Earshot Jazz Festival executive director John Gilbreath had to postpone our hurriedly arranged interview because he was helping radio station KBCS do some fundraising. That conflict typifies the life of one of Seattle's staunchest and busiest advocates for jazz. He has been involved with Earshot for 26 years, books shows year-round, DJs on KBCS ("The Caravan"), and KEXP ("Jazz Theater"), and writing articles for the monthly Earshot publication. You could say that what Decibel Festival founder Sean Horton was to the local electronic music ecosystem over the last dozen years, Gilbreath has been to Seattle's jazz sphere, but for even longer and with more widespread clout.
When I interviewed Gilbreath two years ago, he waxed enthusiastic about the state of Earshot Jazz Festival (which runs from Oct 7-Nov 11) and of jazz, in general. The last two years have done nothing to diminish that spirit. While some prognosticators see mostly diminishing returns for the art form since its mid-20th-century commercial and artistic heyday, he remains "absolutely optimistic" about jazz's health. "Jazz is an expanding universe," he says. "All directions. All of the time. In Seattle, as around the world. And that's the juice for this festival, presenting that momentum within the frame of this place, at this time. In that context, even the two years since we last spoke seems long ago."
Perusing this year's Earshot fest schedule, it seems as if the bill has moved toward a slightly younger and edgier slate of artists. The inclusion of Industrial Revelation, Bad Luck, ex-THEESatisfaction MC/producer SassyBlack, Hunter Gather, Steve Lehman Trio, Scott Amendola & Wil Blades, and several others points toward a vigorous, youthful-ish slant. Did Gilbreath and his team have a change in philosophy with regard to booking the fest this year? "We always go wide in presenting the forward-and-back tension in jazz," he says. "But jazz tradition is progression. We certainly have traditionalists on the stage this year; like Wynton Marsalis, Freddy Cole [Nat King Cole's brother], and our own great Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. But Earshot has always been known for hitting the leading edges and finding the fresh synergies in jazz."
Further enriching and diversifying Earshot this year is Soul Space, a new series "that connects a constellation of dots around two words that have been orbiting in my mind together for 20 years," according to Gilbreath. Earshot volunteer Beth Rocha asked Catherine Harris-White (aka SassyBlack and Space Theory) to curate "a separate environment where a vibe for soul- and jazz-related music can exist in a safe, separate space as part of the incredibly vibrant music and arts scene on Capitol Hill."
Soul Space's three events will happen at V2, the former expansive Value Village spot on 11th Avenue. These nights will feature Harris-White joining avant-R&B/electronic artists Maiah Manser and Tiffany Gouché on October 27; Jaimeo Brown and Chris Sholar's Transcendence reanimating blues and work songs, and Seattle bassist/visual artist Paul Rucker performing the interactive installation piece about the tragic history of lynching Stories from the Trees on October 28; and Industrial Revelation and their drummer D'Vonne Lewis's newish band Triplifried on October 29. Seattle's musical philosopher king DJ Riz will be handling turntable duties for the first and third of these gigs, which can be viewed as laboratories for jazz's necessary evolutionary growth.
To put it lightly, a festival that lasts more than a month can be daunting. If someone can attend only one Earshot show this year, which one would Gilbreath recommend? He counters with two essential suggestions. "I'm really excited about Kris Bowers and NONVisuals. Kris won the Thelonious Monk piano competition and has also worked with Kanye and Jay Z. He's working October 16 at SAM [Seattle Art Museum] with video artist Christian Hannon, who uses technology with music to shape reality.
"I'm most excited, though, to bring Jaimeo Brown and his Transcendence group to Seattle, with producer Chris Sholar and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw," Gilbreath continues. "This mix of music and sampled sound is profoundly moving to me. Jaimeo relates deeply compelling recorded sounds—like field hollers and spirituals from the Gee's Bend quilting community in the American South, or work songs from factories in China and India—with live jazz and blues that screams and whispers. This shit is deep."
In our 2014 interview, Gilbreath observed that one of the biggest challenges facing a festival organizer is funding. What steps, if any, has he taken to make things easier in that regard? Or will holding festivals always be a financial struggle, no matter what? "I once said that I book every jazz festival as if it'll be my last. And I do. But it's also true that every festival is like the first. No guarantees, no truckloads of cash parked out by the back door. The festival always costs twice as much to put on as it earns in ticket sales. That's just the way of it, no matter what steps are taken to make things easier."
In a world increasingly deluged with music festivals, how does Earshot stay competitive and distinctive? "We aspire to be distinctive rather than competitive," Gilbreath says. "We're just a grassroots arts organization dedicated to cultivating a vibrant jazz community of artists, educators, and audiences that works in harmony with the culture of this great city."