Members of the jazz quartet Devin Phillips and New Orleans Straight Ahead jam at pianist Andrew Oliver's house on Monday, May 7, before heading out to teach middle school students the basic elements of jazz. Pictured from left to right is Devin Phillips on sax, Oliver on piano and Mark DiFlorio on drums. Bassist Eric Gruber is not pictured here. The band will tour Africa or Asia next fall as part of the American jazz ambassadors program started by Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1950s.
Had you told him a couple years ago he'd soon be living and working in Oregon, jazz musician Devin Phillips would have laughed in your face.
"Portland? Oregon? Nah, I never thought I'd be here," the New Orleans native says. "It's just meant to be."
Chased away from his hometown – "the best place to be from if you play jazz," according to Phillips – after Hurricane Katrina, the 25-year-old sax player found himself thousands of miles from Louisiana in the middle of the Pacific Northwest.
"The people here have been good to me," he says of Portland. "I'd like to go back to New Orleans someday, but right now I like it here ... the people in Portland care about the arts, they support the arts."
And now Phillips, along with the other three members of his band, Devin Phillips and New Orleans Straight Ahead, is putting Portland back on the jazz map.
The local jazz quintet recently competed against 400 other bands for a shot at the international jazz ambassador program Dizzy Gillespie started in the mid-1950s, Rhythm Road: American Tour Abroad.
The 400 were whittled down to 21 bands, which competed last month in New York City for a shot at the top six. New Orleans Straight Ahead made the cut.
The four New Orleans transplants – Phillips on sax, Mark DiFlorio on drums, Eric Gruber on bass and Andrew Oliver on the piano – will take their music across the pond (to either Africa or Southeast Asia, depending on whether they get their first or second choice) next fall.
It's the chance of a lifetime and the four young musicians are gearing up for a whirlwind tour. They'll play venues (in Western Africa, they hope) for four to six weeks, as well as Lincoln Center in New York.
Sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Rhythm Road tour sends six jazz and three urban music quartets all over the world to bring American music and culture to far-off regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
The members of New Orleans Straight Ahead say their band seemed custom fit for the program. They're a quartet, of course, but more than that, the group brings a fresh sound to traditional jazz music without losing the roots that make jazz such an original American art form.
"We are a modern jazz group rooted in straight ahead jazz," DiFlorio says, shifting his gaze to Phillips and Oliver for their comments.
The musicians have gathered for an interview at Oliver's North Portland home and bassist Gruber is the only band member missing on this sunny day – he's got two flat tires and is stuck in Beaverton traffic – but the other members of New Orleans Straight Ahead chime in with their interpretations on the band's sound.
"In this band you've got one side, the traditional, 1920s New Orleans tunes, but then, on the other side, we're writing our own stuff," Oliver says. "We're definitely rooted in tradition though."
Phillips nods thoughtfully and blows a few notes on his sax.
"I try to play like I feel," Phillips says. "Jazz is a living thing. You can change it, you can modernize it, but it's (coming out of) a strong tradition. And I really believe in playing the blues."
Phillips has attracted his fair share of attention over the past decade. He started playing the sax when he was 8 years old and hasn't ever looked back. Jazz, says Phillips, was part of his blood.
"In New Orleans, you see these kids, 8 or 9 years old, who have never had any formal education, no music teachers, and they're out there, playing jazz," Phillips says, shaking his head and smiling in admiration. "That's what makes New Orleans special. Jazz is a part of our everyday life."
You hear jazz when you go to a funeral, when you go to a celebration, says DiFlorio.
You hear it when you're walking down the street on your way to the market, Oliver says.
And there's always a place to play if you're a jazz musician in New Orleans, DiFlorio adds.
Portland has a strong jazz history itself, but it's no New Orleans. In fact, says DiFlorio, the second-biggest jazz venue in Portland, the Blue Monk, just announced it's done with live acts.
People like Phillips and his band mates don't have trouble finding a venue here though. Between New Orleans Straight Ahead and their other projects – Phillips and DiFlorio are in another group called The Devin Phillips Band – the musicians are in high demand. Phillips has headlined the past two Portland Jazz Festivals and has traveled throughout the world playing other jazz festivals, including a gig in the Netherlands and another in Istanbul.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Devin Phillips and New Orleans Straight Ahead is the fact that this band couldn't have existed without the destruction of New Orleans. Before Katrina hit, the members of this band were living very separate lives in the city where jazz was born. Oliver knew of Phillips and DiFlorio and DiFlorio knew of Phillips, but the four men might never have met had it not been for Hurricane Katrina.
After the destruction, Portland's Azumano Travel sent an offer to New Orleans musicians – relocate to Portland and we'll help you out.
"It was amazing," DiFlorio says of Azumano's offer. "They bought me a plane ticket and, when I got here, gave me an instrument. I don't know of any other city that did that."
Once they landed in Portland, it didn't take long for the musicians to find one another – Portland has a thriving music scene, but for musicians, it's a very small world – and discover there was magic when they played together.
"It's really strange, because, before, in New Orleans, I played with other bands, with other people, but never had my own band," Phillips says. "But then here we were, playing together and it was effortless."
Less than two years later, New Orleans Straight Ahead is on the verge of making it really big. The band already has a strong following in Portland and Phillips says that keeps the musicians motivated.
"People have faith in this band," he says. "They want to hear our music, and that motivates us to keep going."