Admittedly, Paul de Barros could use a good ass-kicking. As the only on-staff jazz critic in a city with four major newspapers and a local scene overflowing with clubs and exceptional musicians, de Barros is in need of some healthy competition. Make that any competition. Criticism is the big missing ingredient in our juicy jazz scene, according to de Barros, who notes, regrettably, "When Roberta Penn was at the (Seattle) P-I
, at least I had to worry if she was going to scoop me on something. There's nobody writing about jazz at The Weekly
, The Stranger
or the P-I
, and that's very sad."
An artful writer, interesting, informative, opinionated, with a wealth of knowledge, and a touch of arrogance, to back up his take on all things musical, de Barros' approach to criticism is direct and unforgiving when it needs to be, reminiscent of Robert Conrad with a battery on his shoulder, daring you to knock it off. Local challengers to the jazz critic title would be hard pressed to last a few rounds with de Barros, whose resume includes co-founding the Earshot Jazz Society, authoring Jackson Street After Hours, freelancing for Down Beat Magazine, and 20+ years at the Seattle Times. In fact, he is one of only three on-staff jazz critics in the country working at a major newspaper: the other two being Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune and Ben Ratliff at the New York Times.
Few people know more about Seattle jazz and have worked harder to encourage its development over the last 25 years than de Barros, who moved here from the San Francisco Bay area via Vancouver B.C. Born in Beverly Hills and raised in Palo Alto, he played clarinet and saxophone in various school bands, enrolled as a music major at UC Berkeley, attended the Berklee School of Music in the summer of '64, decided it wasn't for him, and then re-enrolled at UC Berkeley, this time as an English major focused on poetry, fiction and writing annual reviews of the Monterey Jazz Festival for the campus paper.
After college and a move to the Cariboo district of B.C., Paul, quite by accident, picked up his horn again and began jamming with friends, and writing about it, creating mental pictures of the music and translating them into words.
In '79 de Barros moved again, this time to Seattle where he got a job teaching English as a second language to immigrants while his wife, Judy, enrolled in Antioch College. Over the next three years, de Barros began freelance writing for The Seattle Times, The Weekly, and Down Beat, covering a strong local jazz scene at Cornish, Jazz Alley and Parnell's, with hot local players the likes of Gary Peacock, Dave Peck, Al Hood, Jim Knapp, Dave Peterson, Marc Seales and Chuck Deardorf.
The scene dipped, however, in the early '80s: Parnell's closed down; Jazz Alley scaled back its music; some musicians left town or just quit playing. Plus, there was no real jazz society, no jazz festival, no community funding, and no jazz magazine to report on and unify the local community. This shift in the landscape prompted de Barros to write a controversial article for The Weekly in May of '84, titled "Will Seattle Jazz Please Grow Up?" The city's new, outspoken jazz critic delivered an ass-kicking, to himself and the rest of the community that would help determine the future of jazz in Seattle.
All About Jazz: In 1984 you wrote a cover story for The Seattle Weekly criticizing the local scene. What was that all about? What was happening at that time?
PdB: At that time the Seattle jazz scene looked really good and healthy from the outside, but in that article, I said, this is how it looks from a musician's point of view from the inside. There's not enough work and there's a lot of mediocre work and the standards here are, well, you had a critic at the PI in those days, Maggie Hawthorn, who completely ignored the local scene.
You had people like Maggie, who had very high standards who acted like there was no local scene. You know, if somebody like Jim Knapp asked her to write about him, she would say, "Who are you? Some self-promoting freak?" And that's not to say she wasn't a good jazz writer or very well-informed, because she was. Or you had people like Chris Lunn at Victory music, on the other side, who if you said you were from Seattle and you were doing a gig, then you were automatically the greatest thing since sliced bread, and you were an eclectic local person because all great culture was local.
And I was somewhere in between. I really felt like all culture is local and without a local scene you can't go anywhere, but you also need to have some standards, and one of the things that was really bad about the local scene was there were all these situations where musicians were going into a club and they were complaining to me that they didn't have an audience and I would say, "What are you doing, exactly? Tunes out of The Real Book? That's really hip. And how long are your solos? Seventeen choruses? Well, A, the general audience doesn't know any of the tunes you're playing, and B, your solos are too long, and C, this isn't a regular group so you sound like shit. And you wonder why nobody is coming in?" I didn't say it that harshly, but that was part of what I said in that article:
One of the reasons that jazz isn't working here is that a lot of it is not very good, and the musicians are telling people that it's the audience's fault for not liking it, that's one problem. The other problem is that we don't really have a magazine. At this point I was really up against it at the Seattle Times with an editor who, when I would come in and say "I want to write about Milt Jackson," he'd say "Who's that?", much less if I wanted to write about Michael Bisio or Denney Goodhew.
So there was no outlet to write about jazz, so nobody could find out about it. There was no jazz society that was functional. There was the Washington Jazz Society, which was a bunch of old fuddy-duddies whose idea of a great time was to go out to the San Juan Island Dixieland Festival or something. They weren't just Dixieland people, but they were really caught in a bebop time-warp. Nice people. Patti Caudill was the head of the WJS, and Ed Foulkes was this wonderful guy who worked as a custodian.
Anyway, there was no infrastructure for jazz. There was no radio, no good radio. There wasn't anyplace you could read about the music. In a city that had a really strong non-profit structure for the arts, jazz wasn't a member of that club. You had the Seattle Arts Commission, the King County Arts Commission, the Washington State Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and none of that money was going for jazz, and having come from a heavily subsidized arts scene in Canada, that just seemed crazy to me. So Gary Bannister and Allen Youngblood and I sat down at my dining room table in October of 1984 and made a plan. We wrote down everything, this document by the way is still in the Earshot office, and (John) Gilbreath has never given it up; I've asked for it over and over again.
But it was basically a plan to change things. And we asked ourselves what's needed, and we'd already talked to a lot of musicians to find out what is needed, and what can we do at this time? What's feasible for us so that we don't burn out? Because by this time, Herb Levy and Gary Bannister had just burned out on doing these kind of guerilla concerts. They'd put all this time and money into it and then quit, they had to go on and survive, and that had happened to so many people trying to support the jazz scene. A lot of musicians had quit, and just said, "Screw it: I'm not going to play music anymore." So the one thing that we said that we could do, since I had already edited a literary magazine, was to edit a little magazine.
So in December of 1984 we started Earshot Jazz magazine. In fact it was just called Earshot. That was the beginning. We didn't even commit to doing it monthly. We were that short of time. We all had gigs ourselves; we didn't have that much time to do it. But it really made a difference. It brought the community together. My vision of it was that if you were a musician you could see your own face in there, see a review of your stuff, which you weren't going to see in the Seattle Times or the P-I, and that there would be listings for all the gigs and advertisements for the clubs, so there would be some kind of a focus for people to come together, and it really did function that way.
But we let it grow organically. Through '85 I think we did six issues. I mean, you know this from doing All About Jazz, how much work it is. The office so to speak was upstairs where my study used to be. In '87 Gary got the bug to do concerts. He said we should start presenting music. The magazine was up, and by this time we had more people working on it. Sandy Burlingame, Jeff Ferguson, Bruce Kochis, Mark Solomon, who'd been a DJ at KPLU, had come into the picture. Jeff sold ads for the magazine. Lola Pedrini, who I'd met through Victory Music, came in and got involved.
We had a nexus of about ten or twelve people. My wife Judy was doing the books for the magazine, making sure the bills got paid. It was a family operation, but it was starting to grow. And Gary said we really should do concerts, and I said, well that's nice but I'm not going to participate; if you want to do concerts then do them yourself. And then he kind of dragged me into it, and I said "We can't just do it like you guys did it, with no money. I'm not going to do it with no money: we're going to get a grant."
So I called a guy named Dan Caine, who I'd met because he was involved with New City Theater, and I'd started to review theater as a stringer for the theater writer at the Seattle Times, Wayne Johnson. Dan had written grants for the New City Theater company, and so I called Dan up and I said, "How do you write a grant?" And he came over and taught me. So I wrote a grant and we got some money and then we had some meetings about what the concerts should be, and this is getting back to that Real Book thing. At the meetings I said, "Well I think one of the problems here is that nobody writes their own music, or if they write it, they don't present it. I don't want to hear everybody play 'Maiden Voyage,' I want to hear their own music. So let's say you can't play in this concert series unless you write your own music."
It was a way to attract attention, but it was also a statement to people in the music community: If you really think you're so great, and you want to compete on a national level with people that you say you're just as good as, here's your chance. I had musicians telling me, "Why do you always write about the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Milt Jackson and not me? I'm right here in your own back yard." Well my answer to that was, "Why don't you make some music as good as those guys make and then we'll write about it, or we'll present it." And the theme of this article that I published in the Weekly, to go back to 1984, kind of had that. The tone of it was kind of an ass-kicking tone to the community of like, "Yeah, there's a lot of talent here, and yeah, there's a lot going on, but when are you guys going to start playing with the kind of self-regard that you're demanding from the public? When are you going to come out on stage and act as professional as the people that we do write about? And I don't mean put on an act; I mean really think your music is as good as you're telling us that it is."
And I got a lot of phone calls. A lot. And fifty percent of them were on my side. And I think that article, you can ask musicians, I think that article had a big effect. Yeah, I'm in your corner, I believe in you, but why don't you start acting like grown ups? I think the headline on it was "Will Seattle Jazz Please Grow Up?", and I was sort of asking for it to grow up. Then, at a certain point I realized that if I'm going to ask it to grow up I can't just stand on the sidelines. I'm going to have to help. So we started the magazine, and then we started doing the concerts, and we demanded that all the music be original, and they were a huge success. We sold out most of the concerts at the New City Theater. We did ten or twelve concerts in the spring of '87, and then we did ten or twelve more in the fall. We did six seasons.
AAJ: All local musicians?
PdB : All local musicians.
AAJ: With original music?
PdB: With original music. And then in '89, this grew so organically, it was really nice, we realized we needed our own organization to get our own grants. So we formed a board of directors and we became Earshot Jazz, a non-profit organization, and we kept doing the magazine, which ran monthly, we put on the concerts, and then the next step was to do a festival.
Mark Solomon was the guy who really wanted to do a jazz festival, and you have to recall that there had been a jazz festival in '82 and '83 that was kind of a franchise deal that George Wein did called the KOOL Jazz festival, and there had been a jazz festival in the 70's that Jim Wilke had been involved in presenting, but we had no jazz festival other than the Bellevue Jazz Festival, which was all local musicians, which was great. Seattle, for what ever reason has always supported its local culture and that's a wonderful thing. So no other city had a jazz festival like the Bellevue Jazz Festival, but what we didn't have was a JVC Jazz Festival or a Monterey Jazz Festival or a big festival that brought in people from all over the world, and so Mark was really hot to trot on that.
AAJ: The Bellevue festival was a small one, right?
PdB: That's right. It was one weekend, in the summer.
AAJ: So Mark was rarin' to go.
PdB: He was rarin' to go and I was like, "Oh, Mark, you don't want to get into that, man." But at the last (Earshot) concert, Julian Priester and Ralph Towner, or Julian Priester had gotten this big grant for $15,000 to compose new music, and we collaborated with him on that to do that concert. And that was such a big success, Mark kind of won me over, and Gary and I said "Okay, maybe we should do a festival."
So Mark pretty much broke the whole thing and most of it was at the Nippon Kan, this was 1989, and it was wonderful: Jay McShann and Carla Bley. Was Sun Ra that year? I can't remember, but it was a really good festival and it sold reasonably well. It was a nice mix of mainstream and avant-garde stuff and local things, a nice mix. I was really proud of the festival, but Earshot had become so big and so prominent, I mean big in relative terms, that I was getting to the point where the Seattle Times was saying to me, "You can't do this anymore. It's a conflict of interest." So for a while I quit writing for the Seattle Times and I ran the organization as a volunteer executive director.
Then I just burned out on that; I wasn't making any money. So I left Earshot and went back to the Seattle Times. And I said, "You know, if you guys want me to run this thing (Earshot), you're going to have to pay me." At the time it might have sounded egotistical, but I said, "I'm sorry, I can't do this. If you want to run it, run it by yourself." And it was run as a kind of collective for a while. But a guy named Ted Dzielak, who helped me immeasurably with writing the Jackson Street book (Jackson Street After Hours), came in and got a grant from the NEA through a new program called Jazz Management; and they got $12,000 for an executive director, and I came back as the executive director. Paid, quote unquote. (laughs)
The irony is it turned out to be a two-year grant, so it was really only $6,000 a year. I did that for a little while. The other big element that I hadn't really seen in this kind of global analysis of what the jazz scene really needed was that it also had no sense of its own history. So in the magazine we started doing these interviews with people and called it The Roots of Seattle Jazz, and that was the beginning of what would become this book Jackson Street After Hours.
One of the interviews that I did was with Jabo Ward, and Jabo was really kind of pissed off that I didn't know about this whole scene that had happened here in the '40s and '50s, like, "Who the fuck do you think you are to write about jazz? You know we used to have a real jazz scene with Quincy Jones and Bumps Blackwell", and he went on and talked to me for about 45 minutes. Of course I knew Ernestine's (Anderson) background, but I really didn't know that that was a local scene, nobody did, other than black people his age. So I made a very large mental note of that, and when we first started Earshot I said, "You know we should really document the history here," because I could see there had been this real disjunction, a kind of disruption in history.
In the '60s and '70s there was hardly any jazz, and then suddenly you had this influx of these new guys like Marc Seales and Dave Peck and Chuck Deardorf, who were the new generation, and they didn't know too much about what had come before, or quote unquote outsiders like Art Lande and Gary Peacock and Julian Priester, who had come in from other scenes, and there was a disconnection between the jazz scene as it existed and the jazz scene as it had been before. I thought, well maybe we can tell that story and reconnect, because not only do you need a mirror to see yourself in, you also need to know where you came from to know who you are.
So in the process of doing the research for that article and thinking about doing the concert series and the magazine, I really made this kind of global analysis about the scene. I got a grant from the King County Heritage Commission in 1988 (to write the book), but by 1990 when I took on the job and started getting paid to be the executive director of Earshot, I started getting some pressure to finish it, because I'd already missed the first deadline in '89, which was the centennial of Washington State. So I resigned as the director and threw myself into the book full-time, as full-time as I could because I was writing for the Seattle Times and started to work for (the Seattle) Folklife (Festival) as the program director.
Finally got the book finished in the fall of 1993, and to be honest with you it was the most astonishing transformation I'd ever scene. I'd always thought that historical transformations happen slowly; I felt like, yeah, people will read this book and eventually it will sink in that there's a relationship between the jazz scene now and what was before. That book wasn't out three months and I had people talking to me and saying, "Oh, yeah, yeah, it's like the old Jackson Street scene in Seattle", and I was like, "Excuse me?" Suddenly that book had become absorbed into the parlance of the city as if it had always been there, and people talked about it as if they always knew that. This was a huge shock to me.
AAJ: Maybe they did know?
PdB: No they didn't. They didn't know shit about it because I did the research. I would ask people about it and they didn't know anything.
AAJ: Except for the older people.
PdB: Except for the older people. For example, somebody like you would sit here and, now that you know about it, would say, "Oh yeah, like the old Jackson Street scene," and I'd say, "How do you know about that? There's only one way you know about that, and that's because of this book." I'm not bragging on myself, I'm saying that what astonished me was how fast it was absorbed by the local culture; and I was so proud of that. Now that connection is made. People come here from the outside, like (Seattle vibraphonist) Ben Thomas, who came here ten years ago, and he told me that one of the first things that he did was read the Jackson Street book because it was so cool that Seattle had this history, and he felt like he couldn't play music here without knowing the history. Well, Dave Peck and Chuck Deardorf and Marc Seales didn't say that in 1977. They said, "I want to get a gig at Parnell's." I'm not putting those guys down, I'm just saying that the history wasn't documented and the continuity wasn't there for people to see.
AAJ: The book ended with the history of Seattle jazz up until the mid-60's. Do you have plans for another book?
PdB: One of the big regrets I had with Jackson Street, there's a mountain of research that I did about Seattle's jazz in the '60s that I cut out of the book, and the reason that I cut it out is because in working with my editor, who's a brilliant man, Nick Allison, who is also a jazz pianist, he said, "You know, this book needs to decide on a focus and I think the focus of the book really is the after hours scene. So why don't we have it so that the end of your book is when that scene ends. You can write a final chapter and summarize some of the developments, but you can't have three to five more chapters, you're not writing the history of Seattle jazz."
And that was really a hard thing for me to absorb. I know that one of the people who is really disappointed with Jackson Street is Jerome Gray. Although Jerome never gave me a formal interview, he's such a quirky guy, he talked to me on the phone for hours, and he also made me a huge twelve-page annotated list of people to talk to. So I knew all about the scene that he was involved in at the Lake City Tavern. I did long interviews with old groups like the Signatures, all the stuff that happened in the '60s, I studied it all and I know all of it but I never published it. Sometime I'd really love to have that see the light of day, but I haven't figured out a way to do it. I thought about doing it in installments, but it's a lot of work to pare down those interviews and I just haven't got around to it.
AAJ: I'm glad you have that research, because I think a lot of people who read Jackson Street wonder, well, where's the rest of the story?
PdB: It just wasn't part of that story, and it was going to actually hurt the book as a book, although I totally sympathize with musicians who feel disappointed, Bob Winn is another one. I did a huge interview with Bob Winn and that's not in there.
AAJ: Do you think that it would be a good story?
PdB: I don't think that it was as interesting a story. The compelling part of the Jackson Street story was that it was kind of a secret history of black Seattle and that's what gave it the juice for the white community; and what gave it the juice for the black community was it was their history. That's the reason that book is on the coffee table of just about any black household in Seattle, because it really is a kind of quasi-social history, too. It (Seattle's jazz scene in the '60s) is not as sexy. It doesn't have as broad an interest.
AAJ: I wanted to connect the dots with Earshot Jazz because you left Earshot to write Jackson Street After Hours, and a few years ago, I believe it was 2003, you were honored at the Earshot Golden Ear Awards ceremony as a new member of the Earshot Hall of Fame, and during your acceptance speech you were critical of the organization. Could you summarize your comments on that evening, and comment on the evolution of Earshot in general?
PdB: That specific instance, the catalyst for it was really very specific and I think it kind of got blown out of proportion by a lot of people from what I've heard. The comment that I made that night was specifically about the fact that the voting for the Golden Ear Awards was rigged, it's hard to come up with any better word for it, and (Earshot Executive Director) John Gilbreath had pretty much told me that. There was no nomination process, so nobody could choose from a slate of people to vote for, and when that's the case you usually don't get very many people voting.
Actually what you get in a case like that is you get either nobody voting because they can't remember what happened that year, I mean, I even have that trouble and this is my job, so people don't vote, or else they get 150 of their friends to vote for their friends. And given that playing field, Gilbreath's approach, and I wouldn't say this if he hadn't told me this directly, was to basically make the decisions himself. So I felt that that was a misrepresentation, that the process was faulty. If you're going to have an awards ceremony that pretends to be a public vote on what is the most popular, like say the reader's poll in Down Beat, then it should be that.
AAJ: Is that what Earshot was publicizing it as, a strictly public poll for the various awards?
PdB: Well, the language was always a little hedgy. It was "This is by popular vote, or something or other," and that "something or other" was John saying, well, I think so and so has 150 friends so we're not going to give it to them; we're going to give it to this record which I think is better. Well, to me that is funky. It wasn't a transparent process. So that's what I said that night, and then I felt a little embarrassed to be getting an award which was purportedly coming from the community, but clearly was coming from John Gilbreath, and there were political reasons for him to give me that award and it didn't feel right.
The larger criticism that I made that night had to do with the organization having become somewhat disconnected from the community, and I said that only because musicians were saying that to me over and over, they wouldn't go on the record saying it and they felt like they couldn't say it because part of their livelihoods depended on having a good relationship with John and Earshot, so it's a very touchy situation for the musicians involved, but I felt like I'd heard it enough times that it was something that needed to be said publicly.
And I thought that I framed it in a pretty reasonable way in that I compared it to what had happened to Bumbershoot (in the '90s). Bumbershoot's response to losing touch with the youth community, the grunge community, was to have a series of community meetings and ask people what they needed to do. So that's what I recommended that night, that Earshot go back out into the community and ask people, "What do you want?" Not, "Who do you want us to book at the festival?" But, "What do you want from the organization?"
And that's the only real criticism that I have under John. Essentially he's fulfilled the legacy of the organization as we set it up, all those things that we scribbled on paper that day, to have a magazine where you could read about local players, where local players could see themselves, to have a festival, educational programs. My big disappointment is that I really felt like Earshot could be a kind of ecumenical umbrella for people of all persuasions, where everybody in the community, fans, musicians, would all feel welcome. That may be a kind of idealism that wasn't possible because I didn't carry it on into an era where it had a two or three hundred thousand dollar budget, where the risks area a little higher.
But I've found that the musicians don't relate to the organization. I've also found that big portions of the audience who have a more mainstream idea of jazz aren't really invited or included. By this time in its history I would have expected Earshot to really have grown into a much larger embrace of the jazz community that would include everybody from David Sanborn to John Zorn, and it's not that. John (Gilbreath), I feel, is a very cautious leader, which in some ways has been really good. He's made sure that he hasn't lost money. He never makes a move without triangulating it and checking it out with a lot of people, and that's a good thing, but it can also kind of work you into a very careful niche and I feel like that's what he did with his festival.
I feel like he let the organization down and let the community down in abandoning presenting local music during the rest of the year, which he used to do at Jazz Alley every month. He's a pretty volatile guy; he's fought with a lot of people in town, including me, so he's gotten Earshot kicked out of a lot of places, which is too bad. On the other hand, in terms of presenting local music, when I was out the other night (at the Seattle Drum School) to see Jim Knapp's band, were you there?
PdB: The music was good but there was also this kind of joy in the audience that I rarely feel at an Earshot concert, and I'm not sure how to put my finger on that or why that's the case, but that's how I always had envisioned Earshot events being for the local community: the local community coming out to hear local people, not exclusively, because I also wish the festival were bigger and more embracing, so I guess at both those levels I've been a little disappointed in where the organization is going.
By the same token, it's a different jazz scene that were dealing with now, where you have clubs like Tula's and Bake's Place and Gallery 1412 that present local music every night or every week, so maybe you don't need a jazz society doing concerts that sponsor local music, maybe not in terms of the number of gigs anyway. But I feel the spirit isn't there, and it's a spirit that I really do feel at something like the Ballard Jazz Festival. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what that is, whether it has something to do with John's personality or the organization's development or musicians' attitudes toward it. I don't know but I know that it's not right.
AAJ: Jazz Alley has been around for a long time in Seattle in various locations. It has expanded in size and its owner John Dimitriou is booking more smooth jazz acts now. Do you think that the club's format change was inevitable or is it strictly a business move to stay afloat?
PdB: John, if nothing else, is a really canny business man and really knows how to roll with the punches. He's like a boxer in the ring and he's usually way ahead of everybody else, and I think a lot of people don't see how many times he's actually changed.
This isn't the first time Jazz Alley has changed. Go back to the original Jazz Alley, where it was basically like an old-time jazz club from the '60s. It had Marian McPartland and Dexter Gordon and the cover charge was three or four bucks. It was a little dinner house with unremarkable food, in the University district, and it catered to a kind of bohemian jazz crowd. It didn't work, he lost money. Everybody thinks of those as the glory days, well they weren't the glory days for John. So John pulled the cover charge off of Jazz Alley and started to book only pianists, and that was the period when we started Earshot. People have forgotten that; he had only pianists and there was no cover.
Then the scene started to come back for him, that worked for him, and he slowly introduced his cover charge. Then he became this kind of fancy room with a fancy chef and figured out that if he charged people 30 bucks at the door and got them to spend 30 bucks on dinner and 30 bucks on wine, and he never pulled the cover charge back off, because when he originally put it on he said he was going to take it off. And then he expanded, and then he expanded again to compete with larger rooms in town.
John has always had his eye on the bottom line. Whenever business is bad he goes back into the kitchen and fires six people. He says, "You might be coming back but you're gone now." He's a really good business man. So, yes, I hate smooth jazz; I wish it wasn't at Jazz Alley, but am I going to hold it against John personally? No, because I see that by booking smooth jazz and also a lot of lounge world music acts that Gary Bannister brings in, they have a crowd for it and it sustains John's genuine interest in serving the community with mainstream jazz stars like Nicholas Payton or Roy Hargrove that will fill the club now that he's boxed himself into a corner with the expansion, where he's got to sell so many seats to break even. But I think he saw the Triple Door coming too, which is trying to cut into his business. He's a very competitive, smart business man.