The Myth of Oregon

How much of the territory is real? How much is myth?

From the Oregon Trail to Portlandia, this has been a place of imagined perfection. A place where people dreamed of reinventing themselves, a backdrop for  utopian aspirations, from the Aurora Commune to Rajneeshpuram.

The journey to Oregon is part of American mythology. Not to mention college humor.

I’m betting that everyone, natives and transplant, has some myth they carry about this place. My Oregon myth goes like this:

When I describe my discovery of Oregon I usually say that I first came to Oregon on a church choir tour when I was eleven. But the truth is, I don’t know if that was really how it happened.  Was I really eleven? Was it really Portland I came to.  In my mind it is real.  I remember the green. But which highway I viewed it from, where exactly was I? I couldn’t say with certainty.  Maybe it is just Oregon in my mind.  My personal myth. My claim to the territory.

And maybe that’s not the part that matters.  What matters is what you build on top of that myth.

Do you build a place of progressive values, equity, and openness to  diversity, or do you pursue a utopian fantasy that excludes  anyone different.  Oregon has always been both.

A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940

During the Civil War, the legislature passed the last anti-black state laws, with the exception of the ban on intermarriage passed in 1866. Between 1866 and 1872, the legislature was required to consider ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave citizenship to black people and the right to vote to black men. It was clear, however, that these amendments were unpopular with most Oregonians.

As early as 1843, Robert Newell, who had married an Indian woman, stated his objections to allowing black men to vote.I think we have got high enough among the dark clouds; I do not believe we ought to go any higher. It is well enough to admit the English, the French, the Spanish and the half-breeds, but the Indian and the Negro is a little too dark for me. I think we had better stop at the half-breeds. I am in favor of limiting the vote to them, and going no farther into the dark clouds to admit the Negro.

In 1865, the Oregonian commented:The man who–knowing of the African race in our country-favors the extension of the privileges of citizenship to them, is surely reckless of the consequences, and regardless of the future result . . . The Negroes as a class possess no capacity of self-government, and the few who are intelligent enough to take part in public affairs are offset by the multitude who don’t . . . this nation of the white race should well ponder the question before it admits the African, the Mongolian and the Indian to all its privileges?

The Oregon Statesman, in an editorial published the same year, predicted that giving the vote to blacks would have a revolutionary influence on society. We do not believe that any democratic or republican form of government can successfully govern two separate and distinct races of people in large numbers with equal political rights to both races?  Not only those few qualified blacks, but the masses just released from slavery would be able to vote. Full suffrage would result in a “war of the races,” the editorial concluded.  If we make the African a citizen, we cannot deny the same right to the Indian or the Mongolian (the Chinese, Japanese and other Asians). Then how long would we have peace and prosperity when four races separate, distinct and antagonistic should be at the polls and contend for the control of government?

This legislature also passed another law prohibiting intermarriage. It was directed not only against white/black marriages, but against anyone with “one-fourth or more Negro, Chinese or [Hawaiian] blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood.  It was passed with little debate; the combined vote was forty-seven in favor, eight opposed and three absent. The penalty for disobeying the law was a prison sentence of not less than three months, or up to one year. Any person authorized to conduct marriages who broke the law by marrying two people illegally was subject to the same penalty,

Inside the Territory Part 2: The Myth of Oregon

What is Territory? Part 1

Old Coos  Bay

On my old laptop, my screensaver says

“You’re not mapping anymore.  You’re on the territory.”

It’s a quote from my former therapist, that I wanted to see every day to  remind me that planning for an experience can only take one so far.  A good map is useful, but it is not the territory. The territory is lived experience.

Territory:  “a field or sphere of action, thought, etc.; a domain or province of something.”

In 2009, I was invited to present a concert at the Oregon Coast Music Festival in Coos Bay.  I wanted to create something special that connected to the community, so I did some research into its history, or the region and it’s inhabitants.

At the time I was in the process of putting together a new band, one that would explore material not usually associated with jazz, but music that embodied a kind of meaningful essence, music of John Lennon, Bob Dylan,The Neville Brothers and Keith Jarrett.

The music inspiration for this move was a recording by drummer Brian Blade called Mama Rosa, one of the most beautiful records I have ever heard. Brian singing his own original songs, poetic stories along the lines of my favorite songwriters, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor.

Here is a track from that album

So I started a band called “On the Territory,” and our debut in Coos Bay was one of the most rewarding concerts I’ve ever played.

The why is pretty obvious.  Because it was not just a generic performance, because it was  connected to the people and place that it occurred, it  allowed me to come to know a new place in a way I never would have had I just showed up and played.

It was a wonderful process of discovery.  Here is one  of the gems.

Coos Bay poem
Grace McCormac French, born 1881, Marshfield, OR

I live in an inland valley
But my heart yearns for the sea.
I come from a race of sailor men
And they left that love to me.
Fog enfolded all the landscape
On a cool October day
And my thoughts began to center
Round my old home on Coos Bay…

And then – I heard a steamer whistle
As it left the lower bay,
Yet I knew ‘twas the noon time signal
In a town six miles away.
But to me it seemed to say
Come back, come back you wanderer,
Come back to old Coos Bay…

I know – I’ll hear the sea gulls screeching
When my ship sails in the bay
Past the cape where stands the lighthouse
And the cliffs all wet with spray,
Then my happy heart will say –
You’re home, you’re home, you wanderer,
It’s home on dear old Coos Bay.


terroirIn wine they have a concept called “terroir”– that mix of dirt, rain, sun, wind and water that makes one vineyard’s grapes taste different from another’s.

Is is possiblty the territory shapes its artists, too.  Seeps into our tunes and our dreams, inspires us, connects us–whether we are native or transplant.  It runs deeper than genre or musical style.  When you love a place, its story can’t help but make its way into your own, and you can feel its current in the work.

Part of it is Geography. It is the land, the rocks, the rivers.  In the cascade watershed the interface of land and water defines us.  The verdant, fertile soil laid down over millenia, the great river Columbia that is the lifeline of our region.  The peaks- Hood, Adams, St. Helens, Rainer and the others- stand as spiritual monuments grounding us and fueling our imaginations.

The geological narrative that has been playing since before humans arrived frames the stories we live out on the territory.

Case in point

LakeMissoula15,000 years ago most of the western part off Montana was covered by Glacial Lake Missoula, a prehistoric  lake that measured about 3,000 square miles and contained about  (500 cu mi) of water.  It was held up by an ice dam on the Clark Fork River.  The periodic rupturing of that ice resulted in the Missoula Floods (also known as the Spokane Floods or the Bretz Floods)– cataclysmic floods that swept across Eastern Washington and down the Columbia River Gorge about every 55 years  during a 2,000 year period. Scientists have found evidence of at least twenty-five massive floods, the largest discharged a flow 13 times the size of the Amazon river.  The cumulative effect of the Missoula Floods was to excavate 50 cubic miles of sediment and basalt from the channeled scablands of eastern Washington and transport it at 80 miles and hour downstream to the Willamette  It carved canyons and made the Willamette Valley one of the most fertile places on the planet.   After the rupture, the ice would reform, creating Glacial Lake Missoula again.


Welcome to the Territory

rainforestThe Territory is ground, water, sky, and everything in between.  It is what was here before you came and what will be here after you are gone.  It is the bones, the sweat, the blood, the dreams, the blessings, the harvests, the floods, the tears, the rocks, the roots, the broken branches, fallen leaves, and forgotten paths, It is the songs of bug, bird, blizzard, wagon wheel, salmon, elk, beaver, and berry. It is the bank of the creek, the bed of the river, the stump in the ground, and the memories of the elders.  The territory is the whole story–told and untold.- Darrell Grant

On July 6th & 7th, I will give the premiere performance of my composition “The Territory” the product of a year of research and writing around the themes of connection, art and place.  I thought it would be fund to share some of the background, inspiration and discovery that inspired me to explore this idea of territory. Over the next few weeks, I”ll be posting those thoughts on this blog, as well as some videos that  were created by Rebekah Phillips for Chamber Music Northwest, that share insights into the creation of the piece.


The Territory: A Suite by Darrell Grant

Mvt. 1 – Hymn to the Four WindsterritoryMap
Mvt. 2 -Daybreak at Fort Rock
Mvt. 3 -The Missoula Floods
Mvt. 4 -Chief Joseph’s Lament
Mvt. 5 -Rivers
Mvt. 6 -Stones into Blossoms (Dedicated to Nola Bogle)
Mvt. 7 -Sundays at the Golden West
Mvt. 8 -The Aftermath (Interlude)
Mvt. 9 -New Land

Darrell Grant, piano
Brian Blade, drums
Joe Locke, vibraphone
Steve Wilson, saxophones & flutes
Clark Sommers, bass

with special guests
Hamilton Cheifetz, cello
Marilyn Keller, voice
Kirt Peterson, bass clarinet
Thomas Barber, trumpet

Inside the Territory Part 1

Walters Cultural Arts Center Speaker Series: “The Jazz Scene as an Ecology” – June 18th

I will be a guest speaker at the Walters Cultural Arts Center Speaker Series in Hillsboro on Tuesday, June 18th at 7:00 PM.Oregon Album cover

My topic is  “The Jazz Scene as an Ecology”.  This is a culmination of a line of inquiry I embarked on  in 2009 on music and sustainability.

Here’s a short teaser for those who might be interested.  I’ll post the whole lecture here after I present it.

A little fable about Jazz and Academia

Think of Jazz as a wild plant, a native species that grew in America.  Took root, found good soil.  But its environment grew crowded w/competitors.  It’s niche was overrun by rock & roll.  As jazz matured and spread, it was less connected to its initial purpose, the nourishment of communities.  It became famous, the property of everyone and no one. So it sought refuge in the academy

Introducing a new breed- The Jazz Educator

I’d say Dr. Billy Taylor was the proto-species of the Jazz educator.   He was the first of the evolutionary line. He possessed the ideal combination of traits that enabled him to thrive in academia.  A virtuoso with a Ph.D. degree, he was articulate and well-spoken. The “fruit” he produced-television shows, the non-profit Jazzmobile,  paved the way for other musicians like Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Willie Ruff, and eventually, me.

There were others –John Mehegan, Jerry Coker, Gunther Schuller @ NEC, who were also pioneers, They created the first jazz curricula & schools: The Schillinger School,  Berklee College of Music,  North Texas State,  These  environments and infrastructurebig bands, textbooks, play-along records  provided fertile soil for jazz to grow in academia.

Below are a couple great blog posts that get to this topic.  Two are from Dr. Jeff Todd Titon, ethnomusicologist at Brown University.  His writing has been groundbreaking in this area. He has also been an encouraging mentor to those of us interested in thinking freshly about the place of music in our culture.  His blog “Sustainable Music” is a fantastic resource for provocative and inspiring new ways to think about what we do.

Titon blog on Sustainbility & Ecology

Theses on Sustainabilit- A Primer

There are also a number of earlier posts on this blog that explore this same topic.