Side-by-Side: Ben and Michelle Medler, Partners in Jazz
By Lynn Darroch

    It’s 7:00 pm on a Monday. Ben Medler, laptop open on a small table, is grabbing a bite, working on his taxes, and greeting members of the Advanced Combo as they settle in for a weekly rehearsal. Chairs and small tables remain in the back of the room after the weekend’s concert, while up front seats are set up for horn players and, on the stage, a grand piano, drum kit, bass and guitar. Soon, the sound of the eight-piece ensemble fills the room with its open-beam-ceiling and sound baffling on the walls. When the session ends at 9:00 pm, there’s still sheet music to organize, music stands to move … and those taxes won’t wait.

    Welcome to the world of Ben and Michelle Medler. Its epicenter is the B-Space, a rehearsal and performance venue on SW Terwilliger Boulevard that’s home to their 80-member Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra groups, five in all, including the professional-level Vanguard Big Band. Since January of this year, they have also transformed it into a jazz cafe by night, where they book concerts by area musicians and perform with their own bands, as they did for the release of Ben’s latest album, “Without a Thought” in March.
    Their partnership in business and in life began when Ben was studying at Berklee College of Music and Michelle was still in high school. “We just had these great talks,” she recalls, “and we’ve never stopped.” So 30 years later, they’re still having the same sort of conversations that brought them together in the first place. 
    Those years have involved an uphill climb professionally, and even though they’ve achieved some of their goals as artists and educators, their operation depends on constant effort to remain afloat.
    “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Michelle says. And that’s a good thing for the area’s jazz community, too, since the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra (or PYJO) has become an important part of the city’s rich opportunities for jazz education.  

The Foundation
    “We’ve kind of grown up together,” says Michelle. She was 16 and Ben 19 when they met at the Mount Hood Jazz Festival summer jazz camp. Ben had spent eight years singing in a church choir and was studying trombone at Berklee College of Music in Boston; Michelle was an eager saxophone student.
    “We’ve worked hard together to come up and be better players,” Michelle says. “We enjoy playing together and pushing each other to grow.”    And so, over the years, they have lived together, taught together, and performed together. Ben plays bass in Michelle’s quartet and trombone in the 1920-’40s swing band the Shanghai Woolies, which he directs, as well as in the Medler Sextet. Michelle also plays tenor sax in the Woolies.“We get along with good communication and a lot of respect for each other,” she says.
    And on that foundation they’ve built their jazz education business and their growth as artists.
    In their role as educators, they’ve developed a division of labor:  Michelle teaches woodwinds; Ben teaches trombone, acoustic and electric basses, trumpet and vocals. When they teach together, they take turns addressing different aspects of the music. 
    As performers, they also have separate commitments. Michelle plays tenor in the Quadraphonnes, an all-woman saxophone quartet, in the Cuban band, Melao de Cuba, and occasionally in the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Her latest album, “Music Rules the World,” also came out in March. Ben plays trombone in and writes for the Trombone 8 as well as leading his own quartet.
    But they’re together more than they’re apart, and most of their collaborative work happens as co-directors of PYJO.
    During the seven years Ben taught band at the former Wilson High School — Michelle joined him for the final six — “We learned to run jazz bands,” Ben says. But it was only a one-third time position “that felt like full-time,” he adds. The job ended at the same time he and Michelle were finishing up their degrees in music at Portland State University. 
    There were few jazz programs outside colleges at that time, and few high school band directors had jazz experience. So, in 2001, they founded the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra. Since then, it has grown to become the largest non-college jazz education program in the state.
    It never would have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for the help of Portland-based trumpeter and composer Bryant Allard and his M.U.S.E. program, an instrumental music service that places band instructors in elementary and middle schools. In the beginning, Allard donated space for PYJO rehearsals and showed the Medlers how to set up and run a business.
    Both Ben and Michelle fill in with the combos when enrollment doesn’t provide complete instrumentation. On that Monday night, Michelle sat in on drums for the General Combo rehearsal, while Ben played bass. The Advanced combo also needed a bassist, so Ben sat in again. They also fill in when necessary with two of the big bands. But when it comes to their professional-level Vanguard Band, they join in purely for the pleasure of performing.
    “The Vanguard Band started when our alumni started coming back and wanting to play with us,” explains Michelle. Some of them are in their 30s and 40s now, and there are some great players. Jeff Homan plays lead alto, for instance, and there are other professionals, and school band directors. They’re able to get some rehearsal techniques and get themselves playing again instead of standing in front of a class. It’s important for all our souls to keep playing,” she adds. 
    “We treat it like a family,” Ben says. “They aren’t worried about ego, and they get into the music very quickly. It’s really fun.”
    And having fun, as well as treating the musicians with respect, are the keys to their strategy as teachers. “Perfection is not our goal,” their website announces, “growth is.” 
    They do teach fundamentals, but as the musicians advance, their emphasis shifts: “We try to get people away from notes and rhythms and into what music really is: an art form that has such an interesting culture,” says Ben.
    “It’s not so important that we teach people who are trying to become professional musicians,” says Michelle. “Of course we’ll always help those who are working toward those goals. That’s always fun.
    “But it’s more important that people have music in their lives. It helps their thinking, it uses both sides of the brain, and I just think it’s good for humanity that more people are involved in music.”
    In the past year, they’ve expanded their participant base by making their bands all-ages, too, with musicians ranging from 11 years of age to 70. “So now we’ve got adults in all five of our bands,” says Ben. And there’s a bonus, too:  “When it’s intergenerational, the kids behave better.”
    Recruiting is a constant struggle, especially when they’re trying to cover all of the key instruments in three big bands and two small ensembles. And they need to teach private lessons on the side to make it all work financially — Michele currently has 15 private students; Ben has 25 in addition to several at PSU and at Lewis and Clark College.
    “We don’t sleep a lot,” Michelle says, and they laugh.
    “It’s a hard job but we love it,” says Ben. “Over the years, we’ve had to fight pretty hard but have found many crafty ways of keeping it moving. We are really proud of that. It’s been a good journey so far.”

Moving Day
    That journey has been geographical as well.
    The original PYJO space was a small upstairs room that trombonist Brian Morgan, who joined the big band in 2004 as a teenager, remembers as being like “a secret.”
    “You walked up these stairs into a mystery,” he said in his podcast series, “The Key Signature,” that recently included an interview with the Medlers. “It was like the program was hidden up there. It was a place where teenagers could take a deep dive into jazz. It was an adventure. And it was very exciting.”
    They were clearly filling a need, and the program continued to expand. Then, in 2012, their landlord gave them 30 days to vacate. After much fruitless searching, they were eating dinner at Chez Jose one night when they looked across the street and saw a for rent sign. 
    “So we had this beautiful spot,” Ben remembers, “but when we moved in there was nothing. We had to build a stage and a closet system and a back room.” More recently, a fund-raising program has allowed them to purchase a grand piano, too.
    From the beginning they’d hoped to turn the space into a multi-use facility where they could hold concerts as well as teach and rehearse, and when a couple Portland venues closed this year, they decided it was time to give it a try. They’ve added lighting and a sound system, and to date they’ve staged six concerts in their first series and are in the midst of 13 more ticketed shows scheduled this Spring, including The Jazz Guitar Summit, May 12, the Medler Sextet, May 17, Ben Graves Quartet, May 18, Rivkah Ross Quartet, May 24.
Recording Artists and Composers
    Those shows also include the Michelle Medler Quartet on May 26, when she’ll play tunes from her latest album, “Music Rules the World,” as well as work from her previous album, “Pink Sky,“ another of her three releases as a leader. She also appears on the Medler Sextet CD, “Of This Time.” Ben has four CDs as a leader, including one with the Trombone Eight titled “Hairpins & Triggers.” With a few exceptions, the music on all of those albums is original.
    “Michelle and I have been composers for decades,” says Ben. “It’s the most important thing we do.”
    It’s often a collaborative process. 
    “While we were writing music for {“Music Rules the World”} during the pandemic, {guitarist} Dan Gildea, Ben, and I were able to get together at our space and write tunes once a week,” recalls Michelle. “We put up shower curtains around me so I wouldn’t spray germs from my saxophone, and they wore masks. It was good for our souls.” 
    She laughs at the memory. But the image captures something essential about a relationship that allows them to continue making music side-by-side, no matter the obstales.

Ben Medler - Without A Thought   Song: ‘Without a Thought’

Michelle Medler Quartet - Music Rules the World     Song: 'Crooked Rudder’