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Bill Royston: Bringing ECM to the American Northwest

By Published: December 19, 2006
"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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