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Paul de Barros: Critically Speaking

By Published: March 13, 2007

AAJ: Is that what Earshot was publicizing it as, a strictly public poll for the various awards?

PdB: Well, the language was always a little hedgy. It was "This is by popular vote, or something or other," and that "something or other" was John saying, well, I think so and so has 150 friends so we're not going to give it to them; we're going to give it to this record which I think is better. Well, to me that is funky. It wasn't a transparent process. So that's what I said that night, and then I felt a little embarrassed to be getting an award which was purportedly coming from the community, but clearly was coming from John Gilbreath, and there were political reasons for him to give me that award and it didn't feel right.

The larger criticism that I made that night had to do with the organization having become somewhat disconnected from the community, and I said that only because musicians were saying that to me over and over, they wouldn't go on the record saying it and they felt like they couldn't say it because part of their livelihoods depended on having a good relationship with John and Earshot, so it's a very touchy situation for the musicians involved, but I felt like I'd heard it enough times that it was something that needed to be said publicly.

And I thought that I framed it in a pretty reasonable way in that I compared it to what had happened to Bumbershoot (in the '90s). Bumbershoot's response to losing touch with the youth community, the grunge community, was to have a series of community meetings and ask people what they needed to do. So that's what I recommended that night, that Earshot go back out into the community and ask people, "What do you want?" Not, "Who do you want us to book at the festival?" But, "What do you want from the organization?"

And that's the only real criticism that I have under John. Essentially he's fulfilled the legacy of the organization as we set it up, all those things that we scribbled on paper that day, to have a magazine where you could read about local players, where local players could see themselves, to have a festival, educational programs. My big disappointment is that I really felt like Earshot could be a kind of ecumenical umbrella for people of all persuasions, where everybody in the community, fans, musicians, would all feel welcome. That may be a kind of idealism that wasn't possible because I didn't carry it on into an era where it had a two or three hundred thousand dollar budget, where the risks area a little higher.

But I've found that the musicians don't relate to the organization. I've also found that big portions of the audience who have a more mainstream idea of jazz aren't really invited or included. By this time in its history I would have expected Earshot to really have grown into a much larger embrace of the jazz community that would include everybody from David Sanborn to John Zorn, and it's not that. John (Gilbreath), I feel, is a very cautious leader, which in some ways has been really good. He's made sure that he hasn't lost money. He never makes a move without triangulating it and checking it out with a lot of people, and that's a good thing, but it can also kind of work you into a very careful niche and I feel like that's what he did with his festival.

I feel like he let the organization down and let the community down in abandoning presenting local music during the rest of the year, which he used to do at Jazz Alley every month. He's a pretty volatile guy; he's fought with a lot of people in town, including me, so he's gotten Earshot kicked out of a lot of places, which is too bad. On the other hand, in terms of presenting local music, when I was out the other night (at the Seattle Drum School) to see Jim Knapp's band, were you there?

AAJ: Yes.

PdB: The music was good but there was also this kind of joy in the audience that I rarely feel at an Earshot concert, and I'm not sure how to put my finger on that or why that's the case, but that's how I always had envisioned Earshot events being for the local community: the local community coming out to hear local people, not exclusively, because I also wish the festival were bigger and more embracing, so I guess at both those levels I've been a little disappointed in where the organization is going.

By the same token, it's a different jazz scene that were dealing with now, where you have clubs like Tula's and Bake's Place and Gallery 1412 that present local music every night or every week, so maybe you don't need a jazz society doing concerts that sponsor local music, maybe not in terms of the number of gigs anyway. But I feel the spirit isn't there, and it's a spirit that I really do feel at something like the Ballard Jazz Festival. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what that is, whether it has something to do with John's personality or the organization's development or musicians' attitudes toward it. I don't know but I know that it's not right.

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