Saturated in black coffee and rain, Portland is a perfect percolator for another acquired taste: jazz. Many jazz players call this region home and find the city’s low-key atmosphere inspiring. In Portland, it’s pretty easy to find small venues hosting intimate combos of world-class talent, or bigger, more boffo live shows that still “got that swing.”
For two weeks every February, the Portland Jazz Festival spotlights the best local talents and welcomes a fleet of jazz-world luminaries to Portland. This is easily the city’s most active jazz season. After a decade of jazz curation, however, the PDX Jazz organization has expanded its efforts into year-round support of the jazz scene. Check their calendar anytime for a solid show recommendation.
The Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, founded in 1981, the longest-running free jazz festival west of the Mississippi, is held beneath North Portland’s majestic St. Johns Bridge in Cathedral Park every July.
Across the river from Portland, the Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival draws national and regional acts to its outdoor, waterfront setting each August.
Venues of Note
Portland’s mainstay jazz venue is Jimmy Mak’s in the Pearl District, booking many weeknights with class acts for a cheap cover. You’ll also find regular jazz offerings at Wilfs. Downtown’s Bijou Cafe also features a Friday night dinner show series drawing local legends and others.
In Northeast Portland, Tony Starlight’s keeps the beat for lounge and jazz acts, while Secret Society Ballroom is a great hub for the gypsy, western and swing spectrum. In Southeast Portland, Vie de Boheme sifts plenty of jazz into its eclectic calendar.
“City of Roses” is both another name for Portland and the name of a Grammy-winning jazz hit by Portlander Esperanza Spalding. Spalding, a young jazz bassist and composer that David Letterman once dubbed his “coolest guest,” became a figurehead for new jazz in Portland — and indeed the world — after her shocking 2011 “Best New Artist” Grammy win over Justin Bieber.
Spalding’s mentor, trumpeter Thara Memory, is also based in Portland. He shared her 2013 “Roses” Grammy win for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists. Memory also directs the American Music Program and its award-winning youth jazz group Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra.
The Jazz Society of Oregon’s Hall of Fame helps keep record of jazz luminaries (of Memory’s general ilk) from the region’s present and past. Many of these inductees are still active around Portland.
Veteran pianist and composer Dave Frishberg, who’s written songbook classics like “Peel Me A Grape” and “I’m Hip,” still gigs regularly (at age 80) in small clubs with singer Rebecca Kilgore. Drummer Mel Brown, a near contemporary, is also still kicking, playing regular sets with his combo The Mel Brown Quartet at Jimmy Mak’s. Portland was also home to the late Native American jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper, whose work is commemorated in the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival, held each August.
Pink Martini, one of the highest-profile jazz/pop crossover bands of the last decade, is based in Portland but travels all over the globe. The Shanghai Woolies, a Pink Martini “hot jazz” offshoot, more regularly make the rounds in P-town. Growing jazz-rooted acts with broad appeal include Ben Darwish, Trio Subtonic and the Blue Cranes.
Portland’s preeminent vaudeville acts also favor jazzy live accompaniment. Vagabond Opera and Wanderlust Circus each play polka-flavored gypsy jazz and put on a glitzy, cheeky live show full of dancing, dialogue and various cirque-burlesque feats.
Portland radio listeners are lucky to have access to a dedicated nonprofit jazz radio station that plays the pantheon, from swing to soul. KMHD Jazz Radio broadcasts at 89.1 FM from Mt. Hood Community College in collaboration with Oregon Public Broadcasting.