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Interviews

Bill Royston: Bringing ECM to the American Northwest

By Published: December 19, 2006
Bill RoystonNow entering its fourth year, the Portland Jazz Festival has already established itself as an event with a difference. While most festivals take place in the summer, it's held in mid-February, when most artists are not on the road and most vacationers are thinking about heading south for a little sun and sand rather than the dark clouds and rain that define the Oregon city's winter climate. But while Artistic Director Bill Royston claims "we're growing in search of an identity," it's safe to say that they've already managed to differentiate themselves from the lion's share of jazz festivals around the world. And it's the festival's unique approach to programming that has already garnered considerable attention from musicians and fans alike.



Royston sees the festival experience as more than just pushing entertainment. "Two years ago we came up with the concept of creating a signature event at each festival—kind of a thematic through-line," Royston explains. "Because [saxophonist/flautist] Jim Pepper was originally from Portland, we decided to do a series of programs around him, and we were able to assemble several musical ensembles; but we were also able to bring in people who were able to speak from a Native American point of view, people who had known Pepper when he was younger. It became as much a series of roundtables and lectures as it was about performance."



Wait a minute. A jazz festival with lectures and roundtable discussions? At a time when many are talking about jazz being on the pathway to extinction, the forward-thinking Royston thinks it's a little early to ring the death knell: "I have some very strong opinions about what a festival's responsibilities are to a jazz community. Besides the high-profile ticketed concerts, you need to provide viable showcases for local artists, and you have to provide jazz education programming, and not just for student musicians. We don't have enough of a jazz audience to begin with, and if we don't start seriously trying to develop and educate that audience our art form is going to be as dead as a lot of people already think it is."



Last year's theme was Chasin' the Trane, with twenty different events celebrating the life and music of John Coltrane. It's a testament to Royston's vision that, in addition to flocking to shows by artists including pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, over five hundred people attended a lecture about Coltrane on an early Friday afternoon. Clearly Royston's optimism is born out by an audience whose interest extends beyond simple entertainment. "To us," Royston explains, "it's about the long haul, and creating these forums will benefit us and other jazz organizations in years to come. People want to know more about jazz and we're just starting to learn about all the different ways to make that happen."



This year, with pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton touring to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Crystal Silence—their groundbreaking album on the longstanding and equally innovative German ECM label—Royston realized an opportunity existed to expand that celebration to the label itself. ECM will be releasing its one thousandth album in 2007, and Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by ECM's Steve Lake and writer Paul Griffiths, will be published by Granata this coming spring to commemorate that milestone. And so, Portland Jazz Festival 2007's signature event will be Crystal Silence: The Story of ECM Records.



The three-day ECM event will include performances by Corea and Burton, saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet featuring pianist Geri Allen, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's quartet. Perhaps the most exciting news is the appearance of Norwegian saxophonist/composer Trygve Seim and his ten-piece ensemble—its first and only North American date. That the festival is not relying solely on big names is further indication of its vision for the future.

"I want to give credit to ECM," says Royston. "We went ahead and booked Chick and Gary, and Charles Lloyd. It was then that we sat with ECM and I said "Look, I should book two more acts,' and my first thought was that they'd suggest [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek, which is fine, I'd love it. But to me the essence of ECM today is not how many copies of [pianist Keith Jarrett's] Koln Concert are sold, but the new European artists to whom we've not been exposed. Stanko has been to this country a half dozen times, but this is the first time Trygve Seim will perform in the United States, and his ten piece ensemble, to me, is one of the most important groups in new music."



Royston's view is supported by the fact that Seim's 2005 release, Sangam, was amongst many critics' top picks for the year. "Trygve's appearance will probably not be a major focal point for American journalists," Royston suggests. "But it may become so after the fact, and that's just as important.



"For what it's worth," Royston continues, "I think there's a cyclical sense to this. To me, in the late "60s, as people were starting to get tired of Dave Brubeck— nothing against Dave Brubeck of course—that was when the phrase "jazz is dead' first started. There was what we called fusion, or as I like to call it, "when fusion was fun,' with everyone from Joe Zawinul to Return To Forever. But at the same time what ECM was doing was a whole different form of fusion, which was acoustic. They were introducing new artists to our landscape, some of whom were American, many of whom were European like Garbarek and [bassist] Eberhard Weber. Now what we're seeing is the next generation of the same thing. And it is a cycle. As Francis Davis of The Village Voice recently pointed out, if you accept the premise that American jazz has hit an artistic dead-end, then here is one of the alternatives to that, but it's across the pond. And that's as important for us to consider today as it is for ECM."



Along with the four concert performances there will be daytime sessions including open dialogues with Corea, Burton, Seim, Lloyd and Stanko. There will be a series of roundtable discussions on subjects including ECM cover art and the myth of the "ECM sound," featuring ECM representatives Steve Lake, Sarah Humphries and Tina Pelikan, as well as a number of renowned jazz journalists, including Howard Mandel and Neil Tesser. There will also be public screenings of ECM-related films, including Jarrett's Tokyo Solo, Corea and Burton's Rendezvous in New York, and Dorothy Darr's Home— Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins.



Royston is quick to credit the festival's sponsors, including key sponsor Lufthansa, for making an event of this scope possible. "Remember," Royston explains, "that this festival is in February because we have eighteen hotel partners and a very aggressive cultural tourism initiative. Those hotels identified February as the month of lowest occupancy when they could give us the most and work with us diligently to make it happen. Last year we sold 1,500 hotel packages—that's a major part of the business plan for us. We have formed a lot of collaborations and partnerships regionally to where economically it makes sense for us to be able to do this. Now, instead of getting the traditional calls during the winter from artists looking for summer festivals, I get calls in the summer saying, "Are you still booking that crazy winter festival?'"



ECM may be a focal point of this year's festival, but it's not the only one. Performances by artists including trumpeters Dave Douglas and Roy Hargrove, clarinetist Don Byron, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalists Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber will keep interest running high throughout the festival's run. "There was a piece of me," Royston says, "that thought how, in another time someone like Dave Douglas could very well have been an ECM artist. So there was also this feeling, not throughout, of trying to say, "Here are other answers to what ECM has set on itself as its quest.' Maybe Branford Marsalis represents the counterpoint."



More and more festivals are gearing themselves towards being, as Royston describes, "more sophisticated, more amenities-friendly. That's what I perceive as the new school of festivals—the multi-venue, downtown festival. All we've done is take the same kind of concept one step further and say, "OK, we're going to be in the winter and there are no outdoor performances.' But my guess is that 75% of the people reading this are going to think of Portland as being a whole lot nicer in February than where they're sitting now. I believe firmly that we don't compete with other jazz venues; we compete with shopping malls and cable TV. If we can create the mentality to get people out of their homes, we'll get enough people to attend the Portland Jazz Festival."



With signature events like Crystal Silence: The Story of ECM Records, a host of international and local artists, jam sessions that run all night and an open sense of community that, despite the obvious business model required to support the festival, contradicts the corporate flavor predominant at so many other festivals, Royston and the Portland Jazz Festival team have, in a very short time, fashioned a festival that would have a unique identity were it not in February, but at any time of the year.



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