Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together – The 2011 Portland Jazz Festival Preview

Originally published in Earshot Jazz February 2011

"Music doesn't stem from any single race, creed, or locality, it comes from a mixture of all these things." – Willie “The Lion” Smith (1893-1973)

Jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith was a mixture himself, born of an African American mother and Jewish father. As a boy in Newark, New Jersey, he delivered clothes that his mother washed. One client was a friendly Jewish family that invited him in to study Hebrew with a rabbi. In 1907 Smith had his bar mitzvah and went on to become a cantor at a Harlem synagogue.  Meanwhile, he mastered stride piano in the company of James P. Johnson and “Fats” Waller.

Before 1920, Jews in America were considered to be black. In fact Jewish jazz saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow tells a story in Really the Blues of being called the “N” word and refused service at a Missouri lunch counter in 1915.

“The Gershwins were among the many Jewish Americans who came to dominate the writing, publishing, performing, and promotion of American popular song in the first few decades of the twentieth century,” observes Jeffrey Melnick in Tin Pan Alley and the Black-Jewish Nation.  “What is perhaps most interesting about these entertainment-industry Jews is that a large number of them made their names by constructing an urbane vision of blackness, a kind of musical translation of what many white Americans imagined ‘black’ to represent.”

“The dynamics of cultural exchange between Jews and African Americans is a subject so conducive to controversy and misunderstanding that many a jazz enthusiast would walk miles to avoid it,” wrote David Lehman in A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.  “A few things are beyond dispute. Both groups have suffered injustice, persecution, prejudice, oppression; both were more or less eager to take part in the American adventure but suspicious of it, too… Finally, both groups could appeal to the story of Exodus—and the deferred dream of the Promised Land—as a redemptive narrative of their own experience.  Each could imagine seeing the other in the mirror.”

Fast forward to 2003. Bill Royston, an experienced live music producer and presenter, read the account of Willie “The Lion” Smith in Nat Hentoff’s American Music Is and was inspired to explore the musical relationship of African Americans and Jews as a theme for an upcoming jazz festival. But was the Pacific Northwest ready to embrace race, religion, and politics related to jazz?

It took Royston seven years to bring his inspiration to life as Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish & African Americans Playing Jazz Together, the theme for the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival.  To make it happen Royston collaborated with Hentoff and local leaders from the African American and Jewish communities.  He looked for musical talents related to the theme.

What resulted is a schedule that covers two weekends (February 18-27) and packs in more than 100 events. Ticketed concerts include internationally recognized contemporary jazz masters Randy Weston, Anat Fort, Dave Frishberg, Don Byron, Esperanza Spalding, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, Poncho Sanchez, The 3 Cohens (Anat, Avaishai, and Yuval), SFJAZZ Collective, Regina Carter, Joshua Redman, and Maceo Parker. Royston suggests adventurous attendees check out the progressive quintet with a new recording contract, The Blue Cranes (on the Nik Bartsch show) and a group of 3 Jewish and 3 African American musicians, The Afro-Semitic Experience (on the 3 Cohens show).

The festival showcases local jazz musicians and school ensembles with more than 70 events free to the public. In addition to Portland veterans like Tom Grant, Gary Hobbs, Rebecca Kilgore, Gordon Lee, Ron Steen, and John Stowell, Roystan recommends listeners check out saxophonist Devin Phillips, a recent import from New Orleans.

The venues for the festival and partner events are theaters, hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes, schools, churches, and synagogues. The festival’s web pages have convenient links to Google Maps and venue web sites. Royston thinks acoustics are best at the Newmark Theater but he also recommends the Rogue Distillery and Public House, home of the festival’s special brew – Jazz Guy Ale. Royston is the Jazz Guy, with his picture on the bottle’s label to prove it! But you don’t have to go to the Rogue Distillery to find the beer. All the venues serving alcohol will feature the sponsors’ drinks.

The festival’s celebration of Black History Month provides 20 educational and outreach programs to local schools and neighborhoods. The main program is the Incredible Journey of Jazz, a 70-minute music theater piece commissioned by the festival eight years ago.  The show was created by writer Lynn Darroch and Portland State University Jazz Professor Darrell Grant, along with the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute.  Specifically targeted for middle school students, the nine member cast dance and sing the history of African Americans and jazz from African rhythms, field chants, gospel, ragtime, to jazz.

And there is something for everyone with numerous other outreach events – jam sessions, films (John Zorn’s Masada and the Icons Among Us series), artist interviews, panel discussions, and workshops for musicians and children. Most of these are FREE.

Royston also points to Robert Dietsche’s 2005 book Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957 as inspiration for the festival. The neighborhood of African American jazz clubs along Williams Avenue was displaced by I-5 and the Rose Quarter. The Jewish residential and business neighborhood was displaced by I-405. Local community and business leaders are coming together around the festival to rename and develop the area around the Rose Quarter as “Jump Town.”

Nat Hentoff, the writer responsible for the festival’s theme is unable to travel to the festival but will participate via remote link. The exact date and time was not yet set by the press date for this article. In Jazz: Music Beyond Time and Nations, Hentoff wrote, “Players… have emphasized what you live—and how you live—becomes an integral part of what you play each night. Jazz, then, is a continual autobiography, or, rather, a continuum of intersecting autobiographies—one’s own and those of the musicians with whom one plays… But the interaction between musicians and listeners takes place there too, because jazz is a music in which both the player and the audience are continually in conversation.”

See you in Portland to continue the conversation.

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