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?
I love jazz because it is simply a music of my heart since I was about 12 years old.
I was first exposed to jazz when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson play harmonica. My introduction to jazz went through blues music.