Darrell Grant is fighting back tears.
The jazz musician and Portland State University professor is sitting on a bench in DeNorval Unthank Park, a rambunctious game of basketball playing out behind him and small groups of people splayed out on the grass in front of him. It’s the starting point of his entry in the Soundwalks series of audio pieces commissioned by contemporary music ensemble Third Angle New Music meant to be listened to while strolling through various locales.
For his piece, titled Come Sunday, Grant chose to honor the history of Portland’s Black churches, mapping out an hourlong tour that stops by 15 houses of worship in North and Northeast Portland. The soundtrack to this hike is a dense collage of sounds: snippets of spirituals, free-jazz drumming, a recitation of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program and recorded testimonials by Black Portlanders.
Come Sunday is a powerful tribute not only to the rich community that once thrived in the King, Alberta and Humboldt neighborhoods, but also how much the city’s Black population has lost. With rapid development and discriminatory housing practices pushing Black residents out of North and Northeast Portland, many churches have declined or disappeared. It’s that reality that has Grant choked with emotion.
“As I say at the end of the soundwalk,” Grant says, “as you walk through these neighborhoods, you wonder what they would look like and how they would be occupied if we hadn’t had all of these actively discriminatory policies, like every single possible barrier to it being a Black neighborhood.”
These issues have dominated Grant’s creative work for some time. In April 2020, he was set to debut Sanctuaries, a jazz opera that he had been working on for three years that explored Portland’s deep history of gentrification and redlining.
As the pandemic delayed the premiere, Third Angle approached Grant about creating a piece for its Soundwalks series. It was a concept he struggled with at first, but he realized that the work he had put into researching the changing face of North Portland for Sanctuaries gave him a foundation to build on.
“I realized this would be a really great opportunity to explore this neighborhood through the sounds of a community as it used to be,” he says, “what it would have sounded like when all the people that were the reason those churches exist were in the neighborhood.”
The path that Grant mapped out for Come Sunday reveals how deeply embedded the roots of the Black community remain in spite of the neighborhoods’ changing demographics. The walk begins at Unthank Park, named in honor of Dr. DeNorval Unthank, a medical practitioner who served as president of the NAACP in Portland and co-founder of the Portland Urban League. It ends at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a church that has been serving Black Portlanders since 1889.
As we take the first part of the soundwalk together, Grant points out a number of Black-owned homes and businesses that have managed to survive even as modern apartment buildings and high-end boutiques popped up around them.
But it’s the churches that didn’t survive that weighs on Grant the most. One of the most haunting and powerful moments of Come Sunday finds him reading the party platform for the Black Panther Party over a blustering avant-garde drum piece by local musician Machado Mijiga. It’s a nod to the church where the local chapter of the Black Panthers ran its free breakfast program in the ’70s. It is now home to the Portland Playhouse.
The building we pass on Northeast Mason Street brings out more emotion from Grant. It’s currently the home of Grace City Portland, a vaguely hipster church led by a nearly all-white ministerial team. It was once home to Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, an affiliation that once served the Black community and provided sanctuary and services to homeless Portlanders.
On the soundwalk, the voice of Philadelphia MBC’s former leader, Pastor Roy Clay, takes over as listeners reach the building. He recounts starting with the church when it was “still pretty much a Black community” and the work it did clothing and feeding the homeless. But, Clay says, the church had to sell its building as “Blacks began to move out and…it wasn’t like it was. Our church started declining.”
As hard as that is to hear, Come Sunday doesn’t feel like a lament. The spirituals featured in the piece, including “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” provide uplift, as does the words of Mariah Taylor, a longtime Portlander who opened the first Black-owned nurse practitioner clinic in the city in 1981.
“I was asking her, ‘What do we do when the churches are gone?’” he says. “And she said, ‘No, we are the church.’ The church can never die because we are the church. These buildings are beacons and reminders of the community that’s still possible.”
FIVE OTHER ESSENTIAL SOUNDWALKS
Amenta Abioto’s Abe
Modern R&B artist Amenta Abioto created a rhythm-heavy soundtrack for a freeform stroll around Whitaker Ponds Nature Park meant to serve as “a musical portal into the heart.”
Branic Howard and Gabi Lewton-Leopard’s Overlay
This work uses anecdotes from anonymous voices discussing their experiences using and enjoying Mt. Tabor Park as the backdrop for an hourlong stroll through the recreation area.
Julie Hammond’s Soil to Sand/Sky to River
Artist Julie Hammond asks listeners to “pay attention in unfamiliar ways” to the buildings, nature and skies around St. Johns and Cathedral Park.
Crystal Quartez’s Sonic Blooming
This “guided meditation” through the International Rose Test Garden was created, in part, by the artist attaching sensors to the plants there, turning their electrical impulses into music and sound.
LISTEN: Each entry in Third Angle’s Soundwalks series is available for download at thirdangle.org/soundwalks.