Jazz Town

Listen: How Portland Jazz Evolved Over Nearly 70 Years

By Matt Fleeger (OPB)
April 6, 2016 6:34 p.m.

Portland Jazz Of The Past

Play the list below and learn more about the musicians and records from the golden era of Portland jazz.


“Robbins Nest" by Floyd Standifer

— Standifer was born on a farm in Gresham, where (purportedly) he learned to get the right tone on his trumpet by playing for livestock. The trumpeter would go on to be both a national name in jazz, and a beloved member of the Seattle jazz scene.

"Fall 77" by Oregon — Formed by guitarist Ralph Towner and bassist Glen Moore during their stint at the University of Oregon in the early '70s, Oregon explored a sort of world– and folk-influenced jazz fusion that has been adapted and imitated by many.

Related: KMHD's Top 10 Jazz Albums Of 2015

"Caravan" by Leroy Vinnegar — Leroy Vinnegar was a West Coast jazz musician who popularized the walking bass style, which emphasizes a steady series of ascending or descending notes, so much so that it earned him the nickname "The Walker." In 1986, Vinnegar relocated from Los Angeles to Portland, and began teaching at Portland State University. He lived in the city until his death in 1999. The jazz program at Portland State University is now named the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute.

"Snake Hip Waltz" by Andrew Hill — Andrew Hill, who has a slew of excellent recordings on Blue Note Records to his name, was also a Portlander for a period of time. He was the professor of Jazz Studies at Portland State in the mid '80s through early '90s. This track, "Snake Hip Waltz," is from that period.


"Withci Tia To" by Jim Pepper — Saxophonist Jim Pepper was one of jazz's true pioneers. In the late '60s, he was a member of one of the first jazz fusion bands, the Free Spirits. It was, however, another type of jazz fusion that Pepper would become famous for playing. Jim Pepper was a Native American of Kaw and Creek heritage and he fused traditional First American folk music with jazz in the 1970s. This song, "Witchi Tia To," is derived from a peyote ceremony song from the Native American Church that Pepper learned from his grandfather.

Portland Jazz Now And Into The Future

From straight-ahead to adventurous, this list only scratches the surface of the amazing scene that makes this city such a special place to be a fan of this music. Listen to a sampling of today's Portland jazz below.

"Spooky" by Mel Brown — In our first playlist, we featured Mel Brown performing with Billy Larkin and the Delegates. Here, he's performing at the venue where he has held court for years, holding down two weeknights with his bands, including this one, his Hammond B-3 group. Brown's jazz and R&B chops meld seamlessly on this album, showing why he's truly the elder statesman of Portland's Jazz scene.

"Mvt. 4 Rivers" by Darrell Grant — Grant, who serves as a professor of Jazz Studies at Portland State, is one of Portland's most recognized musicians. In 2012, Grant started work on his concept for the prestigious New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America. His concept? To interpret the "terroir" of the Pacific Northwest's musical landscape into a single album. The result? It's a moving album that speaks to the richness of our scene and its heritage.

Related: KMHD's Top Local Songs Of 2015

"Orb in Limbo" by Coco Columbia — Here's a little taste of one of the most innovative new generation jazz players in the scene. CoCo Columbia is a vocalist who plays drums and keys. Her album "The Weight" was self-produced, self-released and continues the notion of jazz as boundary-pushing, forward-thinking music.

"It Gets Better" by Grammies — Continuing with the fresh new sounds from the Rose City, Grammies are a duo made up of saxophonist Noah Bernstein and drummer Dan Sutherland. Each musician augments the sound of their instrument with digital effects, creating a sound that is electronic and acoustic, ethereal and hard-hitting.

"Grandpa's Hands" by Blue Cranes — Blue Cranes are one of Portland's longest-running new jazz bands. Founded in 2007, the band has developed a singular musical voice rooted in melody and improvisation, with all the explosiveness of edgy indie rock. This cut is from their seminal 2010 release "Observatories."