Remembering Mid-Century Jazz Pianist Lorraine Geller and Portland, Oregon’s Jazz History
In 1954, twenty-six-year-old jazz pianist Lorraine Geller recorded what would be her sole album as a leader: Lorraine Geller — At the Piano. She worked hard and played widely with big names like Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones. Her touch was firm and elegant, her solos full of complex ideas and shifting moods, and she could cook on the fast songs. Along with pianists Jutta Hipp, Mary Lou Williams, and Mary McPartland, she was one of the few female instrumentalists playing in this male-dominated, mid-century genre. A week after playing the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958, she died from pulmonary edema. She was thirty-years-old. Her album At the Piano has long since fallen out of print in the US, but if you love piano trios, you need this album. Right now it’s only available as a Japanese import, but Universal Music Group, who owns Dot Records’ masters, needs to rerelease it so people other than collectors can afford to buy it.
Lorraine Winifred Walsh packed a lot of music into her short life. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1928, she grew up sketching, reading poetry, and playing classical piano.
Her family lived somewhere on Ankeny Street in southeast Portland, in a neighborhood filled with houses now too expensive for many musicians to afford. Back in the 1920s, though, Portland wasn’t a gentrifying city. It was a two-horse town known for its flooded river banks and unreliable bridges. People called it Stumptown and Mudtown, depending on what they tripped over. But the completion of the Bonneville Dam in 1937 made the mighty Columbia River more navigable. The growth of logging, fishing, and burgeoning shipyards in the 1940s drew people to Portland’s growing economy, particularly African Americans, and as jazz started gaining popularity throughout America, a thriving jazz scene arose in a racially segregated part of inner north Portland that Portland author Robert Dietsche later named Jumptown.
Portland was once one of the most segregated cities outside of the South. Forced out and prohibited from buying property in many areas because of redlining and other outlawed practices, people of color raised families and ran their own businesses in Portland’s lower Albina neighborhood and what became The Rose Quarter. Many of the bars and clubs along the avenues of Williams, Mississippi, and Vancouver hosted jazz. In venues like the Uptown Ballroom, The Dude Ranch, McClendon’s Rhythm Room, and The Chicken Coop, bands played late into the night, giving the neighborhood a bustling, big city energy that attracted well-known touring musicians like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Wardell Gray. As Dietsche writes in his book Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942–1957: “Action central was Williams Avenue, an entertainment strip lined with hot spots where you could find jazz twenty-four hours a day…. You could stand in the middle of the Avenue (where the Blazers play basketball today) and look up Williams past the chili parlors, past the barbecue joints, the beauty salons, all the way to Broadway, and see hundreds of people dressed up as if they were going to a fashion show. It could be four in the morning. It didn’t matter; this was one of those ‘streets that never slept.’”
In 1940, trumpeter Erskine Hawkins’s dance band played downtown at McElroy’s Spanish Ballroom. Located on Southwest 5th Avenue between Madison and Main, many stars played there during its heyday, from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane to Cab Calloway, earning it the reputation as Portland’s Cotton Club. The difference was, McElroy’s was in the white part of town. It was west of the Willamette River. Black Portland gathered to the east. Many downtown businesses refused people of color, just like the city’s banks refused people of color loans, but Cole McElroy welcomed everyone as customers by hosting mixed dances at his ballroom. In Jumptown, jazz and black community thrived. At McElroy’s, the races mingled on the dance floor, and Portland’s white audiences could discover new songs and new jazz musicians in what they probably considered a “safe”─meaning white─environment.
After Erskine Hawkins’s show, his record After Hours sold well in town, and the song played regularly on the jukebox at a joint called Slaughters. Lorraine Walsh was young and white, but she heard Erskine’s song and often went to hear people play at clubs like Jackie’s Cafe and Acme, especially a Bebop and boogie-woogie pianist named Leo “Dark Eyes” Amadee. Lorraine’s band director at Washington High School had introduced her to jazz, and she’d started listening to cutting edge pianists like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum, and soon she refocused her classical piano education on jazz. Her mother was very supportive. After Hours seems to have made a strong enough impression on the young pianist to solidify her dedication to jazz. Her friend Jeannie Hackett remembers going to record stores with Lorraine, hunting for Gene Krupa and Nat King Cole albums. “I don’t know why,” Hackett says in , “but Lorraine always liked Krupa’s pianist, Teddy Napoleon.” In 1942, Lorraine played in a boogie-woogie quartet at a Franklin High School assembly. Sixteen years later, she became what Dietsche calls, “The most highly acclaimed pianist in Portland jazz history.” Sad, then, that so few people, including Portlanders, have heard of her.
You have to wonder what talented Portland pianists of color never had the opportunity or money to visit a recording studio. As Ralph Ellison writes in “ The Charlie Christian Story “ in 1958, many of jazz’s “heroes remain local figures known only to small-town dance halls, and whose reputations are limited to the radius of a few hundred miles.” The musicians we know, he argues, are not simply the ones with the most talent. They’re the ones who got lucky, got noticed, got into a studio. “Some of the most brilliant of jazzmen made no records,” says Ellison, “their names appeared in print only in announcement of some local dance or remote ‘battles of music’ against equally uncelebrated bands.
Being devoted to an art which traditionally thrives on improvisation, these unrecorded artists very often have their most original ideas enter the public domain almost as rapidly as they are conceived, to be quickly absorbed into the thought and technique of their fellows. Thus, the riffs which swung the dancers and the band on some transcendent evening, and which inspired others to competitive flights of invention, become all too swiftly a part of the general style, leaving the originator as anonymous as the creators of the architecture called Gothic.” So which Portlanders of color would have joined Geller in the upper ranks of Portland’s best if they’d had the same access as white players and weren’t systematically oppressed? In mid-century jazz, those who we know as the best aren’t always measured by talent or innovation, but by having the privilege of leaving a document. This isn’t to undermine Geller’s standing or suggest she’s undeserving of recognition. She is brilliant. Context is complicated. She’s one of my favorite pianists. But surely there were others in Jumptown who played extremely well.
Lorraine’s career developed quickly. From 1949 to 1952, she played with an all-female big band named the Sweethearts of Rhythm. Led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn, its earlier incarnation was the first racially integrated all female-group in America, had toured widely and garnered a big following. Although this period of Lorraine’s musical life is hazy, in 1949 she found herself in Los Angeles jamming with an alto saxophonist named Herb Geller.
Herb was born in Los Angeles and played saxophone at Dorsey High School with fellow saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd, who both went on to fame. After seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform in 1945, Herb went so wild for bop that he moved to New York City to put himself in the center of this new music. Herb was always looking for work, so he joined as many late-night jam sessions as he could. These were standard practice at the time, with jazz musicians cramming into apartments or in clubs until dawn, blowing and vamping and even competing, which made it a great way to make friends and forge professional relationships, and to write songs. While touring, he met Lorraine at one Los Angeles jam session in 1949. They hit it off and kept playing together, and romance blossomed. Herb was playing with Billy May’s and Claude Thornhill’s orchestras in New York, so he and Lorraine moved there in the fall of 1952 and got married. That year, she played with trumpeter Norma Carson’s all-female group, which did a brief residency at The Welcome Bar in Atlantic City. When May’s band relocated to Los Angeles in 1953, the Gellers did too, and they built themselves into in-demand players.
As the JazzTimes put it: “For the next half-decade, the Gellers were integral participants in the heyday of so-called West Coast jazz.” They did studio work to make money. They played shows at night and recorded albums during the day, joining big names like Clifford Brown, Red Mitchell, and Dinah Washington. And they formed their own quartet, called The Gellers, which released three albums in 1954 and 1955. In 1955, they moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills.
During her Los Angeles years, Lorraine alone played with a who’s-who of West Coast jazz, including Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Red Mitchell, and even Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But the jazz life was inconsistent. Lorraine took gigs in strip clubs to make money. Lots of people did. It was a booming supplemental market. As pianist Dick Whittington told Ted Gioia in West Coast Jazz, during some of the 1950s, “The bottom dropped out so far as jazz work was concerned … there were probably ten strip joints in LA, and they would hire a three-piece band. They’d have saxophone, piano, and drums. No bass─they didn’t feel they needed that. They just wanted a melody and the rhythm, especially that drum beat. Everyone worked strip gigs. Hampton Hawes, Carl Perkins, Walter Norris, Herb and Lorraine Geller.”
One of the most important developments in her career was the rise of a club in Hermosa Beach called The Lighthouse. In 1949, the bar’s owner let bassist Howard Rumsey host a regular Saturday night jam session there; when it became popular, Rumsey became club manager, and he built the place into one of the centers of West Coast jazz from the 1950s to the 1970s. Touring bands played there. Record labels recorded live albums there. The club even birthed its own group called─blandly─the Lighthouse All-Stars. Early iterations featured saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Criss, with pianists Sonny Clark and Hampton Hawes. One version included Lorraine.
When the famous bop drummer Max Roach came from New York to temporarily replace the Lighthouse’s house drummer in 1953, he brought Miles Davis and Charles Mingus with him. On Roach’s first night playing the venue on September 13, both Davis and Baker played trumpet together. Davis famously disliked Baker (you can see this in Ethan Hawk’s movie about him, Born to Be Blue), and this was the only time the two played music together. Lorraine provided the piano. A fan recorded the show. It took thirty-two years for the tapes to surface officially, and the recording, titled , captures a hard-hitting Geller playing over an overly hard-hitting Max Roach on drums.
In 1957, Lorraine recorded with California bassist Red Mitchell on what was her most commercially successful date. But her trio is her greatest showcase. Even though Lorraine’s soloing on Red’s date is great, the set sounds boring and staid, the songs overly familiar. Unfortunately, this marks the end of Lorraine’s ascent. That year, she was diagnosed with asthma. When she gave birth to her daughter Lisa, Lisa had developmental issues, and the birth strained Lorraine’s health. While Lisa stayed in the hospital for six months under supervision, Lorraine recuperated. Insurance wouldn’t cover Lisa’s treatment. With medical bills mounting, the Gellers cashed in their life insurance policy, and Lorraine started playing with singer Kay Starr. “I have to do it,” she told Herb, “we need the money.”
When Herb got invited to tour with Benny Goodman, he jumped at the chance. He rehearsed in New York, embarked on the tour. The soon-to-be-famous Monterey Jazz Festival debuted with a stellar line-up, and Lorraine played it. Then in October, 1958, Lorraine came down with a pulmonary infection. Her lungs filled with fluid. She had an asthma attack, and she died. Herb was on the road with Goodman when his mother called. “I could hear in her voice that something was wrong,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Herb, Lorraine died.’” Her death disoriented him. “After the funeral in L.A., I was devastated and had no idea what to do. Lorraine had been my entire life. But I had to go back to work to make ends meet. I called Benny Goodman’s office and said I’d like to come back with the band. Benny called me and was as nice as can be. He said, ‘Herb, you left a big hole in the band. Please come back.’”
Herb’s sister watched Lisa so he could finish the tour. Depressed and confused, he bounced gig to gig for a few years, cobbling together an income in a patchwork of towns, but he was lost. “At one point I was playing at this [strip] club in West Hollywood called the Pink Pussycat,” he remembered. “One night, a girl I knew said to me that a dear friend wanted to see me. I was in the middle of playing Night Train. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. It was Stan Getz.” Getz played “Night Train” as part of his repertoire. He’d had his own ups and downs. “At intermission Stan said, ‘Why don’t you go to Europe. You shouldn’t be playing strip clubs. I know a guy at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen who will give you a gig there.’” So Herb sold his and Lorraine’s house and bought a ticket to Copenhagen. After some detours, he eventually settled in Germany and played jazz in Europe for the rest of his life.
Where Herb left Lisa and America behind (his sister eventually adopted her), Lorraine left behind a daughter, a devastated husband, and one of the most under-recognized gems of piano jazz. At the Piano is a high-water mark of the trio format, and one of my personal favorites. If Portland has one jazz album to brag about, it’s this. Recorded in LA in 1954, At the Piano came out in 1959, a year after Lorraine died. Jazz trios are a dime a dozen, and piano trio albums can sound so much alike that they seem interchangeable. The worst have too many standards. Too little fire. Not enough swing. They can sound stiff, safe, almost classical in their polish. Lorraine’s, though, brims with life.
At the Piano includes surprising cover songs and four of her original compositions, memorable and moving with names like “Clash By Night” and “Madame X;” these songs double as glimpses of what her future held. Bassist Leroy Vinnegar played on it. Self-taught, he was one of the West Coast’s most active and unique bass-players, known for a signature walking bass line. Interestingly, Vinnegar moved to Portland in 1986 and spent the rest of his life here. The Oregon State Legislature honored him by naming May 1st Leroy Vinnegar Day. In 2002, pianist and educator Darrell Grant built on by establishing the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute at Portland State University. Vinnegar and Geller lock in tight on the album. Since the album’s only thirty-two minutes long, its fire leaves you wanting more, which of course can be said of Lorraine’s whole musical life.
If Lorraine’s professional experience was like Jutta Hipp’s and Mary Lou Williams’, and it likely was, then many people took Lorraine less seriously than her male counterparts. Men likely focused on her looks. They expected less of her, talked down to her, and marveled when she could play what men considered standard, because she was a woman. Case in point: The record label turned the piano on her album cover into a high heeled shoe. In Jumptown, one of her band mates, Earl Whitney, describes a time he declined a gig because of sexism.
We’d got this call for an audition at the Tropics Club so we went out there and played. When it was over, the owner called me over to the bar and said, ‘You kids sound nice, but the girl doesn’t look good on stage. She’s gotta go.’ He never said anything about the way she played.
I didn’t take the job of course, and I never told Lorraine about it. She was just one of the guys to us. In fact, we all called her ‘man.’ It must have gotten under her skin though, ’cause one day she called me over and said, ‘Look, Earl, I’m no man, I’m a woman.’ From then on we called her ‘Jazz.’ Pretty soon everybody in town was calling her that.
Twenty-first century Portland is a bustling, gentrifying metropolis filled with musicians and writers and the creative class. No longer Mudtown, it’s known for world class food and the arts. And even though the state is becoming more ethnically diverse, central Portland is still racially divided and predominantly white. Its progressive populace talks and votes like we value diversity and equality, and many businesses and leaders here are showing the world how gender equality looks. Yet Portland has no memorial for Lorraine Geller. There’s no sign or plaque commemorating her accomplishments, no evidence of her existence at all. When I called one of our popular local jazz clubs to ask about her, the owner didn’t recognize her name. Neither did the manager at the small record shop I asked. It isn’t surprising. She had one solo record, and this is jazz we’re talking about. It’s obscure. But Portland has a statue for Beverly Clearly, author of the Ramona books, as they should. Cleary’s Ramona character shaped many young readers’ lives, and she continues to. Maybe Geller didn’t live long enough to build the sort of catalogue that demands attention. Maybe jazz trios can never have the same emotional effect that stories do. But Portland’s greatest jazz pianist deserves at least a small plaque honoring her. The same goes for Jumptown.
“By the early 1960s,” Jeffrey Showell writes in The Oregonian, “much of the [Jumptown] area had been razed to build Memorial Coliseum and Lloyd Center. Interstate 5, known as the Minnesota Freeway because it was built over the route of North Minnesota Avenue, cut through the heart of the Albina neighborhood and resulted in the destruction of scores of residential blocks.” The old clubs were torn down, light rail tracks laid, Emanual Hospital built, and part of the area dubbed The Rose Quarter. The Blazers play there now. People catch commuter trains. Otherwise, between game days, it’s a vacant quarter. The lack of night life and businesses obscures every bit of its lively, musical, African-American roots. Only one of the old jazz venues survives. Called The Dude Ranch, this two-story wedge of old brick stands between two busy one-way streets. It’s a mixed use space now, with offices, a brewery and a bakery, and few passing drivers probably know what it was, or that Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins played there together, or that Nat King Cole and Art Tatum played there, or that visitors danced and kissed and celebrated life. I only learned about it this year and I’m a huge jazz fan. I’ve passed it for sixteen years.
The people of color who lived in this neighborhood, who raised their families and made their livings here, lost it to the real estate investors who bought Williams Avenue only to tear it down, while the city boosters carved up Jumptown with what was dubbed “urban renewal” and left it divided and conquered, its insides exposed. So where is their memorial? How is their existence and their legacy being honored? There are books about the Albina area’s history. There are organizations and neighborhood groups. But this community’s history deserves larger public recognition. Instead, they have holes to stare into.
A block of beautiful buildings once stood on Williams Avenue and Russell Street. Called the Hill Block, it was filled with black businesses and bustling traffic. There’s a crisp 1962 photograph of it, showing cars and pedestrians and life. Emanuel Hospital bought the lot for a planned expansion but ran out of money after clearing it for construction. The lot has sat vacant for over two decades. In place of people and businesses, wood chips and weeds now fill the lot.
In the early 2000s, a scheme was floated to rebrand The Rose Quarter as the “Jumptown” entertainment district. The new Jumptown would mix retail, hotel, restaurant and residential, but that plan was what city Commissioner Randy Leonard called “the Walmart of entertainment.” The firm involved had a contentious history with the African-American community, with claims of racist dress codes on a past redevelopment project, and over all, it was an insult to name a new pre-fab development ‘Jumptown’ after the namesake was destroyed for the benefit of the white majority. No surprise, though, for this is jazz. You can’t talk about jazz without talking about race relations and tragedy, glory and creativity, money and beauty, economic disparities between musicians and businesses, celebration, struggle and death.
As Geoff Dyer says in his jazz book, But Beautiful: “Anyone who becomes interested in jazz is struck very early on by the high casualty rate of its practitioners.” It’s clichéd to ask what Lorraine Geller could have done if she’d lived longer─all the songs she could have written, the albums she would have released. People ask the same about clean-living trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in a 1956 car accident at age twenty-five. They ask the same about trumpeter Booker Little, who died from uremia at age twenty-three. Same with vibraphonist Eddie Costa, killed in a crash in 1962. Same with pianist Vince Guaraldi, who had a heart attack in his hotel room between performances, and with Herb Geller’s high school friend Eric Dolphy, who died suddenly in 1964 of a diabetic coma, after hospital staff assumed he was a drug addict rather than a diabetic. It’s a familiar question, but it’s a legitimate one. Imagine their lives and what could have been. Herb lived until age eighty-five. What music would Lorraine have made had she lived? Like the song “All the Things You Are,” Lorraine’s recorded work is many things, most of it great, but her best performances on At the Piano, like Jumptown’s existence, were so brief that when the world turned its head for just a moment, we missed them. The time has come to turn our head back.
Originally published at Michigan Quarterly Review on April 22, 2016.