Where We Live: The Vanport Jazz Festival

The Vanport Jazz Festival honors the jazz legacy there

Bobby Bradford and Cleve Williams. (Oregon Historical Society)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The first annual Vanport Jazz Festival is this weekend, bringing in some of the top names in contemporary jazz.

It honors Portland’s great jazz legacy and the Vanport flood of 1948, which literally washed away an important part of where we live.

World famous entertainers and athletes adorn Paul Knaul’s “Wall of Fame” at Genevas Barbershop on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Knauls owned three nightclubs in the 1960s through the ’80s on and near Williams Avenue.

“All the good ones and the great ones that came to town, they came through Williams Avenue,” Knaul’s said. “The corridor where all the music and action was.”

From Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie to Duke Ellington, they played Portland clubs like McLendon’s, The Savoy and The Dude Ranch in the ’40s and ’50s.

The Albina neighborhood was where Portland’s black community settled after the devastating Vanport flood. It was May 30, 1948 when the raging Columbia River washed away Vanport, Oregon’s second largest city, where Portland International Raceway is now.

“This loud sound went forth throughout our community and we looked toward the sound and there was that water,” flood survivor Betty Jones said.

The city was built for workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II and it was the largest public housing project in the nation. Many shipyard workers were African-Americans from the south. It was the largest influx of black people in Oregon history.

The flood didn’t stop people from needing entertainment.

“It was really because of Vanport that the jazz legacy started here in Portland and I wanted to continue that legacy,” Vanport Jazz Festival organizer James Taylor said.

Taylor put the festival at Portland Meadows, near where Vanport stood.

“I feel like to honor Vanport, you need to honor the people who have been telling the story,” Taylor said. “We want to keep Vanport alive.”

The Vanport Jazz Festival is Saturday, August 5 starting at noon at Portland Meadows. You’ll hear Boney James, Fourplay, Jazz flutist Althea Rene Culbertson, Mike Philips and Portland’s own Patrick Lamb.