Jazz keeps the beat: Music lovers hungry for new sounds find the cutting edge has roots in a classic source.

Share story

Music is a central lifeforce for many of us, a source of passion and inspiration. It can help to define who we are as people, and how we experience our world. Many of us who love music are therefore interested in hearing something that’s new and innovative, a vibe or a voice that catches our ears and stops us in our tracks. For some musical searchers, jazz might not be the direction they typically look for this sort of freshness. But minds can be changed: here in Seattle, we are lucky to have not only a vibrant jazz scene, but an energized and forward-thinking organization focused on the idea of jazz as an evolving art form with broad appeal: Earshot Jazz. Earshot’s crown jewel is the internationally revered Earshot Jazz Festival, which is now in its 30th year.

At some points in its history, jazz might have seemed elitist, self-consciously hip, a music you might need to “study” to understand. Even worse, jazz may have seemed dragged down by the weight of all the historical accomplishments since the genre’s beginnings over a century ago — an art form worthier of a museum than a sweaty club.

But jazz reflects and responds to the culture at large. We are now nearly two decades into the 21st century, and fortunately, most of the self-important discussions have faded away, and we’re just left with the music, alive and thriving. You don’t need to argue about definitions or even call it “jazz”; just call it good music: fun, exciting, tender, perplexing, and most certainly danceable, with something for every type of listener.

From its deep roots in African-American traditions, the current world of jazz encompasses a rainbow of innovation and influence. The jazz of today might feature distorted electric guitar, soulful folk singers, or dance-music textures. Jazz is deeply embedded in the thriving indie music scene and is a core inspiration engine for much of today’s most creative hip-hop. It’s no longer unusual to hear jazz groups reinterpret Radiohead, Soundgarden, the digital rhythms of electronic music, or folk music forms from around the globe.

As Earshot Jazz Executive Director and tireless local icon John Gilbreath points out, the definition of jazz itself is open to interpretation: “Jazz means so many things to people, and as it goes on around the world there are so many inherent paradoxes in it. … even within the art form, the progression bucks against conventions, ruffles feathers.”

Active since 1984, Earshot Jazz is deeply involved in all aspects of the Pacific Northwest jazz scene. Though known primarily for presenting fantastically varied music all over the city, year in, year out, the organization’s mission is multipronged. As Gilbreath says, “After 30 years on Seattle’s vibrant arts landscape, Earshot is perceived as both a cultural institution and a spunky little non-profit; and that’s a great place to be! We are dedicated to cultivating a dynamic jazz community of artists, educators, and audiences that sings in harmony with the culture of this great city.”

The Earshot notion of jazz is deep and broad: Kamasi Washington, a saxophone colossus driving a hip-hop informed cosmic cinematic orchestra; Maria Schneider, a Grammy Award-winning powerhouse composer and David Bowie collaborator making Big Band music for a new era; Regina Carter, a violinist jumping between classical, Afro Cuban, swing, and African folk forms; Tigran Hamasyan, bridging electronics, chamber music and the sounds of his native Armenia into riveting solo piano performances. These artists all illustrate a timeless facet of what defines jazz as a durable art form: creative improvising artists reacting to and utilizing all the cultural activity of their era.

As Gilbreath says, “In taking the long view with our stewardship, we find the most juice in jazz’s inherent nature of renewal and progression.”

Formed in 1984, Earshot Jazz supports the growing community of jazz artists and audiences in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.