(This is a conversation I taped and transcribed in 2003 for an abortive attempt to write a book. Some of it seems prophetic now.Pardon the pretense of addressing myself as 'Author',It was a convention of the book and I'm too lazy to change it all to 'me' or something).
The first thing an alert person will notice when engaging Mr. Gilbreath in a shop talk conversation about running an arts non profit for Jazz is his grasp of the importance of event over place. He has a small staff and eschews the search for a 'Space'.
Instead he focuses his efforts very effectively on engaging Seattle's fairly robust mix of venues to make a year full of engaging events in sites ranging from classic and top notch gin mills such as the Tractor Tavern to collaborations with producers of the Bumbershoot Music Festival. Earshot's own fall festival and active support of Seattle's unusually good high school big bands from Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools are two of the organizations most important contributions to the community.
He has also launched a number of events for fans in the East Side city of Bellevue where he has a weekly morning radio show, 'Caravan', on KBCS FM . He also presides over a weekly program at KEXP from the august environs of the Experience Music Project.
Among Earshot ’s milestones are Annual Scholarship programs since 1988 to Bud Shank’s summer jazz workshops in Port Townsend, Washington, recognition by the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation as one of 20 primary sites around US in early 90's and inclusion in the Jazznet initiative from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust Foundation in 2000, further movement beyond Seattle to greater King County with the Living Spirit and Eastside Showcase beginning in 1995 and a regional role in the vast western US as a founding member of Western Jazz Presenters Network.
John has put an impressive level of thought into the philosophical questions attending jazz presentation at the best basis possible and constantly works to improve his methods.
The age-old problem of defining jazz from a presenter’s perspective is given careful consideration below.
"Well, we'd all have to first agree on the definition of jazz before we call can agree that jazz is being diluted. That agreement seems increasingly unlikely. There are a couple of reasons for broadening the scope of presentations at jazz festivals.
The most obvious is bringing in a couple of popular music headline artists in an effort to bring the total attendance up and, perhaps in the process, to expose a few of the uninitiated to jazz. Those increased attendance numbers can also be shown to potential sponsors to garner more support for next year's event.
Certainly, just because a jazz festival includes Paul Simon or the Dave Mathews Band in their line up, they're not trying say those artists are jazz artists. They're just trying to sell some tickets. That's a slippery slope - easy to go down and very difficult to come back up.
The second reason for broadening the scope of jazz presentations is the one I agree with, and the one I'll address from here out. That is, that the true tradition of jazz is expansion and progression. It is supposed to be different today than it was yesterday. Jazz is a big word. It must be showcased in all of its definitions."
He further elaborates on his rationale for expanded scope and provides concrete examples of applying his method.
"I think it is essential. All art has the imperative to reinvent itself in order to remain viable. If jazz is to survive and thrive, it's progression in our culture, and in other cultures, has to be celebrated. (Though there have always been those who begrudge it. Jazz won't sit still just to conveniently fit the narrow definition of some fans.)"
"By presenting the breadth of jazz - from its heart/heritage, to its outer edges, where the greatest progression occurs and where it meets other music of the world we are being most faithful to its protean muses.
If we cast jazz strictly in a historical context - as something that already happened (and sounds only like this) - we're limiting the artists, audiences, and presenters who chose to work with jazz in the future.
We all have to live in the future; we can’t live in the past. And we have to create art, sell tickets, and raise money in the future. Best we consider our art form to be alive.
The individuals in the audience must make up their own mind. If they're coming to jazz for the first time, it's up to them whether they find something that'll make them come back. Artistic integrity is key. We don't want to scare them away, but we don't want to lull them either. There are potential audiences for jazz who are interested in all genres of music and performing arts. If, though creative collaborations, we can bring some to our festivals, they may become interested in investigating other concerts or recordings at their own pace. We want them back, and we want their heart and souls, not just their disposable income."
The conversation below was conducted with the author in spring of 2003 and provides a fairly comprehensive sense of jazz presentation at a highly evolved level.
John Gilbreath: "I came into this work feeling that I was pointed in this direction since I was ten years old, but I took a thirty year detour to live life first. I've been interested in Jazz music since I was ten or eleven years old, when and an older cousin brought some Duke Ellington music to the house.
And so, though I worked in the construction industry, I'd done a lot of volunteer in Minneapolis before I moved back to Seattle. I'd done volunteer work for the Walker Arts Center and for Minnesota Public Radio.
When I returned to Seattle in the late 1980's, I started doing a little volunteer work for Earshot Jazz. I was an usher at a couple of the concerts in 1990 at the Jazz Festival. Earshot had commissioned the International Creative Music Orchestra, (made up of improvisers from Eastern European communist bloc countries, Western Europe, New York City and Seattle. It was some of the most outrageous music I had ever heard.
That was my first volunteer usher position for Earshot. I knew then that I wanted to get more involved in the organization. I made the mistake of being too good of a volunteer so I was named volunteer coordinator shortly after that.
I became more interested in the organization and went on to the Board of Directors in 1991 and when the Executive Director position opened up I applied for it and made some of the necessary personal changes in my life to take the job. It only paid for two days a week on money that came in from the National Endowment for the Arts. They had a jazz management program that ran in the late 80's and early 90's. It provided money for small jazz support organizations like this.
That's how I got into the organization. As far as becoming a presenter and the actual step over the threshold from outside of this world into inside of this world, it was a big step for me, at the time. Though looking back on it I see it's just one of those transitions from something you don't think you can do into something that you realize you can and could do all along. I went from the outside of it to the inside of it and, having come into the inside, I realized it was something I wanted to do for years.
The artistic direction for this organization, I feel, had already been established pretty clearly."
Author: "You had a template to work with."
JG: "It seems like it, just from what had been presented in the past, though it wasn't clearly articulated. It wasn't written in any stone tablets and there weren't any organizational papers about 'we will present this kind of music'. Clearly, the first national presentation this organization ever did was Cecil Taylor, and that pretty much says what you're interested in.
I interpret the mission statement of Earshot Jazz and its programming philosophy to really support and nurture creative expansion in the Jazz Field.And so in programming here, I look to those areas where the art form is moving forward or moving outward, where it is blazing new ground where it perhaps needs to be understood by or exposed to a wider audience.
Historically, every time there has been progression in the art form; it has been misunderstood or maligned, criticized or downright cursed by people in the mainstream. But history has proven that that's where the juice was happening. That's where things were getting better. So I think that that's kind of our imperative in this organization. And certainly it's an imperative that defies any kind of commercial logic."
Author: "What are the patterns of obstacles and nuisance problems that you tend to run into and resolve and how do you resolve them, in the sense of the never ending funding chase or any other kinds of things that you have to get over in order to prepare your presentations?"
JG: "Well there are certainly always financial challenges and that's an ever-shifting field. I've been in this chair for twelve years now and the winds of funding favor have certainly shifted, and are shifting even as we speak throughout the whole non-profit sector, the whole non-profit paradigm of the National Endowment of the Arts, regional arts organizations, state, county and city arts commissions.
Those funding sources have always been shifting maybe to adapt to changes or to remain flexible and viable and certainly that applies to theater, dance and al performing arts. For jazz in general, has always been the stepchild of the arts world. It seemed that coming into the nineties, jazz had become the darling of funders for a while and was favored by some funding initiatives. That changed some. I don't exactly why, but I have some theoretical ideas.
So it's been de-emphasized. Even National Public Radio has pulled the plug on some of their jazz initiatives. A lot of regional arts organizations around the country have de-emphasized jazz funding and certainly some of the local arts commissions are just struggling anyway." There's always a struggle in financing things. Like many arts organizations, we typically earn about half of our revenue from ticket sales.
So with regard to the Jazz Festival, it has historically earned about half of what it costs to put it on. The other half comes from donated income, which is always shifting a little bit but for the most part has been public sector income from the National Endowment and state, local and regional arts organizations and commissions and more recently has been from some regional foundations.
Earshot has been blessed with support from a couple of key national foundations starting in the early nineties with the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund and then, starting in ninety-nine from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I really believe that it is on the strength of the programming that Earshot has done over the years that we've been recognized by these funders as deserving. Really, in both cases, we've been one of the key organizations nationally that's been invited to participate in these funding things.
So I think that's recognition for the work that we've been doing and payback for some of the struggles that we've had as far as some of the more adventurous or artistically edgy kinds of music that we've presented. I would add there are other challenges. Certainly building an audience is always a challenge. It's work that happens on a daily, concert by concert basis.
There's always this creative process that applies almost as much to presenting the music as making the music in the first place. You have to be flexible and interested in creative collaboration with other presenting organizations or individuals, buildings and facilities.
And then to get an audience out requires some promotion and marketing. And for an organization like ours that doesn't have a lot of money to spend it means we’ve got to get creative in leveraging marketing support, trading things out with media that doesn't call on us, just giving them a lot of money for straight ads. So we're trying to cross promote things.
And really, the ongoing long standing frustration that I've had in presenting music in Seattle has been from the press, from the lack of support or the lack of understanding or in some cases, just the downright mean spirited treatment that we've received from the press. And I'm not just saying that we've received but that music presenters of this kind, in general, have received from the press. It's been a real kind of a head scratcher for me.
I haven't understood it. It seems in some ways, on a purely logical basis, given that the audience for the music is so small in the first place, that it's a paradox that we're so busy trying to discredit each other within the field. It's like we're in a boat and the boat is so small we should pull together but we don't really do that at all. That's a larger question but suffice it to say that our work may be a bit easier or go a bit more smoothly if it were supported more or embraced more by the mainstream press in this city."
Author: "Yeah, I noticed that in Boston and I had a conversation with someone running a small art space in Detroit who is also in this work. Boston's blessed because you have Bob Blumenthal, who's sort of like a second line equivalent to Gary Giddins and also an activist."
JG: " But I understand he recently left the Globe.
" Author: "Yeah, he was originally a civil rights lawyer so he has no reason to write for the Globe. He did it 'cause he liked to. But when I was there, he was there with the Phoenix and then there's Ed Hazell.
So you have a consistent staff of writers who have been around for ten years or more who have gathered a readership who cover this beat." "Now I haven't really noticed anything quite to the equivalent here. You have the fellow that you mentioned who's semi-retiring 'cause of ear problems and you have my friend Bill, who does stringer work for the PI, but they more or less tell him what to do.
And there is no guy who you can look at in any of the dailies or weeklies here that just keeps track of this stuff and develops a readership on a long haul consistent basis. It just goes through this constant rotation as if it wasn't really a beat. But everyone I've spoken to who are presenters elsewhere have said that when there is support from the local print media it makes a substantial difference in audience attendance cause ads aren't necessarily going to help that much."
JG: "But I also see, from the point of view of the writer, it's not their job to write fluff pieces in advance."
Author: “Not necessarily, right, although modern media has evolved such a huge aditorial function that much of what they do will be writing fluff pieces about something or other. But in a wired press community you will have someone whom is actually really knowledgeable about jazz and who has developed a readership and who will be opinionated and maybe controversial but who will be there, just being present for that long haul."
JG: "Well I realize it's our responsibility to promote our concerts, it's not the local radio stations or the local press. They're not responsible for us."
Author: "But the public is suspicious of advertising and the events have merit."
JG: "Yeah, they do have merit."
Author: "They have intrinsic merit and it's no different from the President coming to town or any other thing that gets covered because of its intrinsic merit.
What would be some of the highlights that were really meaningful to you over the time that you've been doing the work, things that you look back on when you're having a rotten day, you'll think about these things and say 'well yeah, this was worth it anyway?"
JG: "Those moments have been special for me because I do have them and I store them, and every year there more of them, and that's gratifying. We were talking earlier about our background in the building trades and I recognize, for me, coming from that industry into this industry, I realize the fruits of my labor are fleeting. And, in the construction industry the fruits of my labor are concrete, they stand. I can drive by a project that I had a part in and continue to derive satisfaction out of it whereas, now, with a concert, after three or four hours it's over and it's ethereal."
Author: "Right, as Dolphy said at the end of Last Date 'When you hear music, it's over, it's gone into the air and you can never capture it again'."
JG: "You can never capture it again but there are individuals out there whose lives have been enriched and whose souls have been somehow changed. And I think, whose trajectories in life, I have faith, are somewhat changed for the better. And I guess we have to have faith that there's some kind of enrichment that happens out of this. And that's from the audience's point of view. And, from the artists' point of view it continues to reinforce their creative trajectory and so it goes forward in that way.
For me there are a couple of things and they're not necessarily huge, huge concerts. You know there are probably a hundred and fifty that I can just mention. Early on for me, one of them that stands out was a commission. And I guess, if I had more money behind me, I would do more commissioning to help people bring to life their own creative projects and more educational projects to help develop younger audiences or to promote the interchange between young audiences whether it's students or just audience members.
In 1993 I was involved in helping to commission a piece that was a tribute to Jim Pepper, the Native American saxophonist. But it was also a piece that was focused around Seattle in that it used words of some text from Princess Evangeline who was the great granddaughter of Chief Sealth, who was Chief Seattle.
And the project was with a local big band called The Jazz Police which was led by a Native American Duwamish Tribal Elder, James Rasmussen, and the band was augmented by Native American Singers and a Drum Circle and some spoken word text and some very dramatic use of other instruments, one of which was a bagpipe that was located up in a balcony of Kane Hall in the University. It was such a powerful experience for me.
There have been a couple of other special cases, the last presentation of Cecil Taylor that I was involved in was one of 'em, where so much energy, so much psychic energy and angst goes into getting the project to the stage in my mind as a presenter, that I have not imagined any further than getting the thing on the stage and doing the introduction and starting the music. So that when I walk away from the stage, having started it, and I turn around and listen to it and the music is phenomenal or really moving, in some ways it has surprised me and it seemed like an explosion or a revelation that, for some reason, I didn't even expect.
It takes so much energy just to get it to that one point, that threshold, that when you have time and actually hear that it's great, is so astounding and so moving to me. It's not that I don't expect that it's going to be high quality, but in my mind I haven't taken it that far. So those are some of the moments that I really hold as precious and they're difficult to qualify or explain.
And otherwise I have to derive some of my satisfaction from the reports of audience members coming out the door. This year, at the jazz festival, every year in fact, there are more and more and more. This year was so great, people were so moved or so thrilled or so astounded or so saddened or so anything that stirs them up and that's just great to see. I'm happy to hear that stuff without exception."
Author: "Yeah, things happen like people meet their life partners, they bring their kids out. It punctuates their lives in a manner that becomes a set of steeping stones through the trajectory of their lives.
And, it's funny, I remember when I used to do these projects, getting the people to the stage was everything and then after that I didn't even want to be there. I just wanted it to happen. And my own staff had to drag me to stuff. I'd rather just sit at home and know that it happened."
JG: "Well, in some cases, like for people that smoke cigarettes, that's when you go outside and smoke a cigarette. You do the announcements, the music’s playing, everybody's in their seats and so all the staff and production guys, and everybody else are outside smoking cigarettes."
Author: "Yeah, it's anticlimactic. You've gotten the forces together, now let it happen and let it be."
JG: "When I first came into this, I saw people, my predecessors, out there smoking cigarettes after the music had started and I thought, how can they do that? Why do they even do this work if they're going to stand out there and not even listen to it? But I really understand it now. The energy of the work is in getting everything to that point at that time and then, after the concert is over, it's getting everything broken down and getting everything into shape to do it again."
Author: "Yeah, you deliver the baby, now let the family enjoy it."
JG: "But in some ways, again comparing to construction, they're both projects that involve the creation of something or taking from an abstract concept of some sort of a physical manifestation where money changes hands, where labor and materials and people all have to come together at one place and one time to make the project happen. And, when it's done there's enough money left over and enough good will left over to be able to do it again tomorrow or next year or whatever the next time to do it is.
The difference is, of course, a construction job will take three months or three years whereas this takes three hours and it's gone. And the physical manifestation is different so you have to find some other ways to measure your success.
And we're lucky with this organization that we don't purely have to measure success by butts in the seat or whether or not the money in exceeds the money out. We have other yardsticks that we can use to measure. And what I project into the future is that these yardsticks are going to change, the economic downturn will continue while the current administration doesn't seem to be geared toward cultural excellence but toward emphasizing other parts of life.
I think it's going to be a rough environment. I think we're going to face some adversity. But the music is resilient and I’m resilient and people that put the stuff together are very flexible and resilient. And I know that jazz and creative music has been faced with some adversity in the past. I think jazz needs a shot in the arm creatively and I'm optimistic about the future for presenters and for the artists and the music. Ultimately we're all gonna survive and come out on top."
Author: "Yeah, it made it through the depression and the 80's."