Looking For Jimmy Mak

We talk to the seminal local jazz club's owner as his venue turns 15.

It’s rare, in Portland, for a club to last five years. Jimmy Mak’s opened 15 years ago (just across the street from its much-larger current location) and remains a driving force behind this city’s jazz scene. Downbeat magazine has called the Pearl District club “one of the world’s top 100 places to hear jazz,” and a never-ending stream of musicians—from legendary drummer Mel Brown to standout local high-school and college students—grace one of Portland’s best stages every night. You’d be forgiven, though, for not knowing Jim Makarounis. Though the club owner’s name is on the sign out front, Jimmy Mak is more likely to be helping out in the kitchen than introducing musicians onstage (many regulars mistake “J.D.,” the bartender who often introduces bands, for the club owner). So we thought we’d drag 48-year-old Portland native Makarounis out into the spotlight for once to ask him a few questions on the eve of Jimmy Mak’s’ 15th birthday.

WW: How did you come to own a jazz club?

Jimmy Mak: I grew up in a family where my mom and dad had little neighborhood taverns and bars, so since I was 1 or 2 years old, my dad always had a bar. So I just had it in the back of my mind since before high school that I wanted to have my own place. I was a corporate guy for 11 years when I got out of college, but I was always just putting a few doughnuts away and looking for opportunities.

What was this neighborhood like in 1996?

There was no real nightlife here, but there were some businesses around. There had been nobody in [Jimmy Mak's old location] for like nine months—right before we were there it was an Australian-themed gay bar...I don't know how much more of a niche you could have in Portland! And so the landlord just wanted somebody in there. We had an interesting clientele: We had a pimp, Diz, who was one of our regulars. So it was an interesting mix of blue-collar guys, neighborhood people and folks from the West Hills or wherever.

So did it seem like a risky investment?

Oh yeah. But I'm kind of Type A. I'm a very competitive person and I don't like to lose. And my wife is pretty competitive, too, so we were not going to look back at it in a year and say, "We wish we would have worked harder." It was just going to be all-in for a year and see what happens. And thank God, it worked. We were profitable within six months.

Was it a scary transition when you bought this building five years ago?

Oh yeah. We went in debt up to our eyeballs. I mortgaged my house, emptied my 401(k) plan. It was nerve-wracking, but the timing was perfect. The economy was going up. If we had tried to do this in 2008 or 2009, I don't know....

Your booking got bigger after the move.

We're trying to get more of those bigger national names in the club. It's funny, we had purposefully not booked more national acts, especially on weekends, because we have always wanted to give those opportunities to local people. I have always felt so humbled and appreciated by guys like Mel [Brown] and Curtis [Salgado] who wanted to play our room even when we were nothing—so I have never wanted to take those opportunities away from local guys. But what has made me more comfortable with national booking is that the scene is healthy. The Brassserie Montmartre is back, Wilf's is there and doing what they do, Tim [Gallineau] at the Blue Monk is booking more music again. The scene is expanding a little bit, so I feel like we can take X number of nights away from local players.

Were you the only game in town for a while?

Yeah, and those are nervous times. It's really the opposite of what you might think—it really is an indication that the scene is dying, and who wants to be the last guy on that proverbial sinking ship?

The only time I've ever seen you onstage here is when Martha Reeves pulled you up before singing the Vandellas' "Jimmy Mack."

Yeah, that was great. The funny part was that I went to get her at the airport, and we were having some problems finding each other, and then we literally ran into each other at the door. And she says "Jimmy?" And I say, "Yeah." And she says, "Jimmy Mak, I've been looking for you for 30 years!” 

SEE IT: Jimmy Mak's hosts special 15th anniversary shows all this week. See music calendar or jimmymaks.com, for details.

WWeek 2015

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