Bad news from the Northwest: Portland Jazz Fest dies

The demise of the Portland Jazz Festival was announced today by press release from its membership umbrella organization PDX Jazz, cancelling plans for February 2009 due to the pullout by title sponsor Qwest Communications. Despite concerted attempts by festival producer Bill Royston, no other funder stepped up to support the five-year-old festival’s modest budget with high returns, and the result may be due to the U.S.’s overall economic downturn.

The festival — two weeks every February starting in 2004 — filled burgeoning Portland’s boutique hotels, restaurants, wine bars, beer halls and coffee shops with local and regional fans. They came to hear headliners including Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the SF Jazz Collective, the Bad Plus, Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Charles Lloyd and other impressive artists, along with panel discussions (which last year I helped plan) and enrichment events hosted by Portland State University, among other area institutions. 
As produced by Royston and a small, efficient staff, the Portland Jazz Festival put this city of just over half-a-million on the international jazz map. Its ticketed and free concerts held at venues ranging from restored movie theaters to hotel ballrooms to local bars was accounted a success by enthusiastic audiences, gratified musicians and professional critics brought in from the East Coast and Canada to observe and interact with middle-aged devotees and a rising young crowd.

“In 2008 we had 36,000 attendees at 150 events, 130 of which were free,” claims Royston, who previously put on Oregon’s Mt. Hood Jazz Festival and who will continue to work on the Bellevue (Washington) Jazz Festival, which debuted in April 2008. “We thought we had all the right pieces in place here, when Qwest first took on the title sponsorship for $50,000.” In 2005 the City of Portland signed a pact supporting the Festival with $100,000 over three years, and Qwest increased its contribution, resulting in a $150,000 total budget (including ticket sales at 20 events) for the festival in 2008.

But the Denver-based telecommunications corporation reported in May 2008 that its crucial adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) totaled $1.14 billion for the first quarter, down $30 million from the first quarter of 2007. PDX Jazz was informed of Qwest’s pullout on June 1. “Lower spending in our promotional activity improved segment income by $21 million relative to the fourth quarter of 2007,” Ed Mueller, Qwest Chairman and CEO, said at the May 6 Qwest first quarter earnings call. Although there was no breakout of promotional spending, support for a jazz festival may well fall under that category of discretionary spending. 
Jazz Festival producer Royston says he spent the summer months trying to replace the title sponsorship, but without success. “We were only able to secure the promise of $10,000, from Portland’s largest financial institution which is led by a super jazz fan” he told me last week by telephone. “And the city didn’t renew its agreement with us. The festival filled 2000 hotel rooms in 2008, and 30 per cent of our audience came from a radius that includes San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver. The funding community was clearly presented with what the jazz festival brings to Portland. But their answer was equally clear. Portland doesn’t have the resources to support this fest.”
This comes as a surprise to outsiders, as Portland has experienced significant growth since the festival began (I’m not claiming there is a causal relationship). According to, Portland has been one of the fest U.S. markets where average home sales have increased steadily in price (if not number) since 2003. Portland operates the third largest export tonnage port on the West Coast, and is home to 1,200 technology companies, including four sites of the Intel Corporation, largest private employer in Oregon.  
If a widely admired and well-attended jazz festival which spotlighted a newly robust city to tourists and incurred no debt can fail because a corporate title sponsor pulls out and no replacement can be found, what does this augur for other corporate-supported fests and cultural institutions? In Chicago, corporate title support for the annual Jazz Festival comes from a coalition founded by The Boeing Company, Kraft Foods, JP Morgan Chase (formerly Bank One) and the Chicago Community Trust; it now comprises 12 members including the MacArthur, Joyce and Donnelly Foundations and United Airlines. Clearly, the more players the less damage done if one drops out. 
But how can corporations and/or private philanthropies be convinced that support of contemporary culture like that promoted by jazz festivals is a sine qua non of productive citizenship? After all, Qwest has not completely curtailed its funding activities. On May 18 it launched a “Share the Win” program with Fox-affiliated sports network FSN Arizona, promising a $100 donation to the social services agency Friendly House for each victory by the National League Arizona Diamondbacks.To date “Share the Win” has cost Qwest $7100.
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  1. says

    This is incredibly sad, just as it is a sign of the times and an “accident waiting to happen” so to speak. NO risks and cutting frills is the way to survive and economic depression,even at the expense of culture and other peoples livelihoods.
    Very depressing.
    HM: Whatever happens in the U.S. to our economy, music will continue (as in the Depresssion). Music festivals have actually proved themselves to be a fiscally responsible way to stimulate local economies and sustain people in creative work that nourishes communities. Also, I’ve heard some rumors that Portland may be reborn. Watch this space!