Earshot Jazz: finally back in person, centered on black experiences
By Will Crockett, The Seattle Medium
The Earshot Jazz Festival, which for decades provided a month of jazz performances across Seattle, was finally back in person this year and blurred the lines between art and post-COVID advocacy.
“COVID has exposed the underlying structural issues of this country,” said Darrell Grant, composer, musician, performer at this year’s festival and professor of jazz at Portland State University. “Yes, the pandemic has been awful and it’s caused a lot of hardship, but it’s opened up gaps that were already there,” he said in a phone interview after his show at Town Hall Seattle in October.
“It opened them up enough that we couldn’t ignore them because so many people fell into it. This disproportionate way in which the pandemic affects communities of color was representative of all the other ways in which this is true.
Ahead of his October 27 show with the New Quartet at Seattle City Hall, Grant and bassist Marcus Shelby hosted a forum to discuss jazz and civil rights. Grant and Shelby asked followers to send questions on social media ahead of the event.
“We’re really committed to music and social change, both in the themes of our projects and in the work we do in the community,” Grant said of himself and Shelby.
At the forum, “We talked a lot about the connections between music and identity, we talked about the connection between jazz and civil rights and awareness both in the past and present.”
Grant explained how their performance was a manifestation of this idea. “I was really interested in showcasing the music of African American composers, so we did pieces by composers like William Grant Still and Florence Price,” he said. Still was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the United States, and Price was the first African-American woman recognized as a symphonic composer.
“It was a really cool shift in how music was used to support issues of identity and equity, and to share some of the larger cultural story with audiences.”
Experiencing in-person jazz performances brings the creative genius and struggle to life. Attending virtual performances can’t do the music justice. Earshot has once again provided this opportunity for artists and people in Seattle. The festival ran from October 8 to November 6 this year.
Grant said jazz musicians have been waiting for an occasion like the Earshot Jazz Festival to say their tune. “We’ve seen the George Floyd protests and the racial unrest and we were writing about it, but it takes time,” he said. “I think we’ll continue to see themes and performances like this over the next two or three years as this backlog of work is brought to the public.”
According to Earshot 2022 Artist-in-Residence Alex Dugdale, “The root of jazz is an expression of struggle, a commentary on the social environment brought about by social change and economic struggles.
“This is how we communicate our freedom,” he said. “We can find some freedom, solace, comfort and joy in music because it gives us that freedom.” Dugdale is a local jazz musician, dancer, teacher, and professor of tap dancing at the University of Washington.
Earshot Magazine editor Rayna Mathis said that in addition to highlighting musical expressions of struggle and freedom, festival officials strive to change perspectives on jazz through their monthly publication. . “Our [mainstream media] the views are so often white and masculine, and these stories will always have platforms. My interest is not in that,” she said.
“It’s about providing people who don’t have the platforms that have historically been taken away from them to share their stories.”
Reflecting on the diversity of Seattle’s jazz scene, Mathis said, “There’s such a lack of access for young black artists.”
“Which is not to say that they are not there, but rather we must recognize that these barriers have a cost.” Imagining her future, she said, “It’s hard for me to imagine a genuine, thriving, prosperous, authentic jazz community without that presence. It’s heartbreaking, it’s lonely.
Through her work at Earshot, Mathis said she was helping to change the demographics of the scene, keeping jazz alive as a current cultural tool for historically silenced voices.
This year’s Earshot Jazz Festival provided advocates like Grant, Dugdale and Mathis with meaningful social discourse through high-end performances and community conversations.