The Dude Ranch: Bebop in Portland During the 1940's and 50's
The Dude Ranch
Portland, Oregon had a vibrant and evolving jazz scene concentrated along Williams Avenue. One of the major reasons for this developing jazz scene came from the construction of the Bonneville Dam in 1937. The cheap electrical source attracted defense industries to the area during World War II, such as Kaiser Shipyard. These growing industries opened up thousands of jobs and, as a result, brought a number of people into the area to work these jobs, mostly from Texas and mostly African-American. Many people decided to settle in the area after the war and a new culture was developing that resulted in new night clubs, music venues, and late night hangs. Many of these businesses were centered around Williams Avenue due to the fact that this was, at the time, a cheap part of town to live. Jazz clubs were created such as The Cotton Club, The Acme, Lil' Sandy's, and The Dude Ranch.
The Dude Ranch stood out above the rest. Its exotic flare fused so many different styles together, you would think the club was a work of fiction. Author Robert Dietsche of Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957 describes The Dude Ranch:
There never was and there never will be anything quite like the Dude Ranch. It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, Las Vegas, and the Wild West rolled into one. It was the shooting star in the history of Portland Jazz, a meteor bursting with an array of the best Black and Tan entertainment this town has ever seen: strippers, then called shake dancers, ventriloquists, comics, jugglers, torch singers, world-renowned tap dancers like Teddy Hale, and of course the very best of jazz."
The location of the Dude Ranch is 240 N Broadway and is currently the home of the Leftbank Project.
On December 5th, 1945, the Dude Ranch had an historic night. Jazz at the Philharmonic, led by Norman Granz, was touring through Portland. Granz was a jazz entrepreneur. He started many jazz record labels during the 1940's and 50's, including Verve records, which still produces some of the best jazz recordings to this day. Jazz at the Philharmonic was a touring jazz concert series that gave many of the best musicians associated with both Swing and bebop music a chance to travel all over the country. Because of Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, musicians such as trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Thelonious Monk, and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins had an opportunity to play at Portland's Dude Ranch in 1945. This also gave audience members and up-and-coming Portland musicians a first hand listen to the music coming out of New York City.
Coleman Hawkins was primarily associated with Swing bands during the 1920's and 30's. His historic recording of "Body and Soul" in 1939 is is considered one of the predecessors to the Bebop movement. His influence on future generations of jazz allowed him to be one of the few musicians to successfully create music in both Swing and Bebop styles.
Down the street from the Dude Ranch was the Acme that later changed to the Savoy in 1947. That same year, band leader and vocalist Billy Eckstine was organizing a west coast tour but at the last minute found out he had a conflict with the tour dates. Instead of canceling the tour, he enlisted enough musicians to create a sextet. This sextet was led by trumpeter Al Killian and included tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. Up until this point, Gray had worked with the Earl Hines Orchestra, and exhibited his virtuosic talents on a recording called the "The Chase" that also featured tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Gray was becoming a nationally know tenor saxophonist and was at the height of his career in 1947. The final performance on their west coast tour, that was now led by trumpeter Al Killian, was at Portland's venue, the Savoy. The band was a hit and they all decided to stay in Portland and play the Savoy for an additional five months after the tour.
Wardell's playing was unmatchable. He could out shine almost any bebop player during that time and was associated as a tenor saxophone battle star, mainly due to his saxophone battling with Dexter Gordon on the tracks, "The Chase" and "The Hunt." However, by the 1950's Gray's playing was becoming less frequent and his national recognition was waning. Like many jazz musicians during this time, Wardell became addicted to heroin, which contributed to his lack of success. He eventually settled down in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. In 1955, at the age of 34, Gray was found dead in the desert outside of Las Vegas with a broken neck. Wardell's death was considered accidental by law enforcement, but many believe there was foul play since Gray had connections to the mob.
Coleman Hawkins, Wardell Gray, Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, as well as countless other touring acts provided a level of musical maturity that inspired many of Portland's up-and-coming players, such as Lorraine Walsh Geller. Lorraine Walsh (the name Geller would not come till later) attended Washington High School, which served as a high school from 1906-1981, and is now an office building and music venue, called Revolution Hall. She would frequently find herself at the venue the Acme, which later became known as the Savoy, listening to music in her final years of high school. She was one of the more talented players to come out of Portland and played with a number of famous musicians including, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Red Michell, and alto saxophonist Herb Geller, who she eventually married. Once married, The Gellers moved to Los Angeles and were on of the busiest working couples in jazz. They made only a few recordings together and Lorraine only made one studio album entitled Dot. She was considered an excellent player and gained recognition from musicians such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Herb and Lorraine had only one child in 1957, and the following year, Lorraine died of a pulmonary infection. She was only 30 years old. Lorraine was one of the few women to play jazz during the 1940's an 50's.
Another talented pianist to come out of Portland was Tommy Todd. He was born in Salem and moved to Portland during his childhood. He was a classical child prodigy and it is unclear when and how he transitioned to playing jazz. There is some speculation that he was inspired by the Benny Goodman Orchestra that was aired every night on the Nabisco radio program. Nonetheless, he was a very talented and humble musician. Similar to Lorraine Geller, Todd eventually moved south to Los Angeles where he made the majority of his living as an arranger. He is described in Robert Dietsche's Jump Town as "a long lanky introvert, a loner, who would come in like a whisper of the night, never say a word, and drop off these swinging and very clever arrangements. No one seems to notice that he was a great piano player." He arranged music for band leaders such as Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. He eventually landed the job of playing piano with the MGM Orchestra which paid $40,000 a year, a huge amount of money during the 1940's. However, after showing up to rehearsals and performances consistently late, he was eventually replaced. It didn't matter to Todd, though, he could care less about money. A friend reminisced about visiting Todd's apartment and seeing a stack of uncashed checks that dated back two years. Todd was an alcoholic and became increasingly unreliable and, therefore, unemployable.
Only a handful of recordings were made that had Todd at the piano. Recently, a radio broadcast from 1947 has surfaced that features the Tommy Todd Trio, a trio comprised of Tommy Todd on piano, Bob Bain on Guitar, and Artie Shapiro on bass. It's a fantastic recording that not only displays Todd's virtuosic talent at the piano, but also his cleaver and intricate skills as an arranger.
Since the Dude Ranch era and it's vibrant scene during the 1940's and 50's, Portland has fostered the education and musical growth of many jazz artists. Probably the most successful artist is bassist, vocalist, band leader and all around jazz superstar, Esperanza Spalding. Spalding grew up in Portland and left for Berklee College of Music in the early 2000's. She has received critical acclaim and numerous awards, including four Grammys, one of which was in the category for Best New Artist, a category that had yet to be given to a jazz musician. She returns to Portland frequently and performs often with some of the best local players. The jazz education program at Portland State University, which has been led by pianist Darrell Grant for a number of years, has provided countless opportunities for younger musicians and brought heavyweight players from all over the world. For example, jazz pianist George Colligan joined the faculty at PSU in 2011. His presence in Portland has given many students opportunities to expand their careers and has brought a new level musical maturity to the Pacific Northwest.
Portland has a very promising musical future and a potential for being a destination metropolitan musical hub, like that of New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans. You could go down to Jimmy Mak's in the Pearl District and see world class music any night of the week. However, out of the few cities I've live in, Portland has the biggest turnover with venues and musical performance opportunities. As a result, many Portland musicians end up leaving at some point in their careers. As the city grows, we as an audience, we as a student, and we as a musician, need to work together towards creating a metropolitan area that supports the arts and provides a way of living for future generations of musicians.