Can jazz survive in the Northwest? Pianist Darrell Grant tackles the subject in Hillsboro talk

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PX00178_9.JPGPortland jazz pianist Darrell Grant teaching a jazz improv class at Portland State University. 

Concert posters, a sleek black piano, a photo of Portland-area jazz artists during a 2005 "Great Day in Portland" event at the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute.

From the looks of Darrell Grant's office at Portland State University, the city's jazz scene is thriving.

A professional jazz pianist as well as a PSU associate professor and director of the Vinnegar institute, Grant's music classes have been filled with interested students for the last 17 years, but he wants to know if jazz in Portland will last.

As part of the Arts Spoken Word series at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, Grant will be discussing the question, "What makes a healthy jazz scene?" on Tuesday, June 18.

“Jazz as an Ecology”
What: Discussion by Portland jazz pianist Darrell Grant as part of the Walter Cultural Arts Center’s Spoken Word series 
When: 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18 
Where: The Walters Cultural Arts Center at 527 E. Main St., Hillsboro 
Information: The event is free. Call 503-615-3485 or visitci.hillsboro.or.us/arts/wcacfor more information.


Originally from Lakewood, Colo., Grant gravitated to music at an early age. He started playing piano when he was 7 and by fourth grade he was in his first jazz band.

"When you're exposed to a certain type of music at an early age – it doesn't seem strange to love something like jazz when you're young," Grant said. He said his music influences include his mother, who was a singer.

Grant studied at the renowned Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, where he studied classical piano. When he graduated, he had the choice to continue his studies, pursuing a doctorate in classical music, or dive into the improvisational jazz world that had fired his imagination since childhood. He chose the latter, attending the University of Miami for a master's degree and eventually migrating to New York City to be "right in the middle of the jazz scene," as he described it.

It was the mid 1980s and rent was cheap (especially if you lived out of a converted dark room), so he set out as a freelance musician. He soon landed his first big gig, with the legendary jazz singer Betty Carter, and within two years scored his first recording contract.

"Compared to other people, I saw my job as a secure position," Grant said, a comment that baffles many of his students. "As a freelancer, I couldn't ever be fired. I could play one gig a month and have my rent paid."

When he married his wife, Anne McFall, they knew they didn't want to start a family in New York. While visiting Portland jazz drummer Alan Jones in 1996, they decided they would give the Northwest a shot.

zw.darellgrant.3.jpgPortland jazz pianist Darrell Grant started his career in New York City and has since performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He is an associate professor of jazz music at Portland State University, where he has been teaching for the past 17 years.

"I wasn't really looking that closely at the Portland jazz scene," Grant said. "When a position opened up at PSU, it was fate."

Grant, 51, plays at jazz venues throughout the Portland-metro area. He's also traveled to places like Poland, Cuba, Japan and Khabarovsk, Russia (Portland's sister city), where he lead the 2011 Jazz Bridge Project.

Seeing the major jazz hubs of the world, Grant has contemplated the connection between music and place, how location influences quality and style.

Looking at jazz as an ecology – the interaction between music and its environment – Grant suggests there are several things that need to be in place for it to thrive.

He compares jazz to a forest habitat. Successful musicians, like old growth trees, form the foundation and allow the growth of future artists, he said. Grant points to jazz drummer Mel Brown as one of the Portland greats.

Other necessary nutrients to a healthy music scene are things like jazz radio stations, venues and education.

In 2000, Grant started "The Incredible Journey of Jazz," a program that takes jazz into classrooms from Gresham to Beaverton.

Grant said he's passionate about jazz because it's the lens through which he views the world.

"Our practices come to frame our life experiences," Grant said. "Jazz is my practice. It's about history, skills, relationships and communication with other artists. It provides me with cultural understanding."

So will jazz last in Portland? Though challenged here much more than in bigger, more diverse cities like New York and Chicago, Grant said he believes it will. For starters, he plans on playing, teaching and jamming with his compatriots for many years to come.

"Jazz is not dead," Grant asserted. "Jazz is fertile here and I know there's room to grow."

-- Taylor Smith