by Travis Rogers, Jr. The Jazz Owl
Fifteen years ago, I went to Portland, OR, for the first time. I was teaching a seminar and the guy whose charge I was in knew that I was a Jazz fan. He took me to a place that had recently opened in the famous Pearl District of Portland, just down from the world-famous Powell’s Books. Powell’s was already a landmark; the Jazz club would become one. Downbeat magazine would call it “One of the World’s Top 100 Places to Hear Jazz.”
Jim Makarounis was the founder and owner of Jimmy Mak’s. Working the bar, and the resident musicologist, was Wisconsinite John-David Stubenberg. He was called “J.D.”
J.D. was often mistaken for the owner because it was he who introduced the bands and promoted the place tirelessly. But Jimmy was the man.
The food was Greek and the music was heavenly. The local Jazz talent was always showcased but Jimmy also drew established, and rising star, acts like the great B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco and the young lion Melissa Aldana. The Portland musicians included the wonderful Mel Brown, who enjoyed weekly residencies there, along with Jay Bird Koder’s SoulMates, Paul Creighton’s Soul Vaccination, and so very many more.
Jimmy Mak’s was the Mecca of Jazz in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, it was the only Jazz venue in Portland for some time. But Jimmy Mak’s soon paved the way for other clubs to open and for restaurants to start featuring Jazz musicians.
The first Jimmy Mak’s location was a small venue that could not seat very many people, at all. It was dark and tight but the music shone like the sun. This was where I first heard Mel Brown’s Quartet, then his septet, then his trio, and I was never disappointed. Tony Pacini was Mel’s pianist and musical director with Dan Balmer on guitar, Ed Bennett on bass, and Mel Brown on the drums.
I was a fixture there every week, if possible. I usually took the table just off the left shoulder of Mel.
The only time Jimmy was up on stage was when Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, pulled him up on stage and she sang the Vandella’s hit Jimmy Mack to him. She told him, “Jimmy Mak? I’ve been looking for you for over 30 years!”
The club moved to a larger venue in 2010. It was a scary, risky endeavor but Jimmy claimed to be the Type A personality and he made it work. He and his wife had mortgaged their home, raided his 401(k), and went all in. It was a monumental achievement. They were “profitable within six months.” And the music just got bigger and bigger.
However, he never forgot the local guys and always showcased them. But you’d better fill the house, if he let you perform there.
The place was home for my Portland music friends and heroes.
Jimmy had battled and beat laryngeal cancer a few years before but it had come back with a vengeance. Then came the announcement from Jimmy himself.
To the Jimmy Mak’s community—musicians, fans and patrons:
It is with a heavy heart I write this today. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016, Jimmy Mak’s will host its final show and close its doors indefinitely.
I am currently undergoing immunotherapy treatments for cancer of the larynx, which has intensified in the past five weeks. My doctors insist that I step away from Jimmy Mak’s business to focus solely on healing.
You might have heard we were moving the club around the corner and east on N.W. Everett. That was the plan. The building the club currently occupies was sold for development approximately one year ago, and the new club’s buildout was fully funded and moving ahead, with a move and grand opening in early 2017: a beautiful new space with a larger stage, upgraded sound and lighting, designed to provide unobstructed site lines with more seating available for both reserved and general admission ticket holders. In addition, a spacious new outdoor courtyard was in the works.
As it became apparent my health could prevent us from moving forward with the move, we began to explore opportunities for other owner/operators to step in and finish the project to keep the club open. Unfortunately, we could not find anyone willing to take on the project.
At present, there is still an opportunity for another owner/operator to step in to fund and finish the buildout of the new location and carry on the Jimmy Mak’s brand. We welcome any offers to do so.
Jimmy Mak’s has been a family home to world-class musicians of many different genres, particularly the city’s best jazz players. The club also presents many of the world’s top jazz and blues players and has become a significant West Coast stop on many of these artists’ tours. It is Portland’s longest-running jazz club and one of the oldest single-owner nightclubs of any genre in town.
Please join us during the month of December for many fine shows, culminating in our New Year’s Eve curtain call with Soul Vaccination. We cannot tell you how much we appreciate your patronage and friendship for the past two decades.
Paul Creighton, one of my favorites, got to close the doors on Jimmy Mak’s with a great performance on New Year’s Eve with his band Soul Vaccination. I wish I could have been there.
I still can close my eyes and see and hear Jay Bird Koder playing his guitar, strolling through the audience. Or hear Jarrod Lawson singing “A Song for You” or feel the thump of Damian Erskine’s bass or the heart-stopping rhythms of Reinhardt Melz’s drums, George Colligan’s liquid fire piano work, Farnell Newton blowing his horn like Gabriel, Arietta Ward singing words that can only be called prophecy, Saeeda Wright with her gorgeous self, and Mel Brown’s smooth swing.
At 12:45 a.m. on Monday, January 2, 2017, less than 24 hours after the doors closed for the last time, Jimmy Makarounis passed away.
Some people are irreplaceable.