanza Spalding gave a masterclass at Portland State University. But there was no coordinated effort to connect other national acts with local educational programs. As Spalding insisted to me, "We have world class music happening here all year round, and I hope that in the years to come that exposure is going to spread in the city, and we can bring local musicians on the national scene."

    Rather than structural limitations, these challenges are opportunities for improvement. The Portland Jazz Festival, as I saw it, is an unequivocally good thing for jazz both locally and nationally. More small cities could learn a lesson from Portland's high-quality presentation and community partnerships. "There are many universities who are doing a great job of developing the next generation of jazz musicians," Royston said. "I think that our mission is developing the next generation of jazz audiences." The festival offers a compelling model to that end, and seems well on its way to achieving that ambitious goal.

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