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Oregon Public Broadcasting
Published: 14 April 2016

PORTLAND, Ore.— OPB is celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month in April by examining the vibrant history and impact of jazz in Portland that followed World War II.

Premiering on television April 25 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and online now, the new Oregon Experience half-hour documentary “Jazz Town” examines the eruption of music and nightlife in North and Northeast Portland in the 1940s and 50s. A colorful and significant chapter in the city’s cultural narrative, this short-lived period is largely unknown to many Oregonians. 

World War II brought a great wave of workers and their families from across the country to work in the shipyards of Portland. During this time, the city’s African-American population grew from 2,000 to nearly 22,000. Many individuals moved into Vanport, a large tract of wartime housing built just north of Portland. Most of those not living in Vanport crowded into Portland’s Albina District.

Many of the newcomers came with a shared passion for rhythm-and-blues and contemporary, danceable jazz, but their options for entertainment were limited. Segregation was permitted by law, and Portland offered few venues for African-Americans to perform or to listen to music.

As the population in the Albina neighborhood swelled, the music scene intensified. Some of the country’s most famous jazz players—who may have passed by Portland in earlier years— began to make it a destination. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Wardell Gray and Lionel Hampton became frequent visitors, and pianists Warren Bracken and Frank Martin even moved to the city. 

Additionally, Portland produced many of its own home-grown artists who developed at what one of them called the “University of Williams Avenue” and would go on to find national and international fame. This includes Floyd Standifer, who grew up outside of Gresham on a farm, trumpeter Carl Hilding "Doc" Severinsen from Arlington, saxophone player Jim Pepper and drummer Mel Brown

Presented largely through first-hand accounts from local residents, Oregon Experience’s “Jazz Town” showcases the music and the parade of musicians that helped to put Portland on the jazz map. The program also tells the story of a marginalized community born of racial discrimination that proceeded to thrive during that time.

“Jazz Town” includes interviews with:

  • Bob Dietsche, author of “Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz”
  • Lynn Darroch, KMHD Jazz Radio DJ and author of “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest”
  • Thara Memory, trumpet player and director of the American Music Program
  • Darrell Grant, PSU music professor and jazz pianist
  • “Sweet Baby “James Benton, vocalist and drummer
  • Mel Brown, drummer
  • Shirley Nanette, vocalist
  • Gerald Caldwell, whose family hosted many well-known jazz artists
  • Malcolm Slaughter, son of pool hall owner Ed Slaughter and whose family also hosted visiting musicians

The program is also scored with music composed for the documentary by Darrell Grant and recorded in the OPB studio by:

  • Darrell Grant, Piano
  • Andre St. James, Bass
  • Chris Brown, Drums
  • Derek Sims, Trumpet
  • David Evans, Saxophone, Clarinet

In advance of the television premiere, OPB is hosting a free, public screening of “Jazz Town” on April 21 at the PCC Cascade Campus in North Portland. The event begins at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30) and will feature the full-length documentary and a Q&A with OPB Producer Eric Cain.

“Jazz Town” airs Monday, April 25 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and is available to watch online now at opb.org/jazztown. The program was written and produced by Eric Cain and edited by Bruce Barrow.

In addition to the documentary, opb.org/jazztown is an OPB online presentation that further explores Portland’s jazz past and its impact on the jazz scene today. Special features include Spotify playlists of jazz “then and now” curated by KMHD Jazz Radio, five places to listen to jazz in Portland today, animated videos about jazz, never-before-seen historical photos and a narrative history of jazz in Portland.

Throughout the month of April, KMHD will highlight on-air stories of jazz musicians in Portland, both past and present. Interviews include historical perspectives from some of the jazz artists and others featured in the “Jazz Town” documentary. KMHD will also speak in-studio to musicians playing at the Soul’d Out Music Festival running April 13-17. All interview content will also be posted online at kmhd.org

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