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The Ron Steen Jazz Jam at Clyde's Prime Rib Restaurant

Tom Borden and Eric Gibbons By

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The Ron Steen Jazz Jam
Clyde's Prime Rib Restaurant
Portland, OR
October 2016

Every Sunday night, for the past twelve years, yes, YEARS, Clyde's Prime Rib Restaurant in NE Portland has been home to the Ron Steen Jazz Jam. The jam is a loose format session with Steen and a core group of musicians beginning the evening with a set of popular jazz standards. Clyde's is decidedly old school: a red velvet steakhouse with an ample music space, great sound, and of course, room for dancers. Unlike many Portland music venues, the scene at Clyde's draws a diverse clientele. Young, old, black, white, and brown, all settle in for live jazz at Clyde's. We came for a listen one October night.

Steen, a rare Portland native, has been hosting a local jazz jam session, in one form or another, in the Rose City for thirty-six years. On the night of our visit, Steen's band ripped through its set of tight swinging arrangements (and a handful of original bossa nova charts by pianist Bill Beach), with masterful execution if few surprises. Ron Steen is a solid drummer with clean beats and contagious enthusiasm. He was clearly enjoying himself up there. Though his kit wasn't mic'd it filled the room with sound. Bassist Dennis Caiazza has an unorthodox right hand but he sounded great as his left worked the entire fingerboard. Bill Beach's soft touch filled in the color for the trio and brought in the bossa sound.

How does one sit down and write a bossa tune in 2016? With lyrics in Portuguese? Why? We surmised that the point of Bill Beach's bossa nova at Clyde's was this: does it really matter when all the band wants to do is get to the swinging instrumental section? When they got there they settled nicely into the groove and the corny lyrics were easily forgotten or forgiven. Trumpeter Richard Titterington joined in and played some proficient solos. Tight and unwavering, the band rarely played around the beat. They naied all the changes, all the breaks, and all the turnarounds without exception or surprise.

Per the jam format, the second set saw musicians begin to swap in and out. Freeing Steen to mingle with the crowd, the next drummer assumed the position. His breaks were often awkward and sparse and he had the unfortunate habit of stomping the bass drum on every beat. To be sure, this could be cool but requires finesse that was not on display tonight. He dragged, he rushed, and on one chart that called for a number of of intricate drum breaks he was nowhere to be found. The band barely came out alive on the other side. We found ourselves looking for a large soccer banner to wave reenforcing our mental chat: "Bring Back Ron Steen!"

THEN....check this out: an unassuming woman in black joined the band on shoes—as in tap dancing. This was Judy "Taps" Tibbles. Tibbles proceeded to rip a front and center tap solo that dropped our jaws further than the novelty initially did. She took it all the way home in the form of a Brazilian Samba, tastefully delivered by the entire band. Where else are you going to see that? That's some avant-garde shit.

And it got better. "Ladies and gentlemen," Steen announced, "you are in for a real treat tonight. Percussionist extraordinaire Israel Ano is in the house. This guy is from Ghana and he's gonna show you a little piece of what jazz sounds like over there."

The band opened with either a Miles Davis or Lee Morgan tune and everything started to cook. Titterington led off. Ano was on it with a commanding, full sound, working the entire drum kit. He laid down a wildly interesting, varied swing beat and the band came to life. At one point, bassist Caiazza even lost Ano and felt his way back in from the outside, and it sounded great! Unexpected in all the right ways! Suddenly, the room was buzzing. Two old white guys in berets -two too many -nodded along approvingly from the doorway. Finally, Caiazza was having fun. He was working off Ano and the beat was on fire. Then, all too soon, a new bassist took the stage, they swapped pianists and dropped into a boring down tempo chart that even Ano couldn't save. Taps Tibbles tapped away but at this point her percussion had lost its appeal. Prior to this personnel change, we had just heard ten minutes of really inspired music. Not bad for a Sunday night and no cover charge.

The long-standing Ron Steen Jazz Jam at Clyde's is a diverse, ever-changing lineup of capable musicians, some folks who try hard, and a handful of geeks, freaks and fans. Over the years, the Jam has seen a number of jazz world standouts including Essiet Essiet, Dick Berk, Chris Brown, Mel Brown and Tom Brand grace the bandstand. On the origins of his Clyde's jam, Steen told us that he was asked to host a one-night session when Clyde first opened the restaurant just over twelve years ago. "One week led to a month led to a year led to twelve and here we are still going strong," Steen said with a smile. He plans to keep it going as long as the music stays alive. And while no one can ever say for sure how long Ron Steen will host these jams, we can say that whoever takes over will have some pretty big shoes to fill. Kudos to soundman Marc Richardson for keeping the whole thing together.

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