Jazz has played a key role in chronicling the African-American struggle for freedom and equality. Seminal recordings like Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown & Beige” and Max Roach’s “We Insist! – the Freedom Now Suite” tell the “dramatic story” of their history from slavery onward. This rich tradition continues to this day in works by Matana Roberts, Jaimeo Brown, Wynton Marsalis and Wadada Leo Smith amongst others.
“From Maxville to Vanport” looks at the quest for equality from the perspective of the African-American residents of two short-lived multicultural communities in Oregon, at a time when the state was known to be one of the most discriminatory outside the South. Both towns were built to accommodate workforces supplying local industries; Maxville, by a lumber company in 1923 to house loggers from across the South and Midwest ; Vanport in the ‘40s for shipyard workers. Neither settlement lasted more than ten years. Though concentrating on these two communities, we get an insight in to broader events, such as the large scale movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North.
The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) has been around since 2007, set up to pursue the mutual interests of it’s member, performing new music in a large ensemble setting with a focus on community engagement and awareness.
PJCE describe the creative process for this album as “community guided”. From the outset locals, including descendants of the residents of both towns, were engaged not only in providing historical detail, but also in shaping the music which Ezra Weiss composed and S. Renee Mitchell wrote lyrics for.
The album distills these accounts in to a collection of experiences as if told by members of these historic communities through music that harks back to the roots of Jazz, through spirituals, work songs and the blues.
The opening song, “Oregon Sounds Like Freedom”, introduces Marilyn Keller’s rich and powerful voice. She evinces a detailed and convincing message of hope – a dignified, optimistic portrayal of opportunity in Oregon, against the backdrop of economic failure and systemic racism in the South. Portentous horns, bluesy guitar licks and Rob Davis’ meandering sax solo build on this sense of transition and movement.
“What Do Your Trees Tell You” is the album’s highlight for me. Like “Strange Fruit”, it poetically explores the conflicting symbolism of trees, in a way that is quite specific to African-Americans in the American South. This contextualising is best summed up in the lyrics – “It’s all about your outlook. Some see death, some opportunity.” Keller’s vocals spell out this stark reality with passion. Woodwind instruments add drama, but it’s the words and the images they evoke that resonate long after the song has finished.
“Woman’s Work” is a funkier number, giving us a glimpse of the hardworking lives of the women of Maxville. “Stacked Deck Hand”, a swinging blues, and the closing track, “Maxville to Vanport”, point to growing confidence and resilience within these communities, despite the odds. Segregation and racism were still to be found in Oregon, but the picture painted is one where the rewards outweighed the risks. “Maxville to Vanport” uses distinct musical themes to reflect on life before and after moving to Oregon, the first unsettling and anxious, all droning bass and rumbling drums, the second more upbeat and searching.
Whilst these events speak to social change, as a whole the album does not proselytise, instead inviting the listener to consider the price of freedom and how relative these values are. It also reminds us that change is not only about activism, but the extraordinary lives of everyday people.