More than Swing-a-ding

John Gilbreath, illustration by Shannon Perry.

John Gilbreath, illustration by Shannon Perry.

When John Gilbreath first relocated to Seattle from Minneapolis 30-some years ago, the erstwhile rock-concert photographer began volunteering at Earshot, then just a short-run jazz festival. Today, in its 26th year, Earshot Jazz Fest is the Northwest’s longest-running, farthest-spanning celebration of jazz from around the world and Gilbreath its director. We caught up with Gilbreath after he finished his weekday drive-time radio show, The Caravan on KBCS. JONATHAN ZWICKEL

Twenty-six years of Earshot! That’s a long time.
The Seattle Jazz world is deep and wide. And, like the definitions of jazz itself, open to interpretation. Jazz means so many things to people, and as it goes on around the world there are so many inherent paradoxes in it. It has a mandate to be different this year than it was five years ago. In doing that, it challenges even the core people who love it. It also challenges the systems that are in place to support it as audiences fluctuate. Louis Armstrong didn’t like Charlie Parker—that bebop shit—and the beboppers didn’t like

Ornette Coleman and the free-jazz stuff when it came along. So even within the art form the progression bucks against conventions, ruffles feathers. That’s where the juice is.

Where do you see that happening specifically today in Seattle?
Well, it’s the difference between revolution and evolution. Many of us are looking

for revolution, but you can’t deny the evolution. In Seattle over the last 20 years, the body of the music has changed from this swing-a-ding-swing-a-ding-swing-a-ding expectation and opened to melody and harmony and rhythm.

Similarly, Seattle’s had the longest running festival of freely improvised music in America [the Seattle Improvised Music Festival, which Earshot helps organize]. An improvised music festival! It’s been even more of a grassroots art festival than Earshot.

How has the community changed in 30 years time?
It’s ebbed and flowed. In the mid- to late-’90s we ran over 100 venue listings in the Earshot calendar—people that were doing jazz at some level at some point over the month. That’s much smaller now. It’s a reflection of commercial potential, unfortunately. But it’s also true that art, any art, flourishes almost in spite of commercial potential.

Musical technology is certainly different now. More of it is more readily available than ever before.
That goes back to innovation, revolution versus evolution. In 1938, close to here, on the stage of Cornish College of the Arts, John Cage did a concert with four radios, all plugged in and on the same stations, and it was the first electronica in Seattle. He was perceived as a maverick, a wacko in his time. But again, that’s where the juice is for me—to honor the masters and the heritage of it, but also moving forward, intersecting with other music or aspects of cultural heritage. Jazz has always been able to borrow and steal from other cultures and song forms in order to recreate itself. It’s also responsive to its immediate surroundings, both in the minute on the bandstand and generally as things arise. And it strikes me as practically the same thing as it tries to find a way to get up on the stage and to get out into the ears of people to hear it.

Sometimes it seems like the creative aspects happen as much off the bandstand as on, because as you notice, people aren’t automatically flocking to jazz concerts. This is why I love a band like Industrial Revelation. They have all these ingredients coming together. In many ways it’s traditional—sure, the instrumentation looks like a jazz group, it sounds like a jazz group. But the spirit of the thing, the essence of their engagement with audiences is unique. It’s just not happening in other bands.

Living Daylights is another highlight of the festival for me.
Yeah, again, they created something that had been done before, but that band had never been done before, and what came out of that band was slamming! It was complex, it had a lot of musical legs to stand on. But the energy of it, the capability of it to go somewhere that hasn’t been explored before—that was significant. That’s gonna be fun.

Earshot Jazz Festival runs Oct. 10–Nov. 11 in venues across Seattle. For our recommendations, click here.

Illustration by Shannon Perry.

This article has been corrected: Gilbreath was not a founder of Earshot, as originally stated. Earshot was founded by Paul de Barros, Gary Bannister and Allan Youngblood. Also, Earshot is not a co-presenter of the Seattle Improvised Music festival but assists in promotion.