Andrew Oliver, co-founder of the PJCE, lives in London now, but back in 2008 he and a group of ambitious graduates of Portland State University staged the first concert in the group’s history. Oliver didn’t know what he was getting himself into, but we’re glad he did.
[Andrew] I was stupid enough to make a 501(c)3 without having any idea of what I was getting into…
[Doug] Welcome to Beyond Category, from the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. I’m Douglas Detrick.
This season, we’re celebrating a big milestone: the PJCE is turning ten. Our first concert, in January of 2008, was a grand experiment. Co-founders Andrew Oliver and Gus Slayton wanted to produce a concert of new music for their own large jazz ensemble. They were passionate about the project, but they had no idea if anyone else would care. Fortunately for all of us, it turned people did care, a lot of them. The energy from that night powered the organization through its tenuous early days, and it’s still feeding us today.
Before the organization incorporated as a 501c3, the PJCE was just a group of friends, mostly recent graduates and members of the big band at Portland State University. They ended the school year with a disappointment that pushed them to take action. I talked with Andrew Oliver, co-founder of the PJCE, from Portland while he recorded his answers in London.
[Andrew] It had to do with this big band festival in Notre Dame. We didn’t get marked that highly, because we didn’t play like a traditional big band. It was interactive big band playing…improvising, the rhythm section was really active, and the judges were like “well that was very traditional, the rhythm section didn’t support the horns very well” and blah blah blah. And Charley was kind of offended because that was his total aesthetic and he’d been working us all year to achieve that sound.
[Doug] He’s talking about Charley Gray, the director of the PSU big band.
[Andrew] There was a bit of momentum after that. We got back, and it was me and gus, and Kevin Van Geem and Kyle Williams, and we said we have this stuff to play, so why don’t we get together at the Union sometime, since that was the only big room we had access to, and play this stuff, you know. So, that happened on Canada Day… I remember it was on Canada Day because that’s the password of all the…
[Doug] I’m going to jump in here and confirm that yes, all of the passwords for the organization’s online accounts were canadaday with some number after it—canadaday1, canadaday2008 with a capital C… And yes, we’ve changed all of our passwords since then.
[Andrew] So, first of July, ok. That happened in July, the next month after graduation.
[Douglas] The idea turned into a rehearsal.
[Andrew] We just played the tunes for fun, and that was basically it. We didn’t have any other ideas. But by the autumn we had that idea that we’d do this concert. So I think we had very many rehearsals, and then I got excited as usual, and I thought “let’s do this concert!”
[Andrew] The first concert was my band and the PJCE. We had a mix of pieces, by Gus, and me, and Eric Allen, and stuff that we had written for the PSU big band that we repurposed. And then we had some other pieces. Matt Wiers wrote a piece, and John Nastos wrote a piece.
[Andrew] KMHD was very loose in those days. So you could just go in and talk. I think it was Lynn’s show, and we didn’t have any time restrictions so we just kind of went and hung out for the whole show. We were just chatting about it for an hour, between all the songs. It was unbelievable. So many people came! People came from the Oregon Coast because they heard us on there, I remember. There was some sort of incredible momentum. We had no expectations, but the place was totally packed. It just seemed at the time that all of these people showed up out of the woodwork. Whether or not the music lived up to it at the time I have no idea. I don’t think the concert was very good, it certainly wasn’t very well rehearsed. It was just all vibe, basically.
[Douglas (on tape)] Tell me about the vibe. What was it like to be there, when you think back about it now?
[Andrew] It was one of the first things I did in Portland where there seemed to be interest because of the idea. When I think back about why I was so excited about it, I think that was why. The idea behind it was what drove it, was what drove the interest and was why there was such a good atmosphere in the room.
[Douglas (on tape)] How do you think things changed over your tenure? How did you make a transition from something that was pretty informal to something that was a little bit more organized, more of a thing.
[Andrew] I guess what happened, inevitably, was that once the high of that wore off, slowly—we did a few more concerts after that, another couple of concerts at the store and at the Old Church—it was getting a bit crazy because more people were getting involved, and more people were wanting to write more complicated music, myself included. And the we still didn’t really have any money. I think as all those things began to come together, it got to a point where the balance got off. The music was too hard to perform well based on the amount of time people were willing to rehearse without getting paid.
[Andrew] It seemed easy in my mind. I didn’t realize how much of a monster it was going to be. Here’s an opportunity for us to get some more money, and that will allow us more time to rehearse and commission better music, or rehearse the music we had, or play in better venues.
[Andrew] The reason for having a large group became a challenge. At first we didn’t have to have a reason for having a large group. We just wanted to do it, so we did. And there was no reason. The reason that we wanted to have a large group changed over time. At the time when we started and even when we became a non-profit, I mean it seems naive, but I didn’t think about why we had a large group other than that we wanted to have a large group. But later on when we were trying to do more conceptual projects, I thought, damn, I wish we just had a quartet, or we could have just a quartet.
[Douglas (on tape)] Have you thought of an answer to that question now? About why it was that you guys did that, and why it was worth doing.
[Andrew] Well, I think we were just young and excited. When we started to write for large group, no of us had done it before. I mean it was really excited from a compositional standpoint, to be able to have all those voices and textures at your disposal. I still think the original reason was valid. To have a large group for the sake of writing for a large group because you enjoy is great, it’s as good as doing any thing else. It was an innocent decision. Later on this stuff came as a result of having a large group because you need more money to pay more people and this kind of thing. The decision to have a large group was just an artistic decision, which was good.
[Douglas (on tape)] I love the naivete…
[Andrew] Oh man, it would never have happened if it weren’t for that. I would never do something like this now. I would never start something like this now. At all.
[Douglas (on tape)] And I wouldn’t have either. The fact that it was already there, and there was already a 501c3 and there was already a board. Even though there was tons of work to do, to try to make it into what I would want it to be if I was going to do it. If you hadn’t started it, I wouldn’t have done it, and it wouldn’t be here now.
[Andrew] Yeah, but that’s why it’s’ good. We needed both me and you. I was stupid enough to randomly start a 501c3 without any idea of what I was getting into. But I never had the vision to make it work beyond just starting it.
[Doug] A few important ingredients came together when the PJCE began—some good luck, some support from the community, and a whole lot of youthful exuberance. The organization has changed a lot, but we’ve stayed true to mission that was established that night—new jazz music that is innovative, collaborative, and community-oriented.
Today with the PJCE, fundraising matters, ticket sales matter, budgeting and strategic planning matter. But, we still have the same twinkle in our eyes and flutter in our hearts that Andrew and his collaborators had. Those feelings guide us now just as much as they did in 2008.
This episode is going live just before the end of 2017. But no matter when you’re listening, you can take the next step from being a podcast subscriber to being a PJCE Sustainer. Yes, you too can be one of the wonderful people that support us with contributions as little as $5 a month. Do it now at pjce.org/sustain.
I’m Douglas Detrick, Executive Director and podcaster-in-chief at the Portland Jazz Composers Emsemble and you’ve been listening to Beyond Category. Music in this episode was composed by Andrew Oliver, from his PJCE Records album “Northwest Continuum” which you can purchase at pjce.bandcamp.com.
Thanks for listening.