Bill Royston: The History of a Festival

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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Bill RoystonIt is a passion and responsibility that no one takes as serious as they do; and they do it knowing that little, if any acknowledgment will come their way. They are the festival promoters and artistic directors of this music we call Jazz.

And though it's a music that has always had its up and downs, we are at a crossroads where it's difficult to perceive exactly what role jazz will have in the 21st century. There is little question that jazz will remain one of America's greatest cultural achievements, but its role in contemporary society can no longer be perceived as a given.

The following is an interview with just one of those special individuals who have dedicated their lives so that the music can continue to live on in the annals of our hearts and minds.

Bill Royston has always been inspired by the challenge of presenting creative arts, but 2009 presented a much greater and unforeseeable challenge. Shortly after the successful conclusion of the 2009 Portland Jazz Festival, Royston's wife was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly, the future of one of America's most successful jazz festivals became irrelevant. For most of us, it's difficult to imagine a more frightening situation for a loved one. But through the help and strength of medicine, Royston's wife is beating the odds and once again, he's returning his focus to his passion.

All About Jazz: When did you first acquire your interest in jazz?

Bill Royston: Well, in the '60s most were listening to the Beach Boy's but I was listening to Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans. I have always loved jazz and always had a passion for it. And I've always felt that it was an art form that needed greater respect. I have always felt that, even before I got involved with it professionally.

AAJ: What led you to the promotion of the music?

BR: After I finished college, I worked for a couple of theaters but eventually came back to Pittsburgh in 1971. There were five of us that started the Pittsburgh Laboratory Theater and it started out as an avant-garde collective. We did all the great contemporary masters of the time such as Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet and like a lot of arts groups, it evolved into a repertory theater with a permanent company of actors and subscriptions. We did this for 13 years and I was very proud of it.

I was then approached by the City of Philadelphia about becoming the first director of Penn's Landing, which is historically where William Penn and the Quakers landed. It's along the waterfront near Betsy Ross's House, the Liberty Bell and it was a beautiful site with a number of ships in the background. The Landing itself was a 10,000 seat outdoor amphitheater built around 1980 and was located right down by the water. Interestingly enough, I thought and the Penn's Landing management thought that they were hiring me to put on a summer Shakespeare Festival. But after finding out that cruise ships docked right behind the stage all summer long, there wasn't any way that we could do Macbeth at the amphitheater.

Actually, I was also working for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor's Bureau, who had taken out a management contract on the property of Penn's Landing. Their intent was to program and market events at the Amphitheater, which in turn would draw tourists into the city. They had a goal that five to ten percent of the audience would come from out of town, stay in a hotel, and eat at the local restaurants.

Now with that in mind, I proceeded to introduce myself to the general manager of the local jazz Radio Station, WRTI and said," I'm going to start a major Friday night summer jazz concert series for fifteen weeks and I want you to do live broadcasts of all the concerts." He had this expression of, "Hey, you are my new best friend."

WRTI also had receivers that would reach Central Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey so this became a vehicle to promote concerts widely while also bringing in tourism, and it worked! The first year was 1987 and the concerts continued to be a staple between the years of 1988 and 1992. We averaged between seven and eight thousand people every Friday night and did all of the great names such as McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Sonny Rollins and as a result, this was the seed that started things out for me.

AAJ: Did your work in theater prepare you for promoting jazz festivals?

BR: I have always felt that there was a discipline in presenting theater that other art forms do not have. You rehearse for four-to-six weeks to build up to one date, for one performance and there is a discipline in how that happens. I think I brought a discipline to the music promotion experience and artistically, I was learning on the fly. I had never produced a music concert but we figured that out fairly quickly. And once I produced my first concert, I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to pursue.

I have also always viewed my job as putting the right artist with the right audience. And once the musicians take the stage, I'm only concerned with what the production values should be. I don't necessarily always book what I like, I book what I think my audience would best respond to. That's both in terms of re-enforcing tastes as well as hopefully, expanding and introducing the right music.

AAJ: So what ultimately happened with Penn's Landing?

BR: With the downturn of Philadelphia's economy during the '90s, it became obvious that the budget for Penn's Landing was going to be cut back drastically. At the same time, people in other communities started asking if I could produce jazz events in their town. And one of the calls I received was from a little town in Pennsylvania called Reading, which is about ninety minutes northwest of Philadelphia and southwest of New York, and about an hour north of Baltimore. Reading has hundreds of shopping outlets that were built from old mills and as a young kid, my parents would pack us into the car and we would travel the two hours to Reading to go shopping for school clothes. You could get Lee jeans for two bucks and Bass shoes for fifteen.

In the Country In The Country, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival

In 1991 alone, there was something like eight million people that traveled to Reading just to shop, but the average stay by those visitors was less than four hours. As a result, they really had no economic impact on the community. But this town still wanted to start a jazz festival and by coincidence, we found out that the Yuppie community was also looking for an excuse to travel to Reading to go shopping. Subsequently, we started the Berk's Jazz Festival. Great music, great shopping and a great weekend! And so far, the Jazz Festival has become very successful, is still going strong and approaching its twentieth anniversary. And in a very short time, it has evolved into one of the largest smooth jazz festivals in the country.

Now was this one of the most artistic accomplishments that I have ever done? No, but again, I viewed my job as putting the right musicians with the right audience and this was the right thing to do in this situation.

AAJ: Did you consider any of the other offers that came your way?

BR: Around the same time, I was also approached by the city of Wilmington, Delaware which is where Clifford Brown grew up. He and the Mayor had gone to school together and the Mayor wanted to honor him. So he asked me if I could do the same thing in Wilmington that I did at Penn's Landing. Now I really didn't know if I could accomplish what he envisioned but nevertheless, we created a very straight ahead outdoor jazz festival. And for that community, it was celebrating a tradition and a favorite son. But there was also a night when we presented a smooth jazz festival, and I could feel Clifford Brown rolling over in his grave.

I also helped develop the Rehoboth Jazz Festival, which is on the Atlantic coast due east of D.C. It's a very affluent community with many law makers and lobbyists who had summer homes in the area. They were looking to create an event in late October that would allow people to stretch their time in the beach front community just a little bit longer. That festival was like a jazz supermarket with a little bit of everything. It was at this time that I had finally sold myself on the idea that there could be a direct marketing link between jazz and cultural tourism.

AAJ: Philly, Reading, Wilmington; why Portland, Oregon?

BR: I was attending a Jazz Times convention in 1994 and met a woman from Portland who was a board member with the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. We talked shop over coffee and she explained how the Festival had started in the early '80s and how it had an up and down past. Well, about a year later, I get this call asking if I would be interested in flying out to Portland to discuss the idea of taking over the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. And my first thought was, Portland, Oregon, isn't that the end of the world?

I had also never been to the Northwest but ironically, my brother managed a department store in Portland. And at that time, my wife and I were living in downtown Philadelphia with two young kids. One was in the Philadelphia school system and the other was about to enter. As parents, we had some concerns about their education and my wife thought that I should check this out as it might be a quality of life move. I remember her words exactly. So I fly out to Portland and it was one of those typical Northwest September days. Not a cloud in the sky, 75 degrees with no humidity and here I come from Pennsylvania. I get picked up from the airport and as we are driving east, I see the mountain (Mt. Hood) and it was really cool. But I also find out that the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival is on a football field at a community college in Gresham, Oregon.

But this festival had an interesting past. The opening night of the festival was in 1982 and featured Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, and I related to it because it had a lot of the same characteristics as Penn's Landing. And at that time, they were the main game in town as there just wasn't any other large music events in Portland. And though the festival may have been on a college football field, the community took great pride in this festival. On the other hand, when I asked for the marketing plan, they said, "We just basically wait for the phone to ring." And like any other community event, it had its foibles. So ultimately, we decided to make the move to Portland and have never regretted that decision.

I love this community, I love the life style and I love the clean air. But I quickly realized that the festival had an entirely different vibe and an entirely different audience than the one's I had worked with back east. And it was a disturbingly older audience and that kind of threw me. I mean, I was one of the younger people there!

In the late '80s, they had given all of the money they had made over the first ten years or so to local groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, and then all of a sudden they were wondering why they were broke. Thus, I knew when I got there that I was walking into an organization with a deficit. They in turn were attracted to my background at Berks and for some reason, thought that smooth jazz was going to be the answer. And during that time, people on the East coast viewed the West coast as a huge smooth jazz new age Mecca. So I thought, well that makes sense... let's plunder forward.

Then in 1997, on the first day of the festival, I had the The Rippingtons and Boney James and many thought that that should be the direction of the festival. But on the 2nd day of the festival, people showed up sitting in the front row with shirts that said, "The Mt. Hood Festival of Muzak." People camped out overnight in the parking lots and had mimosas at 8:00 in the morning. So I went outside the gates and tailgated, and I also listened. I learned a lot about this market and what people wanted in a festival. And with all due respect to the original group that hired me, they were dead wrong!


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