Getting to Know Your Neighbors – Gordon Lee

Q&A with Gordon Lee 

Pianist and composer Gordon Lee’s first musical gig was in a rock ’n’ roll band in Westchester County, New York. He was just 14. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in music from Indiana University, where he met Portlander Richard Burdell, a trumpet player and composer. “He painted Portland as the promised land for gigs!” Lee recalls. So in 1977, Lee moved to Portland. Sure enough, gigs were plentiful. He performed with saxophonist/singer/composer Jim Pepper and traveled all over the states and Europe with him. After a hiatus in Brooklyn, New York, where he had a regular gig at a glitzy Village restaurant, he returned to Portland where he played at Jimmy Mak’s, Clyde’s, The 1905, and Arrivederci in Milwaukie. This May, he launched “Front Porch Jazz” on his front porch at 32nd and Alder Street. These free concerts have been one of the bright spots of the pandemic for Sunnyside residents, most of whom found out about them via word of mouth or just by walking by. 

How long have you lived in Sunnyside? I’ve lived here for 18 years now and in the same house! Amy Rose, my wife, bought the house before I moved in.

Do you rent or own? We own.  

What do you love about Sunnyside? It is a diverse neighborhood—and it’s becoming more diverse, which is great. That’s been the goal of jazz music for 100 years—it pulls in people from all different ethnic backgrounds and countries. It’s the universal language. 

What’s one thing you would love to see change about Sunnyside? There’s been a lot of homeless people and it’s difficult. If I’m giving a concert and less than a block away there’s a huge pile of garbage in the street from a homeless camp—that is not healthy. It’s personally not healthy, and it’s not healthy for the homeless people. 

Tell me how Front Porch Jazz got started. 

My wife Amy, who is a piano teacher — we’re a two piano family — was encouraging me to do house concerts for some time, even before the pandemic. Then my neighbors also started to say, “You should play a concert on your front porch!”  When several different people tell you the same thing, you should listen to what they’re saying. I first had a duo with Renato Caranto on sax. Then I had a trio — adding Tim Gilson on bass. Then finally I added Carlton Jackson on drums. I also had James Powers — he’s a trombonist. And John Nastos plays alto sax. There’s a long tradition of summer jazz festivals. So we were able to attach to that kind of energy. There’s a bunch of seniors out there and they’re all having fun! They bring chairs, a bottle of wine.

I’ve had 7 concerts and look forward to having more next Spring 2021. I want to thank my neighbors and the community for being so supportive and encouraging. It’s been my only opportunity to perform during COVID. It’s given me so much focus and direction.

Hannah Wallace