John Gilbreath: Within Earshot
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.