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Interviews

Bill Royston: Portland Jazz Festival Stretches Out

By Published: April 15, 2005

I believe that 'success,' regardless of specific circumstances, is based upon confronting your limits and going beyond them.

When it comes to putting on a successful jazz festival Bill Royston could double as King Midas. As Artistic Director of the Portland Jazz Festival, Royston started with a vision, pitched it to civic leaders, got the support of hotel operators, partnered with area schools and universities, won major corporate sponsorship and rekindled interest in Portland's historic Williams Avenue club scene (the post-war era equivalent to Seattle's Jackson Street).

Now in its second year of existence, the Portland Jazz Festival has tripled in size, doubled attendance, galvanized the city's business and music communities, and infused this one-sport town with pride over hosting a world-class mainstream jazz festival—with Royston at the helm. And while Portland's Jazz Guy shuns the spotlight, choosing instead to let musicians offer onstage introductory remarks on their peers before a concert, his cascading white beard—reminiscent of Niagara Falls—rarely fails to make an impression. Just like his favorite beer...

All About Jazz: Are you a musician?

Bill Royston: No. I'm not a musician. My background is theater. I was the director of a repertory theater in Pittsburgh for 12+ years. We moved to Philadelphia in the mid 80's when I became Program Director of Penn's Landing, which is the historical site where William Penn landed and all of that stuff. The City of Philadelphia had just built this 10,000-seat amphitheater along the historic waterfront. I was very excited. I had visions of an outdoor, summer Shakespeare Festival and, then, the cruise ships began docking overnight behind our stage, and I had to revise artistic visions on the fly.

I've loved jazz since high school, but I had no clue about the music business. In our first year (1986), we developed a Friday night jazz concert series, and allowed WRTI, Philly's jazz radio, to broadcast each concert live. My position was funded by the local Convention & Visitors Bureau, so I had to justify programming for a tourist-related audience, or what today is termed Cultural Tourism. WRTI broadcast into northern Baltimore suburbs and up to north Jersey, and by 1989 we were averaging nearly 8,000 people for Friday night jazz with Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, and Betty Carter. In the meantime, we developed several weekend festivals, including a New Orleans music & food fest called "Jambalaya Jam," a 4th of July blues festival, and something called "Rock-A-Rama," a tribute to 50's Philly rock n' roll with Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, and a lot of the original American Bandstand dancers (good idea, bad event!).

The Friday jazz remained the key program component, however, and by 1990 people were asking me to produce their jazz festivals. I eventually formed my own company, and since the early 90's, I've produced and/or programmed the Berks Jazz Fest (Pennsylvania), Clifford Brown Jazz Festival (Delaware), Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival (near Washington, DC) and others. In 1996, we moved again, this time to Portland when I became the artistic director of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival; and now the Portland Jazz Festival. That's a long answer to a short question, but no, I'm not a musician.

AAJ: What sparked the idea for starting a Portland Jazz Festival?

BR: Cultural Tourism. The same thing that turned me around to jazz in the 80's. Philadelphia and surrounding areas is fertile turf for jazz. There is a legacy dating back to Trane, Grover, Heath Bros., McCoy, and on and on. To succeed, however, we had to actively promote into other markets. Our strength was Penn's Landing, a terrific waterfront venue with world-class music performances. Our need was to sell weekend packages of shows, hotels, and meals.

Jazz was the preferred medium, and it worked! In 1999, I began meeting with staff from POVA (Portland Oregon Visitors Association) about creating an "off-season" jazz festival in order to generate hotel, restaurant, and retail sales. We first met with hotel representatives to discuss the concept and define needs. It took almost 2 years of meetings, but we formed a coalition of POVA, representing 16 participating hotels, with key financial sponsors (Qwest and others) willing to support projects providing specific economic impact back to the community AND February is Black History Month, so simultaneously we started shaping a series of jazz education and outreach programming linking jazz with Black History. This was the catalyst for further partnerships with Jazz Society of Oregon, Portland State University's Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, and a wonderful woman named Bea Eidsness, who runs a jazz scholarship fund for Portland student musicians, who gave us our first grant. By early 2003, we had an organization with 3 distinct objectives: presenting both world-class jazz artists while showcasing regional jazz musicians; providing enhanced economic impact by using the jazz festival for cultural tourism; and offering diverse jazz education programs in celebration of Black History Month.

AAJ: How is the business side of the Portland Jazz Festival organized? Do you have a board of directors? Are you a non-profit foundation? How many people are on your staff?

BR: During that first year leading up to February 2004, my partner, Sarah Bailen Smith and I were literally working from our kitchen tables. We finally moved into office space in downtown Portland less than a month before the '04 gig. Now, we are a non-profit/tax-exempt corporation, and, yes, that meant forming a Board. I taught for 13 years at two universities in graduate level Non-Profit Arts Management, but I remain cynical about Boards and—even worse—committees! But, we formed a Board of about a half dozen people, who can each generate funds or in-kind support, for the organization. Sarah (Managing Director) and myself (Artistic Director) formed a left-brain/right-brain partnership. We have interns running the office, a Production Manager, and, most importantly, two very understanding spouses.

AAJ: What did you learn from researching other west coast jazz festivals?

BR: When I arrived as director of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, the first thing that struck me was the distance between western markets. You can promote a weekend package in Philadelphia with 2-hour drive times to New York, Baltimore and DC, but here it's more difficult. The same thing holds for developing partnerships with kindred spirits. I've met John Gilbreath in Seattle, and have a pretty good understanding of what's happening with Earshot. I've been to Monterey and SF Jazz, and I know about Vancouver Jazz. At Mt. Hood, we block-booked with Telluride in Colorado and even Playboy Jazz in southern California. The jazz scene on the east coast is bigger, but not necessarily better.

AAJ: How do you choose the local and national musicians that perform at the festival?

BR: It's a process. In '04, I felt that it was necessary to book a true legendary headliner (Wayne Shorter) to get initial attention, especially in other markets. Honestly, great hotel rates aren't enough to lure you to Portland in February. This year, we strived for more consistent programming (Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Dianne Reeves). What we learned last year is that other markets have a stronger, younger audience base for jazz than Portland, so we booked non-prime time ticketed shows with The Bad Plus and Patricia Barber. We also put a great deal more emphasis on the free shows both quantitatively and financially. People told me that they came to town, got a hotel, and had a full weekend of jazz without going to any ticketed concerts. I think that I feel good about that.

AAJ: The first year of the festival PDX Jazz gathered support from a large segment of the business/hotel/travel community. Was that a hard sell?

BR: It wasn't a hard sell, but it was a long sell. When we first met at POVA with hotel representative in '99, the responses were mixed. A year later, the economy turned and the hotels' interest level spiked, and another 6 months later Mt. Hood Jazz Festival had its last hurrah. Looking back, it wasn't that hard. POVA got the idea right away, and they convinced the hotels. Again, the sponsorship issue was like a precipice that had to be crossed. We were lucky. We made initial corporate contacts at a time when there were leadership turnovers and a craving for new ideas. We have all of the utility companies providing support with Qwest, Portland General Electric, NW Natural, and Comcast. Then, we turned to companies that have tourism roots like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, American Airlines and Amtrak. This year Amtrak ran a special Jazz Train roundtrip from Seattle to Portland. We even developed Jazz Guy Ale, the official microbrew of PDX Jazz, with a great sponsor, Rogue Ales. The key is strong partners and an effective Board, each of whom provide expanded spheres of influence. The festival sells itself to prospective sponsors who understand SYNERGY. Quite often, you're doomed to work in an environment where individuals can't spell synergy let alone comprehend the rewards.

AAJ: In its second year the 2005 Portland Jazz Festival expanded from three days to ten days, offering 10 big-ticket events, spotlighting a wealth of local musical talent and presenting educational opportunities in conjunction with various Portland universities. In retrospect, did you bite off more that you can chew, or were these huge steps forward a natural progression?

BR: I don't know. I haven't thought that way. I view my role as presenting the right artist to the right audience. Sometimes you do all the right things, and it still doesn't work, but when it does work you do it again. I believe that 'success,' regardless of specific circumstances, is based upon confronting your limits and going beyond them.

Was 10 days too much? Were 10 ticketed shows too many? Did we offer too many free performances? Was there enough of an audience for the jazz education programs? Well, in 2004 our overall attendance was about 15,000; we sold out 5 of the 6 ticketed shows in advance; hotel lobbies and lounges were overflowing from the free shows; and all year we've had school groups inquire about how to be a part of our Black History Month programs. 2004 PDX Jazz was 'successful,' so in 2005 we did more. Yes, we stretched our limits, but nothing is broken. I would expect that next year will again be 10 days with, who knows, maybe 8 ticketed concerts or maybe 12. I was comfortable with this year's festival. Of the ticketed concerts, 7 of the 10 ticketed concerts sold out in advance with an 8th selling out day-of-show. I think that next year will look a lot like this year. We've found our niche with Presidents Day weekend and the potential Sunday night stay-over, which makes the hotels happy. In '04 we sold 264 hotel packages. This year, we sold 538, and we estimate total attendance around 22,000-23,000. Most important, for the second consecutive year we did NOT lose money. A rare feat in jazz.

AAJ: This year's PDX Jazz fest was overflowing with educational events, including masterclasses, jazz dialogues, workshops, a week-long Jim Pepper tribute, free tickets to aspiring musicians via the Maiden Voyage Project, and a 75-minute "Incredible Journey of Jazz" presentation on jazz history attended by four area middle schools. How would you gauge the community's response to this year's educational festival events?

BR: I think that the strengths of this year's festival were the free gigs and the education events. This is the second year for the "Incredible Journey of Jazz", and we've now taken the music/theater piece to eight different Portland middle schools. Darrell Grant is a great pianist and friend. He developed the "Journey of Jazz" through his Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, which in one year has become a vital part of the Portland jazz scene. Darrell is also behind the Maiden Voyage Project, which provides funds for young people to attend their first jazz concert. This year Darrell received the contributions to purchase 100 PDX Jazz tickets for 100 young people Maiden Voyage into jazz. For me, the highlight was Andy Narell showing 30+ 7-year olds how to play a steel drum at 10AM at the Portland Children's Museum. Needless to say, the education & outreach events were memorable, and will remain a key component of the Portland Jazz Festival.

AAJ: What did you personally take away from the experience of celebrating Black History Month in conjunction with the 2005 Portland Jazz Festival?

BR: Maybe it's because I came from Philadelphia, but I was amazed to discover the lack of a citywide celebration [in Portland]. Jazz is a significant part of Black History, and I think that we've done a good job of linking the two together. That gives me personal satisfaction.

AAJ: I imagine that acting as Portland's unofficial king of jazz must tempt your vanity. Is it a problem keeping your ego in check?

BR: Wow! The King of Jazz? Well, hardly... but if I were I'd issue several proclamations: 1) No clapping at the end of solos on ballads. 2) No music stands or sheet music permitted on jazz stages. 3) Every hotel lobby must have a concert-quality acoustic piano. 4) Improvise your music and not your life! No, really, I haven't been here long enough to know all about this area. I get out to clubs and local gigs as much as I can, but not enough. When I first came here, it was partially because of my success presenting Smooth Jazz festivals on the east coast (I've often stated that I love straight-ahead jazz, but it's Smooth Jazz that is putting my kids through college!). My first year or two with Mt. Hood Jazz Festival was a lot of Smooth Jazz, but I learned that Portland is not a Smooth Jazz town. Portland couldn't even support a Smooth Jazz radio station for more than 18 months. I learned my lesson, and I'm still learning. I'm very pleased with the first 2 years of PDX Jazz.

AAJ: What Portland Jazz Festival changes can we look forward to in 2006?

BR: Well, the 2006 dates are February 17-26. The Presidents Day weekend is on the front end with our partnered, community events on the second weekend. The education programs will again be on the weekdays in between the two weekends. So, the tourism driven period with the headline artists will be February 17-19. I haven't even contemplated who might appear. Any ideas?

Yeah, here's one: Check out pdxjazz.com to learn more about the festival, including a brief history of Portland's post-World War II-era jazz scene.



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