Story by Robert Ham — February 17, 2022
Nicholas Salas-Harris took on the role of PDX Jazz Artistic Director at the best and worst time.
As he stepped into the job, he was buoyed by a wave of exciting new talent both here in Portland and throughout the world who were taking jazz into thrilling new directions that played with abstract electronic dance music or constructed their albums like hip-hop mixtapes. But a mere month after booking the 2020 edition of the Biamp PDX Jazz Fest, which featured an impressively diverse lineup that included avant garde pioneers Terry Riley and Archie Shepp, psych-funk magus Thundercat, Afrobeat crew Antibalas, and jazz icons like Branford Marsalis and Kenny Barron, the coronavirus began its scourge on our daily lives and the livelihoods of nearly everyone in the music industry. Salas-Harris and the PDX Jazz team were forced to cancel all their non-festival programming and to hold the 2021 edition of the festival virtually.
But just as the pandemic slowly loosens its grip on the world, PDX Jazz is coming out swinging with the 2022 festival. The annual event, which kicks off tonight and runs through February 26, is packed with brilliance and is a well-balanced affair. The schedule is peppered with elders like The Cookers, a supergroup of players that includes bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Billy Hart, and trumpeter Donald Harrison; vocalist Diane Schurr; and saxophonist Gary Bartz. But the meat of the lineup is taken up with younger innovators like Robert Glasper, the keyboardist behind the hip-hop-infused black radio project, harpist Brandee Younger, spiritual jazz artists Immanuel Wilkins and Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, and several players closely associated with the cutting edge record label International Anthem.
Ahead of tonight's opening night event — two sets anchored by local legend Darrell Grant with one featuring vocalist Rebecca Kilgore in a tribute to the late Dave Frishberg — we spent some time on the phone with Salas-Harris to talk about the joys and challenges of putting together the lineup for the 2022 Biamp PDX Jazz Fest and looking ahead to the event's 20th anniversary next year.
It has to feel good to finally be kicking off the festival this week.
Yeah, we're looking forward to it. It's been a long time coming. Obviously, we did a virtual festival last year. We were very fortunate, in 2020, to have a complete festival happening 10 days before the lockdown occurred. And that was our most successful festival we've ever had. This year, obviously, has been a challenging year with cancellations and some folks clearly not feeling comfortable yet coming out for shows. But overall, we feel good about it. And we're looking forward to next year's 20th anniversary, so we're really looking to lay the groundwork for next year and beyond.
It sounds like it was likely a challenge to get the lineup together, having to consider the health of some of the older musicians who might not want to come out and play and trying to work with people's schedules and COVID restrictions. How was it to juggle all that?
I would be lying to say it was not a challenge. It's always a challenge. No doubt about it. But this year, for a lot of different reasons, was the most challenging festival we had to produce. And not just from my perspective in the programming side. Across the board — our whole organization — It's been a real challenge. Fortunately, the individuals that we do have working with this organization really makes it a lot more palatable and a lot easier to deal with. We got a really great crew, a really strong community, and membership that serves as the foundation for the nonprofit that is PDX Jazz. That's really what kept us moving forward. Now we're just kind of getting to the point... it's kind of like the roller coaster, and the slow, slow build over a long time. You crank it up, crank it up, and at a certain point, you hit that peak and it's just downhill.
Before you came on board as artistic director, the festival was booked around certain themes. Are you continuing that idea with this year's fest? There seems to be a thread connecting a lot of the events.
I don't really approach programming in that sense, as far as having themes or certain stylistic sounds I want to hit. It's really a balancing act between how do you expand the tent and bring in this incredibly young crop of musicians that are using the jazz foundation to expand the sound and take the culture in a new direction, while also paying homage to the legacy artists that had built it. It's an interesting puzzle. You just kind of dump all the pieces out on the table. You start putting those pieces together and you never really know what it's gonna be in the end. We want it to be cutting edge and urgent in the sense that there is a political awakening happening in this genre that is reflected in the overall society at large. And I think that's definitely reflected in some of the programs that we're doing. I just want to be present. I want to be connected to the, to the current time, but also again, speaking of the legacy and the history of the art form itself, and and the legacy that it's been working towards. Obviously, we had a couple of cancellations this year and postponements. The lineup, in its original form, was the strongest we've ever had. It's really a snapshot of where we are in jazz today. It's an exciting place to be, and an exciting time to be involved in the jazz world. It really feels like we're on the cusp of something really special. And PDX Jazz is going to be in the middle of that.
One of the great things looking through the schedule is seeing all the shows with local musicians. The festival always makes an effort to make sure the local scene gets its shine.
100%. And the festival is just one of the connection points where those two worlds meet, where local musicians are sharing the same stages with the internationally award winning talent that we bring to the festival every year. We've seen that happen with folks benefiting from that kind of exposure, and seeing that they can exist on the same stage. The people in New York or London, or LA are not necessarily better musicians. Our guys and our ladies locally can hang with them. It just gives them the confidence, I think they need to really help build that scene out and understand that they're connected to the physical world in a real tangible way.
It’s a generational reality that these folks are aging out of the scene. We just went through the centennial celebration of several artists including Dizzy and Bird, and there’s been the passing of folks in the next generation below them. The pool is small and getting smaller. It’s not hard to identify who those folks are. We had Ron Carter, who was originally in the lineup but had to postpone because of health issues. The Cookers. These are the last legacy folks remaining. What’s hard is getting them to come to Portland during our festival. How do you build them out in a way that makes sense and presents them in the best possible way?
There are pretty exciting additions to the lineup like the mariachi ensemble Flor De Toloache. What can you tell me about bringing those ladies out to the festival?
Going back to an earlier question, there’s no theme, but there are certain things we want to do every year and highlighting different cultures that have been influenced by jazz around the world is just one of those things. Mariachi, in particular, is a very specific Mexican culture that ties back to the big bands of 100 years ago. A beautiful thing about jazz is how these things bounce to different parts of the world and come back many years later in the form of an act like this who may not even understand or connect the dots to jazz themselves. But when we look at it from a 10,000 foot view, you can see how these things are all interconnected. What’s really exciting is that we’re bringing in the high school mariachi project from Forest Grove High School opening that show.
And again, though there’s no overarching theme to the festival lineup this year, there are a number of artists who are building off of the foundation of jazz in fascinating ways — incorporating elements of electronic music and hip-hop. I think one of the greatest examples of that this year is Robert Glasper who will be here with his black radio project.
I mean, talk about legacy and providing the next legacy, here’s a perfect example. Obviously he wasn’t the first but he’s certainly one of the most successful artists to use the foundation of jazz to build a structure that’s connected to all these different places you’re talking about. Whether that’s Robert or Christian Scott. These are the legacy artists of tomorrow. The younger kids coming up now, these are legends to them. These are the people that got them into jazz in the first place. Yet, they’re still at the height of their creative powers.
We’re talking a week before the opening night of this year’s PDX Jazz Fest, but as you said earlier, next year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival. Do you have any thoughts about what you want to do for the next one?
We are very much focused on this year but obviously with 20 next year, we’re always working on those ideas about who’s next. We have several things already lined up for the 20th anniversary. Hopefully we’ll be in a post-COVID reality and we’ll be picking up where we left off in 2020 and making PDX Jazz a world-renowned event so that people from all over the world who are the leaders in this culture can show what’s going on and where jazz is going.