John Gilbreath: Within Earshot
Over the past 90 years, a music scene has been developing in the northwest corner of the US that has provided a fertile imprint on jazz. It may not be as critically important within a historical context as that of New York and New Orleans, but Seattle has a landscape that has been developed and nurtured by the caring and delicate hands of a diversity of creative individuals. It has developed its own abstract voice, its own individual personality and character in a creative world where risk and innovation is not the norm, but a requisite in order to sustain a rich and prolific existence.
For over 20 years, Earshot Jazz Executive Director John Gilbreath has been trumpeting this vibrant cultural setting. Regardless of the challenges, and there are many, he remains true and focused on the importance of moving the music forward in order for it to sustain a healthy and future existence.
Lloyd Peterson: Let's start with your roots.
John Gilbreath: I was born in Seattle but I didn't grow up here. My parents split up when I was 2 and my mother took the kids back to Minneapolis where she was originally from. So I grew up, if you want to call this growing up, in Minneapolis. And there are similarities between the Seattle and Minneapolis, especially when you look at the cultural vibrancy. But when driving between the 2 cities, you realize that there isn't really anything alike between them. You leave one and get to the other and there is a touchstone feeling about it. Additionally, there is more cultural diversity in Minneapolis and there is a larger African American population, stronger Black churches along with a great tradition of music.
When my mother passed away in 1988, I moved back to Seattle. I became involved in the construction industry as a project manager and estimator, and was interested in being involved in the arts through volunteer work. I had always been a jazz fan but I was a closet jazz fan. When I was 11 and everyone had left the house, I would play Duke Ellington records really loud and pretend that I was on the radio as a DJ. And it's interesting because I have never told anybody about this and in 1996, when somebody asked if I wanted to come on the radio, I said "Hmmm, maybe" but inside I was saying, "Yes!!!" [laughter]
My sister also lived in Seattle and knew that I was interested in jazz and told me about this organization called "Earshot" and subsequently, I began doing volunteer work for them in 1990. I worked as an usher and the first concert that I volunteered for was a concert that Earshot put together of the International Creative Music Orchestra. The Berlin Wall had just come down in 1989 and in 1990, the Goodwill Games arrived in Seattle and Earshot did the Goodwill Arts Festival that was connected with that. It was the weirdest and most wonderful performance that I had ever seen and heard and it really attracted me to this organization.
LP: So it was at this time that your role with Earshot started to expand?
JG: Yes, I became more involved but I also observed that the organization was not in good shape. There was a tremendous amount of infighting and it was very contentious. Additionally, there were financial problems and in some ways, the organization was on the verge of collapse. The woman, who was executive director at that time, was paid for two days a week, eight hours a day and didn't work a minute more than that. Clearly the organization needed stewardship.
Eventually, the woman who was running the organization left town. It was then that I submitted my name to the board and asked to be considered for the now vacant position of Executive Director. It's only paid for two days a week and this was 1991 at $10.00 an hour. The money was coming from the National Endowment of the Arts from a program called Jazz Management, which was perfectly tailored to an organization like Earshot to provide jazz infrastructure for the community.
LP: So you pretty much tailored your life around Earshot.
JG: Right, I jumped into it.
LP: So it's been about 19 years now?
JG: Yes, and it's been huge. And at times when I hear myself complain about my life, I have to throw myself up against the wall and slap myself around a little bit.
LP: Did you feel as if you had to reassess your priorities?
JG: I began to feel like my work was over here and my life was way over there and I wanted to bring them into alignment with each other. My mother was a child of the depression and once told me, "You don't do what you want to do; you do what you have to do." So she instilled in me a work ethic and at 62, I still have to get a handle on this because I have four jobs and just took on another one. But I'm not a victim, I'm a volunteer. I would rather be busy and engaged as that's where my creative juice is. I'm not good with a blank canvas but when I can come into a situation of preexisting conditions, I can come up with a pretty good idea of what needs to be done. That's where my creativity is and it's something that took me a while to realize.
LP: I believe that you also have a hobby in stone sculpturing.
JG: Yes, I do some stone sculpturing and I have been doing this for about 10 or 12 years. When confronted with a stone, there is not an unlimited amount of things that you can do. There is the mass itself, the texture, the size, and the condition of the stone. And it's the condition that determines what you can do. The task is to bring out its beauty and to work it in a way that works for both of you. But there is a paradox. It's loud and messy and when you done with it, its sits still and is really quiet for a long time. With a concert, you do it and it's gone.
Within the construction industry, your labor is concrete and you can drive by the accomplished work. It's palpable and you can get satisfaction and it's the same way with stone. But there can also be a frustration because they don't always turn out beautiful and it's the same with concerts. You can get a clinker in there every now and then and there is really nothing that you can do about it because that's just the way it goes. They're ephemeral. When they are gone they are gone unless they live on in someone else's memory.
You and I were just talking about that Fred Anderson concert in 2001 that turned out to be so marvelous. And it's not until you come in and say, "Boy, that concert is still one of my favorites," that I get the opportunity to feel satisfaction from it.
LP: Not too many kids are listening to Duke Ellington at the age of 11.
JG: You know, I went crazy for that stuff and it was the drummers that lit my fire. It literally opened the door to music for me. My mother and aunt had a prison exchange program with their kids [laughter]. So my brother and I would spend summers with my aunt in the country and when her sons went to the university, they would stay at our house in the city. We were all poor so they couldn't afford housing to attend school. As a result, it was my older cousin who started to bring over Duke Ellington records along with Dave Brubeck and the music of that time.
And the key to that doorway for me was a Duke Ellington record called Festival Session, which had two drummersJimmy Johnson and Sam Woodyard. There was a tune on there called "Idium 59," a version of "Perdido" and a three-part invention called "Dual Fuel," which used both of the drummers. They each took their own solo and then traded 2's and 4's and Ellington's joy with the music was so apparent. When listening to that recording now, I realize that there were only about 12 people in the audience clapping [laughter]. Still, when I heard that as a kid, I thought, "Wow, listen to all of those people" and I would get so excited by that.
LP: So this was a point when you knew that jazz was something special to you?
JG: Yes and the lyrics to all of those Louie Prima records from that time are still rattling around in my head and I can't tell you exactly why. Sometimes when we are at a crossroads in life, we are very aware and sometimes we are not. We're just not. And it's not until later on that we can look back and say, "Whoa, I was at a point that was important to me." But who knows what's going to stick. Country and Western music sticks with some people and sometimes it's classical and sometimes there isn't any music at all. But for me, even when the music was on in the background, I was paying attention and was present with it.
LP: Were there many kids in your neighborhood listening to jazz at that time?
JG: No, none at all. I used to hide it. When I was in High School, the Beatles came along and I was listening to that but I was also listening to jazz and would try and find some solidarity. I eventually had a couple of friends that were interested in jazz but there wasn't that much interesting going on in rock, as far as the rhythms were concerned. It was just pretty much 2's and 4's.
So I would listen to jazz records with these friends and I was also very lucky. There was a jazz club in the suburb of Minneapolis and even though I was only a teenager, I was still able to get in. I would sit for hours listening to the organic setting of the wood surfaces of the acoustic bass, the drums, the piano, the stage, and the feeling seemed so natural to me, of the planet that I was on.
LP: There seems to be a period of time that one needs to go through; a type of investment in order to fully appreciate this music. It's not in a work sense because it's a passion. Does it seem that way to you?
JG: It does and when you were just mentioning that, I also thought of the word commitment and how scary that that can be. We were making a commitment and we were in the middle of that commitment. But if someone would have said, "Boy, you have really made a commitment." We would have said, "Oh no, oh no." [laughter]
LP: If you don't go through this period it does seem as though you are going to miss out on something.
JG: Yes and it's interesting that you can listen to it for hours but other things will strike us as superficial and not compelling in that way. And back in those days; I use to think of the aspect of the word "soul." We used to say, "Oh, it has soul or that player has soul." The legend is that it was Ray Charles that brought the meaning of soul in music to the public consciousness.
I sometimes wonder how the music was satisfying us. I don't think it was really satisfying me on an intellectual level though I think I was engaged with it on that level. Rather, I was going after it with my whole spirit and it was satisfying me on a deeper level.
LP: Let's talk about jazz education.
JG: Jazz education is so popular these days and in some ways, it's almost too easy of a hook because it's become sanitized and squeaky clean. And it's become that way in an almost unfortunate way. I'm not saying that it doesn't have value because it has tremendous value and it's tremendously important.
LP: Did you receive formal music education?
JG: I started playing drums when I was 16 and I was incorrigible as a student. But I was also a messed up kid so my mother shipped me out to live with my father in Seattle to teach me some discipline. At 19, I moved back to Minneapolis and I quit playing and it was mainly because of Tony Williams. He just had so much phenomenal and exponential growth in what he was doing. I couldn't even understand what he was playing, let alone play it.
But while in Seattle, I attended a drum workshop and surprisingly, Floyd Standifer was one of the teachers. And with irony, I ended up working for 15 years with Floyd through Earshot. We designed a Roots of Jazz education program that was in place for over 10 years and it was presented to about 45,000 kids.
LP: Everything that I have heard about him was that he was such a wonderful human being and mentor.
JG: He was and he completely embodied the jazz musician. After touring Europe with Quincy Jones, he made a decision to come back to Seattle and start a house and raise a family. That tour was so ill fated. In Quincy's book, he mentions that that tour was the only time in his life that he considered suicide. It became such a train wreck over there. These guys were veterans of this kind of thing and they were marvelous musicians as well. They would come to Seattle and perform on Jackson Street up around the core of what this incredible music scene was back then.
LP: When was this time frame?
JG: The initial meeting for "Roots of Jazz" took place in 1992 in the basement of an office building off of Mountlake. I believe Clarence Acox was at the meeting but even then, he was always so busy that he didn't get to participate in the program. But essentially, we designed this piece of curriculum with members of the Local 493 Reunion Band. 493 was the Black Musicians Union and operated independently of the white's only musicians union here in Seattle until 1957, and then it joined the local 76493. Floyd, Buddy Catlett and Jabbo Ward had this band called the 493 Reunion Band and it was that band that performed at the elementary and middle Schools. The states Art Commission had a program called the Cultural Enrichment Program and they were one hour programs where we would go to one to two schools per day around the region and Floyd was at the helm.
Included were these marvelous players with tremendous chops. Jabbo Ward was an irascible character and Buddy Catlett was on bass. Billy Wallace was on piano, Paddy Patton was on drums and Clarence Thomas and Andre Thomas would rotate in on drums as well. But people would stand back when Floyd came around. I mean, he was a bad motherfucker and he was a very fiery trumpet player. So for me to be running Earshot and to be doing programs with him was so, so cool. There are so many things that are circular and how they come back around in that way. Those times were so wonderful.
LP: You have presented music from various locations from around the world within and outside of jazz. Can you talk about the intent behind your approach?
JG: As far as booking practices are concerned, there are certainly different approaches. I was just at the Molde Festival in Norway and they had Missy Elliott as one of the headliners and she is a contemporary hip hop rap artist. She had the top two floors of the hotel. But different people have different ways and philosophies of making a festival work and it's so complex.
The very first concerts that Earshot presented were a series called, New Jazz, New City, which included local artists doing original work at the New City Theater and we essentially still do that same series. The very first national concert was Cecil Taylor at the Nippon Kan Theater and in my mind that absolutely dictated the artistic direction of the organization. I still follow that. The first festival had only 9 concerts but it was clearly established. They were bringing in other traditional music from around the world that had applications of free improvisation. It was improvisation within an existing structure, whether it was classical Indian music or African music along with some of these wonderful things from Japan. There were concerts that were just astounding to me and I had no idea that music could be like that.
There was a programming philosophy that was set in this organization early on that included international music. But in order to make a jazz festival work financially, not only is the jazz audience not infinite, but it's small and in fact, it's getting smaller.
LP: How difficult is it to sustain a jazz festival today?
JG: Generally speaking, concert tickets account for about 50% of the cost of presenting a festival for a non-profit jazz organization. I believe they are selling more tickets in Europe but there is a little bit different mindset over there. Randall Kline, one of my colleagues in San Francisco has a percentage of earned income that is higher because he is so good at marketing jazz. I think he is at about 70% earned income vs. 30% contributed.
I had a little infamy during one of my first band introductions because I realized that I knew all of the people in the audience by name [laughter]. Peter Monaghan (former Earshot Editor) and I have always called them the faithful 50 but the faithful 50 really isn't 50 anymore. I think it's now the faithful 40. If you have 40 or 50 people in the audience at $12 each, it's a figure that's less than $1000. But if you have 3, 4 or 5 people on the bandstand and they are traveling from Amsterdam, it takes more than a $1,000 to put them on stage. So there has to be some kind of magical ways to make that happen otherwise, it's just not that self-sustaining at all.
And I love what we are seeing in Europe. The Dutch scene used to be a little zany in some areas but it's really astounding complex engaging improvised music and you can certainly see this all across Northern Europe. There is a willingness to make some serious music but there is also a willingness not to take it so serious in the delivery. It's wrapped around something that is a little bit more palpable for the audience.
So to do a festival that is comprehensive and includes a lot of aspects of programming is a great idea and is a very practical and pragmatic approach. But there also has to be performances that have at least a chance of breaking even as the presentation of creative jazz is never self sustaining commercially. It's just not commercially viable.
LP: Is there a correlation between your personal music interests and what you present?
JG: The juice for me is where the art form is moving forward on its own but also intersecting with other traditional music. Jazz has always borrowed from, and has exchanged fluid with other traditional music. It has a gypsy like precedent and it doesn't have geographical, racial or other kinds of boundaries. It wants to share and it wants to expand. And that's one of the paradoxes of the art form that makes it difficult to place infrastructure around. In some ways, it demands to be different. It wants to be different this year from the way that it was last year and in doing so, it risks alienating the small audience it already has and it makes it more challenging to market and sell. It won't sit still long enough to say, "This is what it is!"
Over the previous several years, there has been a vibrant and clearly distinctive expression of jazz around the world that is enriching the art form immeasurably. With this year's festival, there are performances that even those that self identify themselves as jazz fans will have never heard of. And economically, that's just not really safe ground to be moving on because the audience that already exists, isn't big in the first place. And when you provide them with music that they have not heard before or that they may not even want to hear, it becomes a little dangerous.
I also prefer to take the long term approach with this music in order to try and nurture its growth and wellness. We have to present new ground and new things to audiences that haven't been presented before and facilitate that forward. You have to allow this thing to grow on its own terms but I'm also not naive enough to think that a bunch of white guys in a corporate board room can say, "Well jazz is in trouble; we have to help it," and expect to be the saviors of jazz.
And like any vibrant art form, art happens in spite of and mainly because of the challenges. One could argue and perhaps naively that it becomes more enriched because of the challenges. But it's also true that musicians have to eat and have to stay alive to be able to do it again and again and again. And it's not glamorous life. They are the last one to bed and the first to get up. It's the traveling, the bad food, the bad air and not particularly good accommodations. I have such great respect for touring musicians. So that's a long answer to the short question.
LP: Have you found any common traits amongst those that have been attending the festivals since you began?
JG: There is an interesting paradox within the jazz world but in a way, I think the jazz crowd likes it that way [laughter]. They like to be rugged individualists and like to like the things that other people don't like. They are also critical and analytical thinkers. They are not particularly social people and are not particularly looking to interact with each other. They are looking to engage with the music and to their credit, are looking to engage with the music on a deeper level and that's a wonderful thing. Subsequently, the music can give that back to people and it can demand a more serious engagement. But when we look around us, the world doesn't seem to be heading towards serious engagement. In fact, engagements seem to be becoming more superficial but we like things that are not assimilated into greater popular culture.
LP: As you mentioned, Earshot has a reputation of providing performances by musicians that the audience was not previously familiar with. But in addition to that and it's something that you do on the radio as well, almost everything that you do has an intent to serve the music in a broad and interesting way. Unfortunately, there is very little of this approach on the radio anymore.
JG: With radio, there is only so far that you can go. Radio stations require at least a few listeners in order to stay alive. They tend to reinforce this feeling of jazz in a historical context, of something that has already happened and that is not happening now. I think we saw this with the Ken Burns documentary and on some level, that was really upsetting people, but I don't see that as a bad thing. Ken Burns said, "I'm an historian and a documentary film maker, I'm not a jazz fan" [laughter]. So he wasn't trying to please us. But again, since the core jazz audience is so critical, they tend to be overly contentious. However, we are all not floating in a very large boat and can ill afford to be throwing each other out of it so readily [laughter].
LP: Well said...
JG: We all have to try and get along.
With radio, I try to make it work on a number of different levels. We still have to have listeners out there, not put them off entirely and still be able to stretch the possibilities. One of the Europeans that came to one of the concerts last year said, "There is so much more radio in America and so much less music."
LP: Oh, that hurts...
JG: Yeah, right...and with jazz radio, they want your bar graph to go on these smooth lines that kind of emulate and wave, and are not jagged. They need to find the largest numbers that they can. But over time, jazz has become this sonic wallpaper for the busy life of the white middle class. They want it to be pleasant and they want it to be heard.
We are also willing to go to a film that is graphically violent and deeply disturbing on profound psychological levels and walk out of the theater and say, "That was a great film." However, most don't want that in music and are just not willing to sit still for the most part and listen to challenging music. For classical music, the audience is getting older and passing on, or they are not supporting any contemporary music or any dissonance or extreme variation from the norm. But in order for the art to survive, it cannot stay where it was. It has to be an expression of the culture that is going on around it.
LP: What is it that drives you?
JG: Well, I am terribly self-critical so I don't really need critics because I can hammer on myself a lot more effectively than anybody else. And it's really as much of a curse as a blessing. I don't see myself in altruistic terms. For me, I am just doing something that is not entirely selfish but is consistent with my values and it took me at least half of my life to hone those values and to realize that I carried those values. It took me another segment of time to put into action the changes that would lead me to consistently live those values. And that is what is called the crux of the biscuit [laughter].
Betty Carter used to tell singers that you have to learn to sing like everybody else but at some point you have to find your own voice and set all of those other things aside and find the one that is you. So when I was in the middle of this process, I didn't look at it in grandiose terms. I thought to myself, I need to get this shit together and find out what life is going to be.
There are so many people that want to be doing one thing but are doing something else. I am now 62 and only have $200 in my savings account and that's the extent of my retirement. At my current lifestyle, that will get me through about a half of a week [laughter]. You have to identify what's important and then do the things that are consistent with those values. And I would like to believe that someone will care of me for the rest of my life but in the back of my consciousness, there is an image of me pushing a shopping cart around and sleeping in a cardboard box [laughter].
But I am living a comfortable life now and I do value it. And to be doing radio every day, something that I wanted to do so much that I never told anybody [sigh]... it's great and someday we will do this jazz festival throughout the year. And because of my experience in that workshop with Floyd here in Seattle when I was16 years old, I find myself doing something that has a direct correlation to the seeds that were planted way back then.
I also love working with Seattle artists and I think it's so important and it's like the saying goes, "Think locally and act globally." We have to nurture our own artists, nourish our own scenes with the two employees that we have [Program Manager Karen Caropepe, and Danielle Bias, Earshot Editor] along with the modest budget that we have to raise every year. And you know, we do this as much as possible. And for me, to have young people come to me that are in mid career for whom I was instrumental in helping realize their gift or the value of their life's work; it's a very wonderful thing. That's payday for me and repays me on a deeper level.
But I still have my mother's voice and there was a time that I went to visit her and she said, "I am trying to figure out what to do with my life and what I should have done with my life." And I said, "Well, you told me, you don't get to do what you want to do, you do what you have to do." And she looked at me and said; "Well, I think I was wrong." That was about a year before I started to change my life around. And so for me, I love this, I love the juice of it but it's also true that the more people you are able to help, the more people you are able to piss off in the process. And so there is so much more that we could be doing and that we should be doing for this organization of Earshot Jazz.
And we are so lucky....to have that article in The New York Times last Sunday [September 23, 2010] on the Seattle jazz scene. I call it jazz ecology and it pisses some people off but I think of it in those types of holistic organic terms. It's self revealing and there is a value system here for jazz in this city to the extent that this organization has played a roll in. That's good and I'm happy. But it's not just one thing; it's a whole group of things. It's all the different factions, the insiders and the outsiders, the modernists and the traditionalists and the educational institutions and the renegade collective of people. It's all of those things together.
And yes, those are contentious people who don't necessarily get along and they all think they are doing the right thing but when you look at the whole picture, those are all individual voices singing together in relative harmony. And that's a great scene. There are very few cities that are blessed with that kind of sensibility.
Our Improvised Music Festival is the longest running festival of improvisational music in the country and that says something about the environment here as well. And at the same time, we have Origin records that is making a name nationally and putting out high quality, pristine mainstream jazz. So there are different aspects of this thing and we are really lucky to have it.
And there are times when presenting European Improvisers that I look out in the audience of only 30 or 40 people, and the artists have traveled half way around the globe, and I think, "Why do we do this? What is the value of it? Where is the sign that the value is right? What is the indication that we are doing the right thing?" And it's certainly not because the numbers add up because the numbers don't add up. Everybody in the food chain is losing money. And to add insult to injury, the work visa process is so cumbersome, so hurtful and so expensive that it's even more of a challenge for artists to come and work here. And if they try to come here as tourists, they can get blacklisted for 10 years.
But I still think we all need to travel more and get out and see the rest of the world and be aware of two things. How we are perceived from the outside world and how our perception of the outside world is different than the reality of what's happening in other places globally. It can help us learn and bring different qualities into our own lives.
And it's funny, this word, "Earshot" which I did not come up with but it's an interesting metaphor for me and my experience with music. I'm not making the music but I'm within Earshot of it. So we're putting it on the stage and we are helping facilitate as best we can to nurture it for the future of the art form. It's a really great thing.
Seattle's 2010 Earshot Jazz Festival will take place between October 15th and November 7th, 2010.