Two music legends who live in Northeast Portland share more than geographic proximity, although both moved to Portland after initially visiting family who lived here. Jazz vocalist Rebecca Kilgore arrived in 1981 from Massachusetts to visit her sister and decided to stay. Acoustical guitarist and folk singer Mary Flower arrived in 2004 from Denver after visiting her son who attended Lewis and Clark College.
Both performers discovered a thriving music scene in Portland, which they call home despite touring around the country and internationally. Contemporaries, Kilgore and Flower idolized Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but pursued traditional music genres of jazz and blues. Self-taught on guitar, Kilgore gravitated to jazz vocals in the tradition of Billie Holiday. Flower began playing ukulele at age eleven and today is a world-class finger-style guitarist and lap slide player. Initially shy and a self-described closet performer, Kilgore gained confidence by learning from musicians and working hard.
“We both love flying by the seat of our pants when performing with other musicians whom we respect and trust,” said Flower.
Mary Flower: Legendary picker
Flower moved from Indiana to Colorado in the 1970s after playing a summer gig in Breckinridge, Colorado and discovering the folk scene in Denver. A founding member of a group called the Mother Folkers, she developed a curriculum for guitar classes at Denver’s Swallow Hills Music School. Flower later moved to Portland where her son, Jesse Withers, lived. He inherited her passion for American root music and has played upright bass for the past 20 years with Jackstraw. The band performs on Tuesday nights at Laurelthirst Public House, 2958 N.E. Glisan St.
Flower has recorded 11 CDs, the past five for Memphis’ Yellow Dog Records. Equally rooted and schooled in Mississippi Blues, she loves composing fingerpicking ragtime music.
“It’s deep in my roots,” said Flower.
She fingerpicks as well as plays lap slide, when she rests a square-necked guitar on her lap and moves a steel slide across the strings. In addition to performing solo, she plays with two groups, locally with the BBQ Boys and with the Ragpicker String Band, whose members live in Texas and Rhode Island.
Flower remains as committed to teaching as she is to performing music. She’s hired three renowned musicians to teach an acoustic blues guitar camp this fall. “Blues in the Gorge,” scheduled from September 28 through October 2, offers lessons for 46 students. The students’ final performance will be held at The Secret Society, 116 N.E. Russell St. in Portland. Her nephew Matt Johnson owns the 1907 building, and her son helped renovate the music venue and recording studio. For more information: menucha.org/programs/blues.
Flower received Cascade Blues Association’s Muddy Award and was nominated three times for best acoustic artist and album at the Blues Music Awards. For more information: maryflower.com.
Kilgore: Local jazz legend
Kilgore’s music career took off when Cyd Smith, lead vocalist for Wholly Cats, a 1940s swing band in Portland, left the band and encouraged Kilgore to audition. After Wholly Cats, Kilgore subsequently performed with the band Ranch Dressing and later formed a country band, Beck-a-roo. For five years, she accompanied iconic local pianist Dave Frishberg at the Heathman Hotel.
In 2002, she formed the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet. Her affiliation with Arbors Records in Clearwater, Florida led to gigs in New York City where she played at Feinstein’s. In 2004, she met fans Linda and Joe Galetovic who now sponsor Kilgore’s performances at jazz parties held around the country.
“At jazz parties, you never know who you’ll play with and there’s hardly time to rehearse,” said Kilgore, who also performs at jazz festivals.
In February, Kilgore was honored as a legendary jazz artist at the San Diego Jazz Fest. This month she travels to Germany to perform with Bernd Lhotzky, a classically trained pianist whom she met at The March of Jazz in Clearwater.
“German musicians are slavishly studying swing,” said Kilgore.
Kilgore, a song archivist, enjoys creating themed shows highlighting the music of Billie Holiday and the jazzy side of Judy Garland. Her husband, Dick Titterington, plays trumpet for Broadway series shows staged in Portland. Kilgore has recorded 40 CDs; her latest release, “Moonshadow Dance,” features friend and local vocalist Suzanna Mars. For more information: rebeccakilgore.com.