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November 30th, 2005 Zach Dundas | Featured Stories
 

Ghost World

A local author's wild new history brings Portland's lost years as a jazz hotbed back to life.

     
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The upstairs had heavy gambling and Sunday jam sessions. The bar downstairs looked like one of those wild west saloons you see in cowboy movies of the thirties, complete with brass railing, a spittoon, a gentlemen's relief trough, a billy club under the cash register, and one of those oversize mirrors on the back wall behind the bar. That was so Charlie Garett could check out the "pretty foxes" coming and going. From the back seat of his car one night, one of them, in a fit of jealousy, put a bullet through his head and got away with it.

—Bob Dietsche, Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957, Chapter 4

For some, history is a science: an objective, rational, quantifiable capital-H pursuit; a question of correctly balancing an equation of social movements, economic crosscurrents, median incomes, climatic influence and demographic trends. That's not the way Bob Dietsche does it. And as the above cutting from Jumptown—the ex-record store owner's free-swinging, spastically uneven, intriguing history of Portland's post-World War II jazz scene—shows, Bob's way is a lot more fun.

Granted, Dietsche enjoys the unfair advantage of a rich and nearly untilled field: the brief period when a knot of top-flight jazz clubs, record shops, juke joints and speakeasies clustered North Williams Avenue at the east end of the Steel Bridge. Williams formed black Portland's dense, frenetic heart, hemmed in by Jim Crow laws, fueled by railroads and shipyards, sustained by weird liquor laws and domineered by vice lords.

The material Dietsche works with is all straight out of a tough-talking noir novel: a miniature realm of sharp-dressed bravos, slumming white boys and talent-possessed musicians. The politics and social conditions were appalling: Now-oh-so-PC Portland was one of the most racist cities in the country, with "mixed" dancing considered an active civilizational menace. Somehow, though, the scene—smashed out of existence by late '50s "urban renewal," but also by the end of legal segregation—feels more textured and rich in Dietsche's retelling than anything around today.

By its own description, Jumptown, published this month by Oregon State University Press, seeks to re-create a "jazz Pompeii." To do the job, the author employs the rambling style and pace of the oral history. Structure is not Dietsche's strong suit, but this works to his advantage, the somewhat disheveled project reflecting its untidy origins. Dietsche started interviewing Williams Avenue old-timers back in the 1980s, when he owned downtown's legendary Django Records and livened up public radio with colorful, imagined travelogues. A long quest for anecdotes, photos and recordings ensued.

"I interviewed over a hundred people in the course of this thing," Dietsche says. "And about half of them have died since I interviewed them. I started with the musicians, of course—anyone I could find. I'd go over to their houses with a photographer, and we'd make copies of any photos they had."

Dietsche also accumulated a vast trove of reel-to-reel tapes recorded live at 'hood hotspots—6,000 hours, by his count. "One problem with a jazz book, of course, is that you can't play the music," he says, "but having those tapes let me describe some things like I was there."

The resulting compendium of stories, photos and vintage newspaper clippings is populated by strange, forgotten characters: Tom Johnson, dapper godfather of North Portland's underground economy; Scotty Mills, a white-hot (in more ways than one) female guitarist who disappeared into the streets; Dink Johnson, a piano legend who died after some punks jumped him on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. And it's full of places you wish you could go: the Dude Ranch, the Ballot Box, Li'l Sandy's, Paul's Paradise, the Olympic Room, the Frat Hall.

As much as Dietsche indulges in the pure nostalgic pleasures of the era, though, he doesn't neglect its hard-history underpinnings. He points out that the construction of the Bonneville Dam indirectly created Portland's jazz scene, supplying cheap power to the wartime shipyards that attracted the city's first sizable black migration. Railroad travel made Portland a natural stopover for touring bands, while railroad workers brought in everything from brand-new records to quality weed (the last time Oregon would be a net importer of the stuff, probably). Segregation concentrated the community in a dense ball of cultural energy. And Oregon's goofy liquor laws of the time—you brought your own bottle to the club, then paid the bar to sell it back to you by the drink—provided a lucrative revenue stream for clubs, which gouged like crazy.

And then there's the bittersweet conclusion, when development and social change (much of it for the better) obliterated the Williams Avenue scene. Dietsche touches lightly on the demise of a neighborhood and cultural hotbed—there is, he says, a whole extra chapter, maybe another book entirely, to be written on that subject.

"I didn't want to make this a political treatise," he says. "It seems like people are interested in all those ingredients, so I wanted them in there. But I wanted to keep the music up front."

He succeeded there. While Jumptown isn't the kind of history you learn in school, it's a tremendous contribution to the self-knowledge of a city where the past is, too often, a phantom.


Bob Dietsche will be introducing Jumptown (OSU Press, 288 pages, $24.95) at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 6; St. Johns Booksellers, 8622 N Lombard St., 7:30 pm Thursday, Dec. 8; and Music Millennium, 801 NW 23rd Ave., 3 pm Saturday, Dec. 10. All readings are free.
 
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