2002 Festival | Past Performers

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival: A History

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival was founded in 1985 when reed player Paul Hoskin organized an evening of spontaneous music-making in a loft space at the former Lincoln Arts Center in Belltown, combining more than a dozen local improvisers in unfamiliar groupings to ensure surprising interplay. Little did the participants in this low-key event suspect that it would evolve into the longest-running annual showcase for freely improvised music in the United States.

Besides Hoskin, other musicians who organized early improvised music events in Seattle included Jeffrey Morgan, Pete Leinonen, Audio Leter, and the outrageous free-music big band the New Art Orchestra. The second Improvised Music Festival took place at the Vogue nightclub, where it was held in conjunction with a shoot for Robert Jenkins and TV Kenly's video Gorefest.

After a one-year hiatus and a noticeable increase in improvised music activity in Seattle, musicians Wally Shoup, Dennis Rea, Charley Rowan, and Doug Haire formed a planning committee with the goal of giving the festival a higher profile through advertising, writing about improvised music, and bringing in notable players from outside Seattle. The organizers' efforts resulted in the Third Seattle Festival of Improvised Music, held on February 28, 1988, at the New Melody Tavern (now the Tractor Tavern) in Ballard. The success of that festival, both musically and in terms of attendance -- more than 200 audience members squeezed into the room on a Sunday night for five hours of performances -- far exceeded expectations and confirmed a growing interest in free music in the Seattle area. From that point on, the Seattle Improvised Music Festival became an annual event that has grown with each succeeding year.

The SIMF has striven to present the full range of freely improvised musics -- not only free jazz, but also spontaneous musics rooted in rock, classical, electronic, and world music. Ultimately, the festival's only criteria are that the music be entirely improvised and that it be executed with conviction and skill, regardless of genre or instrumentation. For many years the festival enforced a 20-minute time limit on performances, with five or six acts per evening -- an effective device for focusing the musicians' improvising skills and for guaranteeing a far-ranging listening experience for the audience. More recently, festival organizers have opted for fewer performances of longer duration.

Over the years, the Seattle Improvised Music Festival has showcased an impressive roster of established veteran improvisers and emerging voices, including Barre Phillips, Fred Van Hove, John Butcher, Bob Ostertag, Johannes Bauer, La Donna Smith, Frode Gjerstad, Henry Kaiser, Nels Cline, Tristan Honsiger, Jin Hi Kim, Gino Robair, Martin Schutz, Hans Burgener, Robert Reigle, Tom Guralnick, Cor Fuhler, Stuart Dempster, Francois Houle, Eyvind Kang, Toshi Makihara, Greg Kelley, Mike Bisio, Tom Nunn, Doug Carroll, Wally Shoup, and Al Hood, among many others.

The annual festivals have been managed by a rotating group of organizers that currently includes henry Hughes, Peter Monaghan, Dennis Rea, and Wally Shoup. Past organizers included Eric Amrine, Patrick Barber, Johnny Calcagno, Lesli Dalaba, Adam Griffen, John Hawkley, Deanna Holdren, Henry Hughes, Peter Monahan, Geoffrey Morgan, Eric Muhs, and Matthew Sperry. The Fourth Seattle Improvised Music Festival, held in May 1989, was the first to expand to more than one evening, with three nights of performances at Squid Row, the AFLN Gallery, and the OK Hotel. The following year the festival was spread over five nights at the New Melody, the AFLN, and the OK Hotel. The Sixth SIMF took place in 1991 at the Swan Cafe in Pioneer Square, the seventh and eighth editions were held at Washington Performance Hall, and the ninth festival comprised four evenings at the Center on Contemporary Art.

In 1996 the SIMF celebrated its 10th year -- and the impressive growth of Seattle's creative music community -- with five wildly varied nights of music over two weekends at five of Seattle's premier music venues: the Tractor Tavern, the OK Hotel, the Odd Fellows Ballroom, MOE, and Jazz Alley. This festival had more of a regional focus than earlier editions, with improvisers from British Columbia, Oregon, California, and Montana augmenting an impressive array of local talent. It was also the first time that the SIMF collaborated with allied organizations such as Earshot Jazz, the Jack Straw Foundation, and radio station KCMU.

The 11th Seattle Improvised Music Festival (1997) was directed by festival founder Paul Hoskin, recently returned after a long tenure in New York City. Spread out over two weeks, the festival took place at venues ranging from the Lighthouse Cafe to the Seattle Art Museum and included a mass gathering of horn players at the "Sonic Wharf," an abandoned boardwalk fronting the Duwamish River in the heart of Seattle's port district. This event was curated by installation specialist Doug Haire, producer of the Sonarchy live radio concert series, which broadcasts a festival event each year. The highlight of the eleventh festival was a solo performance by British saxophone virtuoso John Butcher, one of the most arresting players on the European improvised music scene.

The 12th Seattle Improvised Music Festival, curated by Wally Shoup, Dennis Rea, Lesli Dalaba, and Matthew Sperry in 1997, emphasized internationally known veteran improvisers. Held at the Speakeasy Cafe, the Tractor Tavern, Anomalous Records, Uncle Rocky's, and beneath a highway underpass on Monday night at 1 a.m., the festival featured European free jazz pioneer (and 1997 Cultural Ambassador of Flanders) Fred Van Hove, violist extraordinaire La Donna Smith, and percussionists Gino Robair and Sean Meehan, in addition to a host of local performers.

The 13th Seattle Improvised Music Festival, held in the Speakeasy Cafe's theater space in 1998, presented accomplished visiting musicians who have dedicated the majority of their musical lives to performing and recording non-idiomatic, freely improvised music: saxophonist Jack Wright from Boulder, Colorado; the trio Day & Taxi from Switzerland; percussionist Toshi Makihara from Philadelphia; and cellist Doug Carroll, electronicist Tim Perkis, guitarist John Shiurba, and clarinetist Matt Ingalls, all from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 14th Seattle Improvised Music Festival was staged in the Studio Theater of Seattle performing arts center On The Boards in 1999. This festival focused largely on local improvisers, plus special guest Philadelphia-based percussion marvel Toshi Makihara. Performers included the quartet of violinist Tari Nelson-Zagar, trombonist Steve Moore, trumpeter Dave Carter, and drummer Jay Weaver; Project W (saxophonist Wally Shoup, cellist Brent Arnold, and percussionist Jeph Jerman) augmented by Toshi Makihara; a performance of John Zorn's game-strategy piece for improvisers, Cobra; the electric guitar quartet Guitarantula (Ed Petry, Dennis Rea, Doug Theriault, and Rik Wright) with Toshi Makihara; the Matthew Sperry Ensemble; and the quartet of Matthew Sperry (bass), Doug Theriault (guitar), Mark Collins (bass), and Paul Hoskin (reeds).

The 15th Seattle Improvised Music Festival (2000) comprised nine events at venues throughout Seattle, and was co-presented with area new-music presenters Earshot Jazz, HipSync Records, Other Sounds, Peruvian Night Train Productions, Resonant/Circuit, Strategic Improv Labs 2000 (SIL2K), the Tentacle, and their.own.devices, under the overall direction of longtime festival organizers Dennis Rea and Wally Shoup. Featured performers included Fred Van Hove (Belgium) with Johannes Bauer (Germany), John Butcher (UK) with Gino Robair and Matthew Sperry, the Amsterdam-based Monitor Trio (Michael Moore, Tristan Honsiger, and Cor Fuhler), and Toshi Makihara (Philadelphia).

The 16th Seattle Improvised Music Festival (2001) presented the most impressive lineup of international, national, and local improvisers to date, including Bob Ostertag (SF), the Frode Gjerstad Trio (Norway), Barre Phillips (France), Martin Schutz (Switzerland), Hans Burgener (Switzerland), Jin Hi Kim (Korea/USA), John Butcher (UK), Greg Kelley (Boston), Nels Cline (Los Angeles), Toshi Makihara (Japan/Philadelphia), and Seattle musicians Wally Shoup, Eyvind Kang, Tucker Martine, Elizabeth Falconer, Reuben Radding, Bob Rees, Greg Sinibaldi, and Jesse Canterbury. The festival was produced by Henry Hughes, Peter Monaghan, and Dennis Rea and took place at the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and I-Spy.

Seattle is fortunate in having an unusually vital improvised music community for a city its size; we hope that you will support these artists by attending their performances not only at the festival but throughout the year. To all who have made the Seattle Improvised Music Festival what it is today, the organizers extend their heartfelt thanks.


2002 Festival | Past Performers