When it comes to word association, the words “clarinet” and “Evan Christopher” go hand in hand. Having been in involved with the New Orleans music community for over 20 years, he’s definitely earned that connection. He’s also seen the music community transition and change over those decades. Kelley Crawford and Evan Christopher met in the studios of WWNO to talk about the music of New Orleans through Evan’s eyes.
Q: You’ve had decades of experience performing music in New Orleans, so tell us what you’ve seen change over time with the music scene here.
EC: So I got here in 1994, and I can definitely say that some things have changed over the 20 years. It’s important to note though that I was traveling during that time, so I might be a little self conscious about saying I have been here for decades.
The biggest thing I’ve seen change is that I feel like clubs, venues, and even the musicians themselves, have in some ways lost a little bit of courage to hang their hat on something special. When I was here in the mid 90’s, the clubs all had a thing. You could always count on a certain type of music, or genre–whatever you want to call it–to be at the club you walked into.
Now, I think a lot of the newer venues rotate through different styles of music, and it doesn’t always have that special feeling that you had at Donna’s Bar and Grill that had brass bands or Café Brazil where everybody sort of had a thing that they did. I think that’s changed. The musicians–and I want to make sure I’m not criticizing anybody for making a living–and [places] don’t have that same degree of specialization.. They’re not drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is what I do.’
Q: Why do you think that happened?
EC: I don’t know. It’s a lot of reasons. I think the way our music is marketed in New Orleans is part of it. I think the tourism, and the over dependency on tourism, is a big part of it, and I think it has the artistic and musical community on the ropes just struggling to make a living. It forces musicians to do whatever the job calls for, and it doesn’t encourage people to have the courage to say, ‘Nah, this is my thing.’ The marketing problem is that everything becomes equal.
If you look at the advertising for New Orleans, you get the impression that you could trip over a street musician on Royal and experience New Orleans music. The opposite of that is that you actually pay a cover charge to see music, but the marketing gives the impression that you can go to any bar and hear the music for free. It’s more of a bucket list item than anything else. That’s part of the most negative aspect of where culture is marketed. It is just too easy for people. There’s no challenge.
If you market the fact that you can have brass bands or even Mardi Gras Indians for your destination wedding and you don’t have to leave the French quarter, you’ve definitely taken some of the challenge out of the experience. Indigenous culture, whatever you’re experiencing, is supposed to challenge you because it’s supposed to take you out of your comfort zone and introduce you to a different people and a different environment, a different soundscape.
Q: Let’s go to the flip side. If you could change the music scene, or you could see it transition into something, what would you like to see?
EC: Well, there’s the philosophical part that we just covered. On the practical side, I would like to see people have the expectation to actually pay money for said musical experience. I would like to see musicians have the expectation of being able to charge for what they do. I think that’s gradually been chipped away. Partly through this sharing, tip economy and partly through the internet. This ‘attention economy’ where basically marketers are trying to get you to look at a screen for 30 seconds makes them feel like they’ve accomplished something of worth. That’s been a little bit destructive too. When I got here in the mid 90’s I didn’t have internet or cell phones. It was great!
We made plans, we showed up, and things worked out. That kept the music more organic, for sure. And it kept the level of engagement really high. You’re experiencing the music in that moment, and then you tuck it away somewhere in your brain and in your heart. Let it do it’s thing. You’re not gonna be able to take a selfie with it.
The tip economy that is present for musicians is also problematic. I don’t remember exactly how that tip economy happened. I do feel like part of it happened in 2005/2006. The statistic is that 80% of the musicians came back before half the population of New Orleans was back post-Katrina. And those who were back didn’t have a lot of extra bread but we all needed the music and we just kind of said, ‘Look, we’re happy to be back, we’re gonna make some music for you.’ The understanding that we’d eventually have to start charging again didn’t really set back in.
Then you get into the new era of the permitting and zoning, and it costs clubs more to charge for music than not. The conditions were never in favor of helping people get around to the idea of paying for music again and that’s definitely hurt things.
Q:You’re definitely a voice in regards to speaking out against gentrification and movements that take away from Indigenous cultures. You have a column MAC-Notes where you talk about gentrification and the influence on New Orleans. Tell us about your inspiration and motivation for those writings.
EC: I came here to be a musician and to perform New Orleans music, and I’m happy to do it for people in the community and visitors alike. I just wasn’t really prepared for the idea that I would ever be doing it for tips or that the expectation would become lower and not higher. That there would be less of a relationship with the musicians in the older generations and not more.
I came as a transplant from California originally, and the people that are coming as transplants now have a challenge. They’re not all gentrifiers; technically, they’re not making enough money to be gentrifiers by definition. Whether we’re visitors, or whether we’ve been here for generations, I think our engagement of our community and our traditions is something that we should all be looking at carefully. To steward these newer traditions for our future and to keep them healthy and evolving would be great.
Q: What do you think brings that connection between people back? How do people get inspired to interact with the community and be part of it?
EC: I mean, I think the biggest question that we have to ask ourselves, as transplants and as newcomers, is whether we are here out of opportunism? Or are we here to actually be a part of something very special. So, opportunism looks like: ‘Oh I’m so glad that rents are cheaper than fill in the blank, wherever I was before.’ Opportunism is about the culture offering you much more than you’re giving back.
So I think that’s the biggest question. What are you giving back? There’s hard work that goes beyond saying hi to your neighbor. It’s about asking: ‘How do I make sure my neighbors can afford to live in this neighborhood?’
Q: It is wonderful to hear your perspective on these topics, Evan, and I know people also want to know what is happening with your music. Tell us about what you’ve got coming up with performances.
EC: You know, annoyingly, as we’re doing this interview, I’m packing to go back out on the road. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the North-East this soon. I was hoping to be able to stay down here at least through March. But, now I’ll be touring with a young pianist named Aaron Diehl out of New York and his program is half George Gershwin and half Jelly Roll Morton. So I get to raise the flag of Jelly Roll Morton for a couple months on the road.
I have some educational things at Carnegie Hall in the spring. A couple of groups up there are releasing CD’s so we’ll be pushing those, and one of them is sort of about rags and routes so it’s not rag time exactly, but all the music is in the same kind of class as rag time and shows the wonderful Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American syncopations that we think of. So that’s a lot of fun.
And, I think I can say this. The announcement should be out by the time this airs. I’ll be bringing a New Orleans band to Newport for the Newport Jazz Festival. I really love playing here at home in New Orleans, and I’ll be doing that as well.