Portland jazz history: Bryan Smith’s ‘The Dude Ranch’

Legends are often born quickly. Portland’s historic Dude Ranch jazz supper club opened in 1945 and operated for just one year, bringing world-class jazz musicianship to the City of Roses and establishing itself among the legends of the jazz world in its time. In one year the Dude Ranch earned legendary status for its ability to book talented jazz performers of spectacular caliber.

Bryan Smith, resident artist at the Jack Straw Cultural Center presented his performance lecture on the History of Bebop: The Dude Ranch at Multnomah County Central Library June 19. Smith and his ensemble played sample jazz tunes and discussed the ambitious jazz scene of Portland in the mid-20th century—critics, controversy and all.

The lecture was made possible by support of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fund of the National Library Foundation and was part three in a four-part bebop series presented by Smith. The first two weeks of the series featured lectures titled “Popular Song” and “A Segregated Music.” The final lecture is called “Metronome All-Stars.”

The Dude Ranch founders, Smith explained, affectionately remembered as Pic and Pat, were lauded for their uncanny ability to book top-notch talent, the artists at the top of the jazz scene for their time. The club was known for its shaker girls, jugglers and tap dancers. Patrons were said to have come from as far as Idaho to see an act. Dozens of legendary performers made appearances at the Dude Ranch that year, but one impromptu jam session stands alone in the annals of jam session history.

In December 1945 Norman Granz’ touring show “Jazz at the Philharmonic” visited Portland via an impromptu jam session at the Dude Ranch. The performing ensemble consisted of Coleman Harkins on saxophone, Al McKibbon on standup bass, Roy Eldridge on trombone and soon-to-be jazz bebop icon Thelonious Monk on piano. Those who remember the miraculous occurrence do so with reverence.

Jazz found its foothold in Portland after World War II when the demand for ship-building labor boomed bringing African-Americans seeking work. When many had saved enough to invest, they invested in African–American owned local businesses like the Dude Ranch.

With the presence of a general hostility toward African-Americans housing in other parts of the city, most concentrated in the North Williams Avenue neighborhood of the city’s northeast quarter. Naturally, the African-American owned grocery stores, dry cleaners and nightclubs were started in the same area.

Continued influx of African-Americans into the relatively compact confines of the northeast promoted housing challenges, 24-hour activity and crime. The Dude Ranch was closed at its 240 North Broadway location due to a shooting on its premises after operating for only one year. The venue reopened in another location the next year, but the legendary concert performances and impromptu jam sessions of the original house kept its memory alive.

Smith’s performance lecture was entertaining and educational. The ensemble’s playlist complemented the presentation well, and the historical research was presented in an off-the-cuff style, much like the jazz music that used to emanate from the Dude Ranch’s walls.