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 Biamp 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, commemorating 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.
Every August, Pickathon draws diverse musical performers to celebrate music and the outdoors at the lush Pendarvis Farm just outside of Portland.
Chamber Music Northwest’s annual summer festival combines high-caliber classical music with a laid-back atmosphere.
Every Fourth of July weekend, the Waterfront Blues Festival takes over downtown Portland’s Waterfront Park.
Venues of Note
“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.
The Jazz Society of Oregon’s Hall of Fame helps record jazz luminaries (of memory’s general ilk) from the region’s present and past. Many of these inductees are still active around Portland.
Drummer Mel Brown plays regular sets with his combo The Mel Brown Quartet. Recently passed, veteran pianist and composer Dave Frishberg, who wrote songbook classics like “Peel Me A Grape” and “I’m Hip,” still gigged regularly well into his 80s in small clubs with singer Rebecca Kilgore. 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.
Experience the sensational Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by artistic director, trumpeter extraordinaire, and nine-time Grammy Award-winner Wynton Marsalis. The Chicago Tribune describes the band in concert: “The orchestra [tore] through this music as if chasing the wind. Only a group of musicians who have toured together for so long…could have attained this kind…
KDTU has electrified audiences worldwide, from the fields of Naeba in Japan at the infamous Fuji Rock Festival to the hallowed stage of Madison Square Garden, where they previously joined the Dave Matthews Band and The Godfather of Soul, James Brown. From performing as Sexual Chocolate (Karl was in the original band in the movie…
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