Sundays the time to worship local jazz

Weekend!Life: On the Rocks
by: KATIE HARTLEY, As they do every week, Elizabeth Gerla and Carl Conrad dance to the talent gathered for Ron Steen’s long-running jam, where local jazz luminaries come to show their stuff and pick up new ideas.

When you name your restaurant Prime Rib, and put the words 'prime rib' in huge, illuminated letters on the front, it's pretty clear how you're hoping to attract customers.

But when Clyde Jenkins took over the 1950s-style steakhouse on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, he added his name to the sign and live music to the offerings.

On a Sunday night, well past dinnertime, the parking lot of Clyde's Prime Rib is full. Inside, local drummer Ron Steen presides over his weekly jazz jam sessions. Regular customers proudly point out how good Steen is at drawing local and touring talent here, to play before an appreciative audience.

Tonight the scene has lured James 'Red' Holloway, a veteran saxophone player who has had a long career on the national scene. I don't know a lot about jazz, but he sounds great to me, and I can tell he's a big deal, because when he's on his way out, someone asks for his autograph.

From the outside, Clyde's looks like something from an amusement park. It's a small castle with a stone front and a crenellated tower. A swanky fireplace greets guests in the foyer, and the dining room is all burgundy velvet and sparkling chandeliers.

'Prime Rib has been here since I was a kid,' says patron Jim Conway, a native Portlander who remembers coming here for dinner with his parents on special occasions. Now it's the music that draws Conway, who worked in radio before migrating to the funeral business.

'Jazz is an old friend of mine,' he says. 'I think Portland has incredible jazz players.'

For instance, he says, there's Mel Brown, the famous drummer - who, by the way, is sitting in a nearby booth as we speak. Part of the excitement of a jam session is seeing who walks in the door. Conway says that one night the Ink Spots showed up after a concert at the Schnitz.

Conway also enjoys the camaraderie of the well-behaved, mostly over-30 crowd of mostly regulars.

Elzbieta Girla and Carl Conrad come here, 'every Sunday, faithfully,' Girla says. Every few songs, they get up and dance.

'Just keep moving, keep smiling. That's our motto,' Girla says.

She describes the jazz scene in Portland as 'absolutely fabulous.' She adds: 'We've got some of the best places, I think, in the country to listen to jazz. And it's all live and, let's face it, it's all affordable.'

She and Conrad are regulars at Jimmy Mak's (221 N.W. 10th Ave.) and Tony Starlight's Supper Club (3728 N.E. Sandy Blvd.) as well as the Elks club, they say. They offer me a warning about Sunday nights at Clyde's: If there's a holiday on Monday, get here early. It'll be standing room only before the night is through.

Girla and Conrad dance so well together that they become part of the show. In fact, Steen asks the audience to give them a hand after several songs.

During a break, I ask him, How do you get so many different people to come out and play with you?

'I don't know,' he says. I'm guessing, though, that his constant smile and the generous way he shares the stage have a lot to do with it.

For jazz musicians, jams sessions have a key role to play, Steen says. 'It gives me and it gives the audience the opportunity to hear a lot of different people and a lot of different configurations than you might not ordinarily hear,' he says, 'and it gives me a chance to hear other drummers. And share things, as well - a lot of professional musicians get together and exchange ideas.'

Jams usually occur on off nights, Sunday and Monday, when musicians aren't working for pay.

'The way it started out,' Steen explains, 'a lot of jazz musicians didn't have a lot of jazz gigs.' They'd be playing other styles to pay the bills, he says, pointing out that 'many years later, that's still often the case.'

Steen was born in Portland in 1949, and took up the drums at 11 or 12 years old. He lived across the street from a hot spot called the Cotton Club, on North Vancouver Avenue. He started going to jam sessions over there and that's how he learned how to play.

'Mel Brown was the first really great drummer that I ever heard in person,' he says. 'It just blew my mind. … He's always been a big influence on me.'

He describes himself as a bebop drummer. Portland's musicians are a tightknit group, he says, but not standoffish. 'It's a lot more cliquish in other places,' he says.

The level of musicianship in the city is high, he says, with more 'incredibly gifted' bass players per capita than anywhere else, and a wealth of fine vocalists.

'We have jazz here seven nights a week,' he says, 'We have a 24-hour jazz radio station here. … You can't take that for granted. We're very blessed. I feel very, very fortunate.'

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Ron Steen Jam

When: 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sundays

Where: Clyde's Prime Rib, 5474 N.E. Sandy Blvd., 503-281-9200

Cost: Free