Paul de Barros: Critically Speaking
“ Seattle has the best regional jazz scene in the country. There's absolutely no question in my mind about it. ”
Admittedly, Paul de Barros could use a good ass-kicking. As the only on-staff jazz critic in a city with four major newspapers and a local scene overflowing with clubs and exceptional musicians, de Barros is in need of some healthy competition. Make that any competition. Criticism is the big missing ingredient in our juicy jazz scene, according to de Barros, who notes, regrettably, "When Roberta Penn was at the (Seattle) P-I, at least I had to worry if she was going to scoop me on something. There's nobody writing about jazz at The Weekly, The Stranger or the P-I, and that's very sad."
An artful writer, interesting, informative, opinionated, with a wealth of knowledge, and a touch of arrogance, to back up his take on all things musical, de Barros' approach to criticism is direct and unforgiving when it needs to be, reminiscent of Robert Conrad with a battery on his shoulder, daring you to knock it off. Local challengers to the jazz critic title would be hard pressed to last a few rounds with de Barros, whose resume includes co-founding the Earshot Jazz Society, authoring Jackson Street After Hours, freelancing for Down Beat Magazine, and 20+ years at the Seattle Times. In fact, he is one of only three on-staff jazz critics in the country working at a major newspaper: the other two being Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune and Ben Ratliff at the New York Times.
Few people know more about Seattle jazz and have worked harder to encourage its development over the last 25 years than de Barros, who moved here from the San Francisco Bay area via Vancouver B.C. Born in Beverly Hills and raised in Palo Alto, he played clarinet and saxophone in various school bands, enrolled as a music major at UC Berkeley, attended the Berklee School of Music in the summer of '64, decided it wasn't for him, and then re-enrolled at UC Berkeley, this time as an English major focused on poetry, fiction and writing annual reviews of the Monterey Jazz Festival for the campus paper.
After college and a move to the Cariboo district of B.C., Paul, quite by accident, picked up his horn again and began jamming with friends, and writing about it, creating mental pictures of the music and translating them into words.
In '79 de Barros moved again, this time to Seattle where he got a job teaching English as a second language to immigrants while his wife, Judy, enrolled in Antioch College. Over the next three years, de Barros began freelance writing for The Seattle Times, The Weekly, and Down Beat, covering a strong local jazz scene at Cornish, Jazz Alley and Parnell's, with hot local players the likes of Gary Peacock, Dave Peck, Al Hood, Jim Knapp, Dave Peterson, Marc Seales and Chuck Deardorf.
The scene dipped, however, in the early '80s: Parnell's closed down; Jazz Alley scaled back its music; some musicians left town or just quit playing. Plus, there was no real jazz society, no jazz festival, no community funding, and no jazz magazine to report on and unify the local community. This shift in the landscape prompted de Barros to write a controversial article for The Weekly in May of '84, titled "Will Seattle Jazz Please Grow Up?" The city's new, outspoken jazz critic delivered an ass-kicking, to himself and the rest of the community that would help determine the future of jazz in Seattle.
All About Jazz: In 1984 you wrote a cover story for The Seattle Weekly criticizing the local scene. What was that all about? What was happening at that time?
PdB: At that time the Seattle jazz scene looked really good and healthy from the outside, but in that article, I said, this is how it looks from a musician's point of view from the inside. There's not enough work and there's a lot of mediocre work and the standards here are, well, you had a critic at the PI in those days, Maggie Hawthorn, who completely ignored the local scene.
You had people like Maggie, who had very high standards who acted like there was no local scene. You know, if somebody like Jim Knapp asked her to write about him, she would say, "Who are you? Some self-promoting freak?" And that's not to say she wasn't a good jazz writer or very well-informed, because she was. Or you had people like Chris Lunn at Victory music, on the other side, who if you said you were from Seattle and you were doing a gig, then you were automatically the greatest thing since sliced bread, and you were an eclectic local person because all great culture was local.
And I was somewhere in between. I really felt like all culture is local and without a local scene you can't go anywhere, but you also need to have some standards, and one of the things that was really bad about the local scene was there were all these situations where musicians were going into a club and they were complaining to me that they didn't have an audience and I would say, "What are you doing, exactly? Tunes out of The Real Book? That's really hip. And how long are your solos? Seventeen choruses? Well, A, the general audience doesn't know any of the tunes you're playing, and B, your solos are too long, and C, this isn't a regular group so you sound like shit. And you wonder why nobody is coming in?" I didn't say it that harshly, but that was part of what I said in that article:
One of the reasons that jazz isn't working here is that a lot of it is not very good, and the musicians are telling people that it's the audience's fault for not liking it, that's one problem. The other problem is that we don't really have a magazine. At this point I was really up against it at the Seattle Times with an editor who, when I would come in and say "I want to write about Milt Jackson," he'd say "Who's that?", much less if I wanted to write about Michael Bisio or Denney Goodhew.
So there was no outlet to write about jazz, so nobody could find out about it. There was no jazz society that was functional. There was the Washington Jazz Society, which was a bunch of old fuddy-duddies whose idea of a great time was to go out to the San Juan Island Dixieland Festival or something. They weren't just Dixieland people, but they were really caught in a bebop time-warp. Nice people. Patti Caudill was the head of the WJS, and Ed Foulkes was this wonderful guy who worked as a custodian.
Anyway, there was no infrastructure for jazz. There was no radio, no good radio. There wasn't anyplace you could read about the music. In a city that had a really strong non-profit structure for the arts, jazz wasn't a member of that club. You had the Seattle Arts Commission, the King County Arts Commission, the Washington State Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and none of that money was going for jazz, and having come from a heavily subsidized arts scene in Canada, that just seemed crazy to me. So Gary Bannister and Allen Youngblood and I sat down at my dining room table in October of 1984 and made a plan. We wrote down everything, this document by the way is still in the Earshot office, and (John) Gilbreath has never given it up; I've asked for it over and over again.
But it was basically a plan to change things. And we asked ourselves what's needed, and we'd already talked to a lot of musicians to find out what is needed, and what can we do at this time? What's feasible for us so that we don't burn out? Because by this time, Herb Levy and Gary Bannister had just burned out on doing these kind of guerilla concerts. They'd put all this time and money into it and then quit, they had to go on and survive, and that had happened to so many people trying to support the jazz scene. A lot of musicians had quit, and just said, "Screw it: I'm not going to play music anymore." So the one thing that we said that we could do, since I had already edited a literary magazine, was to edit a little magazine.
So in December of 1984 we started Earshot Jazz magazine. In fact it was just called Earshot. That was the beginning. We didn't even commit to doing it monthly. We were that short of time. We all had gigs ourselves; we didn't have that much time to do it. But it really made a difference. It brought the community together. My vision of it was that if you were a musician you could see your own face in there, see a review of your stuff, which you weren't going to see in the Seattle Times or the P-I, and that there would be listings for all the gigs and advertisements for the clubs, so there would be some kind of a focus for people to come together, and it really did function that way.
But we let it grow organically. Through '85 I think we did six issues. I mean, you know this from doing All About Jazz, how much work it is. The office so to speak was upstairs where my study used to be. In '87 Gary got the bug to do concerts. He said we should start presenting music. The magazine was up, and by this time we had more people working on it. Sandy Burlingame, Jeff Ferguson, Bruce Kochis, Mark Solomon, who'd been a DJ at KPLU, had come into the picture. Jeff sold ads for the magazine. Lola Pedrini, who I'd met through Victory Music, came in and got involved.
We had a nexus of about ten or twelve people. My wife Judy was doing the books for the magazine, making sure the bills got paid. It was a family operation, but it was starting to grow. And Gary said we really should do concerts, and I said, well that's nice but I'm not going to participate; if you want to do concerts then do them yourself. And then he kind of dragged me into it, and I said "We can't just do it like you guys did it, with no money. I'm not going to do it with no money: we're going to get a grant."
So I called a guy named Dan Caine, who I'd met because he was involved with New City Theater, and I'd started to review theater as a stringer for the theater writer at the Seattle Times, Wayne Johnson. Dan had written grants for the New City Theater company, and so I called Dan up and I said, "How do you write a grant?" And he came over and taught me. So I wrote a grant and we got some money and then we had some meetings about what the concerts should be, and this is getting back to that Real Book thing. At the meetings I said, "Well I think one of the problems here is that nobody writes their own music, or if they write it, they don't present it. I don't want to hear everybody play 'Maiden Voyage,' I want to hear their own music. So let's say you can't play in this concert series unless you write your own music."
It was a way to attract attention, but it was also a statement to people in the music community: If you really think you're so great, and you want to compete on a national level with people that you say you're just as good as, here's your chance. I had musicians telling me, "Why do you always write about the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Milt Jackson and not me? I'm right here in your own back yard." Well my answer to that was, "Why don't you make some music as good as those guys make and then we'll write about it, or we'll present it." And the theme of this article that I published in the Weekly, to go back to 1984, kind of had that. The tone of it was kind of an ass-kicking tone to the community of like, "Yeah, there's a lot of talent here, and yeah, there's a lot going on, but when are you guys going to start playing with the kind of self-regard that you're demanding from the public? When are you going to come out on stage and act as professional as the people that we do write about? And I don't mean put on an act; I mean really think your music is as good as you're telling us that it is."
And I got a lot of phone calls. A lot. And fifty percent of them were on my side. And I think that article, you can ask musicians, I think that article had a big effect. Yeah, I'm in your corner, I believe in you, but why don't you start acting like grown ups? I think the headline on it was "Will Seattle Jazz Please Grow Up?", and I was sort of asking for it to grow up. Then, at a certain point I realized that if I'm going to ask it to grow up I can't just stand on the sidelines. I'm going to have to help. So we started the magazine, and then we started doing the concerts, and we demanded that all the music be original, and they were a huge success. We sold out most of the concerts at the New City Theater. We did ten or twelve concerts in the spring of '87, and then we did ten or twelve more in the fall. We did six seasons.