It’s my belief that the late African-American musician Walter Bridges, was the singular influence on Portland becoming a jazz mecca. One that back in the day I did my utmost to promote far and wide. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
After writing articles for local publications on many national and local musicians and bands, I embarked on a book, eventually published as The First Book of Oregon Jazz, Rock & All Sorts of Music. My first stop was the Oregon Historical Society. Wrong! Not a single word existed about popular musical history in Portland!
I would need to do my own research, and as luck would have it I discovered the Walter Bridges Big Band, learned their story and for a moment became their agent/promoter until I ran into problems with the Musicians Union (but that’s a tale for another day).
Anyway, Walter told me that he was one of thousands upon thousands recruited for Portland’s WW II shipyard work. It seems that the many-faceted Henry J. Kaiser operated 3 shipyards in the area, at their peak employing more than 130,000 workers. Labor shortages in the region had prompted Kaiser to send trains across the country to recruit workers. And since such a large migration resulted in housing shortages, and since local officials did not want to build housing for these newcomers — fully 50% African Americans — in 1942 Kaiser purchased land and quickly built an entire city of more than 10,000 homes, complete with schools, a library, post office, and a college (the forerunner of Portland State University).
Vanport actually became the state’s second largest city, housing 40,000 people — 15,000 of them black — more than in the entire rest of the state. As Kaiser famously said, “If they know one end of a wrench from the other, we’ll take them as helpers. If they don’t, we’ll label each end.”
So the Portland area population exploded. Households took in boarders to help with the overload. Downtown theaters never closed. Movies were scheduled at three in the morning to keep roofs over the heads of transient workers. Twenty-four hour restaurants were commonplace. And one day Kaiser decided his shipyards should have a band.
Enter Walter Bridges, who had come from Kansas City, giving up trumpet gigs with Benny Moten and Count Basie for the war effort, not to mention better pay. And of course he jumped when asked if he’d like to start a band for the same pay. But first infamous Local 99 told him he had to join the union. Only catch, “We don’t allow blacks so you’ll have to go to Seattle and join.”
Walter’s response wasn’t preserved, but suffice to say he integrated the Portland Musicians Union. And then set up the first integrated band in the area. And since the majority of the new black workers came from urban areas that already knew and loved jazz, he had an eager market.
After the war, he formed the Walter Bridges Big Band, an always changing aggregation that endured for over 40 years and trained a who’s who of musicians. As John Wendeborn, writer and long-ago band member, has said, “Walter wove one of the longest musical threads in the history of Portland.”
Here Mister Bridges leads his Big Band, perhaps in the group’s theme, In a Mellow Tone. Listen below to Count Basie’s incomparable easy swinging 1958 version.