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Jazz Guitar in the City of Roses, Portland, Oregon

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Joe Barth takes a look at jazz guitar in one of the most scenic cities in the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon.

Portland has breath-taking views of snow-capped Mt. Hood. Because of its numerous gorgeous gardens, since the late 1800s, Portland is also known as the “City of Roses.”  For the settlers from the east a hundred and fifty years ago, it was the end of the Oregon Trail as well as the entrance to the majestic Columbia Gorge with its spectacular Multnomah Falls. The city hosts a thriving art, theater, and music scene including a lot of great neighborhood jazz guitar music.

The Williams District in North Portland had some happening clubs filled with music: Paul’s Paradise, The Frat Hall, the Savoy, but especially the Dude Ranch where its owners, Sherman Pickett and Pat Patterson (Pic and Pat) had booked many of the great jazz artists of the 1940s and 50s. Along Williams Avenue, locals could hear jazz music twenty-four hours a day. Out of this hotbed of musical culture came such great jazz artists as George Bruns, composer for many jazz-focused scores of Walt Disney such as 101 Dalmatians, to the great bassists, Glen Moore, David Friesen to Esperanza Spalding.  Portland jazz became known among musicians all over the country.  Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and many others all played live in the Rose City. A couple of other great bassists such as Leroy Vinnegar, Chuck Israels have relocated to the Portland area.


John Stowell

John Stowell was born (1950) in New York City and raised in Connecticut. First playing rock and roll, it was his teacher, Linc Chamberland, who introduced him to jazz, and soon John became greatly influenced by Jim Hall and Bill Evans.  In New York City John began working with bassist David Friesen and took a trip with Friesen to Portland and fell so much in love with the city that he decided to relocate there. In 1991 he served as assistant director and performer in Oregon Public Broadcasting’s PDX Jazz Summit.  John also performs internationally and teaches in many countries such as Germany, Indonesia, Argentina, and elsewhere.  His style of playing is very pianistic and holds his guitar in a more diagonal position which facilitates more comfortably playing close, piano-like voicings.

Ohio resident, Dan Faehnle, has lived in the Portland area. In 2000 Dan replaced Peter Bernstein in Diana Krall’s quartet before Anthony Wilson later took over that chair in 2003. Faehnle has collaborated with numerous musicians such as bassist Leroy Vinnegar, organist Joey DeFrancesco, saxophonist Zoot Sims, as well as Mel Brown’s Quintet. While living in Portland, Dan worked with the group, Pink Martini, and was their guitarist on the album Sympathique. In an interview from Pink Martini, they asked Dan what were his favorite cities in the world, and he answered “Portland, Paris, and London.”  Dan’s newest CD is entitled Ohio Lunchwhich features bassist Ben Wolfe, guitarist John Stowell, and Ron Steen on drums.  

Ralph Towner was born (1940) in Chehalis, WA but his family moved to Bend, Oregon early on.  Towner’s parents were musicians, and his original instruments were the French horn and piano.  He went on study music composition at the University of Oregon.  In his senior year at the University of Oregon, he heard a fellow student play classical guitar and became captivated with the nylon-string guitar. After graduation, he worked on a ship earning passage to Austria so he could study classical guitar with Karl Scheit at the Vienna Music Academy.  In 1968 Ralph moved to New York, “…when I was in New York there weren’t as many good pianists as there are today. I was a decent jazz pianist so I was kind of a second or third call to Chick Corea and some of the other guys playing in town if they were busy and had another gig.”  Playing guitar with Paul Winter Ralph recalls “I was only with Paul for about a year, but it was a very valuable year in my development.  Paul had unusual instrumentation with an oboe and a cello which was an interesting combination, compositionally for me to write for.  He had these long concert tours at various colleges and universities, which sadly, are not available today. That made it financially possible for me to get rescued out of playing the bars of New York.  Playing this music night after night on these college tours was significant for my development.  After that year, four of the six of us broke away and formed Oregon, which is still performing today.”  Soon ECM Records showed interest in him, “I also started to record as a solo artist with ECM records in their early years.  In 1969, I was playing a concert with Dave Holland and Dave introduced me to Manfred Eicher.  At that time the label had only a handful of records out.  By 1972 my solo album with ECM had done well, especially in Europe, and I was established, especially in Europe, as a solo guitarist.”  Towner followed up with a series of unique guitar-style recordings including Matchbook (with Gary Burton 1975), Solstice (1975), and Solo Concert(1980) and two duet albums with guitarist John Abercrombie.

Ralph Towner’s popular Guitar Works, Volume 1  Includes full transcriptions for ten pieces, plus an appendix of improvisational lead sheets for the last three. Songs include: Green and Golden * Joyful Departure * Waltz for Debby * and more.

At age twenty-three, Portland native, Dan Balmer teamed up with jazz pianist Tom Grant’s Band. Dan has also toured with singer Diane Schuur.  Dan has performed with Joey DeFrancesco, Karrin Allyson, Benny Golson, and many others.  John “JB” Butler has worked as a guitarist in New York, Amsterdam, Lima Peru, and is now based out of Portland. He received a Fulbright grant in Peru where he taught jazz throughout the country.  He was the musical director for Peruvian dancer-performer Luciana Proano since 1989.  John JB Butler is one of Portland’s most respected jazz guitarists and has performed with Jack McDuff, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Jeff Lorber, and many others.

Buddy Fite was a remarkable fingerstyle jazz guitarist, and a very good steel guitar player.  He was not formally trained but taught himself a very deep harmonic concept. He put bass strings on his A and low E strings. There was a 1997 Mel Bay book published Buddy Fite Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Solos which is now out of print.


Wayne Krantz

Wayne Krantz was born in Corvallis, Oregon just south of Portland.  He took up the guitar upon hearing the Beatles, but fell in love with jazz because his father played jazz albums around the house.  In the 1980s he moved to NYC and played a decade at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.  He has worked with Steely Dan as well as appearing on Donald Fagen’s  Morph the Cat album.  He has also done many projects with jazz guitarist, Leni Stern, including an album of guitar duets called Separate Cages in 1996.

Ryan Meagher moved from New York to Portland in 2012 and has been active as a player and educator there. He has performed with Randy Brecker, bassists John Clayton and David Friesen, and trumpeter Cuong Vu. In addition, he is active as a promoter for local jazz festivals and activities.  

Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Jack Radcliff moved to Eugene, Oregon to study music at the University of Oregon and later moved north to the Portland area.  Jack is extremely active as a guitarist, composer, and educator in the Portland/Eugene area, and in 2017 jack released his record of original compositions called Migration Patterns.

Born and raised in Tennessee, Ben Graves moved to Portland where he graduated from Portland State University with a music degree.  Ben remains active in jazz, chamber music and Latin ensembles along with performing at the Portland Jazz Festival.  Dan Duval works with his musical partner Andrew Oliver with the group Ocular Concern, whose music transcends jazz with strong interlocking grooves, catchy melodies, and intuitive group interplay. 

Christopher Woitach moved to the Portland area in the early 2000s. He is a fine jazz guitarist in any setting but excels in the art of solo accompanying of a singer or a horn player. Another thing about Chris is that he is an outstanding jazz pedal steel guitarist.

New England native, Jeff Putterman first taught guitar at the University of Maine, and later taught at Berklee College in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles before moving in 2003 to teach at various schools in the Portland area, along with being a Professor of Jazz Guitar at Portland State University. Jeff was mentored by the great guitarist Joe Diorio. Jeff remains active as a performer around the Portland area.

Performance Venues

To listen to great jazz guitar, the 1905 Club on Shaver Street is a great place to go.    Their food is a fresh take on Italian classics specializing in their Neo-Neapolitan style pizza.  Featured are world-class jazz artists or some of Portland‘s best local artists take the stage each weekend. The Jack London Revue on SW 4th Street  also features world-class as well as excellent local jazz artists.

The Five-O Three  on Willamette Drive in West Linn offers great food and great local jazz artists on primarily Saturday nights.  A great wine bar in southeast Portland is the Corkscrew Wine Bar on Bybee Blvd. They offer great local jazz on primarily Sunday and Monday and Wednesday and Thursday nights.  Another great wine bar is the Vino Veritas Wine Bar and Bottle Shop  on Stark Street in the Montavilla neighborhood of Portland. They offer the best of local jazz artists on primarily the weekends.     

If you are in the mood for Spanish Tapas Mediterranean-style food and great jazz then check out the 23 Hoyt  on NW 23rd Ave is the place to go.  The Arrivederci Wine and Jazz Bar on McLoughlin in Milwaukie is another fine jazz and Italian eatery.  If in the mood for a prodigious Cuban sandwich or burger with your live jazz, then Afro Daddy’s on 181st Ave in Northeast Portland offers great food and the best of local jazz artists.   

University Jazz Programs

Portland has a number of fine collegiate music programs in the area.  Jeff Putterman oversees the jazz guitar at Portland State University.  Dan Balmer directs the jazz guitar department at Lewis and Clark College.  Mt. Hood Community College has a long-standing Jazz Festival and an excellent jazz studies program.  Ryan Meagher oversees the jazz guitar department at Mt. Hood as well as the jazz guitar studies department at the University of Portland.  Chris Woitach has an excellent jazz guitar program at Western Oregon University.

(This article was written with research assistance from John Stowell, Christopher Woitach and Kathy Parker.)


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