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Bill Royston: Portland Jazz Festival Stretches Out

By Published: April 15, 2005

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.

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