Orrin Evans: Philly Is a Big Part of Who I Am.
Text and image by Jacob Colon.
Pianist Orrin Evans could live just about anywhere.
Born in Trenton and raised in Mount Airy, Evans, 36, quickly went from playing small gigs in his hometown to performing on tour throughout Western Europe and the Middle East.
The Martin Luther King High School grad has recorded numerous albums and collaborated with musicians like Pharaoh Sanders, Branford Marsalis and Mos Def.
Yet, Evans is still rooted here, in Philly, and every Monday night, he leads a band of locals in a happy hour jazz jam session at the World Café Live.
Our Jacob Colon sat down with Evans at his home in Northwest Philly.
Jacob: When did you start playing piano?
Orrin: It seems like I’ve always played but I didn’t start until middle school. That’s when I got to the point where I decided this is what I want to do.
Jacob: Do you have any family history in jazz or did you just pick it up yourself?
Orrin: My uncle was a jazz saxophonist. My father just played jazz music around the house, so I was an avid listener. And my mother was a classical singer. So I grew up around music and the arts but not specifically one person who was a jazz musician. And then, you know, there’s a great jazz organist from around here who just passed away, Trudy Pitts. She was like an aunt to me.
Jacob: Did you have any favorite clubs while growing up in Philadelphia?
Orrin: There were so many but a lot of them don’t exist anymore. There was the Blue Note up here in this end of town. There was Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, which was downtown. There was Zanzibar Blue. Early on, Chris’ wasn’t really the spot where I would hang but over about the last ten years it’s become a different place. There were tons but my favorite had always been Ortlieb’s. That was like our college, you know?
Jacob: Were there musicians at Ortlieb’s who you looked up to?
Orrin: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, people like Shirley Scott, Arthur Harper, Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham. There were tons. And the owner, Pete Souders, was always just a great teacher to the young people coming up. He told you songs that you should learn, people you should play with. It was really “Jazz 101” going into Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus.
Jacob: What would you say was distinct about the Philly jazz scene when you were growing up?
Orrin: There’s a different type of “lope” to the way in which music feels. You can tell who a Philly drummer is to a certain extent. This also depends on whether or not that person has left and been in another city for a long time. Then they may adopt some of the other cities’ sounds. But if you’ve been here long enough, there’s a certain sound – a different attack – in which the drummers play the cymbals, a different attack in the way they ride and move. That’s the lope.
Jacob: How do you feel about the current Philly jazz scene?
Orrin: It just needs to grow. Even with students. There are tons of students at, say, Temple or the University of the Arts, that I never see. The same desire to see music live doesn’t seem to exist as it did when I was younger. Everybody’s in school. They have contact with the teachers they study with so they’re like, “Well I’ve got everything I want right here.” They don’t go out and check out jazz clubs. I hate to put it like this but higher education in jazz is really affecting the grassroots mentorship that used to exist in the music.
Jacob: Higher academia has that much effect on kids?
Orrin: When I was in school, the professors weren’t the ones performing in the scene. There was some guy at so- and-so school named such-and-such, and he was a really great teacher but he wasn’t performing. Whereas now, some of those artists you see recording and touring are also teaching at a school. So as a student you’re saying, “I can just go study with him there or her at that school.” So you’re studying with your teachers but you’re not going out to see them because you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just see them on Monday.” When I was in school, in order to see them, I had to go to the gig. In order to get a gig I had to go to their gigs. I didn’t have the professor recommending me to their boy.
Jacob: I know that you’ve taught at a few schools in the Philadelphia area, correct?
Orrin: Yes, I taught at Germantown Friends School for three years. It seemed like a lot longer. I was teaching middle school and high school.
Jacob: Were you trying to get the kids to go out and listen?
Orrin: They did! That’s the funny thing – I know some of them still are. Some of those students were in sixth grade when I started and now they’re in their second year of college. A lot of them are still coming out to support the music.
Jacob: What’s your most memorable gig in Philly?
Orrin: One of my favorite gigs was playing solo piano at the Kimmel Center, which was probably in November of 2007. There were a lot of reasons that gig felt good. I remember getting down there, playing the gig, the whole thing. It was actually one of the last big concerts that I remember my mother attending before she passed away.
Jacob: You have a new album coming out this spring, correct?
Orrin: There are actually two different records. We have an album with my big band, the Captain Black Big Band, which is almost done. It’s going to be live in two cities: Philly and New York. And then I did another one with all Philly musicians. It’s a tribute to Philadelphia. We actually recorded the album before we lost some musicians and we played songs for them on the record. Both albums are being released on the Positone Records label.
Jacob: Do you consider yourself a representative for the Philadelphia jazz scene or for the city itself?
Orrin: Yeah, I do. As a musician, I grew here in Philadelphia. I’m really proud to say that I’m from Philadelphia. My goal is just to hold on to it but not to let it define me. I’m not going to be someone who only plays in Philly. I’m going to keep going whether Philly does or not. But it is a big part of who I am.
Jacob: Do you ever fear that the Philadelphia jazz scene will crumble?
Orrin: The jazz scene here will change. It will change and then it’ll change again, you know? I think more jazz musicians in Philadelphia need to get a better sense of business so that we can figure out how to maintain this scene. The problem is that so many jazz musicians here are stuck on playing jazz, which is one hundred percent important. But along with that, there’s another percentage that needs to be creating their own businesses, their entities, their identities as artists. They need to be figuring out questions like, “How many people can we fit into this club? How much are we going to charge? How much do we play for?” Basically, we need to get our business sense together.
The jazz mentality for all of these years has always been, “Oh, we can just get a gig at the club, and the club owner is going to pay us at the end of the day.”
The problem is, when that jazz club owner closes his club, what are you going to do?