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Bill Royston: The History of a Festival

By Published: January 21, 2010

AAJ: Was the festival considered successful?

BR: I will always be proud of that particular festival. The total attendance was 36,000 and it has been estimated that we sold about 2,000 hotel rooms.

Mingus Big Band Mingus Big Band, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival

AAJ: Most jazz festivals cannot make it today without including other genres of music. What you are doing is in complete contrast to that. On paper, it shouldn't work.

BR: No, it shouldn't.

AAJ: But that's what's great about it.

BR: Hopefully.

AAJ: What about the idea to celebrate the 70 year anniversary of Blue Note for last year's festival. How did that idea come about?

BR: Most of the things that I have done have been by accident. About 18 months ago, I read about the revitalization of Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
' Epitaph Orchestra with Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
and that Sue Mingus was actually putting her own money on the table to produce it at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And I thought, I want to do a Mingus festival.

So, I went to New York and attended that concert and through a good friend, I met with Sue Mingus the next morning. And on the way back, I thought about a Mingus Festival where we did the Epitaph Orchestra one night, the Mingus Big Band

Mingus Big Band
Mingus Big Band

one night, and the Mingus Dynasty the next. And it was an idea that I really liked but unfortunately, as much as I respect that music, the concert that night didn't do that much for me, and it was almost four hours long.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the costs were just too challenging. I was still committed to pursuing it but I was beginning to have my doubts that we could handle it. At the same time, a good friend of mine who had worked for Blue Note told me that they were getting geared up for their 70th Anniversary, but more importantly, the 25th Anniversary of the re-launch under Bruce Lundvall. And my friend said, the way you are building your festival, it would be really cool to think about doing a Blue Note Anniversary Festival. So I jumped in a cab and went across town to Blue Note and though I didn't meet with Bruce or Michael Cuscuna at that time, I did meet with two young guys at Blue Note and immediately became really good friends with Zach Hochkeppel and Cem Kurosman. We sat and talked for about an hour and a half and they asked me a lot of questions about the Portland Jazz Festival, and I asked them a lot of questions about Blue Note.

On the flight home, I realized that I flew to New York to pursue a Mingus festival but that I really wanted to do a Blue Note Festival. No disrespect to Mingus as I may someday do that festival but it was like Penn's Landing, where I thought I was doing Shakespeare and ended up doing jazz. And for the next 18 months, there was constant communication between us and I felt that for the first time, I was really getting into some pretty serious research. And I think that for the last year or so, I've become a real historian on Blue Note. I've really dug deep. And working with the Blue Note people has just been one of the most positive things I have ever done. They have been so supportive and there was never anything less than 100% support from them. And to have Bruce Lundvall and Mike Cuscuna here while doing 150 events over the course of 10 days was probably the most important event I have ever done.

But we also created a new challenge. We had developed this younger audience over the previous two years and now all of a sudden we are preaching jazz heritage and tradition. But I never wanted to get pigeonholed. I've always wanted to keep people wondering about what we are going to do next. And long distance planning is not something that I feel artistically comfortable with. I want spontaneity to it, just like an improviser. So as a result, I have no idea what we are going to do next. And to be honest, in the current economic situation, I think we need to step back and reassess the model a little bit. People just don't have the dollar to spend that they did two years ago and I am very aware of that. You would be a fool not to be aware of it.

AAJ: This is a festival that wasn't even going to happen.

BR: Right. I originally wasn't supposed to do this festival, we shut down in August. There is now an entirely different level of appreciation in a greater custodial concern—making sure that this is done right. When I learned from our wonderful titled sponsor for the past five years—you have to understand, Qwest came in 2003 for an event that hadn't even happened yet. It was just an abstract concept and they bought into it. They are still a sponsor, they haven't walked away, but they couldn't be at that top level.

You cannot do a jazz festival like this today without major sponsorship. At the same time, my experience from the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival was that I'm absolutely against continuing to produce jazz on a deficit basis. This organization closed last August with no debts but also with no title sponsor. Three weeks later, out of the blue, we get a call from an ad agency in Seattle, saying, are you still looking for a title sponsor? It was Alaska Airlines. They were looking for enhanced public relations in this area. They obviously understood the tourism component.

Our sponsors are probably as unique as our Festival. Who are our sponsors? Amtrak, Alaska Airlines, restaurants, hotels; it's all part of the tourism related industry. They get it! We developed the numbers for the last few years to make this something of interest to them, from a purely business point of view. The last six months have been a real roller coaster.

And when we did come back, it was so quick, that there was no time to think. We got the call from Alaska on a Tuesday and by Thursday, we had e-mailed back and forth contract drafts, a couple of days later, they flew into Portland, signed the contract, we walked up the street and held a press conference and here we are. I pinch myself to say this but I booked this entire festival in three weeks.

I'm not an artist. I think like an artist. I feel my role is to support the creative process. The biggest frustration that I have is that since I moved to Portland, I have worked with some really great people and some really smart people. And to me, the biggest asset to the Portland Jazz Festival is the Team. Most of us have now been together for several years and I have never worked with a team where there was so much trust.

At the same time, I have yet to work with anybody in this market who really loves jazz. I have worked with good development and marketing people and operations people and they are very good at what they do and we love each other, but they don't like the music. They're into the process. On some nights, I shake my head, when I realize that out of our whole team, I may be the only one that sits in the hall and listens to the music. The rest of them are out doing things and I don't mean that in any disrespectful way. But sometimes that's hard. Sometime's that's hard when the really skilled people around you are really good at their job but they don't necessarily share the passion for the art.

I just cannot accept the notion of this music going away. I love it too much and it's strictly emotions.

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