The nightclubs are long gone, but the music that filled them night after night — thumping funk, soul and even disco — is back.
You might even notice someone in the old neighborhood today, standing on the spot where The Cotton Club used to be, toes tapping and hips swinging.
That someone would be listening to The Albina Soul Walk, a self-guided, music-heavy walking tour that takes listeners around Northeast Portland to learn about what used to be the city’s foremost Black entertainment scene.
In the middle of the 20th century, Black Portlanders were boxed out of many of the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs through redlining, the institutionalized refusal to provide them with mortgage loans and other financial services. So they moved into Albina, an industrial district neglected by the city’s leaders, and made it their own.
“Produce markets, Chinese food, barber shops, doctors’ offices, and of course Dawson Park, where everyone hung out,” guitarist Norman Sylvester says in the audio tour, recalling Albina in the 1950s, when the Louisiana native arrived in Portland as a 12-year-old.
Sylvester, an Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee known as “The Boogie Cat,” describes Portland’s Black neighborhood at that time as thriving and community-minded, a place “where everybody knew your name … everyone knew your mom and pops, so if you were acting up, your folks knew it before you got home.”
As the Soul Walk’s narration puts it: “There was a whole city within a city.”
But Sylvester and his family landed in Albina as it was beginning to physically fracture and disappear, thanks to Interstate-5 construction, as well as Emanuel Hospital’s controversial expansion and other misguided urban-renewal efforts.
The 1967 “Albina riot” and the drug epidemic of the 1970s and ‘80s also transformed the neighborhood that Sylvester and other longtime Portlanders remember.
Even progress had unintended consequences, says drummer Calvin Walker, 69, another Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee.
“Integration, as good as it was, opening things up, it ruined things [in Albina],” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “It broke up the community. That dollar you spent was no longer going to another person of color.”
Megan Hattie Stahl, a Hunter College graduate student in Integrated Media Arts, initially came up with the Albina audio-tour idea as a class project. The McMinnville-raised 30-year-old wanted to focus on Portland’s well-known jazz history. But then she met Bobby Smith, an archivist at World Arts Foundation and founder of the Albina Music Trust.
Smith had spent years digging out recordings, most of them never released, by little-known Portland soul and funk bands from the late 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
He introduced Stahl to The Gangsters, the Legendary Beyons, Ruby & the Wonders, and more. Stahl was amazed at what she was hearing.
“The bands are just mind-blowingly good,” she enthuses. “And almost no one knows about them.”
These acts were all home-grown, and they were largely self-taught — with help from other local musicians. Most of Albina’s clubs offered Sunday jam sessions that allowed anyone to sit in with the house band and learn.
“You were there to show off and strut your stuff, that’s what jam sessions were about,” a musician says in the Soul Walk. “You wanted to get that nod, from whoever was leading the jam session: ‘Yeah, that was cool. That was cool.’ … That was your red badge of courage right there. You’d go through your week feeling pretty good.”
Black musicians in the city played at Fred’s Place, Texas Playhouse, the Upstairs Lounge. Most of all, they wanted to score a slot at Paul Knauls’ Cotton Club. That was making it.
“It was a beautiful place to be,” Walker says.
The nightclub, at 2125 North Vancouver Avenue, was a popular stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the 1960s — Etta James, among other notable stars, played there. But it was the local acts that truly defined and sustained it.
Walker, inspired and later taught by local drumming legend Mel Brown, was 13 the first time he played at Knauls’ nightclub.
“Paul Knauls was very kind to us,” he says, referring to underaged neighborhood musicians looking for a chance to play at the Cotton Club. “When we weren’t playing, we had to go hang out in the restaurant section. We couldn’t watch the adults doing their dirt.”
That “dirt” was men and women letting loose in the popular nightclub. It was a place meant for a good time, obviously. A place that often saw too much drinking, maybe some illicit sex and drugs.
“The Cotton Club was for everybody, from high to low,” Walker says.
For Walker, at least, witnessing the low — even from the distance of the stage or the restaurant section — was good for him. “Seeing the results of people who drink, it never seemed like a scene for me,” he says.
When he was 18, Walker joined The Gangsters, an all-instrumental band that would reach its heights when future Grammy-winning trumpeter Thara Memory joined the outfit.
Success in the Albina District, however, rarely forecast greater things. Even getting across the river wasn’t easy. Many of the lost recordings Smith has unearthed were demo tapes, made by bands in hopes of convincing downtown Portland club owners that they could appeal to white audiences.
“There was kind of a divide between the Albina music scene and everywhere else,” Smith says.
The hour-long Soul Walk, driven by a free geo-positioning app, starts at the site of The Cotton Club on North Vancouver Avenue, then swings over to the historic 1926 Billy Webb Elks Lodge, which recently was badly damaged by fire. The tour continues north on North Williams Avenue and east on Northeast Knott Street, with various guides — including Sylvester, Walker and Knauls — offering up anecdotes and bits of history at every stop.
For years, Albina’s nightclubs prospered, even if opportunities were limited for the local Black musicians who played in them. The Rose City wasn’t Los Angeles or Chicago or Detroit. It didn’t have a recording industry or a national profile. But live music was central to the social life in this blue-collar town.
Before cable TV and the internet, a lot of Portlanders went out pretty much every night. That meant there were clubs not just in Albina but in almost every section of the city, and during the Me Decade the funk-and-soul scene flourished.
“People would go from club to club to club, all night long,” Walker recalls. “It was on fire.”
That all started to change in the 1980s.
Punk music established a secure foothold in the city, followed by alt-rock, pushing funk, jazz and blues to the margins. Smith, growing up in Portland in the 1990s, “thought it had always been a rock ‘n’ roll town” — for years, he had very little sense of the city’s Black music history, he admits.
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Other factors were at work as well.
Walker remembers the days when drunk driving was largely ignored, even laughed about. The national organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded in 1980, “helped change that,” he says. “Then AIDS came in, and that really changed things.”
People stayed home more often. Clubs started to close.
The eclectic Portland music scene that defined Walker’s life in the 1970s and ‘80s is gone now. For a long time, it seemed to be mostly forgotten too.
That the Albina Music Trust is now reviving its memory — through the Soul Walk, and also by releasing old recordings — is a bonus that local musicians from the era never expected.
Having a Gangsters record come out recently, more than 40 years after the music was recorded, makes it “sort of more endearing” than if the band had released it way back when, Walker says.
A similar nostalgic joy can be found in the Soul Walk, but at the same time there’s a sense of loss in it as well, a sense of what might have been.
“It can be moving, fun, funny, sad,” Megan Hattie Stahl says of the audio project. “Music can do that.”
— Douglas Perry