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Bill Royston: Portland Jazz Festival Stretches Out

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I believe that 'success,' regardless of specific circumstances, is based upon confronting your limits and going beyond them.
When it comes to putting on a successful jazz festival Bill Royston could double as King Midas. As Artistic Director of the Portland Jazz Festival, Royston started with a vision, pitched it to civic leaders, got the support of hotel operators, partnered with area schools and universities, won major corporate sponsorship and rekindled interest in Portland's historic Williams Avenue club scene (the post-war era equivalent to Seattle's Jackson Street).

Now in its second year of existence, the Portland Jazz Festival has tripled in size, doubled attendance, galvanized the city's business and music communities, and infused this one-sport town with pride over hosting a world-class mainstream jazz festival—with Royston at the helm. And while Portland's Jazz Guy shuns the spotlight, choosing instead to let musicians offer onstage introductory remarks on their peers before a concert, his cascading white beard—reminiscent of Niagara Falls—rarely fails to make an impression. Just like his favorite beer...

All About Jazz: Are you a musician?

Bill Royston: No. I'm not a musician. My background is theater. I was the director of a repertory theater in Pittsburgh for 12+ years. We moved to Philadelphia in the mid 80's when I became Program Director of Penn's Landing, which is the historical site where William Penn landed and all of that stuff. The City of Philadelphia had just built this 10,000-seat amphitheater along the historic waterfront. I was very excited. I had visions of an outdoor, summer Shakespeare Festival and, then, the cruise ships began docking overnight behind our stage, and I had to revise artistic visions on the fly.

I've loved jazz since high school, but I had no clue about the music business. In our first year (1986), we developed a Friday night jazz concert series, and allowed WRTI, Philly's jazz radio, to broadcast each concert live. My position was funded by the local Convention & Visitors Bureau, so I had to justify programming for a tourist-related audience, or what today is termed Cultural Tourism. WRTI broadcast into northern Baltimore suburbs and up to north Jersey, and by 1989 we were averaging nearly 8,000 people for Friday night jazz with Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, and Betty Carter. In the meantime, we developed several weekend festivals, including a New Orleans music & food fest called "Jambalaya Jam," a 4th of July blues festival, and something called "Rock-A-Rama," a tribute to 50's Philly rock n' roll with Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, and a lot of the original American Bandstand dancers (good idea, bad event!).

The Friday jazz remained the key program component, however, and by 1990 people were asking me to produce their jazz festivals. I eventually formed my own company, and since the early 90's, I've produced and/or programmed the Berks Jazz Fest (Pennsylvania), Clifford Brown Jazz Festival (Delaware), Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival (near Washington, DC) and others. In 1996, we moved again, this time to Portland when I became the artistic director of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival; and now the Portland Jazz Festival. That's a long answer to a short question, but no, I'm not a musician.

AAJ: What sparked the idea for starting a Portland Jazz Festival?

BR: Cultural Tourism. The same thing that turned me around to jazz in the 80's. Philadelphia and surrounding areas is fertile turf for jazz. There is a legacy dating back to Trane, Grover, Heath Bros., McCoy, and on and on. To succeed, however, we had to actively promote into other markets. Our strength was Penn's Landing, a terrific waterfront venue with world-class music performances. Our need was to sell weekend packages of shows, hotels, and meals.

Jazz was the preferred medium, and it worked! In 1999, I began meeting with staff from POVA (Portland Oregon Visitors Association) about creating an "off-season" jazz festival in order to generate hotel, restaurant, and retail sales. We first met with hotel representatives to discuss the concept and define needs. It took almost 2 years of meetings, but we formed a coalition of POVA, representing 16 participating hotels, with key financial sponsors (Qwest and others) willing to support projects providing specific economic impact back to the community AND February is Black History Month, so simultaneously we started shaping a series of jazz education and outreach programming linking jazz with Black History. This was the catalyst for further partnerships with Jazz Society of Oregon, Portland State University's Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, and a wonderful woman named Bea Eidsness, who runs a jazz scholarship fund for Portland student musicians, who gave us our first grant. By early 2003, we had an organization with 3 distinct objectives: presenting both world-class jazz artists while showcasing regional jazz musicians; providing enhanced economic impact by using the jazz festival for cultural tourism; and offering diverse jazz education programs in celebration of Black History Month.

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