THE INEXORABLE march of time has been unkind to jazz, according to most observers. The creative momentum and popular appeal that jazz had 50 years ago are mere memories, while Wynton Marsalis and the other fundamentalist guardians of jazz have convinced themselves that the attrition of the swing and bebop audience is tantamount to the death of jazz itself.

The truth, however, is that jazz's lack of popular support may be its primary strength: By falling beneath the radar of the entertainment conglomerates that are sanitizing and repackaging everything from country to punk rock, jazz could survive as one of America's only spontaneous, live, and truly local forms of music. And Seattle's own Earshot Jazz Festival, by emphasizing local artists as well as better-known national acts, is one of the few major jazz festivals that is in touch with that new vitality.

Nobody can deny that the new economy has deeply wounded most forms of American music. The same forces that have centralized production, narrowed distribution, and concentrated wealth in so many industries have done just that to the music business, and an increasing amount of music is made for and by the national corporate market. Jazz, however, has been largely frozen out of that market, and unlike most country, alternative, or even punk music, one of the only places you can find jazz these days is at unpredictable and uncensored local clubs or festivals.

The Earshot Jazz Festival, which runs from October 20 through November 1, is now in its 13th year, and has grown steadily into a two-week, 40-show event that is by far the biggest happening on the Northwest jazz calendar. Last year's festival attracted a number of experimental jazz luminaries from across the country, and featured a series of concerts and lectures celebrating Duke Ellington on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. As a festival, it had some great moments, but it was also criticized in certain circles for not paying enough attention to the local jazz scene. This year, however, the festival has replaced Duke Ellington to shine the celebrity spotlight on Floyd Standifer, an old-school Northwest trumpet and saxophone player whom most people recognize from his 14-year stint at the New Orleans Restaurant in Pioneer Square.

It's a move that more calcified jazz festivals throughout the country wouldn't dare pull off, because conventional wisdom says that if you want to boost the flagging interest in jazz, you need to do it by conjuring the names of yesteryear's greats: if not Duke, then at least Ella or Miles. That same line of reasoning would say that a festival like Earshot should avoid Standifer like the plague, because nobody wants to be reminded of the ugly truth that even great jazz players still need to suffer the occasional indignities of Pioneer Square gigging. Rather than disavow Standifer, however, Earshot is opening their festival with a tribute to his career, which will showcase his compositions, soloing, and engaging stage presence (October 20, Museum of History and Industry, 8:00 p.m.).

That kind of principled, local-oriented programming defines this year's Earshot Jazz Festival: Although more than half of the acts come from outside the Northwest, those outsiders only serve to highlight local talent, not overshadow it. Unlike many festival organizers, Earshot director John Gilbreath doesn't boast about his nationally recognized acts at the expense of local artists, and he rarely uses the big-ticket names (like Kevin Eubanks or Cecil Taylor) as a measurement of Earshot's prestige.

Furthermore, Earshot routinely mixes national acts with local ones, such as the local Jim Knapp Orchestra's collaboration with sax legend Lee Konitz (October 23, On the Boards, 8:00 p.m.). These collaborations aim to prove, as Gilbreath puts it, "that any [local musician] in this festival can hold their own on any festival stage in the country." It's a lesson worth learning for the pundits who falsely believe that East Coast players are inherently better than those who sweat it out on the left coast.

Even those East Coast/West Coast rivalries underscore the local vitality of jazz, however. Geographic diversity is nearly extinct in other musical genres, as dunderheaded teenagers in Maine scream, "Ohmigod! Britney!" just as loud and long as residents of Britney's own Louisiana. But even as the pockets of jazz activity in the States become smaller and less financially viable, the idiosyncratic progress of jazz seems to be unstoppable. For example, Seattle's trademark experimentalism and New York's urban sensibility are two strongly local inflections in contemporary jazz that will be on display when resident keyboard player Wayne Horvitz takes the stage with DJ Spooky, a self-styled NYC "sound artist" (October 30, On the Boards, 8:00 p.m.). Like the rest of the festival, that show might not even be sold out, but its localized unpredictability alone will make it a rare and beautiful oasis in America's devastated musical landscape.

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