Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jazz musician Charlie Gabriel returns to Portland -- under considerably different circumstances

He's a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and he's played with everyone from Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus to Fats Domino and Aretha Franklin. And jazz saxophonist Charlie Gabriel will be in Portland this week -- a return after something like 45 years -- to the same room in the same building.

Except that back then the place was a strip club, and now it's part of the McMenamins chain. Talk about putting the communication breakdown in your Communication Breakdown Burger.

Here's the background story of the Crystal Hotel:

It has housed lot of things, but from 1961 to 1966, when it was the notorious Desert Room, clarinetist/saxophonist/vocalist Charlie Gabriel led the band, playing for strippers, dancers and generally entertaining the cream of the Portland criminal underworld.

Before we get to Gabriel himself, let’s set the scene. Portland crime historian Phil Stanford, former Oregonian and Tribune columnist, in his book Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Rose City says:

It was one of those places where everybody hung out, the vice squad, safecrackers, junior D.A.’s…the pimps and prostitutes would always stop there at the end of the night.

The hot spot in town…was the Desert Room at SW 12th and Stark. The Desert Room was owned by Nate Zusman, a banty rooster of a guy who called himself “The Mark of Stark,” in recognition of the fact that he was a soft touch for anyone in need of a few bucks. Fat chance, a long time bartender…said that he had to be on guard at all times to keep Zusman from stealing his tips.

Zusman was a thief, a fence and a pimp, and by all accounts he ran one of the most fascinating night clubs Portland has ever seen. On any night of the week you could expect to find a good portion of the Portland underworld hanging out at the Desert Room. The pimps and madams made the scene almost every night and there was always a contingent of safecrackers, who in those days were considered the princes of the racket.

That being the case, it only made sense that the intelligence and vice squads camped out there too, drinking for free, of course, because how else are you going to find out what the other side is up to unless you get to know them. Not surprisingly, most of the city’s politicians and any prosecutor from the D.A.’s office worth his salt could also be found there as well, drinking with the boys and taking in the floor show which usually featured out-of-town musical acts and some of the finest strippers in town.

Sanford later wrote in the Portland Tribune:

When its proprietor, Nate Zusman, was busted for what the authorities described as aiding and abetting prostitution, the name changed, although not much else did, to the Red Garter.

In 1982, after lying vacant for a year or two, it opened again as a gay nightclub – Flossie’s.

Then in 1988 it became the Silverado – which one real estate tycoon described to me as sort of like a sports bar, but with huge video projections of naked men on the walls.

[…] The first floor restaurant at the Crystal Hotel is named the Zeus Cafe, it’s not about the Greek god, it’s a pun on Nate.

In 1961, Zusman brought (some accounts say stole) Charlie Gabriel from a band in Detroit where Gabriel had moved at 14 from New Orleans. He was a fourth generation New Orleans musician.

At 16, he was asked to join Lionel Hampton’s band. He’ll be 79 this year and he has never stopped playing music. He was recently in town as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as part of the Soul’d Out Music Festival. […]

As part of the Crystal Hotel’s opening extravaganza, he’ll be playing with the Mel Brown trio 4-7pm at Ringler’s Pub all three days, free, all ages. Tickets available at, McMenamins outlets (Crystal Ballroom, Bagdad Theater, Edgefield, East 19th Street CafĂ© in Eugene) and order by phone at (855) CAS-TIXX.

And here's the story as Charlie remembers it himself:

After that, Charlie took a job playing the Desert Room -- a strip club -- in Portland, Oregon.

"I first went up there with Dave Hamilton, under the leadership of Dottie Haynes," Charlie said. "There was a master of ceremonies and four girls on the show. The band would play a number and then Dottie would do about three songs. Then we'd have a girl dance and strip on a sexy song like 'Temptation.' Then Dottie might sing another song. Another lady would come out and sing an up-tempo number like 'All of Me.' Then we would bust into some kind of bolero rhythm and she starts stripping. Dottie might come back and sing again or maybe we'd have a comedian. Then the next girl would strip.

"After Dottie and Dave's contract was terminated, the owner hired me as bandleader for 26 weeks with a 26-week option. The money was good. Everyone who worked in the band could draw unemployment compensation."

His wife Mary rented their house in Detroit and went out to Oregon. Charlie put her on the payroll keeping the books. The gig lasted four years with four shows a night six days a week. The owner had three clubs in different cities and would rotate the girls through the clubs every 12 weeks.

What I tried to do," Charlie said. "If they were dancers and singers I would try to get each girl to do a different kind of song. I'd have a jazz singer doing 'How High the Moon' or 'Mack the Knife.' I might tell another one, now you sing ballads good. You will sing a ballad and we'll bring you on with something up-tempo. To the jazz singer I'd say, We'll bring you on with something sexy.

"Some shows later on we did this John the Baptist thing with the Dance of the Seven Veils. Each veil was shown in a different color fluorescent light. . . . This place you bought your woman and your food and paid for it at the cash register."

McMenamins has a five-part interview with Charlie Gabriel on YouTube.

This is a show that's not to be missed.

(Image via.)

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