Building a base will help event grow
- Sarah Bailen Smith
- Portland Tribune - Opinion
The vision for the first Portland Jazz Festival began with Bill Royston. It was the logical extension of earlier jazz festivals that he had produced on the East Coast.
In the mid-'80s, while working for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, Royston had been asked to attend a hotel marketing meeting. The task was to create an event around Presidents' Day Weekend in February. 'Look,' said the general manager of the local Sheraton, 'nobody books a convention on a holiday weekend, and nobody comes to Philadelphia for a holiday in February.'
From this encounter came the Philadelphia Presidential Jazz Weekend. (Bad name, good event!) The economic formula was simple: Hotels donated the use of their ballrooms and other spaces; organizers produced and promoted the performances; and the hotels retained all of the food and beverage receipts and were provided promotional space to market their individual 'Jazz Lovers Weekend Packages.' It was a win-win situation based upon a need-need. It also was one of the first times the phrase 'cultural tourism' surfaced.
Upon moving to Portland in 1996, Royston decided that this was a remarkably fertile place to present jazz. But, as he is fond of saying, 'It takes a community to build a jazz festival.' Without key partners and individuals within the community, there would never have been a Portland Jazz Festival.
Our recent success is the result of creating a core of tourism, business and jazz collaborators. Royston had been talking with Barbara Steinfeld at Portland Oregon Visitors Association and, coincidentally, one of Barbara's associates, Natalie Schoof, was an old college friend of mine. Natalie was a member of the Jazz Society of Oregon and brought the society's president, Chuck Carpenter, to the table.
When POVA brought the 17 participating hotels together, it was clear that February was Portland's lowest occupancy period, just like Philadelphia.
So, why jazz? Quite simply, the demographics fill the need to create the win-win. Subjectively, the jazz audience is unusually loyal. Objectively, survey results indicate that the audience is over 45, married (but with the majority stating that there are no children living in the household), and with an average income of more than $90,000 per year. One-third possess advanced college degrees of a master's or beyond. The figures explain why this group can average 4.5 leisure trips annually.
The potential jazz audience was POVA's target group. Together, we 'put heads in beds,' as well as 'butts in seats,' accounting for several hundred hotel room nights over the three-day period. In addition, the 50 ticketed and nonticketed performances played to audiences totaling more than 10,000 people. We're already working on an expanded 2005 festival.
Jazz is an ever-changing art form. We see it (and hear it) as a musical patchwork quilt that when skillfully assembled represents more than music. Jazz depicts our culture and celebrates our diversity.
In the next few years, we hope that the Portland Jazz Festival will present all kinds of music that fall under the general category of jazz (and even beyond). That may mean jam bands, avant-garde and free jazz, Latin grooves, fusion, straight-ahead and rhythms from Cuba to Norway!
Artists set the pay scale; we try to make a modest profit and hope to reach a middle ground. This year, we were successful in this regard by playing to 98 percent of capacity for our ticketed programs. This means that we'll be better able to afford more modestly priced events in the future.
Ticket pricing also is dependent on sponsorship support in order to get beyond the traditional bottom line. We're optimistic that after one successful event, we'll be able to expand our sponsorship base in years to come.
Yet the reality remains that the primary mission of the festival is cultural tourism, and for a first-time event we concentrated on jazz that would attract an audience from out of town. We focused on music that included jazz legends such as Wayne Shorter and newer masters such as Regina Carter.
As we grow, and get to know our audience better, we'll be able to take greater risks (and, in turn, ask our audience to trust us more) in programming more diverse talent.
Please be patient with us. A year ago this was just an idea, and now we're attempting to manage our growth both artistically and administratively. Our goal is to reach out to all audiences, especially the young as well as minority and new constituencies.
And, as we do, we'll be able to afford to be more adventurous É while being responsible for selling more hotel rooms.
Sarah Bailen Smith is the managing director of the Portland Jazz Festival, which was launched in February. Bill Royston is the festival's artistic -director.