07 30 2016
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The Wake of Vanport

It's all here: seminal local history in "Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957" (Oregon State University Press, $24.95), by author Robert Dietsche.

This is no bleached-out revisionist history, either. Dietsche consistently points to Williams Avenue as the seminal location of jazz development. His book is more than a music history lesson.

Here is an excerpt. "Action central was Williams Avenue, an entertainment strip with hot spots where you could find jazz 24 hours a day. You could stand in the middle of the avenue (where the Blazers play basketball today) and look up Williams past the chili parlors, past the barbecue joints, the beauty shops, all the way to Broadway, and see hundreds of people dressed up as if they were going to a fashion show. It could be four in the morning. It didn't matter; this was one of those 'streets that never slept.' "

The introduction to this stunning book pays tribute to the construction of Bonneville Dam in 1937 for the genesis of jazz in Portland. It was the power generated by the new dam which led to the rise of the Kaiser shipyards and other defense industries in Portland. Had it not been for the shipyards, the heavy Black migration from the South would not have occurred.

Chapter I is all about the Dude Ranch, which was located on the triangle block that divides North Weidler Street from Broadway and is now the home of the Multi Plastics Co. Dietsche describes it as New York's Cotton Club, the Apollo theater, Las Vegas and the wild west all rolled into one. The Ranch had shake dancers, ventriloquists, comics, jugglers, torch singers and world-famous tap dancers like Teddy Hale. It also had the best in jazz, including Lucky Thompson, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Barnett. Race mixing likely was responsible for the city closing it in 1946 when it was declared a "public nuisance."

One long-forgotten Black history fact is that Portland's earliest African American population lived in Northwest Portland. "Jumptown" devotes several pages to the Golden West hotel, on Northwest Broadway and Everett, the scene of some of the first jazz performances.

There are chapters named for the Castle Jazz Band, The Acme Club, Lil' Sandy's, The Madrona Record Shop, McClendon's Rhythm Room, The Savoy, The Chicken Coop, Sidney's, Mc Elroy's Ballroom, Jantzen Beach, The Frat Hall, The Medley Hotel, Paul's Paradise, Van's Olympic Room and the Cotton Club. Each of those venues was an important link in the chain of jazz history.

Dietsche also writes about a man who played no instrument nor owned a club. Ed Slaughter — a giant of a man, standing well over six feet and who must have weighed at least 250 pounds — had perhaps the city's strongest juke box in his pool hall, Top Q Billiards. Stocked with the best jazz available, Slaughter would hold court in front of the box and state his opinions of the music and those who played it using his deep vibrant bass voice.

I was one who listened intently to Mr. Slaughter and his music, and took it to heart so much so that in 1952 as a jazz writer for the Portland Challenger Newspaper, I named my first ever jazz column "Slaughter on Williams Avenue." Dietsche also named his chapter on Slaughter, "Slaughter on Williams Avenue."

The book seemingly recalls all the names of that golden era gleaned from hundreds of interviews by the author — names too numerous to mention here for fear of neglecting others. The book is loaded with photographs, many of them action photos of jazz stars of the past.

As stated earlier, "Jumptown" is more than a music history book. It's a book about people, Black and White — some of whom were those talented players — who were but a small segment of a population that at the time were underrepresented in power and wealth but who nonetheless had a community. This book tells the story of that community coming together in celebration of something to which it gave birth.

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