Bill Royston: The History of a Festival
AAJ: As Artistic Director, who did you bring in that first year?
BR: We didn't have a very big budget that first year but we still had five ticketed concerts and many free shows to fill in the time. We had Wayne Shorter, Regina Carter, and Gary Burton but also had Poncho Sanchez at the Crystal Ballroom doing a Latin jazz dance party. Each performance worked and we found there was a younger audience that was very hip to Wayne Shorter but would then go to the Crystal Ballroom and dance their brains out to Poncho Sanchez. At the same time, there was also the older traditional mainstream audience that went to Regina Crater. So the question became, how do you bring those two audiences together, but also bring them from out of town? The answer came in the second year, which was to create a thematic approach, but it took a couple of years to germinate.
AAJ: This was also a time when jazz festivals had a lot of difficulty.
BR: Yes, it wasn't easy starting a new jazz festival during the earlier part of this decade but the closure of the Mt Hood Festival also created a fair amount of negative press. As a consequence, there was an 18 month period where there just weren't any positive headlines about jazz in this area. I was very aware that.
Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival
AAJ: Can you say more about the thematic approach?
BR: We started to develop the idea of a signature, and during that second year the signature was a tribute to Jim Pepper who was also a native of Portland. A couple of the concerts featured old friends of Jim's along with two all-star band tributes. One was with local musicians who had been very influenced by Jim long before I had come to Portland and the other with national players. And we found that the response was even stronger as it seemed as though that by creating a package, it allowed those from out of town to justify coming to Portland. It became a catalyst. So from then on, it really became a creative process because there was this whole unity and I think that for the first time, I felt a sense of vision.
AAJ: Was there a turning point of when you knew you were onto something?
BR: When I was at Penns' Landing, I would drive to work every day and pass by Strawberry Mansion where Coltrane had lived for many years. I soon became part of a grassroots effort to get the house declared as a historical monument. So in the 3rd year of the festival, I decided that I wanted to do a John Coltrane Festival and that became the turning point for the festival. I reached out to McCoy Tyner and explained that I wanted to have him and Ravi here for the festival. There is nobody more Philadelphia than McCoy and I have always valued his friendship a great deal. The idea was to try to recreate, as best we could, the Classic Quartet and that's what we did and it's probably one of the best shows that I have ever done.
We also brought in jazz journalists such as Ashley Khan and Howard Mandel and had lectures and jazz conversations. There are a lot of fine schools, high schools and universities throughout the country and especially here in the Northwest that are doing a really good job of developing the next generation of jazz artists.
However, I think that little or nothing is being done to develop the next generation of jazz audiences. Therefore, I decided that that was going to be our mission and that's when we started the panel discussions and it's been really rewarding to see how our audiences have responded to that. And I think that it's not only important for the art form, but I think it helps expose newer audiences to jazz too. Because let's face it, from a mainstream approach, jazz has two things working against it. One is that it's primarily instrumental in a society where we have become conditioned to believe that our music should be with vocals. And two, its improvised which scares a lot of people, even before they understand what that means. And I have always believed that if you can create a forum where the artists can express why they do what they do, there is going to be a better chance that the audiences will comprehend it while also having a greater appreciation for the music. And that's exactly what we are trying to do.
After the Coltrane celebration, we reached out and did a festival around ECM [Records], which was really enlightening. We found people responding that wouldn't otherwise go to a jazz concert. This was their music! And they were just so positive about the fact that they could finally see and experience some of these European artists that they have been so loyal to over the years. ECM must have one of the most loyal listener bases that I have ever seen. It also reflected that there was an audience for the more edgy side of jazz and again, it was a younger audience. There was tangible hope that there were new audiences moving in, both from Portland and from outside of Portland.
Keep in mind that Portland just isn't big enough to sustain a jazz festival. About 30% of our audience comes from more than a hundred miles away and without that audience, we just couldn't sustain. Portland is just not a big enough market for what we are doing now. So there is that balance.
And of course we just got crazy last year. I've always been fascinated with Ornette Coleman and realized it was fifty years since he recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), and I thought that that needed to be celebrated. So we started to build a festival around The Shape of Jazz to Come which, in my mind, was a real celebration of the jazz avant-garde. And I think back and go, "This was crazy," but it worked. We did a festival that opened with Ornette and closed with Cecil Taylor. And in between, we brought out a lot of younger players who have been influenced by Ornette such as Myra Melford and Tim Berne.