After a near-death experience a few years back, the PDX Jazz Festival has reached its 10th season looking hale and hearty, with a stable lifeline of sponsorship (it’s officially called the U.S. Bank Portland Jazz Festival Presented by Alaska Airlines).
Running Friday through Feb. 24, PDX draws heavily from the Pacific Northwest’s deep pool of talent, while presenting a formidable array of improvisers from points east, including guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s New Quartet, drummer Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts, altoist Kenny Garrett’s quartet, trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob playing Nino Rota, and drummer Jack DeJohnette’s trio with special guest Ravi Coltrane.
Kicking off Friday with its most intriguing booking, the festival presents the Portland debut of pianist Barry Harris with drum master Mel Brown, a pillar of the local scene for four decades, and bass great Chuck Israels, who recently relocated to Portland from Bellingham, where he was Western Washington University’s director of jazz studies.
The last surviving member of Detroit’s golden-keyboard era, the 83-year-old Harris continues to refine his bebop-steeped vocabulary.
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Harris took over tenor sax patriarch Coleman Hawkins’ piano chair from fellow Motor City resident Tommy Flanagan in 1960. “The first time I sat in with Hawkins, he had a fit. ‘Another damn Detroit piano player! Where do these cats come from?’ ” Harris recalled, speaking by phone from the Weehawken, N.J., house of the late jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, where he’s lived for more than three decades.
Harris made his reputation as a player recording prolifically throughout the 1960s and ’70s with heavyweights such as Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Morgan, Sonny Stitt and fellow Detroiter Donald Byrd, while releasing more than a dozen albums under his own name.
Esteemed as a jazz elder, Harris has exerted his greatest influence as an educator. Long before conservatories and university-music programs embraced jazz, Harris offered master classes to young musicians.
“After school, everybody could always find me at the piano in my house, and all of the young musicians came by,” Harris says. “Frank Foster turned a whole bunch of Detroit musicians on to me, then musicians started to come from other states, like Joe Henderson. I don’t teach from where I am, but from where I came from.”
He’s touched so many players over the years that many of the festival’s acts are but one degree of separation from Harris. Pianist Geri Allen, who plays in an all-star trio with bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, is bonded to Harris through their Detroit roots. Says Harris of Allen, “We played a thing at the Montreal Jazz Festival a few years ago. She’s a great musician and a good friend.”
Even players well off the mainstream jazz path look on Harris’ legacy and longevity with something approaching awe. Pianist/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, who’s featured in three settings the opening weekend (solo, as a special guest with Blue Cranes, and conducting the Creative Music Guild Collective Music Ensemble), saw him teaching recently in New York.
“I walked into this ear-training session and it wasn’t just pianists in there,” Horvitz says. “It’s just kind of amazing when you think how many of his contemporaries have been gone for 30 or 40 years. There are very few people left who embody that direct connection to bebop.”
Andrew Gilbert: firstname.lastname@example.org