With the Impending Closure of Jimmy Mak's, Portland Jazz Faces an Uncertain Future

With the jazz mecca's final curtain call approaching, musicians reflect on what the club meant—and where to go from here.

The first time saxophonist Hailey Niswanger walked through the front door at Jimmy Mak's, it had a different address, and she was a minor with her instrument case in tow.

It was summer 2004, and a few of her musician friends had been getting rides from their parents to the club on Tuesday nights. If you were lucky, you might get invited to play a song with whatever Portland jazz luminary happened to be onstage before underage patrons got booted at 9 pm.

That night, it was Niswanger's turn. Mel Brown, the local drumming icon whose name has become synonymous with Jimmy Mak's, recognized her from his jazz camp in Central Oregon the previous summer. He invited Niswanger, then 14, to play with Brown's septet, a group of musicians who still rank among her biggest inspirations.

"That night they called me up to sit in on a tune with them; I couldn't have been more nervous, or excited," she says, speaking by phone from her home in New York, where she is a professional musician. "This club is where I grew up."

After 20 years, the Pearl District music venue is not just the best jazz club in Portland, it's a nationally known monolith that regularly hosts some of the finest musicians around. But unless something magical happens, it will soon be gone.

After the building Jimmy Mak's currently occupies was sold to developers in February, the club was set to move once again—it relocated across the street from its original location in 2006—to the former Bella Casa furniture store nearby on Northwest Everett Street. But with owner and namesake Jim Makarounis' ongoing battle with larynx cancer taking a turn for the worse, the club announced in late November that without new management to take on the relocation project, Jimmy Mak's would close permanently at the end of the year.

Related: "Jazz Mecca Jimmy Mak's Is Closing Forever."

Whether you are a die-hard KMHD listener, a casual jazz fan or a musician, Jimmy Mak's has long been the center of Portland's musical voice. And after the shuttering of several other jazz-focused venues in the past several years—including Ivories, Vie de Bohème, and the Camellia Lounge—news of its closure has the jazz community entering an uncertain future.

"People come to town and the first thing they ask is, 'Where's jazz?'" says Mel Brown. "Now there's gonna be no place to point them to."

For touring musicians, Jimmy Mak's leaves a significant hole. Since opening in 1996, countless musicians from across the country have played in front of its iconic red-velvet curtain. Famed Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Les McCann, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and countless others made pit stops at the club on West Coast trips. Now, as of Jan. 1, there will be no major jazz venue between Oakland's Yoshi's and Seattle's Jazz Alley.

But it's local artists who will be hit the hardest. Two decades ago, there wasn't a place in Portland where you could find top-level jazz six nights a week. Performances by Brown and local mainstays like organist Louis Pain, trumpeter Thara Memory, and blues musicians like Curtis Salgado quickly built the club into the finest of its kind in Portland since the '60s, when jazz was so prominent in the Albina neighborhood it was known as Jumptown. Within six months of opening, Jimmy Mak's was profitable. Finally, it felt like the best jazz musicians in town had a home.

Even with big-name touring acts routinely taking the stage, Makarounis—himself a saxophone player—worked to showcase Portland talent as often as possible. Regulars like Brown, Memory and guitarist Dan Balmer made the club the go-to venue for jazz. During this year's Portland Jazz Festival, Makarounis and festival manager Don Lucoff made sure that every event held at the club featured local musicians. For Portland transplants like trumpeter Farnell Newton, who arrived in the city in the early 2000s, that ideology made Jimmy Mak's the most important place to get a gig.

"It was the place to be," Newton says. "It was that place where, if you weren't at that level to play, you worked on your band, hung at the club and paid your dues, so that it was your turn next."

With Jimmy Mak's closure appearing imminent, the jazz scene is frantic to find a replacement. A few places continue to offer high-level jazz for local listeners. Musician-owned restaurants like the 1905 on North Shaver Street have begun hosting live jams, and recent additions like Solae's Lounge on Northeast Alberta Street are booking local talent (though Solae's is having problems of its own). Coupled with new venues such as the Fremont Theater, jazz aficionados like Lucoff are optimistic about the state of the Portland scene, even with Jimmy Mak's leaving such a large hole.

"Portland's a very resilient city," Lucoff says. "There's a ton of musicians on the scene, and people are used to making something out of nothing. Right now, we don't have a major jazz club, so they will make something from that."

Lucoff says PDX Jazz doesn't anticipate hosting fewer shows at the Portland Jazz Festival, which starts Feb. 16. He is in the process of moving the planned Jimmy Mak's shows to other venues.

Following its success at previous festivals, Mel Brown and his band will headline at Revolution Hall.

Musicians like drummer Chris Brown—Mel's son—say Portland's jazz community remains strong. He says it feels like people are fighting harder for live jazz more than ever.

"It's not until someone's reality is disrupted that you kind of evaluate things the way that they are," Chris Brown says. "Now we have more people saying, 'We have to fix this.'"

Still, for musicians like his father, who relies on the consistency of weekly gigs, the loss of Jimmy Mak's presents numerous obstacles.

"We've got great players here in Portland," Mel Brown says, "but it's hard to have a band that plays and nobody knows where they will be next week."

There's still a chance Jimmy Mak's will see a rebirth. According to longtime managers J.D. Stubenberg and Lisa Brandon, they have gotten a few inquiries from potential investors, and are planning to "evaluate all serious offers."

For Niswanger, Jimmy Mak's is more than just a place to play or listen to jazz. For her entire career, it has been a place she feels honored to call home.

"I am proud to say that while living in New York, I have found there are so many musicians here who know and rave about Jimmy Mak's," she says. "Jimmy Mak's should be considered a Portland monument."

Velvet curtain or not, the same jazz community that built Jimmy Mak's into an internationally known powerhouse is determined to continue cultivating young artists. It just might take some time to find a new living room.

"It's about the people. Jimmy Mak's, at one point, was nothing," says Chris Brown. "Every great thing has a new beginning."

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