When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, social distancing measures were swiftly put in place in order to curb the spread of the highly contagious virus. Millions of Americans turned to technology in an effort to stay connected with friends and family, and performing arts organizations worked to keep their art alive by putting together events that could be livestreamed online for patrons.
Of course, nothing can replace the experience of attending a performance in person, especially for a genre like jazz. Jazz is an inherently immersive art rooted in the collaboration of performers and it thrives because of the connection the music creates among the musicians and the audience.
“The jazz genre is one that is meant to be felt. Its immersive vibe moves audiences closer together. It almost forces a smile,” says John Gilbreath, executive director of Earshot Jazz. “It provides an opportunity for learning and engagement.”
Like other performing arts organizations, Earshot worked to move performances online. In late spring of 2020, they partnered with Town Hall Seattle to launch a free weekly livestream concert series. “That impact was really important and tangible in the first year [of the pandemic],” says Gilbreath. But as we entered year two of the pandemic, he observed that people had grown tired of online streaming.
Gilbreath says the struggles they faced were universal. “The jazz world in general isn’t huge and we’re always in touch with the New York community, which is the mecca for jazz,” he says. Legendary jazz clubs in New York closed; some returned and started livestreaming to mixed success. Meanwhile, individual artists worked together to set up performances outdoors for the sake of connection and making music together.
In a testament to the deep connections fostered by jazz, organizations across the country made an effort to support musicians. “One thing we were able to do was find some specific funding so we could give over $50,000 in individual grants to individual artists in need,” says Gilbreath, adding that other local and national jazz institutions also rallied around their artists to provide similar grants.
In 2021 as vaccines became available, live concerts slowly began to return. Last year’s Earshot Jazz Festival was presented using a hybrid format that included both live concerts and online streaming. Gilbreath describes the impact of being in the room with audiences who hadn’t been to a concert in over a year as “really powerful” and “extremely special.” Live concerts have previously been something we simply take for granted and Gilbreath notes that this experience illustrated the importance of the connections we have through music. “Those connections are so highly personal from individual to individual,” he adds.
Gilbreath is booking artists for the 34th annual Earshot Jazz Festival scheduled for this fall, but he says challenges remain. “Our audiences are still timid about coming back out for public performances and I think it’s going to take some time for that to come back full speed,” he says. He estimates that a little over 60% of their pre-pandemic audience has returned to attending live shows.
However, Gilbreath remains optimistic about reconnecting more tangibly with the community in the coming year. One goal is to partner with like-minded organizations in an effort to reenergize the arts scene in Seattle as more and more people feel comfortable returning to live entertainment. “We want to meet them right there and inspire, motivate and engage them,” he says.
Diane Wah of the Earshot Jazz board of directors adds that, although Earshot Jazz has long deemed racial equity and social justice as inseparable from the roots and promotion of jazz, “the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd launched our organization on some deep soul-searching and retooling that continues daily.”
The Earshot Jazz Festival, which lasts for a month, is scheduled to kick off this October at various venues throughout Seattle. As it has in past years, the festival will celebrate the diversity of the genre by showcasing everything from classical to experimental jazz, as well as international interpretations from countries such as Brazil and Argentina. The festival’s goal remains the same: to bring together the Seattle jazz community. After two years of settling for virtual and hybrid performances, this opportunity for tangible, in-person connection holds a special meaning for artists and audiences alike.
The Earshot Jazz organization holds a valued place in Seattle’s vibrant cultural scene. For 37 years, Earshot has supported jazz-education programs, published a free monthly magazine and presented jazz masters and exciting emerging artists to area stages.