Jimmy Mak’s: It’s About The Music

I first came to Jimmy Mak’s expecting to see a declining interest from the crowd, perhaps people on cell phones or generally just more into their dates than their surroundings. Mel Brown started off by telling some stories about his touring days with The Temptations, then jumped into an hour and a half of top-notch music; the room was captivated. Next week would be his 70th birthday.

Half a century ago, the scene at Jimmy Mak’s would have been commonplace. “The City That Works” was living up to its motto with a robust workforce drawn here to earn their wage by way of building ships for WWII. This was a primarily African American community who carried with them skills and an appetite which would fuel the golden era of jazz in Portland. According the Robert Dietsche’s book, Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, there was a tremendous amount of talent coming through the Rose City. Think of a famous jazz musician from the era, they played here. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, were drawn from across the country to play on Williams Avenue where Portland’s post-war workforce came to blow off steam. The Avenue had a tenacious life about it. The amount of cash was equal to the absence of housing, so theaters and clubs ran 24 hours a day.

Jazz Quote 01It was the golden age of the genre and war had brought a sense of style and swagger to the region. Flamboyant suits and all-night parties. Barbecue and chili shacks lined Williams Avenue, interspersed was a community of clubs featuring the best jazz in the world. The inner east side of the Willamette was the heart of the scene and for a decade was on par with New York. Now, sixty years later, the talent remains, but the infrastructure that supported the scene is showing signs of stress.

Jimmy Makaroonis of Jimmy Mak’s is a casual guy; T-shirt and shorts, a look that is reflected by his humble attitude. The owner of Portland’s flagship jazz stage is rightfully proud of his club, but he tries to keep it all in perspective. He is compelled to remind me that he is just a guy and all he does is offer a stage, and that people aren’t lining up around the block to come see him. It’s about the talent and community, something Portland has no shortage of.

“[We have] a world class blues scene in Portland, a world class jazz scene, and the thing that sustains them is tremendous education. You’ve got guys that are working musicians who get out and teach, whether it’s in schools or private lessons, and it’s guys who really care about mentoring the next generation of musicians that come out.”

At times, Jimmy’s voice, reduced to a whisper by health complications, strains under his palpable excitement for what’s happening here.

“So, Esperanza Spalding, Grammy award winner for Best New Artist, we have fucking…what’s that cat’s name…the little guy she beat out that year….Justin Bieber, right? Beats out Justin Bieber and wins a fucking Grammy; Portland girl.

“Mel Brown, Thara Memory, Audrey St. James, all guys that play our stage every Tuesday night, took her under their wing, mentored her. I mean, recognized the God-given talent that that girl had, and now look at her. I can talk to you about her, Hailey Niswanger, and a list of probably ten to twelve kids who have come up through the scene here who are making it on various levels in the national scene. That’s how the scene gets sustained.

“…We’ve got all these hungry young lions that are looking for opportunity and they are all fucking killing it. So, getting good music on our stages in Portland? Not an issue. The issue is finding enough dates.”

Jazz04It seems like Jimmy Mak’s has the market cornered when it comes to jazz stars. It’s apparent that this club has become the de facto face of the Portland jazz scene. A claim strengthened by its partnership with the Portland Jazz Festival, which will arrange some fifteen shows at Jimmy Mak’s this year. Makaroonis’ club is so spoiled for choice that he couldn’t name someone he aspires to bring in. All the talent comes to him.

But such a firm grip on a scene is not quite the goal of the club, and its role as a jazz epicenter is less comforting to its owner than one might imagine. The concern is that with clubs like Blue Monk and Ivories closing, the already small scene is shrinking, giving musicians fewer places to develop and established musicians fewer chances to try something new.

“If we don’t have a scene for people to play, if we don’t have dates for people to play, that growth of new young musicians stops. So, I’m really disappointed in those places closing… I don’t know the business model. I don’t know financially why things didn’t work, but it creates a big hole. It’s a hole that really needs to be filled and I’m worried, frankly, that if other people don’t step it up it interrupts that growth. That natural progression of musicians has to happen, and without more venues it doesn’t work. I feel like the last rat on a sinking ship. It’s not a good feeling. I’m not happy about it.”

With spots closing their doors, it’s either battle for less time on fewer stages or find gigs elsewhere. So is the case with Gary Hobbs. A talented percussionist, Hobbs frequently played at Ivories, but has taken his talent on tour, leaving the Portland scene behind for a while and joining on with other musicians; an option not necessarily available to the developing talent in Portland.

I spoke to Corey Heppner, a recent graduate of PSU’s Master’s in Jazz Studies program, and a talented young jazz guitarist to his own credit. The general consensus is that these bars closed due to a certain pretense that often accompanies the idea of jazz music. He offered that their failure as businesses was in attempting to make people think their food was worth more than it was but for the novelty of jazz music playing during dinner.

Jazz Quote 02“I think [they] tried to push jazz as this thing that people should see, but they didn’t do a very good job of making it enjoyable for the average listener,” says Heppner. “That puts a strain on the musicians to work really hard to get people to like their music independent of the establishment. That’s kind of hard to do unless [they’re] just huge fans of the music itself. Not gonna lie, that’s hard to find.”

Yelp reviews offer little redemption to Ivories, whose approval rating of 2.5 serves as a bleak epitaph. The loss of the venues speaks to where Portland’s priorities lie. The bottom line: The music alone won’t carry you. Portlanders will not tolerate bad service. This city has a discerning palate and wholeheartedly embraces its dietary restrictions and preferences, not to mention a rich food industry that provides a product that punches well above its weight per capita.

Ivories had one habit in particular that irked its guests almost as much as its disappointing cuisine: if a diner’s meal continued into the performance, there would be an additional $10 cover charge tacked onto the bill. Though cover charges are common, the clandestine nature of its application would aggravate unsuspecting patrons.  

Jimmy Mak’s may seem to be first and foremost a jazz club, but its esteemed place at the top of the totem is enjoyed because of its business practices. It may be focused mainly on jazz, but the food and service at Jimmy Mak’s are nothing to scoff at. It consistently gets a four-star rating and people seem to enjoy that Jimmy’s doesn’t shy away from making its food spicy.

The dwindling number of clubs in Portland may be hard felt within the community, but the jazz scene has been through hard times before. After all, the golden age was only a little over a decade long. The bustling clubs and rowdy all-night atmosphere fell apart as the cultural landscape changed. The heart of the Williams Avenue scene gradually eroded under pressure from authorities, and an area that fueled the clubs was demolished so the then-Rose Garden could be built. In the late sixties, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the riots and psychological fallout that ensued dried the scene out. It took guys like Thara Memory and Mel Brown to bring the Rose City back to life.

Hopefully, the available talent will prompt some enterprising soul to build another club. However, Hobbs doesn’t seem optimistic about the Portland scene. He claims that low pay for door gigs and fewer venues are not capable of providing musicians with a real living wage. In a kind of fatalistic warning, Hobbs frankly states, “To think that this wouldn’t happen is to be unaware of music history. Nothing lasts forever.”

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