Earshot Celebrates 30 Years of Adventures


Myra Melford, shown here playing the 2015 Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle, will perform at this year’s edition.

(Photo: Daniel Sheehan)

Over the course of 30 years, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival has earned a reputation as one of the premier U.S. jazz gatherings committed to new sounds. This year, the month-long spree (which runs Oct. 7–Nov. 4) features Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, Marquis Hill, Keyon Harrold, Fay Victor, Jakob Bro, Harriet Tubman and Jazzmeia Horn, while also presenting marquee names such as David Sanborn, Pat Metheny, Kamasi Washington, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider, Tom Harrell and Regina Carter.

“For us, where the art form is moving forward is where the juice is,” says Earshot Executive Director John Gilbreath, who has led the organization since 1992.

Earshot’s commitment to edgy music goes back to 1984, when a scrappy group of volunteers started a newsletter, then formed a nonprofit to present concerts by local musicians, as well as the very first Seattle appearance by legendary pianist Cecil Taylor. (Full disclosure: This writer was an Earshot Jazz co-founder and, briefly, its first executive director.) By 1989, Earshot had gathered enough steam to mount its inaugural festival.

Though the early editions presented a mix of styles, Earshot co-founder Gary Bannister (who later booked Seattle’s Jazz Alley and died in 2010) favored the avant-garde, and Gilbreath has followed his lead. Born in Seattle and raised there and in Minneapolis, Gilbreath, 70, worked for years as a construction estimator before volunteering for Earshot in 1990. Two years later, he found his calling as its executive director. Over the years, Gilbreath has presented Seattle debuts by The Bad Plus, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, keyboardist Robert Glasper and pianist Kris Davis, as well as multiple performances by trumpeter Dave Douglas (before he was well-known) and AACM figures such as multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell.

Frisell played one of his first engagements with his own band for Earshot, in 1989.

“It was rare that we could get a gig then,” the guitarist recalls. “It was a big deal for us. Earshot is willing to take a chance on something that’s not a proven commodity.”

Frisell moved to Seattle shortly thereafter and lived there until 2017. (He’s now back in New York.) He has played Earshot numerous times. This year, he appears as a member of Circuit Rider (led by cornetist Ron Miles and featuring drummer Brian Blade). Miles’ 2017 release with the band, I Am A Man (Yellowbird), also included pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan.

Like neighboring jazz festivals in Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Oregon, Earshot is a sprawling, urban affair, spread out over a variety of venues, from nightclubs like the Triple Door, Showbox and the Royal Room to concert spaces like Benaroya Hall (home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra) and Cornish College’s Poncho Concert Hall. This year, the festival will present 62 concerts, plus film screenings, readings, panel presentations and workshops. On average, the festival fills about 15,000 seats over four weeks. Gilbreath is especially proud that 40 percent of the groups this year are led by female artists.

“I was really trying to do 50 percent women-led ensembles,” he says. “I wound up at 40. Last year it was 25. So, we’ll just keep on it.”

Melford, who has played the Earshot Jazz Festival every few years since the early ’90s and this year will be celebrating the release of Snowy Egret’s second album, The Other Side Of Air (Firehouse 12), supports Gilbreath’s efforts. While Melford notes other U.S. festivals also give voice to the avant-garde—the Chicago Jazz Festival, New York’s Vision Festival and the Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles among them—she credits Seattle as being “way out ahead in the diversity of players and approaches, and especially emerging and experimental, progressive young musicians.”

Over the years, Gilbreath has accomplished a lot with a little, operating with a bare-bones staff—one managing director, a part-time newsletter editor and, during the festival proper, a production crew of five—and partnering with other organizations to share expenses, personnel and risk. Though the festival budget has grown from $42,000 in 1992 to $275,000 in 2018, that’s small potatoes compared to other large-scale festivals, where corporate-sponsored budgets can be measured in the millions.

One way Gilbreath economizes is by stretching the festival out over several weeks. Though this sometimes can make the event feel like a long, dense concert series, rather than a festive celebration, it affords Gilbreath a wide window from which to pick and choose acts that might already be on tour. The gaps in between leave nights open for local artists, such as pianist (and longtime Hermeto Pascoal collaborator) Jovino Santos Neto, who is part of the lineup this year.

“The three-day festivals that are spending 3 million bucks can create anchor dates for tours,” Gilbreath noted, “whereas we need to be more opportunistic in our booking.”

Though the Earshot Jazz Festival always has included at least one artist of the stature of a Keith Jarrett or Wayne Shorter, the event has been criticized in the past for catering to a boutique audience Gilbreath calls “the faithful 50.” But that might be changing. This year’s bill boasts a robust balance of old and new, established artists and rising stars. Two major grants Earshot recently received from the Doris Duke and Andrew W. Mellon foundations have been a tremendous boost to the organizational budget. The funding already has enabled Earshot to double its full-time staff and begin digitizing 34 years of Earshot magazine.

The grants also stipulate benchmarks for adding much-needed sponsorships and partnerships. Such growth feels appropriate to the vast expansion Seattle has experienced in the past decade, largely due to Amazon, which employs 45,000 locally, and other tech companies, like Adobe, which has a large branch plant in the Fremont neighborhood, right down the street from the Earshot office.

“I’ve always felt there has to be the perfect corporate partner out there, in a city so committed to innovation and the creative spirit, but that still honors tradition—just like jazz,” Gilbreath observed.

With or without a corporate sponsor, Earshot soldiers on, committed to new sounds, just as it has from the beginning. DB

  • 21_John_Pizzarelli_-_Photo_3_-_by_Jessica_Molaskey.jpg

    John Pizzarelli hit the woodshed, literally, to develop material for his new recording Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes On Pat Metheny.

  • New_Orleans_Fest.jpg

    This year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been canceled. It was scheduled to take place in October.

  • DB21_08_P018-023_Chick_Corea_Artist_of_the_Year_sussman_BlueNote_NYC__5_Piece_band_DSC7772_lo_res.jpg

    Corea was named Artist, Pianist and Keyboardist of the Year for the final time in the 69th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll.

  • Carla_Bley_%C2%A9_2021_Mark_Sheldon_lo_res.jpg

    Carla Bley, the 2021 critics’ choice for the DownBeat Hall of Fame

  • DB21_07_Lage_by_Alysse_Gafkjen_lo_res.jpg

    Squint is Julian Lage’s debut on Blue Note Records.

On Sale Now
October 2021
Pat Metheny's Side-Eye
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad