Ooligan Press recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lynn Darroch, the author of our upcoming jazz history release, Mastersounds. Darroch, an accomplished musician and writer, is well known for his stories, and his answers to our questions didn’t disappoint!
When did you first become interested in music, and in jazz in particular?
My mother sang songs from her youth around the house, and my father loved music—his trumpet, though never played after the War, sat like a sacred totem, golden in its case lined with purple velvet; together, we watched Ralph Gleason’s jazz show weekly on public TV and went to see Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Sometimes my dad would sing a solo in church. I wanted to be like him.
I started playing clarinet in school band at age ten, and kept at it through four years in the orchestra in college. [I] also played alto and tenor sax in school jazz band and in a rock-and-roll band called The Rivieras. We wore blue blazers, crew cuts, and tight pants. I had an excellent teacher in Corvallis named Harvey Brooks. I remember him taking my horn to demonstrate a jazz lick or a figure in a Mozart concerto; after he handed it back for me to try, the taste of bourbon and cigarettes lingered on my mouthpiece.
And then I traded music for writing. Fortunately, circumstances conspired to offer an opportunity to write about jazz and related subjects for newspapers, books and magazines. For a while that was enough . . . until the urge to be on the bandstand got so strong that I started turning the stories into tales arranged with live musical accompaniment. Jazz showed me how to navigate such changes, how to be agile, improvise with what you’re given, and how to raise your voice in harmony in an ensemble.
Do you have favorite jazz composers or musicians?
I’ve enjoyed and admired the work of many jazz players and composers, from Duke Ellington to Esperanza Spalding. There’s all kinds of beauty, though—I’m also listening to tango, various African music, Latin American pop and folkloric styles, soul, and flamenco. Jazz excels at absorbing other traditions: it’s inclusive, a mirror of America (or maybe, these days, the dream of America).
Both before and during World War Two, Portland had its own jazz scene called Jumptown. What can you tell us about the music that was coming out of Jumptown?
There has always been a lot of collaboration in music; wherever musicians gather, they exchange information. And gather they always do, because music is seldom an individual practice. And music knows no borders, so it always travels, as it did with the minstrels of medieval Europe and the touring bands of mid-century America.
When the number of jazz musicians reaches a critical mass—say over one hundred professionals—there’s enough to sustain a vibrant scene creatively. But professionals only gather in those numbers when there’s enough work to sustain them financially. From the 1930s through the early 1960s, the Pacific Northwest had both, with most of the “jazz” centered in black entertainment districts [such as] along Portland’s Williams Avenue, where most of the [city’s] black and Asian people lived. There were also many white-owned nightclubs, dance halls, theaters, and restaurants where some forms of jazz were played by both white and black musicians.
In those decades, here as elsewhere in the country, jazz techniques and approaches were shared primarily on the bandstand and in jam sessions where even aspiring players got a chance to learn from veterans. Whenever touring jazz bands came through the Pacific Northwest, the musicians would seek out jam sessions and play with resident artists.
Racial issues between people of color and whites were stressful before, during, and after the war years. What part did race and race relations play in the formation of jazz music in Portland and in the greater Pacific Northwest?
Racism and segregationist laws divided jazz musicians in that era, but in varied and complex ways. Across the country, white union musicians, unwilling to admit blacks who would compete for their jobs, encouraged the formation of separate unions. And so in 1913, The Negro Musicians’ Union formed in Seattle. And though the white union did agree to admit black members, most jazz musicians of African descent chose to stay with the black union.
But white and black musicians played in bands together, though often such mixed groups were allowed to perform only in “Black and Tans,” where patrons of both races were welcome. Many white musicians learned to play jazz in jam sessions led by black musicians along Williams Avenue and Jackson Street [in Seattle] in the 1940s and ’50s, including bebop saxophonist Don Lanphere, guitarist Larry Coryell, Glen Moore (cofounder of the band Oregon), and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who led The Tonight Show Band for many years.
What role(s) and opportunities were available for women of color to be both performers and patrons of jazz music? Was there a Pacific Northwest female performer or patron who pushed for equal rights?
Like Esperanza Spalding today, just being a leader, an instrumentalist, and accomplished artist is making a statement for women of color. The two top early jazz bands in Seattle were led by women—Evelyn Bundy and Edythe Turnham, both pianists. After her marriage to a fellow musician, Turnham made their home a gathering place and home away from home for black jazz musicians, who often had no public accommodations available to them. Myrtle Francois, originally from New Orleans, owned a nightclub on the corner of 12th and Yesler in Seattle, and played drums and sang in her own house band in 1949. Bassist Marianne Mayfield led a trio in Portland during the ’60s and ’70s, holding down a day job as a fifth-grade teacher. Vocalist Linda Hornbuckle, known as Portland’s Soul Diva, had a full-time job with the Multnomah County Health Dept.
Representing. Working in the community. I think that best describes the ways women of color who are jazz musicians have advocated for equal rights in the Pacific Northwest. But of course I have a lot to learn.
From the 1930s onward there have been many great jazz players in the Pacific Northwest. Some were local, and many were from New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans. How did this mix of local and out-of-town talent contribute to the creation of a local Pacific Northwest jazz sound? Can you describe what that sound is like? How has it changed through the years?
What’s developed here, distant from centers of celebrity and power, was shaped by and reflects the environment, the economy, and a music community that grew up in a kind of isolation often found out West, where artists are aware of movements elsewhere, but not always in step with them. Neither is this a place to attain fame and fortune. It’s rare for jazz artists who remain in the Pacific Northwest to establish a national reputation without first attaining it elsewhere.
Some jazz artists with reputations already established have also chosen to live here for precisely those reasons. And that’s the key: the values shared by artists who choose the Pacific Northwest, whether native-born or immigrant, have determined the character of the region’s jazz scene. That’s true whether the style is avant garde . . . gypsy swing, chamber, funk, or mainstream. Because the region some call Cascadia is a place as distinct and powerful as the Mississippi Delta or the coast of Southern California. And, the artists who live here share to a large extent a love for the landscape — and the values of others who do.
Many of us here at Ooligan Press are excited by this project and to be working directly with you. Can you tell us your thoughts on working with Ooligan Press, and what are some of your ideas and dreams for the Mastersounds project?
I want to thank the press and in particular Margaret Schimming’s team for assistance transcribing interviews, digging through thirty-five years of monthly magazines, and offering advice on organization and focus. I look forward to more as the process continues. I taught at colleges and universities for twenty-five years and believe in the kind of project-oriented process you’re using. And who wouldn’t enjoy working with colleagues who are self-directed, helpful, and have a stake in the project themselves?
On a personal level, my question from the beginning has been: How can I make this the book of my dreams? Together, I’d like to create a book that’s well-written and designed to reflect the subject matter as well as make it accessible and captivating, a book that’s lively, useful, and tells a story about the Pacific Northwest that’s not been heard before, a story that celebrates an emblematic aspect of our distinctive regional culture. Jazz is a mirror of culture, and I’m convinced that all true culture is local.
Jazz is the art of collaboration, too, so working together on this project reflects that spirit. I’m providing the tunes, but we’re performing them together, with the goal of making beautiful music that reaches as many people as possible.
For more on Lynn Darroch, visit his website, and don’t forget to follow the progress of Mastersounds on the project’s Start to Finish page!