Vanport Jazz History

At its height, nearly 40,000 people lived in Vanport, including 6,000 African Americans. Vanport was then the nation’s largest public housing project and the second-largest city in Oregon.

During World War II, Portland launched a national recruitment campaign that brought 100,000 workers to the city’s shipyards. Existing private housing was already scarce, and even more troubling, Oregon’s so-called real estate code of ethics restricted the thousands of newly arrived African Americans to only one neighborhood.

So a makeshift community was quickly built on a newly purchased floodplain just outside city limits: the city of Vanport.

But Vanport wasn’t built to last. On Memorial Day, 1948, the Columbia River broke through the nearby levees, unleashing a historic flood that displaced 18,000 people from their homes—a quarter of whom were African American. The Vanport Flood was, in the words of a former resident, the Hurricane Katrina of its time.

Newly homeless, looking for work in racially segregated Portland, Vanport’s uprooted black community opened jazz clubs in their designated neighborhood. These clubs attracted the biggest names in jazz, and the vibrant culture soon established Portland as a true jazz city.

Portland’s jazz scene rose to a crescendo and over time, like the flood that dispersed it, evaporated in fragments. People passed away. Venues closed. But the audience remained, waiting for the music to return.

Today, the Vanport Jazz Festival intends to carry the torch of those musicians who moved to Oregon for work and filled the air with art.

We pay homage to this legacy by hosting a jazz experience for the modern day. We invite living members of the Vanport community, national-caliber talent, and jazz aficionados everywhere to discover this legacy and experience the revival.

Photos by Carl J. Henniger of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong performing at Portland jazz clubs, circa 1954.

Copyright 2017. Used by permission of The Estate of Carl J. Henniger. All rights reserved.