Jay Collins got schooled in Portland. It was a very public education—and not the academic, classroom kind.
Collins has established himself, over the last couple of decades, as one of New York’s finest jazz saxophonists and session players. His current gig is with the Gregg Allman Band. Yeah, that Gregg Allman. He’s worked with a ton of music luminaries in jazz, blues and pop, including well-traveled pianist and Blue Note recording artist Jacky Terrasson, Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid, Michael McDonald, Levon Helm of The Band, Boz Scaggs, Donald Fagan and scores of others.
But, he cut his teeth here in the Rose City, coming up in the ‘80s under the tutelage of bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummers Ron Steen, Mel Brown and Dick Berk. He has subsequently parlayed his Portland music scene lessons into a comfortably busy life of music on the East Coast.
Collins’ stepdad, a guitar player, had a collection of blues and jazz recordings with which the budding horn player woodshedded in his bedroom before trying out his hand at gigging. Coming out of Wilson High School, Collins did a short stint at Mt. Hood Community College before basically enrolling full time in Portland’s flourishing jazz and blues scene.
“My first real pro gig was with Ron Steen,” he says, after playing parties with the requisite buddy bands in high school. “Ron was great. He made me learn a whole bunch of jazz tunes to play on the gig. He was a tough guy. He’d dock me like five bucks for messing up tunes, like James Brown did, for missing a note. I’m glad he did it.”
That mentoring—for which Steen is noted—got up Collins’ courage to sit in with famed bassist Leroy “The Walker” Vinnegar and drummers Mel Brown and Dick Berg at clubs like the now-defunct Hobbit. He jammed with bluesmen Paul deLay, Curtis Salgado and Lloyd Jones. And all of those experiences added up to him shuffling off to New York to give the Big Apple and its music scene a shot.
“I had family in New York I could crash with,” he explains. “Grandmothers, aunts and uncles. I was couch surfing, playing a few gigs, playing on the street, but I didn’t get anything going. When I was down to my last bit of money, living in East Harlem, I was starving. I came back to Portland to get back on my feet.”
He took a short gig with the wacky ska-pop Crazy 8s making money on the weekends, and then filled out his schedule with a weekly trio gig that included Vinnegar and guitarist Dan Faehnle at the Jazz de Opus. He eventually hooked up with Berk, who had a recording contract with the New York indie label Reservoir Records, which got him back to the city several times a year to lay tracks at noted recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He also worked with the late jazz artist and composer Andrew Hill at Portland State, who encouraged him to give New York another shot.
“He kept telling me: You’re still young, you’re too good to not give it another shot,” Collins says. “So, I moved back to New York in 1992 with a thousand bucks and a horn.”
He’s been there ever since. He runs his own band, the rootsy Jay Collins and The Kings County Band, and tours regularly with Allman (with whom he’ll be featured at the 2014 Waterfront Blues Festival, as well as with WBF performer Chris Bergson, plus a gig at Jimmy Mak’s with Dan Balmer on July 7) and, whenever they’re road-bound, Donald Fagan’s Dukes of September featuring Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
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