The Overlooked Power of Nature’s Invisible Giants

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These characters and their struggles exemplify the sweeping, impassioned story of activism—and stunning evocation of the natural world—that is author Richard Powers’ twelfth novel, The Overstory.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby talked with Powers about where his idea for the novel originated and why trees, specifically, are important to telling our complete story.

Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory


AE:  I’m curious about the overall premise of your novel, The Overstory. The overarching throughline seems to be the presence of trees and their relationship to the characters. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

RP: I suppose that’s the easiest way to describe the common denominator of this story. It’s about nine people with very different personalities and very different histories, each of whom for different reasons must come to take more seriously the invisible presence of these enormous long-lived creatures. But beyond trees, I guess it’s a story that asks how to dramatize the relationship between humans and non-humans—how to raise this question of what it would take for us to live here on this Earth rather than be constantly fleeing into one that asks the rest of creation to live on our terms.

AE: So more than just trees in that sense. The whole of nature.

RP: I used trees as an entry point into this broader question of people coming to terms with the world beyond the human. So much of the book has to do with current research that’s revealing all kinds of unexpected aggregate behavior among trees, for instance, their ability to communicate with each other via chemical signaling in semaphore. It just seems another fresh way to talk about this endless challenge of people in a world that is increasingly hard-pressed by our relegation of the rest of creation to the role of mere resource.

AE: It’s fascinating to see what we’re discovering regarding research on the behavior of trees. It’s just difficult for us to observe given that this all happens in such slow motion relative to our own lives.

RP: Yes, the research is proceeding in a lot of different directions. The roots of trees are connected underground by fungal filaments, and the exchange of hydrocarbons and sugars between the tree and the fungus, and the reciprocal nurturing of the tree by the fungus produces what Suzanne Simard, one of the leading researchers in the topic, calls the “Wood Wide Web.” It forces us to think of the forest as something that emerges out of lots of individuals, deeply connected in webs of cooperation.

To me that story—the discovery that these other enormous creatures have agency and memory and social connections and complex behavior—compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities. All of that compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities.

And that’s kind of an odd program for literary fiction. Traditionally, contemporary novels don’t venture much beyond the psychological or the social. The stories that we tell these days are almost exclusively about us. We fascinate ourselves. We pay attention primarily to the social relations among people, to the tensions inside our own psyches.

AE: Is that why you chose to situate this in a novel format? As fiction?

RP: The stories we tell about who we are, the stories we tell about what non-humans are. They need to be informed by all of those concerns that are traditionally the arena of non-fiction, but they need to have the heft, the emotional impact, and the visceral quality of fiction. We are entirely dependent upon plants, biologically and culturally. They should be at the heart and soul of the story that we tell about ourselves. It shouldn’t be a separate domain treated specifically and exclusively by scientific or non-fiction writers.

AE: And it seems like your representation of trees at the center of this story is aiming to redefine what we imagine a character to be.

RP: We have been almost entirely colonized by a way of thinking that I sometimes call “individual commodity culture,” where meaning is exclusively the domain of the self and life consists exclusively of individual people introspecting, coming to terms with their own conflicting values and making peace with others around them. At this point we believe that life is this simple struggle between ourselves and our immediate friends and family. And that’s as far as the story goes.

It’s difficult to understand that most people who have lived in human history didn’t have that assumption. That for them, meaning was out there. It’s tough for us to think of meaning as anything other than a subjectively negotiated thing.

AE:Is this story the spurred by any meaningful personal relationships with nature or specific trees at all that you can recall?

RP: Until six years ago when I first began to think about this project, I was as blind to trees as anyone. I mean, I saw them, I appreciated them aesthetically, but they didn’t particularly seem to have their own urgency. It was really first experience of a Redwood forest that began to challenge that. I think a lot of people have that when they see Redwoods for the first time; there’s something so majestic that you can’t be blind to them in the way that you are to plant life so much of the time.

Once I saw a Redwood forest as something more than a resource or aesthetic diversion, I returned to the forests of the East where I grew up and began to see the trees of my childhood for the first time, just to look at them and to understand all of the incredibly complicated shapes and forms and structures that they create. I had, again and again, this experience of coming back to the forest of the East while writing this book and saying to myself, “I had no idea.” I never—I had never seen it.

AE: I can imagine visiting forests you grew up with and seeing trees that you saw as a child, coming back to them years later. And it’s the same tree, the same organism.

RP: But everything’s different because something had changed in me. I began to see what had been largely invisible to me up until then. And I guess that’s my hope for this book.  I hope that the reader has that experience of being un-blinded toward these incredible creatures in their own street or deeper into the woods as far as they want to go—that experience of perpetually saying “I never saw that before. I have to look at them now with new eyes.”

AE: It sounds like a lot of native Seattleites will be inspired to take a trip to the Grove of the Patriarchs after reading this.

RP: Or even to see the urban planting in a different way. To understand the richness and diversity of street trees. It’s a great place to start.


Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory

Lucy Cooke: Re-Branding the Animal Kingdom

Humans often look at the animal kingdom through our own lens, and many times we tend to project our own values and emotions onto the animals. Here to set the record straight is National Geographic Explorer Lucy Cooke. She’ll be joining us on April 22 with wisdom from her new book The Truth About Animals. To give us some perspective on all varieties of animals, beloved and besmirched, Cooke spoke with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby about her upcoming event.

Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.


 AE: In your book you aim to dispel some misconceptions we hold about animals, and you mention Aristotle and Disney in particular as examples of where some wrong ideas came from. Can you tell me more about that?

LC: So the book is about how we have misconstrued animals, and explaining where those misconceptions came from. That’s not to single those two out, Aristotle or Disney that is, but it’s really just to show the range of misconceptions that exist. Aristotle of course was the first Zoologist, the grandfather of Zoology, and he was a fantastic scientist, but even he made some mistakes. And Disney of course is a founding father of popular culture and how we see animals in a popular sense, so really that statement is just to illustrate how we make mistakes about animals not just in popular culture, but scientifically as well.

One of the examples you bring up as a classic misconception we hold is about penguins “holding hands.” How does that example illustrate our misunderstanding?

 As a species, we have a compulsion to anthropomorphize. We’re constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom. But this trips us up and it obscures the truth and it makes us believe things that are wholly inappropriate about animals. Penguins are a good example. They look like wobbly little humans, they have this awkward way of walking when they’re on land, which is not at all how they behave in the water. But this way of walking reminds us of toddlers and it triggers our impulse to nurture. We’re sort of helpless in the face of penguins; we want to adore them. So when we see images of penguins and it looks like their flippers are touching, we imagine that they’re holding hands and that they’re in love.

But that is not true at all. Penguins are birds with tiny brains that live in an incredibly harsh environment and they actually have a kind of brutal existence. They often fight one another in the Antarctic, and they’re often thought of as being monogamous and forming long-term loving relationships. But the majority of penguins find new partners every season, and penguin “divorce rates” go up the further north you travel. The most egregious example is the famous Emperor penguin, and only 15% of Emperor penguins manage to stay “faithful” from one breeding season to another.

So we humans project that loving and faithful image onto penguins, when in reality there’s actually a bit of a darker side to them. Is there an animal that’s the reverse? One that has a negative image which it doesn’t necessarily deserve?

In the book I write about spotted hyenas, who are one of those species that are widely disliked. They’re portrayed in Disney’s Lion King as stupid lowly scavengers or cowards, but the truth is a long way from that. Spotted hyenas are one of the most successful carnivores on the planet. They are a matriarchal society, and extremely intelligent. The researchers I’ve spoken to have suggested that they’re of greater intelligence than lions. They can actually count up to three, and they use their numeracy skills to work out whether they have the advantage in numbers when they’re faced with lions. They listen to the sound of the roars and they work out whether they have a band that’s big enough to overtake the lions. They’re really extraordinarily skilled hunters.

Hyenas are one of the animals that have been considered in a negative light, but we should really consider them the feminist icon of the animal kingdom. They’re a matriarchal society, and they’re extremely successful and intelligent hunters.

It seems like you’re doing a lot of good PR work for these animals, trying to set the record straight.

I think it’s time we re-branded the animal kingdom according to fact, and not sentimentality.

That makes sense. And it also resonates with some of the work you did a few years ago as The Amphibian Avenger.

 (*laughs*) Yeah. I spent six months travelling around South America by myself investigating the amphibian extinction crisis. They don’t get a lot of press, amphibians. They don’t have a furry smiley face and they are less relatable perhaps to ourselves than primates or bears or animals we can see ourselves in. But amphibians are a key part of the food chain, and they’re also the canary in the mine, as it were. Because of their thin skin that they breathe through they’re a good kind of barometer for the ecosystem as a whole. So if the amphibians are in trouble you can pretty much guess that there’s something wrong with the ecosystem too, and the fact that they’re dying out in such huge numbers should be something we’re more keenly interested in.

And since then your travels have taken you even further than South America. You’ve become a National Geographic Explorer as well. Where else has that work taken you, and what was it like?

I was given the award in 2011 in response to the work I did with amphibians, bringing the conservation message about amphibians to a broader audience. I travel a lot. I spend a lot of time in jungles and out there in the wild. While in South America I visited eight or nine countries. I saw fungus-infested frog farms, licked poison dart frogs, drank frog smoothies in Lima, and chased down endangered species in the Amazon.

Well we’re excited to have you coming to Seattle after all that.

 Yeah, I can’t wait to come to Seattle. I’ve never been, and I’m looking forward to my visit enormously! If I’m lucky enough to get some free time I would love to see the orcas. They’re one of those absolutely incredible animals that’s widely misunderstood. Another matriarchal society, hugely empathetic in nature, very smart, they’re fantastic. I hope I get to see them, as well as lots of wonderful human beings during my visit.


Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.

 

The Space Barons — A Privately-Financed Commercial Space Age

In 2017, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket booster. Later this year, Virgin Galactic—the spacefaring spinoff of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines—intends to take tourists into suborbital flight. And here in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion is his commercial space company Blue Origin. According to journalist Christian Davenport, a staff-writer at the Washington Post, this flurry of activity marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration and a brand new space race: not between nations but between private companies and the eccentric billionaires driving them.

Davenport tells this story in his new book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. He’ll be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th. But in the meantime, Town Hall’s Alexander Eby spoke with Christian Davenport about this new frontier and whether he’ll be in line for a ticket to the stars.

Get tickets for The Space Barons and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos on April 25.


AE: Who are the Space Barons?

             CD: In the book I focus on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. I think what makes them interesting is that all of them obviously have enormous wealth and come from a Silicon Valley background or ethos and saw space as a dynamic new frontier that was ripe for disruption and innovation. Their approaches are different, their personalities are different, but what unites them is that they made their fortunes elsewhere focusing on very different industries. Elon Musk has worked at PayPal and Tesla, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and Richard Branson has a myriad of companies. They all have experience in business and entrepreneurship and going up against big industries like Amazon taking on Barnes and Noble and the book industry, and Elon Musk with Tesla taking on virtually all of Detroit. But I think Space presents to them perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It’s the most difficult and I think the reason why they chose it is that it’s something they’re really, truly passionate about.

These guys coming at these different projects from the perspective of entrepreneurs… it’s right there in the title ‘The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos’. This is ultimately public-facing. The goal is to put people into space.

             That’s right. Particularly with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that’s their main goal. There’s only something like 550-560 people who have ever been to space. In a lot of cases they grew up watching the Apollo era and seeing people in space. Elon said a year ago: it’s 2018 we should have a base on the moon by now. That’s clearly a goal of Blue Origin’s right now. They clearly are focused on human space flight and getting people into space.

When Jeff is asked about this—“aren’t these tourism trips up to space just trivial, like going on a rollercoaster ride?”—he has two responses. One is that it’s really good practice. You’re not going to get good at something you do a half dozen or a dozen times a year. To really get good at space you have to launch repeatedly, to do it over and over again which is what they hope to do with these suborbital spaceflights. Then: when you get up there you have a few minutes of weightlessness, you unbuckle your seatbelt and float around the cabin of the spacecraft, you’re able to look at the windows and see the curvature of the Earth: the globe without any lines delineating countries, the thin veneer of the atmosphere. People talk about that being a transformative effect. If these companies are able to get more people out into space and have that experience, where it comes to the point that you know someone whose gone to space or know someone who knows someone and that begins to spread, that could have a transformative effect on our society.

Is it the sort of thing you expect will happen in our lifetimes?

             I think the first suborbital flights might be as soon as this year, might be next year. Virgin Galactic is gunning for this year, although they had a setback in 2014 with a fatal crash that killed a co-pilot. Obviously it’s very dangerous and a huge challenge but they’re getting close. I think Blue Origin is getting close as well. SpaceX has been hired by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. It now currently flies cargo and supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and its next step is to fly humans there.

Is it a trip you would take if you could?

             When I met with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, ahead of the meeting I went to the NASA archives and pulled the journalist-in-space application. A lot of people forget that NASA had a journalist-in-space program that was cancelled after the space shuttle challenger blew up. People remember the teacher who was onboard that flight because there was a teacher-in-space program. They also had planned to do a journalist-in-space program. So I submitted my application to Jeff and to Richard. I haven’t heard back yet, though I don’t think I want to be on the first flights. I’ll let them fly a few times and get the kinks out and then I’d consider it.

What’s your first planet destination?

             As Jeff Bezos likes to say, there’s nothing quite like Earth! I think I’d be earthbound and watch others do that and explore (I’ve got young kids and a family). But I do think there are people who would want to go. We’ve got a permanent presence in space now on the International Space Station. The goal of NASA now under the Trump administration and the goal of SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin and some of these other companies is to work with NASA to create a permanent presence deeper into space: on the moon or in the vicinity of the moon. We went to the moon in the 60s and early 70s and left flags and footprints and came back, but the goal is to establish a longer term presence there that could then be used as a stepping stone to get deeper into space and to Mars.

It sounds a lot like Science Fiction!

It does. When we’re thinking about mining asteroids, or Jeff’s goal of millions of people living and working in space, that’s the big distant goal that’s hundreds of years out. But the first step to get there is to make access to space much more affordable, economical and reliable by building a transportation network to the stars. Just like the railroads opening up the west. Right now it’s just too hard to get to space. It’s too expensive. They want to lower that cost, make it much more affordable and much more accessible

Then help other people establish a further foothold into space once they’ve got that foot through the door?

             That’s the idea, that they create the stepping stone and that other people follow in their footsteps and other industries emerge. We’re already starting to see that. What we’re talking about is the launch providers—the guys who just lift stuff off the surface of the Earth and get it into space. But once you’re in space there’s all kinds of things you can do. We’ve seen companies like Bigelow Aerospace that’s for years has been building habitats that expand—I don’t think they like the analogy but it’s a little like a balloon. They’re made of a very durable kevlar-like material and filled up with air and pressurized and become habitats, become space-stations and that’s another commercial company.

There’s a company called Made In Space that’s using 3D printers to manufacture in space. You’ve got the small satellite revolution: companies like Planet that are already putting up many small satellites to monitor the health of the earth. Then there are all the things that once you get up to space and it does get more accessible that you don’t know will happen. You can’t always tell what opportunities that will open up.

It boggles the mind to think that this is something we might see.

             I try to lay that out in the book. Whatever happens, let’s not forget that space is hard. There are setbacks and delays and not all of these dreams are fulfilled in a timely manner. But I do think that this is a time that we’ll look back on 30-40 years from now as a historic moment. We had the cold war space race that begin with the Mercury Program, then Gemini then Apollo which got us to the moon. Then there was the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. And this is a new era in its own right: a privately financed commercial space age that frankly could not have been possible if it weren’t for visionary entrepreneurs who had a lot of money that they were willing to invest into this.


Christian Davenport will be speaking at the Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm as part of Town Hall’s Science series. He is the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos out now from Public Affairs books.

In-Residence Kicks Off!


Every year, Town Hall selects exceptional local artists and scholars for paid residencies where they engage with Town Hall programs and collaborate with our programming team to develop original events for the community.
In a typical season, we hand our residents the literal keys to Town Hall. Because our building is closed for renovations this year, we’re especially grateful to The Cloud Room for offering our Residents keys to their beautiful co-working space on Capitol Hill as we all turn Inside/Out together.  We’re asking this season’s Residents to revel in their curiosity—to engage in their host community, in Town Hall’s programming, in their art and thinking—and to funnel their findings into experiences that we can share together.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, each of our four Inside/Out communities has their own Neighborhood Resident. Within each of their neighborhoods, our Residents will be co-curating a series of hyper-local Town Hall events in close collaboration with their Neighborhood Steering Committee. Our Resident events will take place March through June 2018, and all of the programs will be free to the public to attend.
Our remarkably competitive search was guided by our goal of supporting innovators who may not often see themselves reflected in the arts community, such as people of color and LGBTQ folks.
We’re thrilled to announce feature their first events, happening this month!

Shin Yu Pai, Phinney/Greenwood Resident

Peter Levitt with Shin Yu Pai: Sacred in the Everyday (3/22)

Zen teacher Peter Levitt is known for the warmth, humor, clarity, and depth of his teachings—as well as his many books of prose and poetry. He takes the stage with poet and Resident Shin Yu Pai for a complex and intimate discussion on the intricacies of human relationships and the notion of coming home to ourselves—to who and what we naturally and truly are. Peter shares readings from his most recent poetry, exploring our connection to the natural world and singing the sacred in the everyday.

Erik Molano, Capitol Hill/Central District Resident

Evolving Masculinity: A #MeToo Era Conversation and Workshop (3/23)

Explore revolutions in the culture of masculinity in the #MeToo era—rejecting patterns of dominance, violence, and power and building a clear understanding and respect of boundaries and consent. First, hear from Jordan Giarratano, founder of feminist martial arts dojo Fighting Chance Seattle, who discusses strategies to evolve a masculinity that is empowering, balanced, and founded in integrity. Then relationship coach and facilitator Galen Erickson leads groups of audience members through interactive sharing sessions on the effects of gendered expectations on our personal lives and collective social understanding of what it means to be a man.

Peter DiCampo, U District/Ravenna Resident

Living With Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in WA (3/27)

The purpose of law is to serve our communities by level the playing field and creating a more just society. Documentary photographer Deborah Espinosa believes that the only way to know if a law is serving us is to listen to those most impacted. Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State is a multi-media and civic engagement project about how the State of Washington sentences people not just to prison, but to a lifetime of debt.

Failure to make monthly payments for “legal financial obligations” that are due in the wake of prison time can result in arrest, and the loss of housing, jobs, and children. Espinosa and a panel of individuals featured in Living in Conviction join us to share their stories of trying to survive and thrive under court-imposed costs, fees, fines, and victim restitution.

Jordan Alam, Columbia & Hillman City Resident

Neve Mazique, Nic Masangkay, and Jordan Alam: How the Body Holds Its Stories (3/31)

How do our bodies retain memory of the events we experience? How can we connect with the emotions and life-altering changes recorded within our physical selves? Local artists Neve Mazique and Nic Masangkay take the stage with Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident Jordan Alam to share original works of prose, movement, and music expressing how personal experiences are held within the body. They present their narratives of life-altering and intensely physical moments—from birth to violence—exploring how these events have impacted these artists physically, and how their bodies still carry changes that impact every encounter with the world. Then on April 2, learn to use your own body’s experiences as creative inspiration in a workshop with Jordan, Neve, and Nic: Telling the Stories of the Body (4/2).

#EducationSoWhite
The Impact of Culture Gaps in our Schools

We’re excited to welcome dynamic and diverse education leaders for one of the most anticipated diversity and education events of our season!

First, TED-Ed Innovative Educators and #EducationSoWhite panelists Kristin Leong and Marcos Silva lead Classrooms in Color (3/14), an interactive workshop about identity and our schools drawing from their own experiences in Washington and Texas public school districts. Leong and Silva share the surprising commonalities between these classroom environments and invite us to explore actionable strategies for equitable restorative justice practices in education—as well as lending us a behind-the-scenes look into how they brought their groundbreaking TED-Ed Innovation Projects to life.

Then the #EducationSoWhite (3/15) panel brings together dedicated and diverse experts from all fields of education and activism to tackle a pervasive issue: 90% of teachers in Washington State are white, even though almost half of our students are kids of color.  We’ll hear perspectives from teachers and students alike, as well as TED-Ed Innovative Educators and founders of student/teacher activist groups and youth anti-racism coalitions. These panelists will share their own experiences and explore strategies for recruiting and retaining teachers of color, as well as ways to foster inclusion (not just tolerance) for LGBTQ/QPOC teachers and students. They’ll lead the discussion of potential ways we can change educational institutions and systems for the better to make them more welcoming to teachers and students from LGBTQ and POC communities.

Join these diverse speakers for an education-insider examination of the impact of culture gaps in our schools separating students and teachers.

Explore Your Brain, Expand Your Mind

There’s no question that Town Hall programming appeals to a thoughtful audience and encourages critical and divergent ways of thinking. But rarely do we produce two events so close together that so fully encompass Town Hall’s penchant for cerebral topics!

Theoretical Physicist Leonard Mlodinow (3/20) joins us with an exploration of “elastic” thinking, a cognitive style which he asserts arose in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago and is still at work today. Mlodinow cites the rapid expansion of technology and shifting landscapes of data that confront us with new challenges daily—drawing on breakthroughs in neuroscience and psychology that indicate all the ways in which the human brain is uniquely engineered to adapt to new situations. He reframes our human capacity for comprehension as a gestalt confluence of imagination, idea generation, pattern recognition, mental fluency, divergent thinking, and more—and shares secrets for building models of elastic thinking in our own lives, and the ways we can apply these techniques to succeed both personally and professionally.

Then Michael Gazzaniga (4/3), director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, is joined by KUOW host Bill Radke for an in-depth examination of consciousness and grey matter. They approach the timeless puzzle (one which challenged the ancient Greeks) of how the “stuff” of our brains—the atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells—interact to create the vivid and various worlds inside our heads. Gazzaniga and Radke present scientific revelations about consciousness and dispute the centuries-old idea that the brain can be reduced to a machine, sharing new research that suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together.

Enter the discussion on consciousness, comprehension, and the brain vs. the mind with these two illuminating events exploring the nature—and the stuff—of our thoughts.

Jazz on the Mountaintop—Summit in Seattle

On March 2, four jazz powerhouses gather for the Summit in Seattle—a first-ever performance together in this configuration, with no rehearsal or setlist! They come together, warm up, and then dive into an evening of collective improvisation, collaboration, and musical risk-taking. The event is the brainchild of Global Rhythms 2017-18 Co-Curator Daniel Atkinson, and represents a form of jazz he seldom sees represented in today’s musical landscape. Atkinson sat down for an interview with Town Hall’s copywriter, Alexander Eby, to discuss his vision.


AE: The Summit in Seattle is a pretty unusual event. What makes it so unique?

DA: The fact that it’s unusual is precisely why I put this event together. I envisioned the Summit as a way to get back to the true roots of jazz. The format goes back 100 years—a group of musicians at the top of their game with no setlist, listening to each other’s language and finding their own way to speak and respond to one another. It’s an arrangement that harkens back to the ritualistic traditions that define jazz as an art form.

AE: Can you tell me more about that?

DA: At its core, jazz is about musical risk-taking. Success is defined not by playing what’s written, but by taking those risks—by almost failing and then not. An artist becomes a conduit for the culture rather than a destination. They push themselves and their instrumental skills by understanding their relationship to the other artists. That’s why there’s no setlist. Jazz lives in the moment. Mistakes become opportunities to work out potentially new ideas. I want to give these guys a chance to express themselves and navigate that process together and ultimately have fun!

AE: Why put on a performance like this in Seattle?

DA: People in the Seattle jazz community want to promote equity. The Summit is my way of doing exactly that. I wanted to give these four master musicians of color a chance to collaborate with no restrictions and celebrate an art form with roots in West African and Afro-American music traditions.

AE: Is that what makes this concert a great fit for the Global Rhythms series?

DA: Exactly. The musical forms that define jazz, like syncopation and the blues scale, were introduced and popularized by Black artists in the early 1900’s. The context of jazz has changed over time to become more convenient for conspicuous consumption, but jazz began as a space for Black musical expression. It’s a style that (for a very short time) created spaces where a Black performer could be respected for the merit of their musical skill, not judged for their skin color.

AE: Could you give me an example of one of these spaces?

DA: Jam sessions are a prime example. In 1930’s New York, the jam session was an environment that tested a musician’s mettle. A Black musician could demonstrate his/her prowess, and if a White musician couldn’t answer the call, they would have to sit down and make way for someone who possibly could. Value was placed on the merit of musicianship—and bred a learning process. If you couldn’t match or surpass another musician’s skill one night, you went to the woodshed and came back when you felt ready to try again.

AE: And with four masters onstage at the Summit, improvising and adapting to one another is the name of the game.

DA: That’s right. There are two MacArthur Fellows in this group; they’re at the top of their game.

AE: These musicians come from a variety of backgrounds: jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul. Do you think they’ll have trouble adapting to each other’s styles?

DA: You know, a lot of people have forgotten that those genres actually take their roots from the same place. Back in the early Jim Crow era, what we know as jazz was called “race music.” Eventually it was changed to “rhythm and blues” to make the music easier for White audiences to conspicuously consume, and finally became known as “rock and roll” when White artists took it over completely.

Jazz, gospel, blues, R&B, and hip-hop, are genres that retained certain elements of that progenitor—of “race music”—which were not transposed to rock and roll. The syncopation, the improvisation, the focus on self-expression and adapting to your fellow musicians instead of cutting and pasting ideas together in the spirit of improvisation to an audience that remains benevolently ignorant. This style has gone through so many identity changes that it’s no longer a Black art form, but ultimately the masters playing at the Summit do share a musical lineage—which begins first as a recognition of where it comes from and its uniquely Afro-American, cultural cache. That’s why it’s so important to me that Black musicians be given a space to express their mastery in an art form that is, at its roots, Black.

AE: Do you have any thoughts to prepare audiences for this show?

DA: This performance will be what it will be. Improvisation, risk—this is jazz at its core. As an audience member, you’re witnessing a space for four masters to collaborate and negotiate their process together in real time. It’s probably one of the only times you’re going to see anything like this—it’s an arrangement that just doesn’t happen very often anymore, as much as I wish it did. But I couldn’t bring the mountain down, so to speak, so I put together the Summit to bring the audience to the mountaintop.


Join us March 2 for this exciting collaboration!

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