Portland Jazz 1942-57
Exhibit By: Kerby Strom
Urban renewal programs and gentrification are the two biggest threats to a black community, and the roaring jazz community of the 40’s and 50’s in north Portland was no different. After World War II, during which this country was still experiencing a wave of great migration, a large black community would settle in north Portland from the river to NE Freemont and past Martin Luther King Blvd (then Union Avenue) (Dietsche, 1). Into the 1940’s, more than half of Portland’s African American community would be segregated into the North Albina district (Abbot, 106). At that time, realtors were urged to direct African Americans in the direction of north Portland for housing. By this time, the housing there was of the least expensive at the time.
Without question, these communities were rich with culture. Before the Rose Garden existed, one could see the sights of clubs all through the evening in what has been described as a “street that never sleeps” (Dietsche, 1). Along Williams at the time were numerous Jazz clubs, more than ten, that at any hour of the night would be littered with patrons. If one could only imagine the sights and sounds of drinks being made, cigarettes smoke filling the air and rich Jazz music from the world’s most prolific players being heard in this humble little town. Legends like T-Bone Walker, New Orleans’s born Clarence Williams, Louis
Armstrong or Charlie Barnet and Lucky Thompson all made appearances in the prospering Jazz community of north Portland (Dietsche, 2). If on any given night one had hopes to see the likes of these Jazz greats, one would have to look no further than the Dude Ranch.
The Dude Ranch was the club with the most prestige in all
over Portland. It has been described as, “Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, Las Vegas and the Wild West rolled into one” (Dietsche, 2). The building itself was originally designed to be an ice cream factory, until it became a speakeasy during the period of prohibition in the 1920’s until Pat Patterson and Sherman
“Cowboy” Pickett would establish the legendary Dude Ranch. Prior to this time in history, Portland was perceived as a quite Pacific Northwest city amongst the woods. By this time in the 1940’s, patrons at these landmark destinations like the Dude Ranch consisted of a working class of African American people like ship builders and maids whose recreation would play into these 24 hour sleepless part of town. The strip would be littered with zoot-suits, alligator boots, nail polish and leopard coats (Dietsche, 5).
On December 5 of 1945, the Dude Ranch would be host to the world’s greatest Jazz musicians of all time. On this particular evening, the Norman Granz assembled Philharmonic group of musicians would play
the Dude Ranch as part of their tour. This ensemble consisted of Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and the then unknown Thelonious Monk (Dietsche, 7). Any modern day connoisseur of Jazz would sell their soul to be in attendance at the Dude Ranch that evening.
When the Dude Ranch closed its doors in 1946, its closure was attributed to gambling and an incident surrounding a shooting. Whatever the case, it left behind a tremendous amount of history almost lost. The Dude Ranch’s closure also meant the cancellation of Billie Holliday and Nat King Cole whose presence very well would have also graced their very stage if it wasn’t for their unfortunate closure (Dietsche, 2 & 17).
Not far from the Dude Ranch’s location was Lil’ Sandy’s on NE Weidler and Williams. Owned by John Tanaka, who named the establishment after his son, preferred a shot of rhythm and blues over traditional straight forward Jazz as evideced by the groups booked at Lil’ Sandy’s. A place that would become frequented by the likes of T-Bone Walker, whose guitar playing is attributed to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and others. Many of the events weren’t promoted at Lil’ Sandy’s as most of the draw came by word of mouth and an African American R&B broadcaster named Eager Beaver, who broadcasted his show from his Melody Record Shop off Williams. Lil Sandy’s was a place known for its jukebox, for as long as there were patrons there, someone was always some dropping dimes in the jukebox (Dietsche, 51, 52).
In 1949, Bill McClendon bought what was once the Savoy room and in place created the Rhythm Room. While the Savoy was already an establishment of legendary proportions, McClendon’s Rhythm Room was the next natural step to supercede its previous namesake. McClendon was extremely active in Portland’s Jazz community, as he originally wanted an establishment where he himself could play the piano (Dietsche, 94). He is also recognized for establishing his own paperPeople’s Observer, where McClendon and fellow owner Charlie Garret would contribute articles ranging from civil rights activism, black athletes to columns on jazz musicians otherwise not recognized. His review of jazz recordings would contribute to the filling of jukeboxes at establishments such as Slaughter’s, another noteworthy establishment, as well as filling the racks at Charlie Garrett’s own Madrona record shop (Dietsche, 94). Aside from being a very accomplished jazz pianist, he was also a professor at both Reed College and Portland State University where he would teach classes on black studies. For five years, McClendon’s Rhythm Room would be Portland’s hottest jazz club in a city already thriving in culture.
Also following the tradition of other jazz clubs on the Williams strip was The Frat Hall, established in 1930 by actual fraternal organizations. Like many of African Americans who ended up settling in Portland vicariously through the work field, those who established The Frat Hall had worked on railroad (Dietsche, 105). The Frat Hall stood at three stories high, where each floor was segmented to serve different purposes. The bottom floor served as a café and pool hall where the second floor was a ballroom, which would be reserved for jazz and blues performances where at one point performances would last all through the day and into the night to be repeated all over again (Dietsche, 105).
Another figure worth mentioning is the importance of a man named Ed Slaughter, who served as the honorary mayor of N. Williams. At the bottom floor of what was the Savoy (later McClendon’s) was the destination where Mr. Slaughter would spend much of his time. He lived his life as a “thick-lensed, three-hundred-pound Good Samaritan, who probably lived his whole life without making a single enemy.” More importantly than a figure in the jazz music scene of its time, he was also an important figure as an educator to colored youth at a time where music by African American artists were being ignored. Due to his vast knowledge of all things jazz, he wrote a column known as “Slaughter on Williams,” where the reviews of artists were the very ones that littered his tired and restless jukebox that played day in and day out.
The history of Portland jazz in this north Williams neighborhood isn’t strictly limited to these few destinations. Prior to McClendon’s Rhythm Room stood The Savoy, and before that was Acme. Both being very popular venues for Portland jazz music at one point in time. Then of course are other venues like the Olympic Room, Medley Hotel, The Cotton Club and YMCA which all had been the destination to many of the cast and characters who lived during a period of rich cultural movement that has been almost shrouded in history. The absence of many of these building due to urban renewal contributes to the enigma of a time that seems almost unreal or unfathomable. It also would be criminal to ignore Madrona Records off 538 N Broadway, where a sign simply read “Records for sale,” while records stacked precariously on tables and sat in makeshift bins (Dietsche, 63). The significance of this place shouldn’t be understated as just a record store merely caring black artists, then known as “race records.” This place was rich with community, much like how pool halls and coffee shops of the time were.
This exhibit only covers a small fraction of the immense jazz community of N. Williams neighborhood. For more information pertaining to this field, please refer to Robert Dietsche’s book Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland jazz 1942-1957where most of the information was lifted from this book. Also will you find information of jazz venues outside the North Portland area in parts of southwest and northwest which were too exhaustive to include in this particular exhibit.
Dietsche, Robert. Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 2005. Print.
Abbott, Carl. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 2011. Print.
Photos belong to by Robert Dietsche, Bernice Slaughter, Bill Hillard and Portland Challenger, McClendon Family and Bob Trowbridge.
Images used for classroom purposes only with permission by Oregon State University press, and should not be published otherwise as original material.