Spinning off from a group of Portland State jazz students, the collective started as a way for its members to continue playing new material in a big-band setting after graduation. In 2010, the organization applied for nonprofit status and began commissioning works from outside composers—often reaching across genres—for quarterly live performances. Now with a record label, a podcast and a mentorship program under its umbrella, the PJCE has become perhaps the most vital outlet in the city for pushing jazz forward.
With the ensemble's annual Grasshoppers showcase—featuring debut pieces from young composers, some not yet out of high school—happening this week, Willamette Week spoke to PJCE executive director Douglas Detrick about the organization's mission, the current state of Portland jazz and its future.
WW: What would you say is the ultimate mission of PJCE? Is it the preservation of jazz, its evolution or a little bit of both?
Douglas Detrick: We're preserving the practice of the music—the idea of having a large ensemble that performs and is a relevant force in the community is a little bit of an antiquated idea. The trends are toward smaller projects and smaller groups. But the evolution part of that is really important, too. If all we do is preserve the way jazz was done in the 1950s, there's not much energy there. There might be a small number of people that are interested in that, and there are for sure. But I don't think as an organization that there's much of a future for us doing that. We want to broaden the idea of what's possible with jazz, and say that we have open arms to the rest of the artistic community and beyond that, too. If you're an astrophysicist and you want to make a jazz project, I'd love to hear from you.
You're helping to develop composers from a young age, as well.
Grasshoppers is our student composer mentorship program. We kind of throw them into the deep end. Normally, we're working with very experienced composers who've written for groups somewhat like this before, because it is challenging and there are so many different details you have to be on top of. We give them as much help as we can, but we're also ready for them to not be ready. We give them the opportunity for that first failure, so they can have those hard-knock experiences where they say, "I had no idea it would sound like that, I had no idea that wouldn't work." But they're also going to have some successes where they say, "Wow, that sounded great and I had no idea." It's an amazing opportunity to hear such young artists do the biggest projects they've ever done at this point in their lives.
Are there models similar to PJCE elsewhere in the country?
It's not completely unique. There are some other nonprofit record labels and nonprofit ensembles. But I think the opportunity we have is fairly unique. We have both of those things under one umbrella, as one organization. What I'm hoping for the PJCE, in the future, is that we're a center point for collaboration across lots of different music genres, with different organizations and other fields, that is building opportunity and community for jazz musicians and composers and students and audiences, and bringing people into jazz who weren't interested in it before. So it's pretty unique in that it's all those things under one roof, even though we're using "roof" metaphorically—we don't have our own space. That's something we'd love to have, but we don't have it right now.
In terms of a project you would use to introduce someone who thinks they don't like jazz to what you're doing, which ones stand out to you?
Our most recent album that came out is called Breath of Fire, and it's by a piano player and composer named Andrew Durkin. He calls it "a meditation on mortality," so it's this really heavy subject matter he's thinking about, but he also brings this campy, almost silly music and influence into it. He loves Zappa, and he has these almost '60s rock beats in there, and it's this funny, kind of joyful look at death and having a bad back.
How do you feel about the state of jazz in Portland at the moment?
It's a tricky question, because we're not just a bubble here in Portland. There's a national trend going on. Jazz audiences are still declining; that's what the data says. At the same time, more broadly, outside Portland—it's funny, because Catherine Feeny, when we were talking, she said, "I think jazz is having a moment, that it's coming back, and a lot of hip-hop recording artists are hiring jazz musicians to be on their records, and there's a little more interest." I think I've seen that a little bit, but at the same time, it's hard for us to get people's attention.
Overall, people think they don't like jazz. In Portland, it's a tricky time. I've been talking to a lot of my colleagues who feel it's at a low point right now. With our organization, we're most successful when we reach out to other communities and say, "We'd love to help you tell your story." That can be the Oregon Historical Society, or it could be singer-songwriters, it could architects, it could be scientists, it could be doctors. Those are always ideas we're working on, and we're working on more of that for next year.
SEE IT: The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble's Grasshoppers showcase is at the City Hall Atrium, 1221 SW 4th Ave., on Thursday, Feb. 23. Noon. Free. All ages. Also at the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., on Friday, Feb. 24. 7:30 pm. $15 for students, seniors and PJCE members, $20 general admission. All ages.
The Other Players and Places Moving Portland's Jazz Scene Forward by Parker Hall
Noah Simpson (trumpet)
Young, energetic and full of cohesive improvisational ideas, Portland State graduate Noah Simpson has been popping up all over town as a sideman in various ensembles, in addition to leading his own quartet.
Coco Columbia (singer)
Jazz harmonies blend with various electronic and hip-hop influences in the music of Coco Columbia, a wig-wearing vocalist and composer who has done well to break into the mainstream of Portland's music scene.
Ezra Weiss (piano)
Among the finest composers and arrangers living in Portland, Weiss has recently adapted many of his original works for large ensemble, a setting in which his many-layered ideas come together with astounding beauty.
The 1905 (830 N Shaver St.)
This small, musician-run pizza pub mixes performances from the biggest names in Portland jazz with some fresh young faces, taking over Jimmy Mak's spot as the best place to catch exciting, spur-of-the-moment happenings.
The Fremont Theater (2393 NE Fremont St.)
An intimate high-ceilinged concert venue with a beautiful stage, Northeast Portland's Fremont Theater frequently hosts Portland's best jazz musicians, including a few exciting Portland Jazz Festival showcases.
Turn! Turn! Turn! (8 NE Killingsworth St.)
Talented local saxophonist Ian Christensen curates a regular jazz series on Sunday evenings at this warm Northeast Killingsworth Street bar and coffee shop, bringing in an array of music ranging from vocals to free improvisation.