Saturday, February 04, 2006

PORTLAND again: jazz history lives

THE CULTURE IN PORTLAND, at least as far as I am concerned, is predominately a café culture. Here I am under my black Italian hat next to Pavel, who is instructing me in the art of the Treo, an electronic gizmo for which I lust, as another aspect of the Portland culture is electronics. Giovanna took the photo, with her cell phone, I think, or maybe her Palm, I’m not quite sure.

In fact I wrote a much shorter version of this instalment of the blog on the Treo and uploaded it from this café, one of the small locally-owned chain of Mio Gelato shops. We admire these shops for their correct and delicious gelato, and overlook their insane loyalty to Illy Caffe, what I would call the Starbuck’s of Italy. When you put enough fior di latte gelato into a cup of said Illy espresso the result is a perfectly acceptable affogato, and life does not get that much better.

We had been to the Portland Art Museum, there to see a short documentary film made by a seventeen-year-old highschool student named Samuel Allen. When a little short of his seventeenth birthday he read and reacted to a history of the local jazz scene: Bob Dietsche’s recently published “Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957.”

During those years Portland had a vibrant jazz scene, centered on the black part of town (naturally) situated across the Willamette river from the majestic railroad station. Jazz greats toured on the train in those days, and after playing dates in clubs frequented by white audiences they jammed in their own clubs in their own part of town. This is the scene recalled fondly in Allen’s video, consisting largely of interviews with survivors, many of them conducted at a local senior center.

Alas, that part of town was demolished during the 1950s when “urban renewal” became the prevailing social value. An interstate freeway, a convention center, and a basketball arena dislodged the rooming houses, bars, and jump joints that had been at the center of thriving economy of booze, gambling, music, and social entertainment. Like so much of America, Portland turned toward the bland.

It’s amazing and ironic, in a way, that it was left to a high-school student to translate Dietsche’s book, already published to celebrate a nearly vanished strand of virile urban culture, into a documentary film not without its own ironic glances at the stuffier clichés of that medium. There are problems with it, of course: the sound could be better; some of the interviews get lost in the background noise; there isn’t enough of jazz itself. But it’s honest and evocative and fascinating, partly for its subject, partly for its own charming innocence, which frequently presents an ironic counter to the lusty, witty intelligence of its subject.

And as urban cultural history it offers an important challenge to many another American city. There must be dozens of places with similar stories. Properly researched and presented -- or even simply put together on the fly -- their telling would go a long way to correcting the star-struck metropolis-ridden view most of us have of our own national heritage. Sam Allen’s movie, and Bob Dietsche’s book, deserve wide currency.

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