Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

Let the Music Play

Written by Tina Potterf

August 7, 2023

A portrait of James Miles, facullty member

Image credit: Aidan Sales

James Miles

College of Arts and Sciences professor plays critical role in bringing back a one-time summertime staple, music and arts festival Bumbershoot.

This Labor Day weekend, when you are listening to Sleater Kinney or Fatboy Slim on the mainstage or taking in a fringe theater show or maybe even a “cat circus”—all part of the happenings at this year’s Bumbershoot—you can thank Seattle University faculty member James Miles, MFA, and his team behind the organization that is bringing back the seminal Seattle music and arts festival. 

Affectionately known as the “Fresh Professor,” Miles is the executive director of Third Stone—the nonprofit that organizes Bumbershoot—and an assistant professor of Performing Arts and Arts Leadership in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

After a three-year hiatus, Bumbershoot returns September 2-3 at Seattle Center. For many in the Northwest, Bumbershoot was an end-of-summer, must-attend outdoor party. But why was it important to Miles to be a part of bringing it back, especially when a comeback was no sure thing? 

“There is a saying in the Museum of Museums that, ‘There is no version of a great city with a declining artist population.’ The ethos that we are trying to bring to Bumbershoot is that if you show up on the grounds you are an artist, that art is for all,” says Miles. “Personally, art is what saved my life. I had a pretty bad speech impediment as a kid. Arts really changed my trajectory. I found my purpose.”

Before arriving in Seattle in 2016, Miles was an accomplished actor and educator in New York City. He spent almost three decades acting—in TV, film and theater—and during down periods or between gigs he caught the teaching bug, spurred on by fellow actors and entertainers whom he would talk with during breaks in filming. 

Originally joining SU as an adjunct, in 2022 Miles became a full-time assistant professor, teaching Performing Arts and Arts Leadership. Before joining the SU faculty, he served as the Chief Executive Officer of MENTOR Washington and before that, as Executive Director of Arts Corps. 

A love of hip hop and the theater suffuse many aspects of Miles’ life, including his work at SU. 

“I was defined by the theater and hip hop. The theater is a collaborative space where we all work together to create magic every evening and twice on Sunday. Hip hop is a lifestyle and a musical genre where one creates,” he says. “In hip hop, there’s something called a cypher where everyone gets to perform in a circular motion. It is ‘iron sharpens iron’ and we don’t want to compete. We want you to win, as well. That makes us all better. 

“Theater and hip hop center my pedagogical ethos as well: we collaborate, we make magic and then we all can win.”

Originally from Chicago, Miles’ roots are deep in education and the arts, both of which he employed in New York, where he spent most of life. In NYC he was director of education at the Urban Arts Partnership where he created the Fresh Education program—thus the origin of the “Fresh Professor” moniker—fusing original hip hop with theater-style productions to boost academic success for middle schoolers around social issues. The curriculum guide that Miles designed for the program, which was sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Education, has been used around the world, inspiring educators to shift how they teach and speak to youth of all ages and backgrounds. 

While still in New York City, Miles was contacted by Seattle-based Art Corps, which was looking to bring him on board. “They said, ‘we need your kind of energy in Seattle.’” The pitch ultimately worked and soon he was here. 

So how did this one-time actor turned educator become a pivotal force behind a music festival that seemed not certain to ever return? It started with his love of music and the impact this type of festival can have in building community. Initially, Miles came on board to support a colleague who was involved with the educational arm of the festival. Then he was asked to become executive director and basically rebuild Bumbershoot from the ground up. Rather than entirely reinvent the wheel, Miles saw this as an opportunity to retain the pieces of Bumbershoot that made the festival a tradition for decades. Of course, for many the draw is the music, featuring both local, national and international acts. But for Miles, it’s more than that—it’s about the people and the connections when community comes together for a joyful experience.

“We have all spent the past three years largely isolated. This is about community and it’s a true community event. I spent my days asking about what people want to see,” says Miles, who notes that this year’s festival has tickets at a cost that is the lowest in a decade. “We want to make this a place for everyone. We want to broaden the demographics and offer a diverse range of art forms and events that are family friendly, too.” 

Another important aspect of the festival, and one that concertgoers may not be aware of, is the role of young people in making the event a success. That’s the educational and workforce development elements, Miles says, where young people from ages 17-26 work various aspects of the festival, from sound and lighting design to hospitality to the set up and break down of stages and sets. Beyond the great music, which covers a multitude of genres from indie rock and pop to electronic dance music and rap, is a lineup of visual and performance artists offering something for everyone—including aerial dancing, visual art displays, Double Dutch jump roping and youth programming. 

When he’s not helping save a beloved music festival, teaching and writing—his second book, Gotta Stay Fresh, will be out this winter—Miles loves to spend time with his kids, which includes attending concerts. He wants to bring to Bumbershoot the kind of feeling and memories that he recalls of his first musical experience. 

“My first concert technically was a Broadway show when I was three or four years old,” he says. “I remember Earth Kitt purred at me,” he adds, with a laugh. Music has always been a big part of his life, like the time he hung out backstage with MC Hammer and Eazy-E. Then there were the family bonding moments taking his daughters to see the Roots, Coolio and other musicians at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. 

As for Bumbershoot, Miles says the hope is to build a sustainable model so that the tradition will live on. And for those who have stepped away but are considering checking it out this year, Miles says it will be worth it. 

Rolling Stone magazine called Bumbershoot the best festival in the country," he says. "We are locally produced, internationally known and Seattle weird."

For more on this year’s lineup and tickets, check out