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.
In August, pay homage to a historic Northwest legacy the Vanport Jazz Festival, which commemorates the pioneering musicians who established Portland as a true jazz city in the wake of the tragic Vanport Flood of 1948.
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
Visitors to Portland can find regular jazz offerings at Wilfs. Downtown’s Bijou Cafe also features a Friday night dinner show series drawing local legends and others. For a classic speakeasy vibe, descend into the basement of the Alder Building to the Jack London Revue.
The Portland Jazz Festival returns every February with a stellar series of concerts and events celebrating Black History Month.
Whether you’re a lifelong soul fan or hunting for your new favorite band, Portland’s annual Soul’d Out Music Festival delivers.
Every Fourth of July weekend, the Waterfront Blues Festival takes over downtown Portland’s Waterfront Park.
“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 d\ubbed 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 a 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. 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 and Trio Subtonic.
Portland’s preeminent vaudeville acts also favor a 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.
Pianist, producer, DJ and all round musical maverick Mark de Clive-Lowe blends cutting-edge electronics, live beat-making, classic funk and global influences with a distinctly jazz-inspired approach. At this PDX Jazz Festival concert, Clive-Lowe is joined by Jaimie Branch. A mainstay of the Chicago jazz scene and an active recent addition to the New York scene,…
Headed by Snarky Puppy’s multi Grammy–winning percussion duo of Robert Sput Searight and Nate Werth, Ghost-Note promises an explosion of sound at its PDX Jazz Festival performance. With an expansive roster of next-level musicians (representing members of Prince, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Marcus Miller, Toto, Justin Timberlake and more) —the band…
Nineteen-time Grammy nominee, four-time Grammy winner and all-time guitar great Larry Carlton is joined by guitar viurtuoso Stanley Jordan at this PDX Jazz Festival performance. Carlton has 38 albums to his credit and has performed on over 100 albums that have gone Gold or Platinum. Jordan has performed in over 60 countries on six continents,…
Enjoy the sounds of Terry Riley (composer, pianist, vocalist) and his son, classical guitarist Gyan Riley, at this PDX Jazz Festival performance. Riley launched the minimalist movement with his classic IN C, composed in 1964, a seminal work, which was to have an enormous impact on the course of Western music. In addition to his…
Saxophone player, composer, pianist, singer, politically committed poet, playwright: Archie Shepp is a legend – making this PDX Jazz Festival concert a must-see. Shepp populates his musical world with themes and stylistic elements provided by the greatest voices of jazz: from Ellington to Monk and Mingus, from Parker to Siver and Taylor. His technical and…
The musical collective known as Antibalas (Spanish for bullet-proof or anti-bullets) was conceived of in Mexico City and formed in Brooklyn, New York. Catch them in Portland for their 2020 PDX Jazz Festival performance. Though recognized for their fluency in Afrobeat and funk music, the band is known to collaborate with diverse groups and artists,…
Enjoy the sounds of six-time-Grammy Award Winner David Sanborn and this PDX Jazz Festival concert. Sanborn has released 25 albums and has had eight Gold albums and one Platinum album. Having inspired countless other musicians, Dave has worked in many genres that typically blend instrumental pop, R&B and lately, more and more traditional jazz.