OPINION: Why Local Jazz Must Survive

Story and photos by Glenn Nelson

If drummer D’Vonne Lewis isn’t the hardest working musician on the Seattle jazz scene, he is, by all accounts, in the top 1%. Typically, he played two to three gigs per day, every day of the week. Lewis was so busy he even stopped practicing because, spending all his time playing live music, he, his ear, and his body already knew the drill. 

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and performances started cancelling. 

“Oh man, this is getting ugly,” Lewis remembers thinking.

By April, the gigs stopped, and Lewis started working delivery for Amazon. Before, music was his sole source of a comfortable income. Now, his Amazon salary “is keeping me afloat,” he says, and he has been playing about three livestreamed music gigs a month.

Lewis, 37, lately has been spotting musicians — people he knows — on social media declaring that their professional playing days are finished. They’d already stopped practicing, which is a sure sign, other musicians say, of deep depression.

“They have almost no hope for the future, so they’re quitting,” says Lewis, one of a handful of Black artists in Seattle who had been making a full-time living playing jazz. “I don’t know how we’re going to come back from something like this.”

The death of jazz — a favorite, oft-reprised subject of arts and culture writers — has been greatly exaggerated. It has been a resilient art form, born from the struggle of Black Americans and an inextinguishable part of those who perform and consume it. Yet it also has been on life support, like — and in some ways unlike — most performing arts in the United States, a country that doesn’t publicly support its cultural institutions like, say, Europe or Japan.

And, in addition to its deathblows, the pandemic has laid bare and amplified the issues that have eaten away at jazz far before the novel coronavirus’ first sour note. Those challenges include a daunting and shifting economic model, widespread lack of understanding among Americans about one of their few truly indigenous art forms, and underlying causes steeped, unsurprisingly, in race.

Thomas Marriot and Orrin Evans perform at The Royal Room in Columbia City. (Photo: Glenn Nelson)

Because jazz is a Black American art form, there are cultural and political imperatives about finding it a sustainable path forward. If Black lives matter, then so certainly does Black culture.

Oral traditions, and the wings like jazz on which they are transported, remain as essential as ever for American Communities of Color whose histories largely have been erased from their own country’s popular narratives.

“I don’t think white people know as much as [we] should that we need Black America. The whole world needs Black America, and we need to celebrate it rather than try to knock it down every time it stands up,” said John Gilbreath, who is white and the executive director of Earshot Jazz, a 36-year-old, Seattle-based nonprofit.

That task, if conflated with sustaining a Black American art form like jazz, is an even bigger challenge in a place like Seattle, which is among the whitest major cities in the U.S.

From the outside, Seattle has seemed to the rest of the country like a bustling, secondary jazz mecca. After all, Jackson Street seriously swung back in the day, and this city helped produce jazz royalty such as Ernestine Anderson, Ray Charles, and Quincy Jones. In more contemporary times, Seattle has been a high-school jazz powerhouse with programs at Garfield and Roosevelt, as well as others throughout the region, dominating national competitions. Bill Frisell, a national-level star jazz guitarist and composer, lives here. KNKX is one of the most listened-to jazz radio stations in the world when factoring in its streaming service, Jazz24. And the jazz label Origin Records is headquartered in Seattle.

The reality is a scene in flux. The economics are difficult, and the career path is changing. Diversity also is sorely lacking.

Before the pandemic, a jazz musician in Seattle was looking at gigs paying a range of $75 to $200. They might land an average of three to four of those sessions per week; some of those might be playing other kinds of music. Sprinkling in some premium jobs — say, an Earshot Jazz festival concert, a Town Hall set, a Seattle Art Museum appearance, a couple multiple-day runs at a premier jazz club, and perhaps a seat in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra — a jazz musician here could expect an annual income from just below $20,000 to somewhere below $30,000. Those who make their livings solely from the music typically supplement their performance income with teaching privately or at an institution like Cornish College of the Arts, scoring movie or television soundtracks, recording royalties, and touring.

It is the consummate gig-economy existence. “It just ebbs and flows,” said one in-demand, full-time musician.

The demand side, particularly as represented by venues, is just as daunting. 

“The economic model is counter-intuitive, at best,” Gilbreath said. For starters, as a genre, jazz has been on the fringes of the music marketplace for years. Once America’s popular music in the 1920s and 1930s, jazz fell to 1.1% of album sales and digital streams in 2020, according to an annual report by MRC and Billboard. Only classical music ranked lower.

Jazz was a precursor for genres like rock and hip hop, but it can be challenging to a listener. Its basis in improvisation means a tune will sound different depending on who is playing it, when, and where. Consumption is not passive, like pop music. Its polyrhythmic patterns can be difficult for general audiences to follow.

The impact on the Seattle scene has been palpable. Gilbreath recalled consistently filling as many as three or more pages of Earshot’s monthly magazine with club listings. The number of clubs ran to 100 or more. That number has dwindled considerably. Local jazz musicians lost their strongest champion when Tula’s closed last year, as much a victim of downtown Seattle’s runaway rents as anything else. The city now lacks a club devoted exclusively to jazz, especially the local variety. Also fighting the fight of downtown rents, Jazz Alley devotes a healthy portion of its schedule to nationally touring — and more financially reliable — pop, soul, and funk acts.

What’s more, even in the best of times, a club owner has to perform mathematical gymnastics to make the numbers work for a jazz booking. Profits have to be squeezed from the tiny margins of food and beverage sales. Whatever portion of the “door” (tickets or cover charges) is claimed — generally, 15% — does not fully cover production costs, including rent, marketing, personnel, and staging equipment. And then the musicians seldom believe that they are getting a big enough piece of the pie.

A microphone at the Royal Room. (Photo: Glenn Nelson)

Wayne Horvitz, a nationally renowned pianist, composer, and electronic musician, has been running jazz and an eclectic range of musical performances at the Royal Room in Columbia City since 2011. The Royal Room is considered one of the country’s top performance spaces for jazz, but Horvitz still has been confronted with the same impossible financial calculations. One of Seattle’s “it” neighborhoods, Columbia City has experienced a recent boom in multiple-story housing construction. Horvitz was excited about the prospect of Amazon-salaried young people roaming the neighborhood in search of entertainment. But when the condos and apartments filled, “nothing changed” at his club, he says.

“It’s like a rabbit hole still, to people in Seattle,” one Black musician said of the local jazz scene.

The artists consider clubs as necessary vessels of their craft because the spontaneity of live performance is the essence of jazz. Clubs are where ideas, music, and young musicians are incubated. It’s also where jazz performance, in a lot of ways, has been confined. Only a tiny number of national artists tour and play in concert facilities — a reflection of where jazz sits in the cultural hierarchy as a music performed where drinks are served. This doesn’t just force musicians to confront an untenable business model, it creates an atmosphere of table conversation and clinking glasses that, say, opera or symphony musicians would never experience, much less tolerate. One of the giants of jazz, Charles Mingus, famously excoriated his audiences for their noisemaking, once destroying a $20,000 bass after being heckled. 

“If you’re in jazz, you’re categorized as non-concert music, which means that you don’t get paid for your performances in venues,” said Horvitz, who is white. “You only get paid for being played on the radio. That is changing, but that’s racism. There’s no other word for it.”

Horvitz’s solution, at least to club economics, is to go nonprofit. He recently formed the South Hudson Music Project, which will stage music events in the Royal Room with the twist of subsidizing costs with funds from individual donations and grants from government and foundations. It held its first fundraiser, “Solos for a Brand New Day,” on Jan. 24.

As Gilbreath can attest, even the generosity of others cannot completely insulate the music against catastrophes like the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, Earshot was forced to lay off two of its five employees and cut the size of its iconic annual jazz festival in half to 25 performances, all of them digital. It had been staging livestreamed performances, without live audiences, from Town Hall. The Royal Room also went the livestream route, holding 9 to 10 per week during its peak in the summer. Both entities halted the performances when COVID cases began spiking in the fall. Earshot has received grants to guarantee its health for the foreseeable future. 

“There is a tomorrow,” Gilbreath said.

The pandemic has pummeled jazz across the country. Performance venues have been devastated in New York City, the music’s mecca and most vibrant scene. The Jazz Standard, one of the city’s stalwart clubs, has closed permanently. Birdland, named for jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, started a GoFundMe that has met its goal of raising $250,000 and staged a celebrity-packed benefit concert on Jan. 24. Smalls, among the first clubs to form a nonprofit and hold livestreamed performances, is teetering on extinction.

The venues crisis, of course, is both a cause and reflection of the individual disasters suffered by the musicians. Locally, Earshot is administering a $50,000 relief fund, courtesy of a grant from the Raynier Institute and Foundation; it currently is taking applications through the end of this month. Artist Trust is among other regional arts organizations and governmental agencies that have provided help. Part of the latest federal COVID relief package was $15 billion earmarked for arts and culture venues, such as clubs, halls, and theaters. Those who have lost at least 25% of revenue can apply for grants from the Small Business Administration to support six months of payments to employees and for costs including rent, utilities, and maintenance. It is the last hope for many to be able to ride out the pandemic.

“It’s been awful for artists,” Gilbreath said, “and we still have a long ways to go with the virus.”

Nonprofit meets pandemic meets Seattle meets New York, all in the form of Riley Mulherkar, a South Seattle native and rising jazz trumpeter who operates out of Brooklyn, New York. To complete the criss-crossing picture, Mulherkar is a member of the Westerlies, an all-brass quartet whose members all are Seattle bred but New York based. In addition to generating national buzz, the Westerlies have been following a nonprofit path that allows its musicians to not only support their distinctive style but also pursue their values, including social justice, community outreach, and education. All of what the band is about is packaged into its annual Westerlies Fest, usually held in Seattle but this year, the third iteration was a digital presentation that took place Feb. 4–7.

Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar (Photo: Glenn Nelson)

On a recent afternoon in his Brooklyn outpost, Mulherkar was engrossed in his new, pandemic-induced reality. That meant that he was trying to wrap his head around worker’s compensation and disability insurance, as well as mastering TweetDeck as a social-media marketing tool. In addition to prepping for their annual festival, the Westerlies also dropped their fourth album, “This Land,” with vocalist Theo Blackman, on Jan. 29.

“Sometimes it feels like having to learn three other jobs,” Mulherkar said. “In a way, I envy the simplicity of the old way. No one’s really doing it all, but all of us are doing our best to play the kind of music we want to play.”

The “old way” to which Mulherkar refers is the fading jazz career paradigm: Get good on your instrument, move to New York to improve, network and secure mentors, then start your own band, sign with a label, and tour, with Europe and Japan comprising the promised lands. Mulherkar, 29, is part of an emerging mold — let’s call it the “academic path.” He came up through the ballyhooed jazz programs at Washington Middle School and Garfield High School, then attended The Juilliard School, the prestigious arts program in New York. One of his classmates was Andy Clausen, a trombone player who once was his rival at Roosevelt High School and now is his music and business partner with the Westerlies. Mulherkar still plays gigs in New York, but Juilliard, in essence, replaced the old club mentoring scene in terms of training, networking, and forging a career path.

Mulherkar says it makes sense having one foot back in his hometown and the other mostly in New York, adding, “Seattle doesn’t have the economy around the music that New York does, but it does have a lot of the same challenges — rising costs, high-priced real estate, and the socio-economic and systemic problems in growing cities are still there.” Another factor, other musicians note, is that New York also offers a fair number of $75–$100 gigs.

As with most change, the academic path has its detractors, particularly among those who came up in the old ways — which is just about everybody, until recently. Even Mulherkar concedes that his approach is the product of a fair amount of privilege. Jazz has been a Black American oral tradition handed down through generations, and a good portion of its masters were self-taught. Traditionalists say formal education reduces the jazz art form to a soulless pursuit.

“Soul used to be a qualifier,” one critic said, “and at some point, the word just dropped out of the lexicon. Jazz is becoming an intellectual exercise where, like some people say, it seems like the musicians are playing for the possible enjoyment of the other musicians on the stage and really not trying to connect with audiences.” 

This kind of elitism that has dampened inclusion in the music, some say. That exclusion begins at the pipeline end — middle school or high school — where white families migrate to the jazz powerhouses, potentially claiming spots that might have gone to students from traditional feeder communities of color.

Where the Seattle jazz scene goes and what it looks like after the pandemic is not yet clear. In a bit of time, South Seattle could be its hub. In the club mix with the Royal Room will be Black & Tan Hall in Hillman City, which plans for jazz performances among its performance offerings. The group just closed the purchase of the historic theater that used to be home to Maxim’s and is looking at 6 to 12 months of renovations, according to a spokesperson. Columbia City Theater and Rainier Arts Center, a program of SEEDArts, a department of SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), are two other spaces in Columbia City suitable for jazz.

If South Seattle does become the primary host to the region’s jazz buffet, then its centerpiece will be Jazz House, the new headquarters for Seattle JazzEd, due to open in 2023. Jazz House, which is scheduled for construction at the old Imperial Lanes property in Rainier Valley, will include a multi-purpose performance space that will accommodate 250 to 300 patrons. The organization has consulted with musicians and promoters, according to Laurie DeKoch, JazzEd’s executive director, and will be tuned for the music. The center will have garage-type doors that can extend the performance space into the plaza; the organization hopes to have the street in front designated by the City for festivals, DeKoch said. She describes the project as a racially equitable development; one of its designers calls it a “very democratic space.” JazzEd also has a critical educational mission to not just more equitably train the next generation of players but to broaden the understanding and consumption of the music.

Nonprofit does appear to be the inevitable way forward for Seattle’s otherwise depressed jazz scene. Trumpeter Thomas Marriott, one of the region’s most accomplished jazz musicians, recently formed the Seattle Jazz Fellowship. The 501(c)3 organization seeks to help grow the genre’s community by offering jam sessions, workshops, rehearsals, and album listening events, as well as a mentoring program that hearkens to the music’s roots. (Full disclosure: The author is a member of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship’s founding board of directors.) KNKX just received a $225,000 grant for its jazz programming, spread over three years, from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Navigating the charitable path to more racial equity and equality could be a major challenge, however. The number of Black artists practicing the Black American artform on a full-time basis in Seattle numbered, pre-pandemic, from half a dozen to 10 musicians. The starting point for increasing those numbers is a city where gentrification has drained the Black community to about 7% of its population. Not surprisingly, all but half (Clarence Acox is co-artistic director of Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra) of all the full-time jazz organizations in the city are white-led. Otherwise, the closest to breaking through the racial stranglehold is Jackson Street Jazz Walk, an annual event directed by jazz vocalist Eugenie Jones.

The most monolithic racial barrier may be the challenge that jazz nonprofits face in attracting elite, white patrons who have been locked down for centuries by the traditional European-based arts — fine art, opera and symphony, even ballet. A few large national foundations like Doris Duke and Andrew W. Mellon have supported jazz, but the struggle continues among the remainder of private giving and at various governmental levels. The apparent societal emphasis on racial equity and justice at least provides a window to start turning the tide. The fact that JazzEd has maintained the timeline on its $13 million capital campaign is a good sign.

Gilbreath, for one, is eager to start breaking down the cultural apartheid. He is 72 and Earshot Jazz has been discussing his transition for the past couple years. A racial justice consultant that the organization hired has recommended countering the overwhelming whiteness of Seattle by conducting a nationwide search. 

“For me, racial equity and succession planning for Earshot Jazz are inextricably woven together,” Gilbreath said. “We’re stewards of an art form that is a cultural treasure of Black America.”

Throughout the years, jazz has transcended race, age, culture, and language, even in as massively white a place as this. An anecdote sticks with me: An all-Black band is playing in a primarily white neighborhood in Bellevue. Afterward, the musicians are approached by Korean American sisters who want to translate a message from their father, who is celebrating a birthday in his 80s. Their music reminds him of being young and playing music in Korea, the sisters say. The group then is invited to share some of the man’s birthday cake.

It would be a crime to allow a pandemic to blow out the candles on such an essential and difference-severing Black American art form, already on life support after decades of atrophying cultural primacy.

Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded The Trail Posse and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @TrailPosse on Twitter or @TheTrailPosse on Instagram.

Featured image: Celisse Henderson performs at the Royal Room in Columbia City. (Photo by Glenn Nelson)

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