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Bill Royston: The History of a Festival

By Published: January 21, 2010

AAJ: Can you explain?

BR: Well, we had alienated the core audience of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. I have also watched the rise and fall of three smooth jazz radio stations during my time in Portland. It just doesn't fly and it doesn't work and as a result, I slowly moved it back to a more straight ahead traditional approach. In fact, something I really cherished was one of the last performances of Rosemary Clooney

Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney
1928 - 2002
who was here in 2000. And though I felt pretty good about the last couple of years of the festival, the infrastructure had become very cumbersome and past mistakes were beginning to catch up to the organization. At that same time, I was working very hard just to make sure that the deficit didn't grow and after 2001, they decided to pull the plug.

Trygve Seim / Frode Haltli Frode Haltli and Trygve Seim, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival

The costs involved in that football field and everything that went with it was just too much. Portland had also grown culturally to where the festival was no longer the only major game in town during that weekend in August. The times had passed it by and it had become a very old institution very quickly. There were attempts to revitalize it but each attempt included more downsizing. And when they finally decided to move it to a Little League Baseball field with the stage on the pitcher's mound, it was time to let this puppy go and move on.

Now during this same time, I had made friends at POVA (Portland Oregon Visitors Association) and they asked me if I thought there was any rational reasoning behind trying to create a winter jazz festival in Portland to affect tourism. Historically, February is the worst tourism month of the year in Portland and it doesn't take much to figure out why. So we started having talks in 2002. We had countless meetings with 18 hotel general managers and everybody came to the table with POVA being the catalyst. This was also similar to how we started at Berks.

You simply bring people together through dialogue and then you create a needs assessment. So I started thinking about the month of February and immediately what came to mind was that February was Black History Month. I didn't know if anyone else was doing a jazz festival in the month of February but there were some pretty cool ideas. And though it rains here a lot, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was back in Philly. As I tell my friends back on the East coast, you can't shovel rain [laughter].

Things started to gain momentum, so we decided to do a Portland Jazz Festival in February. We also invested over half of our money into advertising into other markets. I reached out to other West coast jazz presenters, asking how can we corroborate and exchange mailing lists and I explained that I was more interested in promoting in their markets, even more than I was in my market.

AAJ: You previously mentioned the age of the audience.

BR: The Mt. Hood Jazz Festival had literally made no previous attempt to attract new and younger audiences and this was an audience that was getting older. And when you are in your twenties and thirties, it's OK to sit on a college community football field for 10 to 12 hours a day in 100 degree heat, eat hot dogs and use portable toilets, but as you get older, you begin to have greater sophistication and would like to have more amenities.

I have a friend who is a very good graphic designer and he said, "I'll help you develop a poster but what's the face of this festival? What is it?" He had previously worked with me on the Mt. Hood Festival but trying to compare the new festival with the previous festival was like comparing an apple with an orange. And I said, the best thing I can do is to tell you what it isn't. It's not going to be sitting in metal folding chairs on the grass in 100 degree heat, and it's not going to have water balloon fights. It's going to be urban, it's going to be sophisticated, and it's going to be hip!

And I must say, there was something about Portland from the first day that fascinated me. There is a really hip discerning younger audience here and I think it had been ignored. So that became a premise. We opened the first 2004 Portland Jazz Festival in a Hotel Ballroom with Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
and I kept thinking, I don't believe that I convinced Wayne Shorter to play at the Marriott Hotel Ballroom [laughter]. We sold it out three weeks before the date and we were able to track that several hundred people came from out of town and stayed in hotels. And I thought, this is just like Penn's Landing, and it's also just like Berks; it's just that the music is different.

I came to believe that this should be a straight ahead jazz adventure and it should have an edge to it. I think it reflects Portland, it reflects the Northwest, and I think it reflects the audiences on the west coast that will travel to Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. It's a middle aged affluent audience, and that's what we tapped into and so far it's worked.

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