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…