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!

AAJ: Can you explain?

BR: Well, we had alienated the core audience of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. I have also watched the rise and fall of three smooth jazz radio stations during my time in Portland. It just doesn't fly and it doesn't work and as a result, I slowly moved it back to a more straight ahead traditional approach. In fact, something I really cherished was one of the last performances of Rosemary Clooney who was here in 2000. And though I felt pretty good about the last couple of years of the festival, the infrastructure had become very cumbersome and past mistakes were beginning to catch up to the organization. At that same time, I was working very hard just to make sure that the deficit didn't grow and after 2001, they decided to pull the plug.

Trygve Seim / Frode Haltli Frode Haltli and Trygve Seim, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival

The costs involved in that football field and everything that went with it was just too much. Portland had also grown culturally to where the festival was no longer the only major game in town during that weekend in August. The times had passed it by and it had become a very old institution very quickly. There were attempts to revitalize it but each attempt included more downsizing. And when they finally decided to move it to a Little League Baseball field with the stage on the pitcher's mound, it was time to let this puppy go and move on.

Now during this same time, I had made friends at POVA (Portland Oregon Visitors Association) and they asked me if I thought there was any rational reasoning behind trying to create a winter jazz festival in Portland to affect tourism. Historically, February is the worst tourism month of the year in Portland and it doesn't take much to figure out why. So we started having talks in 2002. We had countless meetings with 18 hotel general managers and everybody came to the table with POVA being the catalyst. This was also similar to how we started at Berks.

You simply bring people together through dialogue and then you create a needs assessment. So I started thinking about the month of February and immediately what came to mind was that February was Black History Month. I didn't know if anyone else was doing a jazz festival in the month of February but there were some pretty cool ideas. And though it rains here a lot, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was back in Philly. As I tell my friends back on the East coast, you can't shovel rain [laughter].

Things started to gain momentum, so we decided to do a Portland Jazz Festival in February. We also invested over half of our money into advertising into other markets. I reached out to other West coast jazz presenters, asking how can we corroborate and exchange mailing lists and I explained that I was more interested in promoting in their markets, even more than I was in my market.

AAJ: You previously mentioned the age of the audience.

BR: The Mt. Hood Jazz Festival had literally made no previous attempt to attract new and younger audiences and this was an audience that was getting older. And when you are in your twenties and thirties, it's OK to sit on a college community football field for 10 to 12 hours a day in 100 degree heat, eat hot dogs and use portable toilets, but as you get older, you begin to have greater sophistication and would like to have more amenities.

I have a friend who is a very good graphic designer and he said, "I'll help you develop a poster but what's the face of this festival? What is it?" He had previously worked with me on the Mt. Hood Festival but trying to compare the new festival with the previous festival was like comparing an apple with an orange. And I said, the best thing I can do is to tell you what it isn't. It's not going to be sitting in metal folding chairs on the grass in 100 degree heat, and it's not going to have water balloon fights. It's going to be urban, it's going to be sophisticated, and it's going to be hip!

And I must say, there was something about Portland from the first day that fascinated me. There is a really hip discerning younger audience here and I think it had been ignored. So that became a premise. We opened the first 2004 Portland Jazz Festival in a Hotel Ballroom with Wayne Shorter and I kept thinking, I don't believe that I convinced Wayne Shorter to play at the Marriott Hotel Ballroom [laughter]. We sold it out three weeks before the date and we were able to track that several hundred people came from out of town and stayed in hotels. And I thought, this is just like Penn's Landing, and it's also just like Berks; it's just that the music is different.

I came to believe that this should be a straight ahead jazz adventure and it should have an edge to it. I think it reflects Portland, it reflects the Northwest, and I think it reflects the audiences on the west coast that will travel to Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. It's a middle aged affluent audience, and that's what we tapped into and so far it's worked.

AAJ: As Artistic Director, who did you bring in that first year?

BR: We didn't have a very big budget that first year but we still had five ticketed concerts and many free shows to fill in the time. We had Wayne Shorter, Regina Carter, and Gary Burton but also had Poncho Sanchez at the Crystal Ballroom doing a Latin jazz dance party. Each performance worked and we found there was a younger audience that was very hip to Wayne Shorter but would then go to the Crystal Ballroom and dance their brains out to Poncho Sanchez. At the same time, there was also the older traditional mainstream audience that went to Regina Crater. So the question became, how do you bring those two audiences together, but also bring them from out of town? The answer came in the second year, which was to create a thematic approach, but it took a couple of years to germinate.

AAJ: This was also a time when jazz festivals had a lot of difficulty.

BR: Yes, it wasn't easy starting a new jazz festival during the earlier part of this decade but the closure of the Mt Hood Festival also created a fair amount of negative press. As a consequence, there was an 18 month period where there just weren't any positive headlines about jazz in this area. I was very aware that.

Christian Wallumrod Ensemble Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Performing at the 2010 Portland Jazz Festival

AAJ: Can you say more about the thematic approach?

BR: We started to develop the idea of a signature, and during that second year the signature was a tribute to Jim Pepper who was also a native of Portland. A couple of the concerts featured old friends of Jim's along with two all-star band tributes. One was with local musicians who had been very influenced by Jim long before I had come to Portland and the other with national players. And we found that the response was even stronger as it seemed as though that by creating a package, it allowed those from out of town to justify coming to Portland. It became a catalyst. So from then on, it really became a creative process because there was this whole unity and I think that for the first time, I felt a sense of vision.

AAJ: Was there a turning point of when you knew you were onto something?

BR: When I was at Penns' Landing, I would drive to work every day and pass by Strawberry Mansion where Coltrane had lived for many years. I soon became part of a grassroots effort to get the house declared as a historical monument. So in the 3rd year of the festival, I decided that I wanted to do a John Coltrane Festival and that became the turning point for the festival. I reached out to McCoy Tyner and explained that I wanted to have him and Ravi here for the festival. There is nobody more Philadelphia than McCoy and I have always valued his friendship a great deal. The idea was to try to recreate, as best we could, the Classic Quartet and that's what we did and it's probably one of the best shows that I have ever done.

We also brought in jazz journalists such as Ashley Khan and Howard Mandel and had lectures and jazz conversations. There are a lot of fine schools, high schools and universities throughout the country and especially here in the Northwest that are doing a really good job of developing the next generation of jazz artists.

However, I think that little or nothing is being done to develop the next generation of jazz audiences. Therefore, I decided that that was going to be our mission and that's when we started the panel discussions and it's been really rewarding to see how our audiences have responded to that. And I think that it's not only important for the art form, but I think it helps expose newer audiences to jazz too. Because let's face it, from a mainstream approach, jazz has two things working against it. One is that it's primarily instrumental in a society where we have become conditioned to believe that our music should be with vocals. And two, its improvised which scares a lot of people, even before they understand what that means. And I have always believed that if you can create a forum where the artists can express why they do what they do, there is going to be a better chance that the audiences will comprehend it while also having a greater appreciation for the music. And that's exactly what we are trying to do.

After the Coltrane celebration, we reached out and did a festival around ECM [Records], which was really enlightening. We found people responding that wouldn't otherwise go to a jazz concert. This was their music! And they were just so positive about the fact that they could finally see and experience some of these European artists that they have been so loyal to over the years. ECM must have one of the most loyal listener bases that I have ever seen. It also reflected that there was an audience for the more edgy side of jazz and again, it was a younger audience. There was tangible hope that there were new audiences moving in, both from Portland and from outside of Portland.

Keep in mind that Portland just isn't big enough to sustain a jazz festival. About 30% of our audience comes from more than a hundred miles away and without that audience, we just couldn't sustain. Portland is just not a big enough market for what we are doing now. So there is that balance.

And of course we just got crazy last year. I've always been fascinated with Ornette Coleman and realized it was fifty years since he recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), and I thought that that needed to be celebrated. So we started to build a festival around The Shape of Jazz to Come which, in my mind, was a real celebration of the jazz avant-garde. And I think back and go, "This was crazy," but it worked. We did a festival that opened with Ornette and closed with Cecil Taylor. And in between, we brought out a lot of younger players who have been influenced by Ornette such as Myra Melford and Tim Berne.

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' Epitaph Orchestra with 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 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.

AAJ: Let's talk about the 2010 festival coming up in February. What can we expect?

Don Lucoff Don Lucoff, Portland Jazz Festival Managing Director

BR: Just re-reading the first portion of this interview from ten months ago, I have to laugh at my comments about never working with a deficit. We confronted our first deficit after the Blue Note festival, but we spent five months creatively resolving it and now moving forward. The management priority for 2010 was to find new leadership, and we've brought in Don Lucoff, an old friend from back east. Don knows jazz and he knows the business. If nothing else, there's another jazz-head in the office! We have put together a new team that has taken a lot of the pressure off of me.

Artistically, this may very well be it for me, but I had one more project in mind. I want to explore the new music coming from Scandinavia, and especially Norway. We've taken our title from Stuart Nicholson's book, Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? (Routledge, 2005). The question is rhetorical. Of course, jazz is very much alive, but it has spread globally and Americans need to recognize that. This is no longer just America's music. How could it be? As a culture, we have stopped supporting the art form, but in other areas like parts of Asia and Europe along with Central America it has been embraced with regional and cultural stylization. That's what jazz is.

Programmatically, we're hopefully creating a point-counterpoint, presenting such Norwegian artists as Christian Wallumrod, Trygve Seim, Frode Haltli, and the trio In The Country along side such great American masters as Dave Holland, Pharoah Sanders, Dave Douglas, and others.

As in the past, there will be outreach events to address the question along with Jazz Conversation with most of the major artists, plus school performances celebrating Black History Month and dozens of free performances showcasing regional artists. In the future, my role will decrease but I'm more optimistic that the Portland Jazz Festival will continue.

Photo Credits

Page 2: Guri Dahl, courtesy of In The Country

Page 3: Courtesy of Trygve Seim

Page 4: Tyler Olson, courtesy of Christian Wallumrød

Page 5: Jimmy Katz

Page 6: Mike Zacchino, courtesy of The Oregonian


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