Since 2008, every February 22 has been Nancy King Day in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the original decree was for one day only – February 22, 2008 – but the tradition lives on.
4/23/11 – I am in Portland, Oregon, the coolest city in the USofA. I am in the coolest spot in the coolest city; the café of Powell’s Bookstore. I am drinking a soymilk steamer with a shot of hazelnut syrup, a pretty cool drink, but arguably not as cool as a latte, or a cappuccino, or an Americano. Unfortunately, for my cool factor, I recently gave up caffeine.
You don’t have to take my word for it that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the country. I will offer you various proofs of this fact.
Proof #1 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In a recent medical study conducted by Kaiser Permanente 2,500 citizens of Portland were randomly chosen and interviewed by phone. They were asked to describe their tattoos. Fifty three percent had tattoos. Every fourth person who acknowledged having been tattooed was offered fifty dollars to attend a screening with a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. One hundred screenings were carried out during which each person’s tattoos were carefully measured and photographed. Results showed that on average 6.8% of the participants’ body surface was inked. Therefore, extrapolating from this data, with a total population of 583,776, there is approximately, 582 football fields worth of tattooed flesh within the Portland city limits. *
I made the trip to Portland to dye Easter eggs with my west coast grandchildren, an annual tradition. I hoped to combine the visit with the grandkids and an interview that I planned to turn into a profile for Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man – Part 2. However, I couldn’t connect with the subject of the profile, the jazz singer Nancy King.
A couple of months ago during another interview for the blog with my friend, the jazz photographer Fran Kaufman, she said to me, “You know who you should really do? Nancy King. She is fabulous. Fabulous! When she performs in New York every singer who is not working is there and they all have a story about how she has influenced their career.” (A profile of Fran will appear here in the near future.)
I got Ms King’s number from Fran. She told me it was hit or miss whether Nancy would answer the phone. In fact when I called I got a recording of a man’s voice saying, “We can’t answer the phone right now. Please call back later. If you want to send a fax begin transmission now.” This was followed by the high-pitched whirr that fax machines emit.
A little bit of Googling got me to Ms King’s Facebook page. I sent a message sayng I was Fran’s friend, that I was planning a trip to Portland, that I would like to see her perform and that I’d like to interview her for my blog project. I was pleasantly surprised when I got this message back in less than twenty-four hours: “Hi John, unfortunately, I have no gigs during the time you will be here. But, I would love to meet with you about your project! Call me when you get to town! Look forward to meeting you, Love, Nancy
PS tell Fran hi for me please! “
The night before I flew to Portland I called Ms King’s number again and again got the same message with the fax machine whirr at the end. I sent another Facebook message. In Portland on Thursday afternoon I called again. No answer, same message. I sent another Facebook message. No response. By Easter morning, having heard nothing, I realized this was going to be the trip to Portland during which I did not interview Nancy King.
Proof #2 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
Food cart cuisine was invented in Portland. In Boston, eating out involves making a reservation at a restaurant, ordering from a menu of maybe twenty-five items, and dropping fifty bucks. In Portland you go to the center of a paved parking lot, sit at a picnic table under a tent and choose food from a variety of carts parked around the periphery. Each cart has a specialty. In the parking lot at the corner of SE Hawthorne and Twelfth Avenue, to offer one of many possible locations, you can mix and match from Perierra Creperia, Bubba Berni’s New Orleance Café, El Brasero Mexican Food, Wiffles Fried Pies, Potatoe King Belguim Fries and Pyro Pizza. Therefore it is possible to dine on a clam strip Po’ Boy, a basket of chili fries, a glass of orchata, and bites of your grandson’s banana and Nutella crepe for about $12. **
Within a couple of blocks of Powell’s Bookstore there are two large record stores; Jackpot Records and Everyday Music. I try Jackpot Records first, but they don’t have anything by Nancy King. The young woman helping me is exceptionally beautiful. She has on a low cut black t-shirt showing a lot of cleavage and tattoos that seem to swirl across her shoulders and down her chest. “Nancy King is a local jazz singer,” I tell her. “Do you have a section for locals?”
“Yeah,” she says. “But it is all rock and alternative. Let me check the computer.”
A couple of minutes later she says, “Only one thing shows up. A live album from 2006 and its in short supply. You’re going to have trouble finding anything. Have you tried Everyday Music? That’s your best bet just because they are so big.” This is typical customer service in Portland, Oregon: be extremely pleasant, do anything you can to help the customer, show some cleavage and tattoos.
At Everyday Music a friendly young man waits on me. His tattoos start at his wrists and disappear up his t-shirt sleeves. He is wearing a narrow brimmed hat that Louis Prima could have sported around Las Vegas in 1960.
I ask him, “Do you know off hand if you have anything by Nancy King? She is a local jazz singer.”
He says, “We don’t really have an inventory, but jazz is through those doors and everything is alphabetized.”
Yes! Not only do they have three copies of Live at Jazz Standard, also Ms King has her own section separated from the other CDs by a black plastic divider with her name embossed on it in white letters. (Nancy King’s discography includes ten full albums and guest appearances on fifteen others. They are not easy to come by. Amazon lists five titles, I-Tunes about the same.)
I carry a copy of Live at Jazz Standard back to the counter.
“You found it,” says the young man.
“Yes,” I say. “Have you heard her?”
“I don’t really listen to jazz.” The Louis Prima hat had misled me.
“I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but she is really quite amazing.”
He says, “Well… I hope you enjoy it.”
Moments later, I slip Live at Jazz Standard into the CD player of my rental car. I listen to it all the way through for the first time as I drive around Portland, through downtown, past the iconic Michael Graves’ designed municipal services building, along the river, out to the Southwest suburbs near Lewis and Clark University where my stepdaughter, Helen Devol, lives with her family, listening to Nancy King, driving through Nancy King’s city.
Proof #3 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In Portland, little league coaches only give positive feedback and never loose their patience. Take, for example, my grandson Simon’s coach. His name is Todd Mansfield. Here is a transcription of everything Todd said during one twenty-minute period of a game: “Great swing!” “Nice job!” “Way to back him up!” “There you go! Yeah!” “Good eye!” “Awesome! Way to stop that ball.” “Good job, buddy. Way to cover second!” “Very smart! Way to hold that runner.” “Saved a run. Your thinking!” “That was sweet! What a ball player.”***
Nancy King presents lyrics with amazing lucidity. It is never necessary to strain to catch a word. Nor is the meaning of a phrase ever anything but admirably specific. And yet, what is going on is anything but simple or ordinary. I’ve heard the words to “Aint Misbehaving” sung a thousand times.
I don’t go nowhere
But I don’t care,
‘Cause all your kisses
Are well worth waiting for
Honey, I’m savin’
All my love for you.
I’ve heard Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald sing them. Nonetheless, I am most convinced by Nancy King’s version that this is a woman who knows she’s made a good deal. It has involved some sacrifices, but she has no regrets. It is a breezy song. It is a sassy song, but its sentiments are not trivial. Nancy King swings it, but she doesn’t disrespect it.
As good as she is with a lyric, at some point during most songs she cuts herself free from words and goes into extended periods of scat singing. When she does this, there is a sense or release and expanded possibility that is thrilling. Her voice becomes purely instrumental and her improvisation is remarkable for its variety and creativity. I’ve never heard better.
Proof #4 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In Portland, vegan is the default position. The city council recently debated, but did not pass, a “non-binding resolution” that would have “officially discouraged” the eating of meat and other animal products within the city limits. The discussion that resulted in the tabling of the resolution included the view that such a statement would be “insensitive to ethnic and cultural minorities that traditionally eat meat.”****
4/25/11 - Besides my stepdaughter and her family, my sister in law, Loie Drew, also lives in Portland. On Monday morning, she was scheduled to come over for coffee. I sent her a text asking if I could draw on her I-Pad. I hardly ever send texts at home, certainly not to people over sixty. I bet I would text a lot more if I lived in Portland.
When Loie arrived, I used an app called Sketchbook Pro to draw Nancy King, working from one of the photos on the cover of the CD. I’ve drawn on other people’s I-Pads a few times before, just enough to see the potential, but not enough to feel at home. I bet if I lived in Portland, I would own an I-Pad and do all my drawing on Sketchbook Pro.
The I-Pad drawing seemed like the right portrait to accompany this profile since all my contact with Ms King so far has been digital: Facebook messages, CD recordings, Youtube videos, and internet searches. It is a lot of information, but it is all second hand. I hope sometime soon to be able to write Nancy King – Part 2: The Interview and Nancy King – Part 3: Live in Concert.
* The study and statistics are fictitious, but the point is factual.
** Personal experience accurately reported from an outing on 4/22/11.
*** Personal observation, Cardinals vs. Dodgers, 4/22/11, Stephenson Elementary School ball fields.
**** This is a total fabrication.