Music city

Hot jazz, cool classical: hear Portland swing

Steven R. Lorton

Jimmy Mak's is just about exactly what you'd expect of a jazz club ― dark, sultry, and, tonight, packed. Darrell Grant strides on stage, sits down at a glistening black upright piano, and plunks out what seem to be a few unrelated notes that glide into a smooth, opening riff. He looks up, gives the band behind him a nod, and suddenly everybody's swinging.

What may surprise you ― unless you live here ― is that Jimmy Mak's is in Portland. The city may be famous for many things, from microbrews to the Trail Blazers ― but the excellence of its music scene is a bit of a local secret.

And yet Portland's musical options are rich and diverse. The jazz scene, which has always been hot, is now institutionalized in a February festival. Classical music fans will find that this year marks the 35th birthday of Chamber Music Northwest, while the venerable Oregon Symphony performs under a new music director. Acoustic, folk, world music ― when it comes to these kinds of music too, Portland has the chops.

Jazz Portland: "A lot of good music"

Darrell Grant traces his love of jazz to the age of 7, when his parents took him to a concert. The son of a gospel singer mother, Grant was trained as a classical pianist and is now associate professor of music at Portland State University. He's also the energy behind the university's Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, named for a West Coast jazz pioneer. And he's an indefatigable booster of jazz in the city.

"Portland is one of the top five jazz cities in America," Grant maintains. "Early on, artists came out here because the city provided an easier quality of life. They loved it. They stayed. They built a jazz community."

That community is more vibrant than ever, thanks to this month's Portland Jazz Festival. Now in its second year, the festival encompasses 75 events over 10 days. This year's headliners include bassist Dave Holland and vocalist Dianne Reeves.

If you can't make it to the festival, you have other good jazz venues to choose from. In addition to Jimmy Mak's, there's the two-year-old Blue Monk, as well as the Lobby Court at the Benson Hotel, where you can hear the likes of the Jean Ronne Quartet from 9 p.m. into the early morning.

In summing up the city scene, Grant quotes an earlier jazz legend: "Duke Ellington said, 'There are only two kinds of music ― good music and bad music.' There's a lot of good music in Portland."

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