Interview by Tree Palmedo, Tue, Feb 16, 2021 — 

Unlike many touring artists and festivals in the past year, PDX Jazz had time to plan. The non-profit organization behind Portland’s largest annual jazz festival managed to stage the 2020 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival just weeks before nationwide lockdowns began, giving the organization almost a full year to revamp their format for the 2021 edition, which starts this week. In many ways, the revamped, all-digital festival looks a lot like the old one: as usual, impressive headliners from various corners of the jazz scene share the program with Portland luminaries, educational programs, and film screenings. But this year shows will be streaming from Havana, London, and Johannesburg in addition to Portland venues, and each show will be accessible for only $5 (or for free with a PDX Jazz membership). 

Among the highlights include the piano virtuoso Harold López-Nussa, who will be showcasing his signature blend of jazz and Cuban music live from Havana; Brian Jackson performing repertoire he wrote with the great Gil Scott-Heron; and eccentric composer-pianist Wayne Horvitz streaming with his band in Seattle. Many of the headliners will be collaborating with Portland musicians for their sets, and other local talent performing will include Michelle Medler, Lars Campbell, Noah Simpson, Cyrus Nabipoor, and Pink Martini co-founders Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes, who will be headlining the opening performance.

JazzScene caught up with PDX Jazz Executive Director Chris Doss for more recommendations and details about how this unique iteration of the festival came to be.

JazzScene: The past year has been difficult for everyone in the performing arts, but despite everything, this year’s festival is still full of great music. Were there any silver linings or pleasant surprises that came out of changing the festival format?

Chris Doss: It goes without saying that this year's festival has been fairly challenging to get programmed. Aside from just artists being hesitant to come in, audiences are hesitant to come in. There's not a lot of musicians that are performing right now, much less out on tour. So this year gave us an opportunity to program some amazing talent that were not initially on the festival list, and the fact that we're doing it digitally opened a lot of doors. 

It’s a very complex process to be doing this festival all online: there are layers and layers of infrastructure that a year ago, in the 2020 festival. didn't exist. We put all those pieces into place over the course of 2020, and we're still putting the caulking on, so to speak, even as we sit here today, to make sure we don't have any leaks and that the ship doesn't sink. 

That technology piece allowed us to be a global festival for the first time ever. We have a workshop in London, shows in South Africa; we have a great show on the first of ticketed events coming from Havana, which in a lot of respects is the homeland of Latin jazz. 

Of course, most of the performances are happening here in Portland. We're able to do our opening night celebration live at the Biamp world headquarters. The Jack London Revue has been completely outfitted with technology to stream all of our performances live from that club here in portland. We will be showing the shows live as they are happening in Portland, and then we have one show that is happening in Seattle, Wayne Horvitz live from the Royal Room, which is a nice exciting addition for our neighbors just a couple hundred miles north of us. 

JS: With so many festivals being outright cancelled this year, how did you make the decision to even have a festival at all? 

CD: For us there was never an option to cancel it. It's just not in our DNA here at PDX Jazz. The question was: are we going to have a live festival, or are we going to go all online, or are we going to have a hybrid? We have a mission and a responsibility to find a way to deliver a festival, and we don't get to just tell the world, “Things are a little tough right now; we're just going to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to blow over.” That wasn't really an option for us internally. 

Obviously there's a lot of content that is out there digitally online now and it's arguable if all that content is actually worth watching, so we knew that we needed to have something that was as professional as possible for our organization and our resources to make it worthwhile for people to engage with us. There’s so much for them to choose from, and if we're going to ask for 10-12 hours of somebody's time over the course of a week and a half, then we have to have something that is compelling to them. 

We also wanted to make sure that we were accessible and acknowledged that a live event is a very different thing from an online event. So we have a very reasonable price point of five dollars a stream. We think that's something that allows it to be a very accessible event to most people. We still have a handful of free events up there for the public, and we're having our members able to watch all of the streams for free just by being a member. 

JS: What elements of this festival were essential to preserve as you drastically reworked it and shifted things online?

CD: This festival is a Portland festival. Connecting with our home community and our home base of talent is something that has always been present, and it's something that we wanted to make sure was present in this online version of the festival as well. 

The fact that it is online has connected it more to the Portland community than any other festival in many ways. We have fewer shows, so there may not be as many Portland musicians that are going to be appearing at this festival, but nearly every single headlining show has Portland talent as part of the show. Most of these headlining artists are either coming themselves or with a couple of key personnel, and then they are using the highest-caliber Portland talent to supplement and join them onstage. I can only think of a few shows that don't have any Portland musicians playing at all, So we're able to really still make it a Portland festival. 

The PDX Jazz Festival has evolved over its 20-year existence. Every year the festival takes a little bit of a different shape. Last year took a very different shape, and I think we're able to still do that somewhat this festival. As our artistic director Nicholas Salas-Harris states, we're “building a bigger tent” to have a broader perspective of jazz presented and to welcome a broader jazz audience to the PDX Jazz Festival.

JS: In addition to live-streamed performances, there are several films being shown as part of this year’s festival. Can you tell us about the rationale for including these offerings?

CD: Last year was our first foray into including films as a featured performance in the festival. We have a partnership with Hollywood Theater, which is a great theater, a beautiful venue and another great Portland nonprofit. Even though we won't be able to do screenings inside the actual physical theater, we're going to be doing virtual screenings of three jazz films in partnership with Hollywood Theater this year. We have Universe and Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity and Herb Alpert Is..., three very different films about three very different artists, and I think that each of them is a great story to add into the festival this year. It's another way for us to incorporate the highest caliber of programming possible into an online virtual festival.

JS: Can you speak about the world premiere that trumpeter Noah Simpson is presenting during the festival? 

CD: That program is called “The American Refrain: Jazz and Modern Music,” and it is an education performance that we commissioned Noah to script and arrange in collaboration with our education manager Shelby Walton-Clark. The piece has been in the works for several months and it will make its world premiere during the PDX Jazz Festival this year. It probably wouldn't have premiered in the festival if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic—it probably would have premiered in the schools actually—but it's a great piece of work. It has Portland A-list musicians that are all part of it. It’s younger musicians, which is pretty exciting because we want to give opportunities to the younger jazz musicians coming up here in Portland and also connect the music to a younger audience. We've made arrangements through our education program to have students and educators who are involved with PDX Jazz watch that night of the festival for free. so we're still able to deliver the program to schools and to students this year on its debut performance.

JS: In some ways, it seems like a bold choice to have a program like that, which was intended for schools, to be showcased on a night of the festival.

CD: Because it is an education centered performance and program, typically it just happens in the schools. Teachers and administrators and students see it, but the general public is often never given an opportunity to see what it is we do—and provide for free—for the education community. This is a chance for us to shine some light on that, and it's an exciting program. It really focuses on jazz and modern music, as the name suggests, tying jazz into all of the contemporary forms that are out there right now, on the radio and on the Internet and Spotify and across the globe.

JS: I was also curious about the “Behind the Boards” event with Kassa Overall. What can we expect from that?

CD: Doing workshops has always been part of the festival. Typically those would happen over at Portland State University if it was a traditional festival, and we wanted to be able to keep that element in the festival again this year. We've got to have some masterclasses and some workshops that are free to the public. Going back to our mission to evolve jazz and connect with younger audiences, we decided that a beat-making workshop would be something that is really relevant to twenty-somethings, even thirty-somethings and forty-somethings. There are a lot of jazz musicians, even big stars, that are using technology in their compositions and their arrangements, and this is a workshop that hopefully will focus on that. How do musicians utilize this technology and weave it into their own compositions and their own arrangements in the field of jazz?

JS: Are there any other offerings you’re particularly excited about?

CD: I think one of the bigger virtual shows that we're really excited about is Harold López-Nussa, happening live in Havana. Obviously he's been around for well over a decade worldwide, but the last four to six years his career has really started to take off here in the United States, and we have an exclusive North American stream from him at the festival. I'm excited to see that performance. I'm also excited to see Judith Hill, who is bringing a unique version of her material to the festival this year. She's played with a lot of heavyweights—Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, John Legend, Prince; the list goes on. 

Brian Jackson doing the Brian Jackson/Gil Scott-Heron songbook will be fantastic. Marcus Shelby is bringing his special program up here, and he has some great portland talent joining him—Darrell Grant and Carlton Jackson. We have Ted Poor and Cuong Vu coming in, Wayne Horvitz's The Royal We... 

We have a lot of unique performances that are happening as part of this festival. The artists themselves are going to be presenting something unique that doesn't just happen across the country on a tour.

JS: Looking beyond the festival, how has PDX Jazz been coping with the pandemic as an organization, and what do you have planned for the next few months?

CD: PDX Jazz was very blessed and very fortunate that we had the PDX Jazz Festival in 2020 ending on March 1; a week later we were in a shutdown and a pandemic. So we count our blessings and it's not lost on us at all. That has enabled us to be able to sustain the organization throughout 2020 even though we had to cancel over 20 shows. We had enough from the festival to carry us through. 

This year's festival is much different, not just in how it looks but it's much different financially as well. Like every other organization, at some point we have to pull out of the pandemic. But we feel very good about it. 

The technology element is pretty much here to stay. 2022 will not just be an all in-person festival. It will be a combination of in-person and live-streamed events. I think that is pretty much the way it's gonna be going forward. Same thing for our technology implementation in the education field. We moved all of our education programs online and we're offering them digitally. It's been very well received; we're actually reaching more students online than we've ever reached before with our in-person programs, just because we're accessible. We can reach rural communities with our digital programming that we wouldn't have been able to reach if we had to go and present in a school. 

We are looking at 2022 already—this industry works on a calendar of a year out—so we're already talking about acts that we're going to be booking at next year's festival before this year's festival has even begun. Most everybody in this industry is hoping we will have some live shows start to appear again in the summer. We don't think it'll happen before then, but we're hopeful that this summer we may be able to have some live events. Definitely fingers crossed that in the fall we'll be able to have some live events. We're poised here at PDX Jazz to start doing live shows as soon as it's feasible.

JS: Anything else you’d like to tell audiences here in Portland?

CD: We feel really blessed to have our membership base that we have had over the years and our audiences. We'd like to thank everybody who came out in 2020, because everybody who saw us in 2020 really enabled us to be able to do 2021. We reinvested our good fortune back into doing a festival this year. It seemed like the right thing to do, and we're grateful to be able to come out and do a festival this year.