During the 1940s and ’50s, West Oakland was jumping with a vibrant blues scene that revolved around 7th Street. Esther’s Orbit Room is now the last symbolic vestige of a dynamic African-American cultural era long disappeared. While that scene has practically vanished, this Saturday a bit of its spirit will be revived in a most unlikely place — the first Portfest, an annual world music and jazz celebration featuring a free all-day concert at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a restored public area along the waterfront at the end of 7th Street. A collaborative effort between the Port of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks, the event aims to display the port and showcase the park, a place most Oaklanders don’t even know exists.
“I was producing some concerts with the Groove Mobile and a friend told me to check out this park,” festival artistic director Khalil Shaheed says. “I liked it so much I started calling people and begging trying to set something up. I came in contact with Jeff Dorn. He said they were looking for a musician who had the pulse on what was happening in the community.” Trumpeter and bandleader Shaheed, a true jazz renaissance man, has dedicated his career to the 20th-century improvisational art form with his Oaktown Jazz Workshop Band, Big Belly Blues Band, Mo’ Rockin’ Project, Groove Mobile, and more. His community organizing skills make him a perfect candidate for this gig: “When I first got into this I didn’t know how much work I was diving into. It’s all-consuming, with eight to twelve hours a day — but I like work, so it’s cool.”
Saturday’s free all-day concert is highlighted by legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, topping a stellar roster that includes alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, Dave Ellis, Mo’ Rockin’ Project, and the Oaktown Jazz Workshop Band. However, the festival’s biggest challenge will be getting people to a park situated in the middle of the Oakland shipyard. Located on the site of the Oakland Naval Supply Depot, which closed in 1998, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park has a clear view of those metallic praying mantis gantries that load and unload seaport containers. Portfest audiences will travel through streets mostly occupied by big rigs during the week. Nevertheless, is it worth it to see excellent jazz for free in a nice environment?
“If Hugh Masekela and Kenny Garrett were to play at any of the venues around here, the cost would prohibit a lot of people from being able to enjoy them,” Shaheed says. “Right now, the way our economy is, a lot of people can’t afford to spend the money necessary to go out and see musicians of this caliber.” And “family friendly” is the way he wants this festival to be. Vendors of food, arts and crafts, and clothing will be on hand, along with interactive exhibits on the Port of Oakland and East Bay Regional Parks. Shaheed is keeping his fingers crossed: “When I initially proposed this concert to the port, I said I needed at least five years to develop it. After the last note sounds, we are getting together the next day to begin the process for the following year, trying to make the festival better and perhaps two days.”
For more information on the festival, call 510-627-1111.