North Portland jazz club the 1905 is no more.
Thursday evening, the club's owner Aaron Barnes broke the news in a missive to the venue's newsletter subscribers and Instagram followers, writing: “Despite our sincerest efforts to overcome challenges, we couldn't sustain our journey."
A few hours before he drafted the message, Barnes spoke on the phone with the Mercury, expressing a mixture of relief and disappointment. “I’m worried about my staff,” he said, “and I’m worried about the scene. I really don’t want this place to go away, but it reached a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
There will be no shows or final event. Disappointing as it is that the 1905 is so abruptly going dark, the announcement is unlikely to shock anyone who has been following the venue's recent, public ups and downs.
Barnes had announced the club's closure nearly a month earlier, on October 18, writing to the club's subscribers: “It is with tears in my eyes that I write this email. After a little more than seven years, we must close our doors."
“I've given everything I have to keep it open,” the message concluded, “but the physical, emotional, and spiritual tolls are too much. Especially recently, every day has been a struggle to keep the doors open and we simply do not have the financial resources to continue.”
In response, a small shockwave rippled through Portland's jazz community—especially among the musicians who were still scheduled to play at the 1905. The dust had barely taken flight when a second email arrived, suggesting hope.
This time Barnes wrote: “Earlier today, I sat at my computer, with tears in my eyes, and wrote our ‘goodbye’ email. I feel fortunate that we are able to make it one more day, but without your support, we truly have only one more night: Tonight.”
Barnes segued into a plea for donations to an ongoing GoFundMe campaign, created in July, that hoped to raise $100,000 to keep the space open. The reprieve contained a caveat: “In case we don't raise the funds, please come tonight for one last night of magic at The 1905.”
An uptick in donations from fans and musicians followed (as of this writing, the fundraiser has surpassed $67,000), as did a number of comments to the club’s social media pages from the frustrated and confused community.
“How about this time you take the $65,000 that was raised by this community and actually invest it in the sustainability of the 1905 and your employees instead of opening another restaurant,” wrote guitarist Henry Ivie-Gardner in an Instagram comment, referring either to Scholar, an Italian eatery that Barnes opened on Northeast Broadway last September or Hopscotch, a sports bar that he opened this past February on Southeast Hawthorne and closed almost immediately afterward.
The next day Barnes sent another email, apologizing for the confusion. He met with us two weeks after that, to be interviewed about the fate of the club. The musician-turned-restaurateur did his best to maintain a positive outlook, but didn't hide that the situation had been weighing heavily on him.
“In some ways, it’s good that people saw [the first] email,” he said. “But in other ways, man, what a cluster that created. People will believe what they want to believe, but there was never an effort to deceive. The fact of the matter is: I’m tired. I spend a lot of time triaging, which prevents me from focusing on the real work.”
Barnes explained that trying to plug the leaks affecting his business, even as new ones emerged, had been his default mode since the club opened. While the 1905 grew in stature, earning national recognition for bringing in top-tier talent—like Wynton Marsalis, Craig Taborn, and drummer Ari Hoenig—the business was in a constant state of mild-to-major disarray behind the scenes.
What began as a simple order-at-the-bar pizzeria, in 2016, went through multiple iterations. To help bring in more customers, the club added live music, eventually building a reputation for its nightly schedule of jazz shows. For the first two years, the club didn’t charge a cover for performances. Between that and adding table service—and its associated labor costs—the venue went, according to Barnes, immediately “six figures into the red. It’s been awful ever since.”
The situation only became more fraught with the COVID shut down. Even after full audiences returned to the space, Barnes and his team never completely found their footing.
Over the past summer, several employees found their paychecks had bounced. “At one point,” former 1905 general manager Joshua Madrid told the Mercury, “he had nearly 20 checks bounce across all of his spaces in the same pay period.” Madrid also alleges that “numerous bands had checks bounce as well,” including visiting artists like former Journey drummer Steve Smith, and the New York-based Hoenig.
Reached via email, Hoenig admitted that, for one gig, his payment “was probably 2-3 months late with no pre warning [sic].” But he also emphasized that it was a one-time issue. “Since then, I've played there 3 more times without any payment problems,” he wrote. “I believe Aaron Barnes is a good cat who means well and does great things for the music scene in Portland. Due to his love and respect for the music and the artists, he can overextend himself and can make business related mistakes, such as the one you heard about. I do believe he always has the best intentions and wants to right his wrongs. I'm pulling for him to succeed.”
According to Madrid, he and other members of the management team from the 1905, Scholar, and Hopscotch attempted to help right the ship, asking “to see the financial books so that we could figure out a plan of attack,” he wrote. “No matter how much we pleaded, [Aaron] flat out refused. We even had a friend who does the accounting for one of the largest cannabis companies in Washington offer to come down and organize the books for free. He still said no.”
In response to these claims, Barnes said, in a follow-up email, “Help has been offered at times, but that doesn't make it the right help. The cannabis person you are referencing, I did agree to, but due to restructuring, it didn't come to fruition. Additionally, it was only for a very specific part… Josh wasn't at all the meetings.”
Eventually the right help came along, but it appears to have been too little, too late. After the October emails flew, a group of supporters and friends—described by Barnes as seven individuals who are musicians, lawyers, and work in finance—offered their guidance to get the 1905 back on its feet.
What they and Barnes proposed felt like smart changes that could have shored things up for the club. They were set to switch up their ticketing process, and make changes to the menu to cut labor costs—and to make it easier to turn tables over on nights when they held three shows. They were adjusting the scheduling, abandoning a futile attempt to get Portlanders to show up for performances that start at 11:30 pm.
More than anything else, Barnes wanted to make sure that the musicians he brought in were being paid well—whether they were flown in or part of the area's strong local jazz community.
“This is not an attack, but it’s the local scene that costs us money,” Barnes said. “That’s why I want to work with artists to develop a better system that celebrates the entire ecosystem [and] recognizes the value that we all have. I think that this music needs a sanctuary. We need to work as a community to find that middle ground so that the stages can stay open, and the artists feel fairly compensated and valued and their art is heard.”
To Barnes’ credit, many Portland jazz artists had his back. Scrolling through the names of folks donating to the club’s GoFundMe reveals support from trombonist James Powers and saxophonist Nicole McCabe.
To Domo Branch, a Portland drummer who organized the July GoFundMe, the club’s struggles all boiled down to Barnes “doing what clubs should be doing, which is taking care of the musicians.” Branch said most of the club's door went to musicians. "They [were] making their money solely off food and drinks. All the ticket sales [were] ours. That is almost unheard of nowadays.”
On Wednesday night, Barnes had decided to close the 1905 once more. Over the phone, he described having to hock his own musical instruments, miss car payments, and beg his bank for a stay of execution during his years running the club. There's still plenty of work to do; he's got to find local spaces willing to book the out-of-town acts that were already on the 1905’s calendar and help his staff close the doors for the last time.
But for Barnes personally, he’s most looking forward to some quiet nights with his daughter. During our conversation in late October, he grabbed his iPhone and dialed up a picture of the two of them, in matching aprons, making cookies in their kitchen. It was taken, he said, right around the time the 1905 opened its doors.
“I realized we haven’t had a moment like that in seven years,” Barnes said, his voice getting quiet. “So whatever happens with the 1905, it needs to be able to run more efficiently because I need more balance. I need to go spend quality time with my family. Last week, I hit my limit. Clearly I found another inch, but I’m not interested in continuing down that path anymore.”