What if I told you that Portland’s most talented musician is a charming, octogenarian curmudgeon who, even now, is composing hours of critically acclaimed jazz from his Sellwood home? Chuck Israels has played with Billie Holliday and Benny Goodman, recorded with John Coltrane, and was a longtime member of the Bill Evans Trio. So why haven’t you heard of him?
He can explain. “I grew up in one of those unusual times when American popular art was at an enormously high level,” he says. “However, I’ve outlived that. Which means that the audience that I am seeking to attract here is a specialized audience.”
Things were different when he was growing up, with musical parents who brought home the likes of Pete Seeger and Lead Belly. When he was a kid in Cleveland, they put on a concert series featuring Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, and the young Israels ended up at a dinner with some of the musicians.
“Here I was, 12 years old sitting between Sid Catlett and Jack Teagarden,” he says. “I don’t think I became a jazz musician at that moment, but it certainly was a window into that world.”
It was a world that Israels embraced in the decades that followed, as a bass player, composer, and arranger. When he was 22, he played with Billie Holiday. (“I was so busy making sure that I was doing a good job that I don’t remember what she did!”) He soon recorded with Coltrane and Kenny Dorham (on 1959’s Hard Driving Jazz, later renamed Coltrane Time).
Two years later, he replaced Scott LaFaro in the influential Bill Evans Trio, and still recalls the moment—down to the jacket he was wearing and the tomato salad he had just sat down to eat—when he heard the news of the legendary LaFaro’s death. “I knew that I would get his job,” he says. “And I had the conflicting emotions of recognizing that I had lost a friend and that I didn’t want his job that way, but there was an opportunistic part of me that was awakened by it. It was a hell of a moment.”
After working as director of the National Jazz Ensemble and head of jazz studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Israels landed in Portland in 2009. But not, let’s be clear, to retire. Sure, he turns 80 this month, but he’s been building a band and a fervent following here since his arrival, and he’s still got work to do.
The Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra—eight musicians and two singers playing old-school, cool jazz with lyrical aplomb—has released two albums in as many years, the latest being 2016’s Garden of Delights, which Down Beat magazine called “bright and lyrical”. And he’s playing his heart out still, most often seen lately with his orchestra at the Southeast winery Vie de Bohème. Those who come are fiercely supportive but small in number.
“It takes a long time for people here to become comfortable with you,” he admits. “A lot of the things that happen here happen because this guy went to high school with that person, and they know each other forever.” His frustration is as clear as his passion for the kind of music he fiercely believes can feed the soul. “I have no objection to people having friends and calling their friends—I’m just trying to be a friend!”