Oregon Experience

Portland Jazz Back in the Day

By Eric Cain (OPB)
April 15, 2016 5:15 p.m.
Oregon Experience's Jazz Town examines the vibrant, post-World War II eruption of music and nightlife in North and Northeast Portland.

A colorful and significant chapter in the city’s cultural narrative, this short-lived period is largely unknown to many Oregonians.

Produced/Written by Eric Cain and edited by Bruce Barrow.

Jazz came late to the Pacific Northwest and to Portland, in particular, because the Pacific Northwest has always been rather geographically isolated... But there were always traveling bands that came through town, and some musicians would stay…And so gradually, by the 1930s, there was a core of jazz musicians in the Portland area

Jazz historian Lynn Darroch

Jazz music certainly existed in Oregon before 1940. The musicians -- like most other Oregonians -- were almost exclusively white.  But World War II and the local shipbuilding industry changed that.

In just a couple years' time, the population of African-Americans in the Portland area skyrocketed from about 2,000 to nearly 22,000.   And the impact on the music scene was profound.  The influx of new jazz, blues, swing and bob electrified the Albina area of the city.

Other aspects of Portland culture started to change, too.  The harsh racial segregation that had long characterized the city, began, in modest increments, to break down. In those new North and Northeast Portland clubs –- and eventually in other venues around town -- black and white customers began to sit, dine and sometimes even dance together.  

Of course, not everything came up roses.  Vice and corruption pervaded that lively entertainment district. By the mid-1960's, the N. Williams Avenue music phenomenon – good and bad – was on the decline.  Ultimately, many of the black-owned nightclubs, as well as entire neighborhoods, were bulldozed off the map.

Modern-day Portland again boasts a diverse range of music and musicians – due in large part to the continuing work of local musicians who grew up during the Williams Ave. scene – Mel Brown, Ron Steen, Shirley Nannette, Tom Grant and others.  But even they still talk wistfully about the world-class jazz and other music played back in the day on “The Avenue.’”  That community was a good place to live and a good place for children to grow up. And several of the people who lived through those busy, noisy years – in that segregated but-diverse neighborhood – wish it had never ended.

“The people that came along later than I did, I feel sorry for 'em, because they missed Portland at its finest.”

North Portland resident, Gerry Caldwell

Resources and Information


  • Bob Dietsche – jazz historian, and author, “Jumptown – the golden age of jazz in Portland”
  • Lynn Darroch – jazz historian, KMHD-FM DJ and author “Rhythm in the Rain -- Jazz in the Pacific Northwest”
  • Thara Memory – trumpet player and Director, American Music Program Jazz Orchestra
  • Darrell Grant – Portland State University Associate Professor of Music, and  jazz pianist
  • “Sweet Baby “James Benton – vocalist and drummer
  • Mel Brown – drummer
  • Shirley Nanette – vocalist
  • Gerry Caldwell – former Albina resident, whose family often housed visiting musicians
  • Malcolm Slaughter – former Albina resident, whose family also housed visiting musicians.  Son of pool hall owner Edgar Slaughter.

Studio Band:


  • Lynn Darroch, author, Oolilgan Press (2016),  Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest