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John Gilbreath: Within Earshot

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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?


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