Bill Royston: Bringing ECM to the American Northwest

John Kelman By

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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.


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