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Portland Restaurants and Bars are Taking Giant Steps to Fill This Town’s Jazz Void

It’s time to pick up where legendary jazz club Jimmy Mak’s left off

LaRhonda Steele

Right now, Portland seems to be in a jazz funk. Plans to relocate Jimmy Mak’s jazz club fell through last year, and just a few months later, Jimmy “Mak” Makarounis left us too, after a bout with cancer. For a hot minute, it was starting to seem all but impossible for this traditionally African-American art form to thrive in Portland. But if you listen closely, you can hear the tempos shifting, as more and more restaurateurs and bar owners are creating a space for those Jimmy Mak’s jazz orphans.

Below, find some of the restaurants taking it upon themselves to make jazz the main course. They join established Portland jazz spots like Arreviderci, The Secret Society, Wilf’s, Eat: An Oyster Bar, The Rookery at Raven & Rose, Bacchus Bar, and Tapalaya (during weekend brunches and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights).

Solae’s Lounge

A couple of years back, Yousif Embaye set out to bring live music back to a historically black but recently gentrified neighborhood. His plan worked: Solea’s hosts live music seven nights a week. On Friday nights, Chris Brown, the son of Portland’s jazz ambassador, Mel Brown, takes to the skins, and on Saturdays, Portland’s neo-Soul movement owns the stage. Southern-fried catfish, Louisiana-Style fried chicken wings, and barbecue pork ribs provide the response to the music’s call.

Jazz at Solae’s Lounge
Facebook/Solae’s Lounge

Clyde’s Prime Rib

When Alex Bond bought Clyde’s Prime Rib from former owner Earnest Clyde Jenkins, II, he knew to leave well enough alone. For years, the historic restaurant and its live music lounge had catered to lovers of that velvety beef prime rib and music alike, so why change anything? So Bond decided to continue serving those velvety prime rib cuts and by booking live acts seven nights a week. And while musicians like Andy Stokes, Ron Starr and Norman Sylvester bring soulful blues and funk on the weekends, jazz takes a more central role earlier in the week, That’s when you can expect to hear acts like Ron Steen, known for holding down the beat for his weekly jazz jams, as well as legendary vocalist David “Doc” Watson, who heads a rotating lineup of players every Monday night.

Drummer Ron Steen’s jazz jam at Clyde’s Prime Rib
Facebook/Clyde’s Prime Rib

The 1905

According to Aaron Barnes, The 1905 wasn’t supposed to be a jazz venue. He was hoping to make it an artisan pizzeria, which is why he leaned on local pizza legends Brian Spangler (Apizza Scholls) and Ken Forkish (Ken’s Artisan Pizza) for advice. However, it makes sense that the space has become a fusion of neo-Neapolitan-style pies, craft cocktails and local jazz, especially once you’re hip to the fact that Barnes is a former Lincoln High School band director and saxophonist who used to get hired by musicians he now books. Barnes, who is white, says he’s aware of the optics of a white boy providing a venue for Portland’s jazz community in a historically black and now long gentrified neighborhood. “This area’s steeped in a culture that’s beyond my experience,” Barnes says. “But we want to help that culture that made this neighborhood vibrant in the first place.” And he credits his friend, the drummer Ron Steen, for setting up what is now a robust jazz program. Every Monday, Steen brings his jazz jam to The 1905, which has also proved to be a new home for fellows drummer Chris Brown and Brian Foxworth, vocalist Tamara Stephens, and trumpeter Farnell Newton. (And ever the educator, Barnes provides high school jazz bands with a space to hold their recitals, and then lets them stick around to hear the pros until 10 p.m.) When the club’s not bouncing with jazz, it’s home to karaoke nights and live DJs. And as you’ve no doubt noticed, the jazz community is a lot like the food community: They both share personnel and team up to start new projects. Case in point: One of the DJs The 1905 books is Kwame Blanchard, Afrodaddy’s future chef.

Ron Steen and players at The 1905
The 1905

Southfork

When Smallwares closed last year, the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood lost a ringer in the form of chef’s chef Johanna Ware. But this year, it scored another ringer when restaurant owners Casey O’Brien and Eric Schindele tapped Patrick McKee (Paley’s Place) to run the kitchen at their Souther-inspired restaurant in the old Smallwares space. Southfork is a mashup of Southern roots foods and McKee’s creativity, resulting in dishes like cornmeal fried oysters, bourbon-tamarind glazed pork loin, pork cheek mac and cheese, and smoked and braised brisket with polenta and pear-and-fennel slaw. When it opened, there was discussion about booking jazz musicians to strut their stuff during dinner serve. Now, after weeks of planning, that’s indeed what’s happening. “We’re talent-rich community here in Portland—we’re lucky that way,” says O’Brien. “It’s not terribly difficult to find good players.” And you can see those players take to Southfork’s small and intimate stage on Friday and Saturday nights. Think Portland luminaries like the unimpeachable vocalist LaRhonda Steele, who sings behind the beat propelled by Louis “King Louie” Payne’s Hammond B3. Southfork is also a regular home for the Michael Raynor Trio, the Annette Lowman Trio and the Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club Time Machine.

Southfork regular performers LaRhonda Steele and Louis “King Louie” Payne
LaRhonda Steele

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