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Profiles in Jazz: An interview with New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher

By Edward Anderson
Nola Art House Music

Clarinetist Evan Christopher has an international reputation for his highly personal brand of “contemporary early-jazz.” Deeply committed to exploring the full range of possibilities in the New Orleans jazz tradition, he strives to extend the legacy of the unique clarinet style created by early Creole clarinetists such as Sidney Bechet, Omer Simeon, and Barney Bigard.

Christopher’s journey on Clarinet Road began in 1994, when he left his native California for New Orleans to be a member of the country’s most important music community. He worked with musicians as stylistically diverse as Al Hirt and veterans of Preservation Hall to funk and brass bands, including the Nightcrawlers and Galactic, before leaving to join the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio in 1996. For nearly three years, he appeared nightly as their featured clarinetist and recorded several of their syndicated radio programs, Riverwalk: Live from the Landing. Christopher returned to New Orleans to be an ambassador for the New Orleans clarinet style. Besides returning to an active freelance performing career, he started his own “Clarinet Road” series of CDs (STR Digital) and recorded alongside many New Orleans artists, including Big Al Carson, Duke Heitger, Narvin Kimball, Uncle Lionel Batiste, and Tom McDermott.

After the the levees failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Christopher traveled continuously and even based himself briefly in Paris at the invitation of the French government. During this artist-residency, he formed his current groups, the JazzTraditions PROJECT and Django à la Créole. The latter, fusing Gypsy swing with New Orleans grooves and rhythms of “le monde Créole,” released their debut CD, Django à la Créole, in 2008, and a second outing, Finesse, in 2010 (Fremeaux & Associés). As a composer, Christopher’s original songs are the high point of critically acclaimed CDs such as Delta Bound featuring pianist Dick Hyman (Arbors, 2007), The Remembering Song featuring guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (Arbors, 2010), and the Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s Book One. In July 2010, he had the honor to debut his Treat It Gentle Suite, the first concerto written for clarinet and jazz band in the New Orleans style, with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Christopher began his musical training on clarinet at age 11. In high school, he received the Louis Armstrong National Jazz Award and was one of the first graduates of the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy. He continued studies at the University of Southern California and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach. Research and presentations on the New Orleans clarinet style initiated pursuit of a Master’s degree in Musicology at Tulane University. Having returned to New Orleans in 2008, Christopher is an advocate for the cultural workforce and jazz-based music education. In spite of increased work abroad, he taught part-time at the University of New Orleans, where he coached a New Orleans Music Ensemble that performed with guest mentors such as Lucien Barbarin and Marcus Roberts.

Tell us about your music.  Who are your musical influences and your vision?  What do you want the world to know about you and your music?

I have focused on an instrument and a tradition of performance that is, in my opinion, an art that is under-explored. I call my music “contemporary early-jazz” because I always try to stay anchored in the style-specific language and protocols of the earliest New Orleans music, while trying to focus on performing in the sacred now and creating meaning for the future.

Besides recorded music, my first musical mentors were soprano saxophonist George Probert, bassist Marshall Hawkins, and clarinetists Tony Scott and Kenny Davern.  I have calculated that these associations have given me no more than three degrees of separation from absolutely anyone in the history of jazz and many others outside of jazz.

My vision for my music is simply to always strive to give the listener something honest. We know that music and some of the forums in which they are created can help people evade or escape from reality, so I figure why not acknowledge their potential to do the opposite? I want my music to “move” people toward engaging reality, “move” them to recognize and take pride in their personal spirit and or communal identity, “move” them toward using their imagination, “move” them to actively nurture and defend the sacred — not in the divine sense, but just in the sense of that which deserves respect — “move” them to deeper levels of feeling that incite their sense of beauty, compassion, even their humanity.

I hope in the future that I can stand in the company of the great musicians I most admire. I hope that my music will be recognized as an extension of a legacy. Astor Piazzolla comes to mind as a model. He took traditional Argentinian tango and transformed it with his other influences and showcased his virtuosity on the instrument most deeply connected to that style.  I want to imagine that I can do the same to deepen the appreciation and vitality of the New Orleans clarinet style.

What are your thoughts about the current state of jazz both locally and nationally?

Here in New Orleans, jazz is flourishing. However, it is doing this largely as an extension of the service and hospitality industry. Musicians are not encouraged to be imaginative because it is easier to buy into the fiction of New Orleans jazz that is aligned with the marketing of New Orleans culture for tourism. On the other hand, other musicians are being highly creative, yet intentionally avoiding the style-specific music vocabulary associated with New Orleans. I think there is truly not much musical activity between these two philosophies, and it has been this way for nearly two generations. The newest batch of musicians engaging New Orleans music are returning to the tradition because of their personal interest in it, but they too are slowly emerging from underground and moving closer toward this service model. Nationally, the problem is similar in that artists’ career paths lean toward becoming visible by commodifying their work using the model of popular music. Internationally, jazz, and even New Orleans Jazz specifically, has more currency as a cultural expression than at home in the United States. The messages of individuality in the service of community and freedom to pursue distinction resonate with peoples worldwide.

What are your short-term (the next 12 months) career goals?

My immediate goals are to create a more focused Web presence, have representation domestically, and start a new project performing and documenting my original music. The Internet can be a wieldy world and I think it is important not only to use the diverse points of entry, but to have the information represented accurately and in a manner consistent with one’s aesthetic.

Domestically, I want to frame my service as a “community artist.” I am interested in performing opportunities; however, I think it is of great importance to impress upon the public we serve that music and the arts are understood as something essential for spiritual well-being as well as to build community. This must come with mediated outreach (educational, community, corporate, etc.) and this can take place in many forums besides the concert venue.

Up until the philosophical changes precipitated by the failure of the federal levees in 2005, my brand of “contemporary early-jazz” consisted of a large repertoire mostly from the pre-WWII jazz canon. I want the net phase of my career to focus on new music.

What are your long-term (5+ years) career goals?

Honestly, I do not have medium or longer-term goals.  I am in the earliest stages of putting a new philosophy into practice. I imagine that in five years that will change again and there will be new technologies to explore.

How does your art integrate with the current music scene in New Orleans?

Part of this new phase of my career is to distance myself from the “service model.” As a result, I am active but less connected to the current scene than ever. I am limiting my visibility to only the most progressive, high-quality projects and initiatives. I try to consistently encourage my peers to do the same.

My art, on the other hand, is very integrated to the music of New Orleans. I try to anchor all the musical elements of my music into the city’s musical history. This includes the sound of my instrument and idiomatic vocabulary, rhythmic language, melodic embellishments, and often repertoire.


Evan Christopher and his Jazz Traditions Project perform Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and “Ramblin”

Edward Anderson of Nola Art House Music writes about jazz for NolaVie.


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