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OregonLive: Portland Jazz Festival is calling it quits

by Luciana Lopez, The Oregonian

Sunday September 07, 2008, 2:06 PM

Ornette Coleman greets the audience before a performance in February at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Portland Jazz Festival, strapped for cash after losing its title sponsor in April, plans to stop operating as of Sept. 15. Barring a “miracle” infusion of about $100,000, the February 2009 festival — previously slated to be the exclusive 70th anniversary celebration for seminal jazz label Blue Note — won’t happen. Nor, most likely, will there be any festivals after that.

Portland’s small jazz community has been bolstered by the festival since its 2004 inception. The threatened cancellation would shake not only those musicians and fans but also Portland’s place in the national jazz scene.

After the 2008 event, headlined by Pulitzer-winning saxophonist Ornette Coleman and avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, festival organizers had “the optimism that we’d be able to find the support from the community,” said artistic director Bill Royston. “That optimism has not held up.”

Qwest, the title sponsor for all five festivals so far, warned organizers earlier this year that money was tight. By the time the company told the jazz festival in April that it couldn’t kick in its usual $50,000, the festival had already braced itself for bad news.

And while Qwest was the only company to pull out entirely, several returning sponsors scaled back their contributions, victims of the tougher economy, Royston said. To make matters worse, no new sponsors have stepped in since the Portland Trailblazers signed on in summer 2007.

The result: The festival’s annual $686,000 budget had, at minimum, a $100,000 hole in it.

Before the financial trouble arose, Royston was already starting to phase out of day-to-day involvement in running the festival, hoping instead to retain a more curatorial role. And the festival parted ways with its managing director, Rachel Trice, after the 2008 festival in February.

By the end of last month, the Portland Jazz Festival needed money, needed people, needed time. It didn’t have enough of any of those.

“It’s not like we sat on our hands waiting for a good day of sunshine,” said board member Wayne Thompson (a former member of The Oregonian’s editorial board before he retired). The nine board members worked their networks, trying to come up with the money, but most companies had already budgeted their 2009 arts sponsorship dollars by the time the Portland festival approached them. A few times, Thompson thought that a grant, a sponsorship or some other funding source was about to come through … only to be disappointed.

“Jazz in this market has always been a hard sell,” Royston said. “We haven’t been able to generate any new revenue.”

The board imposed a September deadline to make a decision.

The options: Scale back? “If we decided to reduce it to four or five ticketed shows, that’s not a festival, that’s a series of concerts,” Royston said. It was a world-class festival or nothing.

Skip a year? That would damage momentum, Thompson said.

They voted, instead, to cease operations.

Nevertheless, they’re keeping the door cracked open, be it ever so slightly. They’re hoping for “a miracle,” Thompson said. If the money were to somehow come through, the festival, which isn’t shuttering completely, could reassemble a team and still put on a 2009 festival.

“We can do anything, if we just put our hearts, our minds and our money to it,” Thompson said.

— Luciana Lopez; lucianalopez@news.oregonian.com

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