Portland, Oregon, is known for many things. The mention of Portland might conjure images of overcast skies and persistent rain, brewpubs and coffee shops, hipster culture and progressive rock, street protests, and police violence, among other things. Jazz music is not likely to make the list.
This is understandable because Portland is the whitest big city in the United States, but even lily-white Portland had a thriving jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s. How did it arise? Why did it die? And why did Portland, and the state of Oregon in general, remain whiter than other large western cities?
Let’s delve into the history for answers...
York, part of the Lewis & Clark expedition, is the second recorded Black person to arrive in what is now Oregon. Although enslaved, York was an essential member of the trip. He handled firearms, hunted game, and was sent with only one other man to barter with the Nez Perce tribe, whose generosity was crucial to the expedition's success. He was eventually allowed an equal vote in some critical decisions. Despite his contributions, York did not receive the fame and adulation bestowed upon the other mission members. He returned to a life of bondage.
The law stated that Blacks who tried to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped — thirty-nine lashes, repeated every six months — until they left Oregon. The law was written by Peter Burnett and became known as “Burnett's lash law.” Burnett later became California's first elected governor.
The first significant number of Blacks begin to arrive in Oregon. Black people from Appalachia come to work in coal mines. Black cowboys work ranches in the Pendleton area and play an important role in establishing the famous Pendleton Roundup rodeo. The completion of the transcontinental railroad brings Black porters and other railroad workers. The workers would prove integral in the development of Portland's jazz scene.
Founded by Edward D. Cannady and nine colleagues, the Advocate covered accounts of racism and discrimination and provided a record of the daily lives of Oregon’s two thousand Black residents. It featured birth and wedding announcements, obituaries, news on Black success stories and business, and other snippets of daily life.
1906 to 1931
W.D. Allen opened the Golden West Hotel in 1906 located in Northwest Portland. It caters to Black railway workers, cooks, barbers, and waiters. The few Black Portland residents were mostly confined to the lower Albina neighborhood on the other side of the Willamette River. It remained a focal point of the Black community in Portland for its entire existence. It housed several Black-owned businesses, including a bar, a barbershop, an ice cream parlor, and an athletic club. Black railway workers brought blues and jazz records from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and other cities. In a time and place with no Black radio or record shops, this was how Black Portland was introduced to new music.
McElroy's Spanish Ballroom one of the most popular venues for jazz music in Portland, it was founded by Cole “Pops” McElroy, a white man and staunch integrationist, and Stanton Duke, a prominent black business leader. McElroy's was one of the first integrated venues in Portland.
Black and white migrants are drawn to the Portland area by plentiful jobs in the shipyards. At first, Blacks are excluded from higher-paying jobs like welding, but by the end of the war, Black men and women make their way into these positions. Portland’s black population increases from 1,931 in 1940 to more than 20,000 in 1945. Most newcomers, Black and white, live in the Vanport housing community, designed to house shipyard workers, along the Columbia River. Vanport was built in 110 days in 1942, and, at its height, housed 40,000 residents.
The Dude Ranch was a prominent Black-owned nightclub. It had murals of Black cowboys and waitress, Black and white, dressed in western garb. It became unpopular with city leaders because there was too much racial mixing and was closed after only a year-and-a-half.
This is the period during which Portland had multiple jazz venues and attracted the top artists from around the country. Many of these clubs were clustered around Williams Avenue in the Albina District, including Paul’s Paradise, the Frat Hall, the Savoy, Lil’ Sandy’s, and Jackie’s.
Because Portland was still a segregated city, Black jazz artists could not check into downtown hotels, and instead stayed with local Black families in the Albina neighborhood.
The Black Music Project would like to give a special thanks to Mr. Michael Henniger for graciously giving us access to the following Portland photos from his private collection from the estate of his late father Carl Henniger.
Vanport had become Oregon's second-largest city with 18,500, roughly 6,300 were Black. After the war, when the shipyards closed, most of the Black residents had to remain in substandard housing due to Portland’s discriminatory housing policies. Then on Memorial Day 1948 the Columbia River flooded devastating the town and leaving most of its Black residents homeless.
Many of the Black residents left Portland or moved to the already crowded Albina neighborhood.
City leaders judged the Albina neighborhood blighted and developers leveled it to build the I-5 freeway and Veterans Memorial Coliseum. More than 200 Black families were displaced.
More information about the history of jazz music in Portland:
Jazz Town from Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957 from the Oregon State University Press.
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