- "I encourage people to open themselves to the full blast of possibilities."
John Gilbreath is the workaholic who heads up Earshot Jazz Festival, an annual month-long examination and celebration of the art form that includes over 50 concerts featuring acts both local and (inter)national, old and young. This is his 24th year of involvement with the fest. In a sense, what Decibel Festival founder Sean Horton is to Seattle’s electronic-music movement, Gilbreath is to our local jazz scene. He toils year-round as a radio DJ, journalist, and event organizer. The Stranger asked Gilbreath some questions about what it takes to run something as unwieldy as Earshot—which runs from Oct. 10 to Nov. 11 this year—and the state of jazz today.
Earshot Jazz Festival has a nine-person staff. Is this a full-time occupation for everyone or is it all done on a volunteer basis while Earshot members work other jobs? And how do you work in two radio programs on top of all this?
We actually have a staff of only three, and that third person is new. For years, it was just the two of us here in the office, and I myself have three other jobs, including KBCS ["The Caravan"] and KEXP ["Jazz Theater"]. What can I say? I’m a worker. Earshot is like many over-achieving non-profits; compelled to offer more than should be expected on limited and always-vulnerable resources. Earshot Jazz is in its 30th year, publishing the monthly magazine, offering education and services to the community, and putting up 100 concerts annually, of which 70 percent are by Seattle artists. For the festival, we bring on just a few hard-working production and promotion contracts. We’re also blessed with many great volunteers.
Describe the process of selecting performers for Earshot. What qualities are you looking for in these artists? It seems mighty arduous to fill a month’s worth of slots.
The booking process is pretty organic. Our artistic philosophy is well established, and the Earshot festival, and entire Seattle scene, is already known worldwide. Plus, we’ve already worked with thousands of the artists, giving many of them the first Seattle hits of their careers. Since we are not working with huge budgets, we’re generally participating in existing tour routings for the New York and international artists. Sometimes, we even create tours for emerging artists, with like-minded presenters. And we are always open to new creative projects by Seattle’s incredible resident artists.
What are the biggest challenges of putting on Earshot? What sort of frustrations do you encounter while running this massive event—before, during, and after?
The biggest challenges are financial. There is no shortage of amazing creative juice in jazz music today, but the audience numbers ebb and flow. Because jazz needs to be different this year than it was last, it happily challenges its own support system. Presenting even the more conservative work in jazz is not a great economic model, but for those of us dedicated to the adventurous expansion of the art form, the finances are downright counterintuitive. For us, that makes it even more necessary.
At the jazz shows I’ve attended in recent years, the average age of the audience members skews pretty old. Do you find this to be the case with Earshot? Is there concern that young people aren’t embracing jazz and that its fan base could completely vanish in a generation or two?
Nope. Jazz isn’t going away at all. Two things: 1) There is a new, younger audience coming to creative music, and thankfully, they’re not arriving with the preconceived notions you’d generally find in the middle-aged white guys with worried looks on their faces. Younger audiences are omnivores. They actually want the music to be different than the old “swang-a-dang” jazz, and they don’t perceive rigid walls between genres of music. 2) Jazz wont stay at home. Even the definition of the word “jazz” is fluid, meaning so many things around the world. There are fantastically vibrant jazz scenes in Oslo, Berlin, London, and many other global cities. While I believe, at my very core, that jazz music belongs to the Black American experience, I also know that it is impossible to keep it from the rest of the world.
In all the years you’ve been doing Earshot, what is the greatest experience you’ve had during it? The worst?
I’ve worked with so many great artists over these years, and have had so many profound experiences. I tend to be moved more by my heart than my brain. I respect virtuosity, but want to feel the connection in my soul. Art makes life worth living.
If someone could attend only one Earshot show this year, which one would you recommend?
Of the many creative pioneers we have with us this year, I would recommend the November 7 Town Hall concert with the great Pharoah Sanders. This is a rare opportunity to be with an artist whose ongoing personal quest, and very spirit, is palpably expressed in every note he plays.
Again, jazz means many things to many people. I encourage people to set aside expectations and open themselves to the full blast of possibilities. “Take a chance on love.”
Check out Earshot's schedule here.