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IN 1945, SOMEONE had to tell Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday that they couldn't come play in Portland after all.
It seems that, in an event that has to be one of the most shortsighted bits of municipal governance in Oregon history, the Portland city authorities had ordered the flagship nightclub of North Portland's wildly popular jazz scene, the Dude Ranch, shut down.
And that was the end of one of Portland's most popular jazz clubs, and one of the most fondly remembered.
Apparently there had been a shooting nearby, and city officials pretended they thought it was related. But it was widely known what the real problem was: White girls and black boys, and black girls and white boys, were dancing together there. And Portland, like the rest of the state, was still a highly racist place in 1945.
But that was changing fast. And it had a lot to do with places like The Dude Ranch.
Portland’s wartime jazz scene
The Dude Ranch, for a brief shining moment at the end of World War II, was the epicenter of a jazz scene that put the rest of the West Coast to shame.
“There never was and there never will be anything quite like The Dude Ranch,” Robert Dietsche wrote in his book, Jumptown. “It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, Las Vegas and the Wild West rolled into one.”
Portland’s jazz scene, which is now a relatively forgotten story, got its start during World War II. After the war started, thousands of people from around the country were brought into North Portland to take jobs in the shipyards that were, at the time, pumping out Liberty ships by the hundreds. The wartime shipyard scene was one of those glorious moments in which people who formerly didn’t like each other are put together by forces beyond their control, united by a common goal, and more or less forced to work side by side on a winning team, until one day they realize that they actually rather like one another after all.
When these shipyard comrades went out on a Friday or Saturday night to have a good time, they were not going to go someplace where some of them weren't welcome. At the time, discreet signs that read "White Trade Only" were a common sight in Portland. A mixed-race group of shipyard workers was no more likely to set foot in one of these places than the Rat Pack would have been. (Can you imagine Frank, Dean and Joey going into Waddle's Diner for pie and coffee and leaving Sammy waiting by the door like a dog? Unthinkable. It was the same way with groups of buddies from the shipyards. Their attitude was, "If one of us is unwelcome, kiss all of us goodbye.")
So they often ended up hanging out together in one of at least 10 clubs in the area of Williams Avenue and what’s now the Rose Quarter. These clubs were part of a thriving and booming music scene that had a particular appeal for African-American jazz legends — and in that scene, the Dude Ranch was first among equals.
A few years later, an integrated group of clean-cut entertainers at The Sands in Las Vegas would play off this scene, relaxing on stage like four old Army buddies yukking it up and having a few drinks together, regardless of skin tones. In the mid-1940s, the real thing was playing out, not only in North Portland and Vanport, but across the country.
A neighborhood forms
Shipyard workers and returning soldiers may have played and socialized together regardless of
race, but in the rest of Portland, attitudes were still far less cosmopolitan. Racism wasn't just a City Hall thing. It would take a humanitarian disaster in 1948 — the flooding of Vanport — to break down many of those walls; in 1945, most Portlanders still didn’t want black people moving into their neighborhoods.
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So Portland’s new African-American residents mostly set up housekeeping in the Albina area, around Williams and Vancouver avenues, and in Vanport. After the war ended, hordes of returning servicemen, starved for entertainment, crowded into town, and these fellows found what they wanted on Williams Avenue. The population density was off the charts; finding a place to stay was nearly impossible. Movie theatres were turned into impromptu bunkhouses, people crashed on each other’s couches. The streets were full of people with money in their pockets and no place to go, and the nightclubs were packed, 24 hours a day.
Nat “King” Cole, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong
The Dude Ranch, according to Prof. Michael McGregor of Portland State University, rose to prominence largely because its owners, Sherman Pickett and Pat Patterson — “Pic and Pat,” as they were called — “seemed capable of booking anybody.”
“But though Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum and the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio appeared in later days, no night ever equaled that night in December of 1945 when Norman Granz brought his touring jam session, ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic,’ to town,” McGregor writes. “ That night legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins led a group that included trombonist Roy Eldridge, bassist Al McKibbon and a 25-year-old pianist with ‘a lightning-like right hand’ who was soon to usher in the bebop age, Thelonious Monk.”
And then there were the impromptu appearances, including one evening when Louis Armstrong just happened to show up, on his way from somewhere else.
Inside the Dude Ranch, the cowboy theme was played to the hilt. The waitresses wore cowgirl outfits with fake six-shooters; there were murals showing cowboys riding and roping all over the walls. And the world-class jazz was only the beginning of what you might find there: burlesque “shake dancers,” ventriloquists, comics, jugglers, singers and tap dancers, according to Dietsche, were in the lineup as well.
Bulldozed for “Urban Renewal”
Like all such shining moments, it couldn’t last. It certainly didn’t help that Pic and Pat got put out of business. They soon opened up again at a different location, but it was never the same, and the local jazz scene was starting to cool down a bit by then anyway.
Today, it’s all gone — bulldozed and cleared to make room for Memorial Coliseum and the interstate freeway. Gone, that is, except for one building — the one that used to house The Dude Ranch. It’s straight ahead of you as you drive across the Steel Bridge, a wedge-shaped building on the corner, just a few hundred yards north of Memorial Coliseum.
Standing there on the corner and looking back and forth between the funky, historic little brick building and the massive, impersonal Coliseum, it’s funny to think about how much the world has changed since 1946. Back then, when someone like Billie Holiday came to Portland, she booked a show in that historic little brick building on your left. If someone of that caliber came today, she’d be playing in the mammoth cement hall on your right.
I’m not sure I’d call that an improvement … would you?
(Sources: Dietsche, Robert. Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2005; McGregor, Michael. “When the Joint was Jumpin’,” The Oregon History Project, www.ohs.org; leftbankproject.com)