If you’re feeling like jazz clubs are few and far between in Oregon, you’re not alone.
With only one jazz club left in Portland, Eugene’s Jazz Station has filled a niche jazz lovers are looking for.
“There are only two or three jazz clubs in the whole state and The Jazz Station is one of those, and we’ve got a very good reputation,” says Ted Ledgard, 76, board member and marketing manager. “With the UO being here, and the number of jazz musicians in Portland, we have a lot of great music here.”
“Some people like symphony, some people like rock, some people like all of it,” says Laura Niles, house manager and board vice president. “A lot of people prefer jazz to other things. The Willamette Jazz Society is looking for ways to provide space for the jazz experience, to provide education such as Sunday jams with youth and scholarships to jazz camps in summer, and to have an operation that is clearly focused on jazz as a medium.”
The Jazz Station doesn’t have a huge surplus of money, but it’s doing OK, Laura Niles, house manager, says. There are many opportunities for volunteers, from bartending to working the door and taking ticket sales.
Door greeters also are needed for Sunday jams, which doesn’t involve taking money.
The club is supported through memberships, including individual, family and senior. It also provides early access to tickets. “It’s a small house so if you really want to see a show it’s nice to have that additional time to purchase tickets,” she says. “We just got an online system so we’ll be able to sell tickets into the future, which we couldn’t do before.”
Working the night shows means getting trained on using the iPad for sales. Volunteers with an OLCC permit can bartend, and collect tips. Volunteers can help with sound or help bands set up and take down.
“We have many people that help with the marketing, online newsletter, website, posters. We have people who do proofreading, work on development, donations,” Niles says. “All that is volunteer. It’s a wide variety of opportunities. A lot of people want to be here for the music so that’s the cool thing.”
Volunteers get to see the shows they work at, of course, and each time they volunteer they get a token that can be used at the bar or the door. Many volunteers save up to bring guests along for no charge.
“A lot of our members are in the senior category so they get a discount,” Niles says. “Our audience is also generally an older audience unless we book a hot UO band and then it’s a nice mix of ages. We have a lot of seniors who don’t work any longer who find it fun to come out at night.”
She says it’s a comfortable place where people do not feel “out of sorts” if they come to a show by themselves, or if they don’t know the music. “People have told me many times that they don’t feel at all weird about coming alone if no one wants to come with them,” she says. “The only thing is that we are in downtown, and downtown still does have a reputation for ‘iffy’ folks. But the shops are all filled now and there’s a lot more positive activity on the streets.”
The Jazz Station is operated by the Willamette Jazz Society, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization registered in 2002.
The original founders — Nancy Hamilton, John Crider, Chris Orsinger, Rich Platz, Fred Wesley and Paul Saffel — were musicians seeking rehearsal and jam space when they formed WJS, and subsequently opened a club space on Broadway and Willamette in 2005. Five years later, they expanded at 124 W. Broadway.
Niles says shows are selected to showcase the broadest spectrum of jazz. “We don’t confine ourselves but we stick to things that would be less esoteric,” she says, meaning less straight-ahead jazz where the musical conventions are altered or broken down.
“It’s not a big house at all,” Niles says of the colorful room, which includes a small art gallery and bar for beer and wine sales. “It’s very intimate. The feedback I get is that people like it because it’s a listening audience and not a bar.”
The Jazz Station is volunteer-led, except for six event managers who each have experience and receive a small wage.
It’s also approved for all ages. Many UO students, as well as middle and high school students, use the stage to learn to play jazz.
Torrey Newhart, a board member and UO graduate with degrees in jazz piano, teaches jams to youth on Sunday afternoons.
“I got involved as a performer when they moved to their new space,” Newhart says. “I started volunteering right away, bartending, and I was one of the only student members for several years. I joined the board when Laura did.”
For jazz fans and musicians like Newhart, having a venue to call their own is important. Even when you don’t know the band or the type of music they’ll play, you still know it will be jazz.
In the early days, jazz clubs were large, and musicians performed while the audience danced to swing, big band or orchestra. As jazz transitioned into smaller bands and combos, the clubs got smaller and the audience more stationary. The Jazz Station has a small area for dancing in the back of the room, but you’re always close to the music.
No matter the music, audience appreciation makes The Jazz Station a fun place to play. “That’s one reason why most musicians want to play there,” Newhart says. “If you play certain gigs at a winery or something, you’ll make more money, but people like playing at the Jazz Station because it’s intimate and people are there to actually listen.”
He’s been bringing in youth from several local schools so the young musicians can play with a full band.
This past summer, several parents from Roosevelt Middle School brought their kids, who enjoyed the jam sessions so much the parents went back to the school board and requested they have a jazz band on the books. “The school board said yes,” Newhart says with enthusiasm. “That’s grass roots effort that is so cool.”
Ted Ledgard appreciates that the Sunday jams are training the next generation of jazz musicians. His father was a drummer, so Ledgard gravitated toward jazz and the drums himself. He hung out in the jazz clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ‘60s, so he appreciates a good jazz club. Since moving to Eugene with his wife, Kim Kelley, Ledgard got involved as a board member and musician at The Jazz Station.
“It was pretty neat,” he says. “The Jazz Station was certainly nicer than we had expected. It was an inviting room so we started going to performances there. After my second or third visit, I was retired at that point, and they needed help so I got involved. The Willamette Jazz Society is still growing but there’s a limited number of people in Lane County that support jazz so it’s a real challenge sometimes to find volunteers to operate the club and fill seats.”
Ledgard and Kelly enjoy the performances, and knowing they are helping to keep the art form alive.
“It’s the quality of music that we have been able to attract,” he says. “For the Sunday afternoon jams it’s open to all ages, all skill levels. Over the years, that has produced many young musicians and introduced them to jazz. They’re 16, 17, 18 years old and they’re seasoned performers. And these kids can really play. That’s been really exciting to see happen.”