Earshot Jazz: Finally Back In-Person, Centering Black Experiences

 “We are really engaged with music and social change, both in the themes for our projects and the work that 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 consciousness raising both in the past and the present.”

Grant explained how their performance was a manifestation of this idea. “I was really interested in highlighting 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 ever African-American woman recognized as a symphonic composer.

“That was a really cool change in the way of getting to use music to support issues of identity and equity, and to share some of the broader cultural history with the audience.”

Experiencing jazz shows in-person brings creative genius and struggle to life. Attending virtual performances cannot do the music justice. Earshot offered the artists and residents of Seattle this opportunity once again. The festival ran from Oct. 8 to Nov. 6 this year.

Grant said jazz musicians have been waiting for an opportunity like the Earshot Jazz Festival to say their piece. “We saw George Floyd protests and racial unrest and were writing pieces about it, but it takes a while,” he said. “I think that we will continue to see themes and performances like this in the next two, three years as that backlog of work gets brought to the public.”

According to Alex Dugdale, Earshot’s 2022 artist in residence, “The root of jazz is the expression of struggle, a comment on the social environment brought about through social change and economic struggles.

“It’s 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 dance at the University of Washington.

A traditional African cowry shell necklace is draped over a central speaker throughout the Tabor/Alebro show at the Town Hall Seattle venue, Oct. 20, 2022. The set ended with Billie Holiday’s song “Don’t Explain,” one of her most famous songs of heartbreak, leaving the audience with an emotionally charged message. (Photo: Will Crockett)

Earshot Magazine’s editor Rayna Mathis said in addition to foregrounding musical expressions of struggle and freedom, festival officials are working to shift perspectives on jazz through their monthly publication. “Our [mainstream media] sights are so often white and male, and those stories will always have platforms. My interest is not in that,” she said.

“It is in providing people who do not have the platforms that have been historically removed from them to share their stories.”

Reflecting on the diversity of Seattle’s jazz scene, Mathis said, “There is such a lack of access for young Black artists.”

 “Which is not to say they aren’t there, but rather we should acknowledge that these barriers come at a cost.” When imagining its future, she said “It is hard for me to imagine an authentic, thriving, successful, genuine jazz community without that presence. It is heartbreaking, it is lonely.”

Through her work at Earshot, Mathis said she is helping to change the scene’s demographic, to keep jazz as a current, cultural tool for historically silenced voices.

This year’s Earshot Jazz Festival allowed advocates like Grant, Dugdale and Mathis to have important social discourse through high-end performances and community conversations.

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