In post-WWII Portland, the black community increased from less than 1 percent to tens of thousands, due to rising demand for shipyard labor. Williams Avenue, then a burgeoning neighborhood, became home to most of Portland's black community. Overcrowded but infused with energy, the jazz scene was born. Bob Dietsche, founder of Django records, has made the study of Portland jazz history his life's work. Dietsche is the keeper of many of Portland's jazz secrets. "Portland had what it takes to be a jazz city," declared Dietsche.
"First of all, you had to have a railroad. And a considerable black community, a totally corrupt city hall, illegal gambling and booze, and someone to look after the whole thing."
In no time, Portland reached such status in the Northwest jazz scene that world-class musicians made it a stop on tour. Jazz at the Philharmonic, a touring group from San Francisco with rotating musicians (including a young Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Helen Humes), made its virgin pilgrimage to Portland in 1945. They played at the Dude Ranch, the neighborhood hot spot designed after "black cowboy" joints in Texas (most of Portland's black community at the time came from Texas). Billie Holiday was scheduled to play just weeks after the place was shut down, deemed a "public nuisance" by The Oregonian.
Of the neighborhood establishments, only the Dude Ranch building remains today, on the small block dividing NE Broadway and Weidler, across from the Coliseum. It's now home to Multi-Craft Plastics. According to Dietsche, the elaborate hand-carved ceiling of the Dude Ranch can still be seen through spaces in the false ceiling. But the mirrored floor, the dinner balcony, and the raised bandstand are gone.
Jazz in Portland is still strong, but has spread itself thin. There are hundreds of jazz musicians in this town, and just as many young players. But the community is disjointed and the energy is fading, due in part to an aging audience, careless booking agents, a lack of all-ages jazz clubs, and a resulting disinterested younger crowd.
But the magic still happens around town. There's the Mel Brown Trio, Geoff Lee, Andre St. James, Rob Scheps. Portland still has fragments of a "jazz city," in the old sense of the word, where times are fast and music is life and living is easy. And nothin' can stop the heartbeat of a city once mad with jazz.