Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID

by Josh Feit

A dazzling array of posters adorns the entrance to the Crocodile, Seattle’s destination music venue on 2nd Avenue in Belltown. The colorful posters are an eerie museum of ghostly show bills announcing 2020 concerts that never happened: Wye Oak March 20; Vundabar March 30; Lords of Acid April 13; Patoranking April 26; Juana Molina May 5, Gioli & Assia May 6.

For your convenience, I made a Spotify playlist called “Museum of Lost Shows” commemorating the Crocodile’s spectral season.

“A survey of 51 King County music venues revealed that in the first few months of [COVID-19] 2,100 events were canceled, 650 staff were laid off, and 17,000 musicians’ paid gigs were canceled,” according to Keep Music Live, a relief fund started by local music community advocates who have a goal of raising $10 million to keep Washington state’s small venues (under 1,000 occupancy) open through and after the pandemic.

Their rallying cry that “music venues are hubs of a cultural and economic ecosystem that make Washington’s cities vibrant” is borne out by the numbers. According to the National Independent Venue Association’s 2019 Seattle impact report on live music venues, Seattle clubs generated nearly $67 million in direct economic impact, employed 1,200 people, and sold 1.3 million tickets last year. In short: When it comes to the defining attributes of successful cities, creative music scenes are on the list right alongside dense housing, jobs, universities, mass transit, restaurants, regional medical facilities, cultural diversity, and the fine arts.

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A line around the block for a music show is a political win for any city planning office. Be it Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan or a Saturday night out, SDOT planners and Kremwerk DJs are both trying to figure out how to make things last.

When it comes to the arts, you make it last by getting creative.

So, it’s with some Seattle pride that I note this bit of city planning news: Despite the empty stages, quiet dance floors, lonely box offices, and locked club doors, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is improvising this year’s programming by partnering with Town Hall Seattle, the Royal Room, and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to make sure the festival goes on with a series of virtual shows.

With outstanding local jazz acts like the Johnaye Kendrick Quartet (Friday, October 23), Marina Albero (Sunday, October 25), the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Saturday, November 7) taking the stage for live feeds from the aforementioned venues, Earshot will be streaming a series of 25 shows over four weekends this month and into November. It’s a scaled-back version of the festival’s typical 60-concerts-in-30-days tradition, but the resilience of our nationally recognized festival, which debuted in 1989, is an example of Seattle’s crafty and incorrigible arts scene.

While the festival has always promoted local talent, making sure at least half the acts are local (this year it’s 75 percent), another testament to the festival’s success is this: Earshot continues to attract national headliners. This year, thanks to its nimble programming, which includes both pre-recorded and live, exclusive Earshot sets (including saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Fred Hersch, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, and guitarist Bill Frisell), Earshot deserves a virtual standing ovation.

Earshot’s leap into streaming gigs flows from a successful team-up with Town Hall they orchestrated this spring during the outset of the COVID-19 lockdown. The initial series of online gigs, recorded live from Town Hall (with the sound of Town Hall’s sparse tech crew cheering between songs) featured Seattle jazz glitterati such as drummer/bandleader D’Vonne Lewis, virtuoso bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, piano wizard Marina Albero, and jazz diva Jacqueline Tabor.

Per usual, Earshot also features a “Resident Resident Artist,” a local jazz star who holds court throughout the festival. This year trumpet savant Ahamefule J. Oluo, well known for his jazz opera/monologue mash-up “Now I’m Fine,” presents three performances including a November 8 finale with his virtual “Ahamefule J. Oluo House Party” featuring a band from his formative years, the blaring Industrial Revelation.

In addition to this year’s performances, the festival also includes a series of afternoon discussion panels, vetting racial justice topics such as “Seattle JazzED Anti-Racist Study Group” and “The Toll of Online Jazz Education: Equity, Practical Challenges, and Teacher Burnout in a Digital Age.”

This year’s “Show Must Go On” impulse resonates with the festival’s mid-80s origin story.

As Earshot’s longtime Executive Director John Gilbreath tells it, Earshot originally transitioned from “basically a [jazz] fanzine…with a board of directors” into a bona fide festival master of ceremonies after a couple of national jazz festivals tested the Seattle waters in 1987 and 1988 (one of them sponsored by Kool cigarettes) and then promptly bailed in 1989.

The Earshot crew, which had volunteered for and supported the two successive festivals, seized the moment. They realized “there wasn’t going to be someone else’s festival” that year, Galbraith says, and they put on “a small but cool” set of eight or nine shows themselves. Earshot was suddenly a thing, eventually lining up NEA grants, Mellon Foundation money, and Doris Duke Foundation support over the years.

In 2020, with the pandemic suddenly threatening this year’s festival, Earshot’s small team seized the moment again, turning what could have been a notably quiet few weeks, into the sound of Seattle working just right.