The Jazz.com Blog
April 02, 2009 · 1 comment
Jazz.com is delighted to welcome Willard Jenkins as a contributor to the site. Jenkins has long been a vital presence in the jazz community, contributing to the art form as producer, presenter, journalist, broadcaster, educator, consultant, and arts administrator. Be on the lookout for his work with pianist Randy Weston on the pianist’s autobiography African Rhythms, which will be published later this year.
Below is the first of a series of articles from Jenkins on the key people behind the scenes in the jazz world who are working to keep the music scene vital at a grass roots level. In this installment, Jenkins talks with John Gilbreath of Seattle’s Earshot Jazz, one of the great regional jazz organizations in the United States. T.G.
Just how does that jazz clubdate, concert or festival happen in your city? Often those presentations are the lifeblood of small, tough-minded, altruistic not-for-profit presenting organizations that persevere against the prevailing winds to bring great music to their communities. This column will explore the nuts & bolts of bringing live jazz to the stage through conversations with the people who make it happen.
Our first conversation is with John Gilbreath of Seattle’s venerable Earshot Jazz, celebrating 25 years of bringing great jazz to the Pacific Northwest—from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music, James Moody and Toshiko Akiyoshi to Charles Lloyd, Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of Spirits and Cuong Vu, Earshot has pretty much covered the gamut.
How has Earshot evolved over the years?
We remain a small, grassroots organization compared to some of the fish that we’re swimming with—even regionally. . . San Francisco Jazz, Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Like many non-profits we earn 50% of our income and 50% is contributed—but there’s the sense of jazz festivals needing to become more commercial, to sell more tickets, and to make more money. Then the question is how to measure your success. For boards of directors and for many people who come from the for-profit side, you’re only successful if you sell tickets and make money.
We stay committed to emerging artists, to lesser known artists, to the touring artists who need to tour but for whom the commercial venues are not an option. . . . For us the juice of the art form is where the art form is moving forward and intersecting with other music. Oftentimes that’s not the case where you’re selling a lot of tickets; in fact it’s usually the case where you’re NOT selling a lot of tickets. We’re taking essentially a stewardship role of the art form that we love, supporting and thinking about the bigger picture of what’s going to help this art form, jazz artists and jazz audiences ten or twenty years from now.
There’s always this tension as any art form moves forward, that it has an imperative to be different this year than it was last year, although some people don’t buy into that. But art has an imperative to expand, progress, and be creative.
Do you find yourself presenting artists early in their career that you may not be able to afford later once they’ve established themselves?
The cruel irony of that is if the artist is in a trajectory that’s going to take them to some prominence, they’re not going to perform for you once they get up on the arc—which happens to presenters around the country. Earshot was the first to present Robert Glasper in Seattle, we were the first to present Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, we did that in small clubs. We were the first to present The Bad Plus, which we did in a little tavern. We were the first to present Esperanza Spalding here. Once their professional arc progresses they’re working with bigger agencies—and frankly bigger agencies don’t even call me.
When Medeski Martin & Wood were touring the country in that crappy old white GMC van all those years, a lot of people put them on their stages for $1000 fee and lost $600 doing that. They don’t even get a phone call anymore; it’s just the irony of the way it goes.
In the 18 years you’ve been director, programmatically how has Earshot progressed?
The programming philosophy was already set when I came on the scene. Earshot’s very first concert series in 1986 was a juried series of Seattle artists doing creative, original work in an unconventional setting, the New City Theatre, a kind of avant-garde theatre company. Earshot’s first national artist presentation was Cecil Taylor.
When I came on as a volunteer in the early 90s, the Earshot Jazz Festival was called the World Jazz Festival and it mixed the same thing we’re doing now, artists from around the world and artists with a global perspective. The first concert that I worked was the International Creative Music Orchestra [ICM], an improvising orchestra conducted by Butch Morris that had artists from Germany, New York and some New York artists then living in Seattle, like Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb. It was a crazy, wonderful mix of post-free jazz. Also that was the year that Don Cherry’s Multi-Kulti was breaking out, and one of the John McLaughlin projects with a French bassist, and some of these things that were kind of an international flavor of jazz.
Is the fall festival still the core activity of Earshot Jazz?
It constitutes 60-70% of our annual budget, but the core of Earshot Jazz is our publication. We’ve distributed over a million copies of that magazine free in Seattle over the last 25 years. It’s such a blessing; sometimes it’s a quick read but it’s always had the area’s most comprehensive calendar of jazz events around here, so it’s a resource.
It’s clear Earshot has a thirst for the original, the edgy. Is that organizational direction or the dictates of the Seattle audience?
We have a series coming up this spring with Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson from Norway and Ab Baars from Amsterdam. These are great artists traveling thousands of miles to play a gig for pretty low artist fees and we’ll get 50 people in the audience, so we’ll lose money at that.
These kinds of presentations wouldn’t happen in all communities. Is this a matter of the Seattle community perhaps having more of an interest in the adventurous than there might be somewhere in Middle America?
The audiences are never big enough, but yes we are blessed to have that.
You’ve often presented the great masters in the tradition. How do you go about integrating the great masters and the tradition with the more edgy music?
A lot of it is pragmatic. We’ve formed partnerships with the artists and with the rest of the community too. We’ve gotten really good at building collaborations with other arts organizations and other presenter. . . . If we are going to present the major jazz festival in a major American city, we damn well better have some marquee names on the thing or nobody’s going to pay any attention to us. In fact, the more of the national artists that appear on the festival, the more important it is for the Seattle artists that appear on the same festival and the more power it has for them.
A couple of years ago we started off the festival with Ahmad Jamal and we didn’t sell enough tickets. We had Dee Dee Bridgewater and we lost money. We had a Toots Thielemans concert on that same opening weekend and it wasn’t well-attended! And these are concerts that are about as accessible as it gets. But a couple of days later when we got into the meat of our festival with Dafnis Prieto, Peter Apfelbaum, and all those other artists that was the juice for us and I thought yeah, this is what we do, we hit our stride in the middle of a festival when we’re doing that kind of work.
Sometimes we’re seen as a small organization, and again that’s both a blessing & a curse. I’m so grateful that I don’t have a large staff… every time payroll comes around, there are just two people on staff, and we can pay our bills. I hate to carry debt and I hate organizationally to carry debt. I think we have to be responsible, we have to be agile. I might take in a renter to share our office space, but we have to be creative and we have to be flexible.
The beauty of having a small organization is you can do all of that stuff much faster than some big, lumbering institution. On the other side of it yeah, we don’t have the financial power to start a jazz festival with Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, and Ahmad Jamal every year. But we can have one or two of them and still do a lot of service to the art form by presenting a lot of emerging artists and a lot of creative projects that wouldn’t normally find their way to a stage in this city.
This blog entry posted by Willard Jenkins.