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John Gilbreath: Within Earshot

John Gilbreath: Within Earshot
Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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 drummers—Jimmy 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.

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