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Jazz Festival Preview: The 2011 Portland Jazz Festival

Celebrating the Connection between African American and Jewish Music

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Portland Jazz Festival PDX Jazz 2011
Courtesy of PDX Jazz
The 2011 Portland Jazz Festival, now in its eighth year, begins Friday February 18th with a solo piano set from Randy Weston. This festival, which takes place in numerous indoor Portland venues from the 18th through the 27th, is flourishing in a time when many jazz festivals have folded or have begun to rely more heavily on pop-oriented acts to meet their financial obligations.

The annual Portland Jazz Festival, known as PDX Jazz, reliably highlights musicians who represent an array of jazz’s many branches. This year’s lineup focuses on musicians whose influences draw from the relationship between African- and Jewish-American music. In addition to the dozens of great local and regional musicians who contribute to Portland’s jazz scene year-round, the ten-day 2011 PDX festival will feature the following headliners:

  • the Afro-Semitic Experience, a “klezmer-funk” ensemble
  • Anat Fort, the avant-garde jazz pianist from New York
  • Dave Frishberg; Saxophonist Devin Phillips who moved to Portland from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
  • Don Byron playing the klezmer music of Mickey Katz
  • Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spaulding, a Portland native who has enjoyed great critical and popular acclaim in the last few years
  • Saxophonist Joshua Redman
  • Saxophonist Maceo Parker
  • Keyboardist Nik Bärtsch’s RONIN
  • Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez
  • Pianist Randy Weston playing a rare solo set
  • Violinist Regina Carter exploring African music that includes the music of Ugandan Jews
  • The SF JAZZ Collective playing the music of Stevie Wonder, and
  • The Three Cohens, featuring clarinetist Anat, trumpeter Avishai, and saxophonist Yuval, who represent the wave of young Israeli musicians who have been creating great new jazz music in the United States.
Visit the PDX Jazz website for a full events schedule.

The influence and enthusiasm of artistic director Bill Royston, the recipient of several industry awards for best presenter, is the driving force behind the Portland Jazz Festival’s continued success and prominence. Royston was the director of the now-defunct Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, which had pushed towards smooth jazz and pop in response to low ticket sales after its peak in the 1980s. Royston was brought on as artistic director to try to save the festival, but its outdoor stadium format had outlived its viability.

Royston applied the lessons he learned to the Portland Jazz Festival, moving it indoors to many of Portland’s established venues and into February, the jazz festival off-season, and Oregon’s rainiest month. This way, the Portland Festival can occupy its own niche without having to compete directly with other festivals like it, and its indoor setting ensures a more intimate experience than what stadium festivals can offer.

Admirably, the Portland Jazz Festival embraces the diversity of jazz, rather than trying to advance a single version of what jazz is or to evade the question entirely by hiring big names from the pop world. Jazz’s history is a complex one, and the role played by the racial makeup of its musicians is inseparable from the music.

This 2011 festival’s theme, dubbed “Bridges and Boundaries,” serves to broaden our idea of the history of jazz. African- and Jewish-Americans, both minorities that have been marginalized throughout this country’s history, have turned to each other for help and for collaboration many times throughout the development of jazz. Black musicians often relied on sympathetic white musicians to help them navigate a racist music industry. Benny Goodman, a Jew and one of the most popular musicians of his time, was the first to integrate his ensemble by hiring black musicians in the 1930s.

This approach to creativity in programming has been a great one both in terms education as well as marketing. The festival unites more people into an audience for jazz, rather than alienating those who aren’t part of a narrower perspective of what jazz can and can’t be. Portland Jazz Festival’s success is welcome, and hopefully its approach will spread to other presenting organizations.

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