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."
Classical Portland: Ready for the next step
The houselights dim in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. Carlos Kalmar, the new music director of the Oregon Symphony, lifts his arms, baton in one hand. His eyes sweep the orchestra, and each player stares back, instruments at the ready. Kalmar's arms surge into motion, and Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 21 gushes forth with the power of Multnomah Falls.
Kalmar personifies the electricity in the city's classical music scene. The Oregon Symphony produces more than 140 performances a year for 320,000 people (second in its attendance only to that of the Portland Trail Blazers). Kalmar comes to Portland from Vienna, where he maintains a residence. His list of conducting credits crisscrosses the globe, but he is high on Portland. "Here I found an orchestra at a very good level, ready to take another step," he explains. "I like the city and its people, and the overall approach to work is one of extreme commitment."
But the symphony is hardly the only classical game in town. At Reed College and Catlin Gabel School, Chamber Music Northwest is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The organization puts on a five-week chamber music festival each summer and presents a half-dozen other concerts throughout the year, drawing performers from around the world.
"People think in Portland," says Linda Magee, executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, explaining the program's longevity and success. "To be a part of an audience listening to and watching live music is our idea of a glorious evening."
Eclectic Portland: "This place grabs you"
At 8 p.m. on a Friday night, a crowd has assembled in the lofty performance room of Artichoke Music, a shop in Portland's Hawthorne District. Steve Einhorn ― owner, songwriter, performer, and raconteur ― takes the stage and plays an original composition on his guitar. Soon he's joined by his wife, Kate Power, also a songwriter and co-owner of Artichoke, for a 40-minute set. Two more artists follow in an evening of music that has echoes of the '60s but remains strikingly contemporary.
"I'm a happy man," says the 54-year-old Einhorn, "especially when I'm making music with Kate." It's impossible to distrust the statement.
Now nearly 35 years old (Einhorn has owned it for almost 25 years), Artichoke is a Portland institution. Up front, the retail shop is a wonderland of beautifully made instruments: guitars, banjos, violins, mandolins, dulcimers, Irish wooden flutes, concertinas. Behind that area are teaching studios. And the Backgate Stage offers a busy schedule of performances. Education is a continuous thread running through the Portland music scene. Obo Addy, a drummer from Ghana who landed in Portland in 1978, is the patriarch of an African music and dance group called Homowo African Arts & Cultures. He and his company not only perform, they teach drumming to adults and African dancing to children. A recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship Award ― with a framed letter of congratulation from Bill Clinton hanging in his dining room ― Addy plays with other groups too, such as Okropong, which performs traditional Ghanaian music, and Kukrudu, an African jazz band.
On the road frequently and in high demand, Addy and wife Susan could live anywhere in the world. Why do they stay in Portland? "This place grabs you," he says, shaking his fist. "It sits you down and won't let you leave."
And then there's Pink Martini. The band started in 1994 to play at political fund-raisers for progressive causes. Their music borrows freely of melodies and rhythms from around the world, creating a sophisticated sound that is gin and vermouth with a puff of smoke.
With a music scene so varied, so vibrant ― well, as Obo Addy says, it does grab you. Why would you ever want to leave?
Here's a sampler of the city's best music venues.
The Blue Monk. 5 p.m.–2 a.m. Tue–Sun. 3341 S.E. Belmont St.; www.thebluemonk.com or 503/595-0575.
Jazz at the Lobby Court, Benson Hotel. 9 p.m. Wed–Sat; free. 309 S.W. Broadway Ave.; www.bensonhotel.com or 503/228-2000.
Jazz Society of Oregon. With a $36 annual membership you receive a subscription to the monthly magazine Jazzscene. www.jsojazzscene.org or 503/234-1332.
Jimmy Mak's. 7:30 p.m. Mon–Wed, 9 p.m. Thu–Sat. 300 N.W. 10th Ave. (at Everett St.); www.jimmymaks.com or 503/295-6542.
Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, Portland State University. "Remembrance: The Music of Jim Pepper" 7:30 p.m. Feb 11. 1011 S.W. 12th Ave.; 503/725-5828.
Portland Jazz Festival. Feb 11–20. www.pdxjazz.com or 503/228-5299.
Chamber Music Northwest. Brahms Festival (in collaboration with the Oregon Symphony) Feb 18–28. 35th Anniversary Summer Festival Jun 27–Jul 31. www.cmnw.org or 503/294-6400.
Friends of Chamber Music. Chanticleer, a 12-man a cappella ensemble, Feb 26–27. www.focm.org or 503/725-3307.
Oregon Symphony. Dvorák Cello Concerto Feb 5–7. "Evening of Romance" Pops concert Feb 12–14. Brahms Festival Feb 18–28 (Brahms Symphony no. 2 Feb 19–21; Brahms German Requiem Feb 26–28). www.orsymphony.org or 503/228-1353.
Portland Baroque Orchestra. Haydn and Mozart performances with baroque violinist Andrew Manze. Feb 11–13. www.pbo.org or 503/222-6000.
Portland State University Piano Recital Series. Louis Lortie, Canadian concert pianist, Mar 19–20. www.fpa.pdx.edu/prs or 503/725-3307.
Artichoke Music. Check website for upcoming performances. Store open 10–6 Tue–Sat. 3130-A S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; www.artichokemusic.com or 503/232-8845.
Homowo African Arts & Cultures. Check website for upcoming performances. www.homowo.org or 503/288-3025.
Pink Martini. Check website for upcoming performances. www.pinkmartini.com