Following His Own Rhythm -- John Gilbreath Listened To His Own Drummer, And The Earshot Jazz Festival Is The Beneficiary

----------------------------------------------------------------- Jazz notes

The Earshot Jazz Festival 1995 begins Oct. 13 through Oct. 28 at various venues around Seattle. Tickets are available at Wall of Sound, 2237 Second Ave.; Bud's Jazz Records, 102 S. Jackson St.; or all TicketMaster locations. For more information, call the Festival Hotline at 547-9787. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Deep in his heart, he knew he belonged somewhere else.

Certainly not in an office estimating the cost of construction projects. John Gilbreath was sick of that. For 20 years he handled bookkeeping duties, drew up contracts, crunched budgets, met with contractors.

A life of middle-class comforts was not enough. He wanted something more, but for years he drove home wondering "Why am I doing this?" The answer was kind of scary. There was a mortgage, and other bills to pay. But upon leaving his job after a disagreement, he thought maybe now is the time.

It hung in his mind for two weeks as he volunteered as an usher for an Earshot Jazz concert. The group was looking for an executive director. Four years ago, he applied and was hired for the part-time position.

"I thought back several times telling myself I ought to work in the arts somewhere, but there was no money in it," said Gilbreath, who now is the group's only full-time paid staffer, at an amount he says he earned in his 20s. "I'm clear now at 47 years old that there's a monetary value to be in work that feels right with who I am, and that has real meaning to it."

Following his own heart, doing what he loves instead of what pays him more, Gilbreath discovered the artist within. He doesn't wear a watch, but just as he did as a teenager who dabbled in drums, he keeps time nonetheless - Earshot's time, pounding the group's snare drum and rattling the cymbals in his own way. Steady, in-sync, but - some say - hard to follow.

Two stories up, in a one-room office, Gilbreath sat at a crowded desk overlooking Fremont Avenue North. Between phone calls, as Keith Jarrett's piano played softly in the background, he spoke about his role in the grass-roots organization.

It's similar, he said, to a business aspiring to move from entrepreneurial to professional. Besides writing grants, booking concerts and filing taxes, he sometimes finds himself sweeping the floors. Yet he calls it "a fascinating process."

"The success of the organization is important to me - sometimes too important. I care about this organization's success and I respect it for the work it has done in the community."

Earshot was founded in 1984 around a dining room table by three jazz enthusiasts, who contributed to the music in different ways: Paul de Barros, a writer and frequent Seattle Times contributor; Alan Youngblood, a musician; and Gary Bannister, an educator.

Their blueprint soon formed the basis for a nonprofit jazz support group, particularly for avant-garde, original artists living in the Northwest or others stretching the music's style. A monthly newsletter appeared that the group is still best known for, but still following the writing-musician-educator groove.

Like many arts groups, it struggled early on to pay its bills. And with strong personalities involved, clashes occurred. The bickering led some to leave the organization in the 1980s. What kept the remaining membership together is what the group stood for.

Earshot was supported by arts commissions from Seattle, King County, Washington state and the National Endowment for the Arts. And by 1990 the group became part of the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest National Jazz Network, one of 20 groups nationwide receiving money to raise jazz appreciation in the nation.

These funds help sponsor the Earshot Jazz Festival, which Down Beat magazine calls "Seattle's most important jazz event." The festival strives to keep its artistic edge while keeping it commercially viable, though there's less pressure on sales because of outside funding. The group also presents workshops and scholarships for high-school players. Its most popular class at the Seattle Center Academy is called "Hands of Jazz."

Earshot also organizes benefit concerts for musicians who don't have benefits, but need surgery or care that is otherwise unaffordable.

Keeping the group's commitments organized is Gilbreath. "He's a tireless representative of this organization," said Keith Raether, editor of the group's monthly newsletter, the only staffer besides Gilbreath who's paid. "He lives it as a way of life or as a job that occupies his life."

"There's a professionalism about him and an honesty that's refreshing," said John Dimitriou, owner of Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, where Earshot has established a weekly concert series for regional players. "In all my experiences I've spent with him, never once has he not done what he said he would do."

Even critics acknowledge Gilbreath anchors Earshot. But they say his drumbeat is stable, too stable, to the point of repetition.

Everyone knows each other in the jazz community, but those who are overlooked by the group to play at Earshot's gigs feel left out.

"I guess the people who are the best hobnobbers within music themselves, and familiar with the administrative process, are those who benefit by it," said Bannister, who teaches a jazz history course at the Experimental College.

He adds there needs to be more room for dissenting musical opinions within the group, and greater delegation of duties from Gilbreath to others. "You can't do everything," he said.

At a recent gig, Gilbreath tapped his fingers on the table to the Latin rhythms drifting from the stage. He's thinking about what the future holds for Earshot. So far, 500 people have paid $30 to $300 to be supporters, and that will grow, he believes, as will corporate support. The concert series at Jazz Alley will continue as well.

"One thing we'd love to have is a facility of our own," he said, something that seats maybe 100 people and has room for an office, too.

Gilbreath may have to figure out the cost of that, too. But if he does, he probably won't cross over into his old line of work, now that his heart is in jazz.