To many people, "Portland music" still conjures images of nose-ringed punks, dudes in surf-rock bands and twee folksters. Nicholas Salas-Harris, PDX Jazz Festival's new artistic director, sees a future where that list includes a sax and a suit.
"Five, 10, 20 years from now, not only will PDX Jazz be a major cultural force here in the Northwest, but our musicians will have the opportunity to show how great music can be coming from Portland," says Salas-Harris. "And it's not just the same types of music that, I think, people have associated with Portland for a long time."
If that sounds overly ambitious, it's worth noting Salas-Harris has already spent the past decade working to shift the culture of Portland music. In 2010, he co-founded Soul'd Out Festival, this city's biggest soul, hip-hop and R&B festival. Over the course of its existence, the multivenue event booked an impressive list of big-name artists—the last shows Prince ever played in Portland, the Travis Scott concert where Drake made a cameo—alongside local legends and up-and-comers.
Salas-Harris was announced as the new artistic director of PDX Jazz at the start of the new year. Then, at the beginning of February, it was announced Soul'd Out Festival would no longer take place.
Though this PDX Jazz Festival will be the first under Salas-Harris' tenure, his influence is already visible: This year's festival may be one of its most diverse ever. WW spoke to Salas-Harris about the festival, what it means for the city of Portland, and where the institution is headed.
WW: How busy are you in this stretch leading up to the festival?
Nicholas Sala-Harris: For me, this is very different, because I'm used to doing everything for Soul'd Out Festival. For me, this is fantastic that a whole great, dedicated staff and organization—very experienced, very good at their jobs—are helping me put this thing together and make it happen, so I'm loving it.
Any plans for Soul'd Out in the future?
Not at the moment. If anything happens with Soul'd Out in the future, it'll be in a different format, a different situation, a different time of the year. At this point, PDX Jazz is my main focus, and it's the only citywide, big festival that I feel like the city needs right now.
What factors went into the curating process for this year's festival?
What I helped bring to the table this year was diversifying the lineup and trying to widen the tent as far as who feels like they're being catered to. It's really about just creating a lot more access points for younger folks and more diverse crowds that we know exist here in the Pacific Northwest. When you see the lineup, it's a pretty significant shift from years past, and that's just a small sampling of where we're gonna go.
And part of that is diversifying the type of jazz being promoted, correct?
Exactly. Jazz is a big tree, and it reaches a lot of different places, and the roots go very deep, and the branches reach all different forms of music. Part of this is diversifying the music, certainly, but it's also about diversifying who gets to be at the table culturally here in Portland. It's not just about the shows, it's about whose music gets celebrated here in the Northwest.
Can you also talk about the significance of having this event take place during Black History Month?
The main inspiration for the festival landing in February is to help tell that story. Jazz is one of the great—if not the greatest—original American art form, and that music is directly informed by the experience of African Americans in this culture. You can't tell the story of jazz without telling the story of what that means and how things have unfolded the last 100-plus years. The music is just the fruits of those trees, and you have to understand how those things are rooted systemically and institutionally in our society to understand and celebrate what the fruits are.
Yes, we all love jazz and music in general, but it's as important, if not more important, to understand where the music comes from and how we got here.
SEE IT: PDX Jazz Festival takes place Feb. 19-March 1. See pdxjazz.com for venues, a schedule and ticket prices.