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.


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