by Orrin Evans, DCJF Artist-In-Residence
During interviews over the years, I have talked in detail about my upbringing and the impact of my parents. Quite frankly, it recently occurred to me that although my playwright father and classical singer mother were my introduction to the arts, my sister and brother unknowingly helped cultivate my dream. The early 1980s found my parents at the beginning of what would eventually be a marriage ending in divorce. As a pre-teen, I rode my bike and played in the streets while my house changed significantly. Besides Atari, riding my bike and playing in the streets, I found a hiding place in music. I wasn't sure what I was hiding from, but I knew things were changing around me. My siblings and I all took some musical or sports classes. Not wanting the non-practicing youngest child to become another burden or a source of arguments in the house, my sister made sure I practiced while my brother took me to my lessons by bike, bus and car. Riding to your piano lesson on your handlebars while your brother raced down the street was a sure way to get your blood flowing. Rachel and Todd, my older siblings, were just as responsible for my love of music as my parents were, and my concert at the DC Jazz Festival will testify to that.
It's 1983, and Todd is about to graduate from high school. He decided his next journey would be attending Morgan State and the thought of my brother leaving wasn't an easy pill for me to swallow. I'm not sure if Todd knew it would be difficult for me, but we spent some valuable time together that summer. Driving around with my brother meant blasting music that would eventually become the soundtrack to my life. Maze, UTFO, Doobie Brothers, Carpenters, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and Prince, to name a few, were artists introduced to me by my brother. Today the Captain Black Big Band plays a few songs inspired by the music my brother played around me. There were no conversations about the musical approach, band members, production, or song selection of these artists. Still, I believe my brother knew as long as he played good music around me, it would somehow make it into my D.N.A. And it did! Writing was and continues to be where my brother shines; he made sure I also found my shine. My sister watched some of the best ’80s TV shows. You know we had some of the best theme songs if you remember television around that time. We sang loudly to “Cheers,” “Night Court,” “The Greatest American Hero” and “Fame.” In conjunction with theme songs, Rachel loved gospel music. Todd was my connection to "popular" music, and Rachel was my connection to musical TV and gospel music.
While sitting in my room one day, I heard this fantastic song and voice coming from Rachel's room. As a young man, I learned the value and importance of lyrics, so I just sat there and listened to the story told through the beautiful song. There was no internet, and my sister's door was shut, which meant don't bother her, so for months, I just sang along and never asked about the artist. A few weeks later, while driving with my father, I heard a voice over the radio that reminded me of the angelic song coming from Rachel's room. "Hey, Dad, who's that on the radio? I think I've heard Rachel playing her album." My father was doubtful because he listened to "jazz" and classical radio stations, and my sister wasn't known for listening to "jazz." I sat quietly and waited for the DJ's announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, you were just listening to Dianne Reeves singing ‘My Funny Valentine’ from her latest release, Welcome to My Love. "Nope, that can't be the singer Rachel listens to," Dad said, "but when you get home, just ask your sister." I couldn't wait to get home and find out who it was that my sister was listening to because I needed to tell her there was a "jazz" singer that sounded just like her new favorite singer.
When we got home, Rachel wasn't home, but I ran full force into her room and looked around for that cassette tape, and I found it! It was Dianne Reeves, and wow, I immediately fell in love with that sound! Welcome to My Love was added to the soundtrack of my life. Things at home were different, but Ms. Reeves' album became a place where I found peace. The song my sister was playing was "Better Days," and oh, I longed for better days!
"Better Days" was later released on Ms. Reeves' self-titled Blue Note album. That same year my parents officially separated, I moved to Philadelphia with my mother, my brother joined the Army while fighting addiction issues, and my sister started college. I was left alone with my parents, and we all dealt with the transition in our way. Despite all of that, "better days" were coming, and you couldn't tell me different because Ms. Reeves told me they were. Her music soothed my soul.
Over the years, my love for music grew. I was blessed with teachers, mentors, family members, and musicians who helped my passion grow. My brother continued to introduce me to new music, and that same year it was Ronnie Laws' "Always There." I think that was his way of telling me no matter what, he would always be there for me, and he has been.
In 1996, I met Dianne Reeves, and she scared me to death, but the combination of Philly and Trenton gave me all the strength I needed. She scolded me about starting a tempo wrong, and I learned from my mistake, but it wasn't until May of 2018 that I could "redeem" myself. I was called to sub for the great Peter Martin at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and I couldn't wait to tell Ms. Reeves about the lesson I learned from her 22 years earlier. The beauty and serenity backstage allowed us to have a real one-on-one conversation. We laughed about our exchange in 1996 while talking about the music for the set and other things. I never spoke about how she healed my young heart with her music because I still turn into a shy young man in her presence.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for the outstanding Dianne Reeves!" When I heard that and realized I was in the band that afternoon, my eyes filled with tears of joy. Without Todd playing music in the car and house or Rachel playing new singers on her boom box, I would have never known the beauty of Dianne Reeves and other artists. Thank you, Todd and Rachel, for helping me realize the beauty of music and the artists who make it, and thank you, DC Jazz Festival, for inviting me to be the Artist-In-Residence (AIR). Your invitation to be the AIR gave me the support and love to make it possible to present the Captain Black Big Band with special guest Dianne Reeves at the 2022 DC JazzFest. The invitation was the first part, and I will work hard to be worthy of the invitation with all my being.
Better days today and every day!