Interview with Darren Littlejohn - August 26, 2006
Portland Jazz Jams at Mississippi Pizza
Interview with the jazz meister of Portland Jazz Jams was fueled by strong coffee and sweet pastry in a java joint in the St. John's neighborhood. Darren proves to be an easy interview as a result of his thoughtfulness and passion, which causes his patter to flow as easily as a beautifully played jazz riff. He gives it up with a minimum of prompting and readily solos during our two hours of making good music about his assessment of the local jazz scene and his vision for what can be and should be musically in these parts. Darren is a spiritual being whose philosophy of life in general, music in particular, is grounded solidly in meditation about right living, and the way people should make music together.
This Zen-centered musician believes that "jazz and other music has the potential to heal, deepen spiritual understanding, and create connections between individuals and societies. The best of jazz always reveals the spirit of not only the individual performer, but the collective spirit of the group, the whole of which is greater than the sum of its parts". One of Darren's heroes was John Coltrane who explored the spiritual fiber of jazz. He states "the players who impact us most heavily are those who dig deep into their own psyches with tremendous honesty and courage." Darren espouses the notion that "creativity and expression through art forms offers immense power for individuals to change and grow." This egalitarian, musical philosopher suggests that "we need a response to the fiercely competitive, dog-eat-dog culture of competitiveness, self centeredness, and fear. In this world with all of the technological innovations, we are in a sense more connected than ever and in another sense we are more disconnected than ever."
Littlejohn bemoans the observation that "the culture of jazz has a tendency to be somewhat elitist. The best players only want to play with the other best players. Players want top dollar for every gig and protect their territories fiercely. The doors are closed to up and coming players." This jazz guru suggests that in days gone by, musical mentorship was more common. If a player showed promise, others would take him under their wing. Today the popularity of jazz schools has taken the place of "mentoring on the gig." Littlejohn further feels that "we can increase the opportunity for jazz gigs by opening the doors wider for players. The more that players play, the more their friends, family and community can hear the music. Instead of trying to contain the scene by keeping the treasured hot spot gigs closed to the veterans, we can create more places to play and more listener appreciation." Darren energetically expounds on the notion that "If we learn, teach and perform music from the spiritual perspective, we stand a better chance not only of keeping the music alive, but of helping each other as a community."
Portland Jazz Jams is about promoting jazz learning and listening in the Portland Area. An application for 501(c)3 non-profit status is pending, as are cultural grants, which will promote the opportunities for jazz as a synchronistic cultural rising tide that lifts all ships. Littlejohn states, "our project will focus on bridging the gap between veteran players, up and coming players, club and venue owners and the listening public."
Portland Jazz Jam can be experienced at Mississippi Pizza every Tuesday evening from 8:00 PM to 10:30ish. The pizza is great, the atmosphere inviting, and the adjoining Atlantis Lounge is an interesting venue for meeting and greeting jazz buffs and good citizens of every stripe. Veteran musicians join jazz fledglings to make swinging jazz music that gets your toes tapping at this musical buffet. Proper Eats jazz jam takes place every Thursday at Proper Eats in St. John's across from the St. John's theater, from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM. Visit online at http://www.portlandjazzjams.com/ to access the PJJ pod show that enables visitors to hear jam music, interviews with jazz players and musical lessons. Also available on the website is a play list for the jazz jam music, a Jazz Player Database and reading material suggestions regarding the art of jazz.
Darren Littlejohn at age 44 is already making his mark in the Portland jazz community. He landed in our environs in the year 2000 and found his jazz guitar mentor at the 2000 Cathedral Park jazz festival where he hooked up with Dan Balmer. He has taken jazz classes both at P.C.C. and Portland State University under the aegis of Darrell Grant. He has paid his dues at local jam sessions and open mike opportunities. His passion for music and community has guided him to the head of the parade which is Portland Jazz Jam.
Littlejohn was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1962 and recalls experiencing his musical awakening in the 5th grade, which goaded him to work hard to earn enough money to buy his first guitar. As a youth he attended concerts and was inspired by performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. He was excited by the guitar stylings of icons like Al Dimeola; Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny. He drifted in and out of music for a decade and was re-enthused at the Long Beach Blues Festival by the playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn. His jazz adolescence was spent in Denton, Texas where he engaged some jazz schooling and hung out at the "hippie cafes" in this musically rich town. He bought his first jazz guitar on e-Bay in 1999 and shortly thereafter moved to Portland.
Littlejohn has centered himself through his pursuit of spiritual strength and clarity. He has read voraciously about spiritualism, and has had a number of teachers and guiding lights helping him to live in a Zen space. He draws from AA and is in his 9th year of sobriety. Increasingly, his studies have taken him to a Tibetan Buddhist transformation as the main dish of his current spiritual diet.
Presently Littlejohn is pondering how he can morph the musical beginnings represented by P.J.J. into an international jazz community. He is passionate about his spiritual quest to make music an uplifting, uniting and egalitarian cultural force for the betterment of the community. He needs advocates and sponsors to help fund and fuel his vision. Organizationally he is pondering how he will assemble a board of directors and a solid organization, which will help to manifest some of the technological needs that will advance the reach of Portland Jazz Jams.
Spending time with this thoughtful and impassioned individual is transformative. This writer urges the jazz interested public to experience the joy of good musical community at the PJJ offerings. An elixir for the soul if there ever was one! Thanks are due to Darren Littlejohn for making a difference by giving wings to the Portland Musical scene.