Many have forgotten, but for a few decades after World War II, Portland was a well-known hub for black music on the West Coast.
Thanks to a large African-American working community fostered by the Kaiser Shipyards, the Central Eastside—and North Williams Avenue in particular—hosted a cluster of live jazz venues, juke joints and record stores. It was the center of nightlife in Portland for adventurous and creative souls.
Though gentrification and changing culture eventually forced the number of jazz clubs to wither—the recent shuttering of Jimmy Mak’s is just the latest in a long line of closures—there has long been a history of unique venues in Portland.
The Dude Ranch was a speakeasy in the 1920s, before rising to become the most famous jazz club in the Central Eastside in the mid-1940s. A cowboy-themed oddity that hosted strippers, shake dancers, comics and the very best of jazz—including Louis Armstrong—the Dude Ranch was a home away from home for Portland’s night owls. “Nothing topped the Dude Ranch,” Dietsche says. “No other city had such an odd and interesting place. It was totally unique to Portland.”
2 Jimmy Mak’s (1996-2016)
300 NW 10th Ave.; 221 NW 10th Ave.
“Jimmy Mak’s rose to become Portland’s premier jazz club along with the economic and demographic changes of its Pearl District neighborhood,” Dietsche says. “Its success was also due to music policy and management by [the late] owner Jim Makarounis, and the internationally known club was famed for hosting drummer Mel Brown’s groups three nights a week. Beside the stage was a brass plaque that read, ‘Mel’s Place.’”
3 The Chicken Coop (1937-48)
Northeast 24th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard
A rundown building in front of an apartment complex with the best chicken sandwiches in town, the Chicken Coop “was the club for a while,” Dietsche says. “Anybody who was anybody who came to town, who wanted some after-hours action, they came to the Chicken Coop.”
The small record store on North Broadway “was the meeting place around Williams Avenue—a social center, if you will,” Dietsche says. “Movie stars, white and black, came there to shop for records. Anybody who wanted to go and seek a little adventure ended up at Madrona Records.”
5 Paul’s Paradise (1960s)
“Harder, heavier bop music and flashy silk ties differentiated Paul’s Paradise from the Chicken Coop,” Dietsche says. “The club was big in the last part of the 1950s, before all clubs in town started struggling.”
6 The Cotton Club (1963-68)
A less-formal version of the Dude Ranch, the Cotton Club featured comedy and dance, in addition to excellent live jazz. “This place was a return of the jazz club in the ’60s, sort of the last echoing of the big jazz era in Portland,” Dietsche says. “There was a lot of organ-driven jazz there.”
7 McClendon’s Rhythm Room (1950s)
“McClendon’s was really a huge club in the Williams district that took over after [TK TK],” Dietsche says. “They were booking national and international acts, and people were coming from all over to see artists like Oscar Peterson.” The first floor of the building housed Slaughter’s pool hall, where many people got their first taste of jazz. “Though they didn’t have live music, Slaughter’s was a place with a jukebox that was very influential to a number of jazz musicians, who first heard recordings that inspired them,” Dietsche says.
8 The Jazz Quarry (mid-1970s to late ’80s)
Southwest Jefferson Street between 11th and 12th avenues
“A pizza and cheap-highball location, the Jazz Quarry was known as the Mural Room in the 1960s, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s it became a rite of passage for young Portland musicians to sit in at jam sessions,” Dietsche says. “The Sky Trio was the house band that backed touring artists, and featured pianist Eddie Wied, who said he learned to play piano ‘at the University of Williams Avenue.’”
Southeast Woodstock Boulevard and 52nd Avenue; Southeast Holgate Boulevard and 39th Avenue
“Owned by the same brothers who started the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival in 1981 as a tribute to their late father, the Hobbit began as a little cafe in the Woodstock neighborhood, and later moved to a larger location on Holgate,” Darroch says. “Even with the shift, it never lost its focus on the music. It became known as the home of legendary local bassist David Friesen and the Mel Brown Sextet.”
10 The Uptown Ballroom (early 1940s)
“You’d get in a cab and say, ‘Take me Uptown,’” Dietsche says. “Big bands came there—big-name big bands. It was so important, because after the big bands would play their shows, they were looking for some action, and that’s when they would head to the other clubs to jam after hours.”
11 Delevan’s (early 1980s)
Northwest 14th Avenue and Glisan Street
“This elegant supper club featured nationally touring artists, backed by Ron Steen’s trio, which gave Portland’s younger players golden opportunities to learn from the giants of jazz,” Darroch says. “A former firehouse, it changed hands and was known as Remo’s, and then, in the early 2000s, resurfaced as a jazz club called Touché.”
12 Ray's Helm (late-60s to late-70s)
NE Broadway and 7th or 9th
“A jazz club that presented the most popular jazz-influenced styles of its day, Ray’s Helm is most notable for hosting the Jeff Lorber trio—a funk-jazz band that featured for a time a young Kenny G,” Darroch says.
13 The Jazz de'Opus (1970s-2003)
“With barnwood walls, other hippie-era decor and photos of jazz legends on the walls, the Jazz de’Opus was an Old Town night spot that presented many national touring artists in the ‘70s,” Darroch says. “The club endured an era of no live music and then re-emerged in the ‘90s, when groups led by legendary bassist Leroy Vinegar and drummer Alan Jones filled the booths with young listeners.”
37th floor of US Bank Building
“On the 37th floor of the US Bank tower, this elegant night night spot featured spectacular views, and featured a trio led by Leroy Vinegar and Mel Brown,” Darroch says.
15 LV's Uptown (Early 2000s)
SW Lincoln between 3rd and 4th
“Managed by the Leroy Vinegar Institute of Jazz at PSU and booked by jazz pianist and professor Darrell Grant, LV’s was a former motel restaurant that gave PSU students a nearby lab to interact with touring as well as local artists,” Darroch says.
Robert Dietsche was a Willamette Week jazz contributor from 1978 to ’82. His latest book, Tatum’s Town, tells the story of jazz in Toledo, Ohio. Lynn Darroch was also a WW contributor in the early 1980s. He has written a book called Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest.