The Former Portland Jazz Festival

The Portland Jazz Festival is no more. Word went out that next year’s edition has been scrubbed and the festival will not be revived. Here is part of the official announcement.

Operations and planning for the 2009 February event could not continue because of a decline in funding and sponsorship support. Shortfalls accumulated to a total need of over $100,000 that could not be met by ticket sale projections and other forms of earned revenue. Recent attempts to develop support throughout the community were not successful. The 09 festival was to have been dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records.

For details, go to the festival’s web site.

Critics of the Portland festival complained that it focused on hiring major performers from out of town and luring tourists from outside of Portland and Oregon. They claim that the national emphasis cut local and regional artists out of the action and discouraged support by Portland listeners, businesses and institutions. I have seen no analysis of the extent to which the recession–if it is a recession–is responsible for the lack of funding, but how could our massive economic downturn not have an effect?

I covered two of the Portland events for Jazz Times. There were flaws, often having to do with mismanaged sound systems in cavernous hotel ballrooms. There were also memorable performances. Here is what I wrote about one of them at the 2006 festival:

The last of the festival events I attended was a concert at the Portland Marriott by Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable Orchestra, one of four bands the eclectic guitarist heads these days. The string section was violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts. Tony Scherr was the bassist, Kenny Wollesen the drummer. Frisell announced no numbers, in fact said little beyond telling one of his snail jokes and saying to the audience, “This is great. You guys are cool.”

The strings began playing parts over active bass and drums ornamentation, FrisellFrisell.jpg comping lightly. Allusions began to creep in, to “The Tennessee Waltz,” Monk’s “Misterioso,” “You Are My Sunshine.” They were all too short to be considered quotes; feelings, perhaps. The harmonic basis was vaguely country, vaguely blues. The time was 3/4. Roberts soloed, Scheinman soloed. Kang soloed. Then Frisell developed a gorgeous dissonance over the sweetness of the strings and there was the first of several segues, this one into Kang’s viola lead that was more or less Far Eastern. Intensity built through written parts for the strings, the violin carrying the lead.

The next segue led to more written parts, although it was becoming difficult to determine what was written and what was free improvisation. As the piece bloomed, the strings went into a tremolo mode while Scherr and Frisell–smiling at one another–invented unison fragments. Then Scherr and Roberts, the cellist, began a series of unison chromatic lines leading into another segue transition. Suddenly Frisell’s guitar was in solo on a peaceful melody as the strings made a transition from free playing to a folk melody. Behind them, Scherr raised the intensity with an arco solo, then the activity decreased back toward peacefulness, but it was a more troubling peace, a dissonant, polytonal, Schoenbergian peace that didn’t end but melded into Frisell playing heavy guitar over a slow, insistent waltz beat.

The strings slid under him in ensemble, and suddenly the guitar was emitting wah-wah and chicken sounds, intimating country music and rural blues, everyone in unison, with guitar interjections. Then, the band was fully into country–real yee-hah stuff–a hoe-down, a barn dance, Frisell conducting his orchestra from the guitar with smiles and directional nods of his head.

When that ended, Frisell made his “You guys are cool” remark, and kicked off a Monkish melody over Scherr’s walking bass, the only conventional 4/4 playing he had done so far.
Scheinman 2.jpgThe melody was a wild, through-composed line that went on for a couple of choruses before it began to dawn on me that it was built on the changes of “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Scheinman played a gorgeous solo, followed by Frisell in a solo that was as close to pure bebop as we’re likely to hear from him. The audience gave a standing ovation. The encore was Burt Bachrach’s “What The World Needs Now,” which may or may not have been done tongue-in-cheek. With Frisell, you’re never quite sure.

To read the complete review of that festival, go here.

And to read Joe Woodard’s review of this year’s PDX Festival –the last one– go here.

Impresario Bill Royston poured his vitality, Royston.jpgorganizational ability and knowledge of music and musicians into the Portland Festival. Whether he has the energy or desire to marshal the forces required to mount another such event remains to be seen. He deserves credit for having put together what in five years became a major happening in jazz and keeping the overall quality amazingly high. In these times of dwindling interest in the music, that is no small accomplishment. 

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  1. Josef Woodard says

    well, i was sad to hear about the demise of the PDX festival, but not actually surprised: festivals that smart just don’t stand much of a chance in the American atmosphere. i’m still kind of a euro-festival junkie, i’m afraid.
    i was also at the 2007 ECM-oriented festival, as a panelist, and was quite instantly wowed by it (especially a Trygve Seim performance that blew me away).
    i wasn’t really aware of the controversy over regional artist attention. it’s a double-edged sword, trying to make a festival international and cosmopolitan in scope and appeasing the local talents.
    oh well: sure was nice while it lasted. bill is to be commended.

  2. Ken Dryden says

    I find it puzzling that people in Portland would claim that the Portland Jazz Festival’s cutting out local and regional musicians caused local sponsors to drop out. More likely, it was the various business challenges that caused them to allocate resources into other marketing.
    I’ve been involved in a number of non-profit festivals and have been a non-profit public radio fundraiser for almost 20 years and I am quite familiar with the challenges that are faced in keeping corporate support strong and growing.
    How many people buy tickets to a jazz festival because of the local & regional acts? Not that many, I bet, unless one lives in an area where the “local & regional” acts are national/international stars themselves, like the folks who live in the Poconos.

  3. John Johansen says

    Locals will always be with us, but Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and (earlier in the year) Sonny Rollins? Maybe not household names but living legends in every sense of the word. How many more times will the opportunity come to see them in Portland?…probably zero.