Lynn Darroch: Feels Like Coming Home

When I talk to musicians about Rhythm in the Rain, their first question often is, “Am I in it?” And I often have to say no. To cover one hundred years of jazz in the Pacific Northwest in a narrative that moves readers forward, you can’t include everyone—or even half of the artists who have contributed to this distinct culture that grew up far from centers of influence and power, where tradition is honored, young talent is nurtured, and nice guys often finish first. Here’s the story of one of those artists whose contributions didn’t appear in the finished version. And like those that did, his story is about art and the power of place.

Now this story is about jazz pianist Dick Blake. But first I have to tell you something about humpback whales. You’ll see the connection—because their story’s all about the magic of homecoming, just like Dick’s, with the same kind of happy ending.

So … every year, when humpback whales gather off the Mexican coast, the males arrive singing. Early in the season, each whale’s song is short, simple, and different from the rest. But as time passes, all the males end up singing the same long, complex tune. The next year, each returns with different fragments of the previous song, but they all leave singing in unison again. It’s like they have to come home in order to find their song, or maybe the only way to recover it is to build a new one together. At any rate, their identity resides in those waters where they gather every year to sing. I like to think that’s true for Dick Blake too.

I call him Dick Blake, like everyone in Portland did, but that’s not his real name. See, when he returned home in his fifties to live in Albany, the Willamette Valley town where he was born and raised, he took the name he grew up with: Richard Applegate. A name with historic Oregon connections, a name with roots.

Albany was a mill town in the ’40s when Dick learned to play, a tough little place in a soft and forgiving landscape, and Dick listened to the rain and to meadowlarks and became an artist. Age sixteen, he and his childhood sweetheart Mary won a talent contest at the Oregon State Fair and then performed on Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour in New York. That launched his career, but their love affair went quiet for forty years—until Dick returned to Albany.

Those comfortable jazz standards he loved to play? Them he never left. And every time he sat at the keyboard, whether in Portland, San Francisco, or on the road, he sounded like he was at home, in the Willamette Valley, filling his music with its abundance and beauty.

There’s something familiar about it, even if you’ve never heard him before. It’s full of the hopeful rhythms and pretty chord voicings of his boyhood Oregon, rooted in swing and the blues. You feel his hands on the keys when Dick plays, the soil of the valley, the river in spring, oak leaves in the wind.

It’s the sound of home.

Check out Lynn’s first two blog posts here and here.

Lynn Darroch: The Legend of Jim Pepper (Stories on the Cutting Room Floor)

Sometimes you just have to leave something out, and here’s one of the stories we couldn’t fit into Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest about the accomplished and tempestuous Native American saxophonist, composer, and singer Jim Pepper, who grew up and got his musical start in Portland.

Imagine thousands of people, standing, swaying, some even crying, and all singing “Witchi-Tai-To” with Jim: “Water spirit feeling springin’ ’round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead,” sang Jim, and it was a spiritual experience for many in the crowd that late summer afternoon. But Jim wasn’t a spiritual guy; he was more earthy, liked women, booze, food, whatever made you feel good.

But he was angry too: once cursed an audience in Montana, screaming, “You mf-ers, don’t you know that Custer died for your sins!” Some performances were like opening a wound. Of Kaw and Creek descent, it was hard for Jim to walk in two worlds with one spirit.

But that’s what made him a hero—because sometimes he did.

Born in 1941, Jim grew up poor in a Vanport apartment with coal heat. One day he came running in from a game of cowboys and Indians with neighbor kids. “Dad,” he cried, “they won’t let me be the Indian!” So Gilbert dressed him in feathered powwow costume, and by god, they let him be the Indian then, and ever after, Jim always played the Indian. Even as a handsome four-sport star at Madison High, where he dated the prettiest girls and toured with the Young Oregonians, he’d dress in feathers for an Indian dance, change into a tuxedo for tap, then don his zoot suit to play with the band.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he’d always urge his friends. “Let’s go!”

But he was always an outsider, and Jim—lured by wild bop to Williams Avenue—gave up sports for the saxophone, which took him to New York eventually, where he became a jazz-rock pioneer with the pop hit “Witchi-Tai-To” in 1971. But music became too commercialized for Jim; compromise was never an option, and he retreated to Alaskan boat decks and dive bars, seeking there his path through two worlds.

Jim returned with a vision of Native music fused with jazz, so Jim recorded with his father, played powwows, and wrote Indian songs for jazz shows that were both sweet and fierce, full of healing and hate; love songs and war dances for a man twisting between two worlds. His band felt the tension: simple melodies that led to explosive bursts like the obsidian flash of a claw. I was afraid of him. But bandmates stayed because the music was bigger than the man.
Called himself Polar Bear then, humorous but dominant, and on a path leading him to Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and critical acclaim in Europe. Until he came home to die.

The last time I saw Jim, he was on a festival side stage. Brown felt hat over a head now bald from chemo, he walked with a stoop. But up close to the stage you could hear him: “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going,” sang Jim. “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

And the music was bigger than the man.

Don’t miss Lynn’s third and final blog post this Friday. Read his first blog post here.

Lynn Darroch: Something in the Water

“Maybe it’s something in the water,” I said, as a joke at first. But as I thought about it, I began to realize that maybe it is all the water around here that makes jazz from the Pacific Northwest as distinct as its landscape and culture.

That was the starting point, anyway, for Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest, when I began research in early 2014. And at first it seemed impossible: comb through one hundred years of history to show how the geography and the communities that grew up here shaped the character of the jazz scene? And explain, in this place so far removed from the centers of influence and power, why such a robust scene developed?

Fortunately, without realizing it I’d been working on this book ever since 1979, when I wrote my first magazine article about local jazz. And for the next thirty-five years, I covered people and events important to the story. That was a good start, since I’d saved a good portion of everything I’d written. And since I’d been editor of the Jazzscene magazine for years, I had a stack of those to consult too. I’d collected other publications as well, and those dusty piles yielded details that are hard to keep in memory.

I’d been lucky enough to record many of my conversations with musicians and others in the jazz business, and I’d kept airchecks from my radio shows, too, on which I’d interviewed dozens of artists. Then I conducted numerous interviews to fill the gaps. But most of my subjects were from the Portland area, where I live.

So north I went to Puget Sound, where I’d visited frequently in my childhood and during several periods since. I’d been writing for a Seattle magazine over the years, too, and had read all I could in others. But the Puget Sound scene is vast, and if it hadn’t been for the help of Paul de Barros (and his book, Jackson Street After Hours), I would have been lost. He spent hours answering questions about people and events from his nearly thirty years covering music for The Seattle Times.

As vital as all those words were, you can’t write about jazz without listening to the music. And as a journalist and radio host, I’ve been able to hear nearly every jazz album that’s come out of the region; as a journalist, I attended live performances by many of the artists active since the 1970s.

No matter how much information you gather, though, there’s always someone else to talk to, another artist to consider. But the need to tell the story trumps completeness, and in the end I put what I had all together into a story about a happy marriage between people and place and the distinct musical culture it produced.

It’s but one story you could tell about this under-documented subculture, and in someone’s eyes, you’ll always be wrong—a lesson I learned from the legendary Red Rodney, who played with Charlie Parker and had a colorful history, which I figured everybody’d want to read about.

But when I got to the club, the short, red-headed trumpeter player stormed up, angry that my article had dredged up tales he said weren’t true, though I’d confirmed, and at the end of his rant he yelled, “You don’t know shit!”

So when I was attempting to wrestle the one-hundred-year panorama of jazz in the Pacific Northwest into the picture I wished to paint, I remembered Red.

And then I went ahead anyway. That’s what living in the Pacific Northwest will do for you. Must be something in the water.

Don’t miss Lynn Darroch’s second blog post this Wednesday.