The Red Door
By DCJF Artist in Residence Orrin Evans
In 2019, while on tour with an ensemble that was new to me, we encountered a situation where one of our concerts was in jeopardy of being canceled. The management at the time helped us find another performance opportunity. I was not excited or interested in performing at the new venue because the band was not doing the original gig for good reasons. Reluctantly I rolled up on this new venue and tried to suppress my negative feelings. We walked down a back alley, and I saw this "red door." Immediately I thought, "I can't believe we're playing in this tiny venue, in an alley, with a goofy upright piano." I walked in and forced a smile because when you're the only black person in a room, you become very conscious of not being the "angry black guy."
As the band set up, I walked around the room intrigued by several things, including the venue's name. "The Red Room" featured incredible artwork, cool collectibles, great-smelling coffee (I don't drink coffee, but it smelled great), and a fabulous couple who ran the spot. Despite my lack of desire to play the show, maybe a little hang at the Red Room wasn't going to be so bad. I went over to the piano to investigate its actual condition. This song came to me, and I started playing with what was in my head. As my fingers haphazardly strolled across the keys, a piece of curiosity, potentially dangerous assumptions, joyfulness, discovery, and acceptance quickly morphed into one of my favorite songs I've composed.
"The Red Door" is that door we walk by and assume we know what's happening on the other side. Red means STOP, but Red also means LOVE. Red can mean blood in a scary movie, but red can also be the color of a boy's favorite balloon. Taking the time to get beyond those generational assumptions and pre-conceived notions of what is and opening the door to see what lies beyond "The Red Door" is what life is all about. My favorite question is: Why not? As a parent, I have tried hard to encourage my sons to go for no, seek the unknown, and find their shine. As a parent and child, the fear lies in knowing that your shine is often on the other side of that Red Door. What happens if I move to NY, don't get any gigs, no one likes my playing, I get mugged, or introduced to some of those negative things I have been warned about? The only way to find out is to trust the prayers your ancestors prayed and open the door.
My latest release, "The Red Door" on Smoke Session Records, is my musical narrative of my journey to the other side of the "Red Door." The lessons I learned and who I learned them from. All my heroes had already journeyed behind the door, but the sad thing is, so had my enemies. You only need to be fearless to enter "The Red Door," Once inside, you must find your light and inspiration amid the negative energy. The prayers my mother prayed helped me find people like Geri Allen, Ralph Peterson, Larry McKenna, Buster Williams, Gene Jackson, Wallace Roney, and many more, who showed me and continue to show me how to enjoy the beauty on the other side of "The Red Door" while keeping me away from the ugly. Entering "The Red Door" comes with responsibility. It is where I discovered the beauty of acknowledging the legacy I come from while realizing the importance of leaving a legacy for those coming after me.
Thirty years later, I am thankful for opening that door. Someone did like my playing, I got some gigs and toured the world, I didn't get mugged, and I managed to navigate most of those negative things without too much damage. Many recording opportunities, long-lasting friendships, great articles, good reviews, bad reviews, two grammy nominations, board positions, extraordinary residencies, and a beautiful young lady who would become my life partner were all on the other side of the "Red Door." Once I threw away fear and trusted the process, I found my light on the other side of that door. Being the Artist-in-Residence of the DC Jazz Festival for a second year allows me to share the shine. Presenting series like "Generations," I can celebrate pianists like George Cables, Benny Green, Patrice Rushen, and Shamie Royston, while welcoming newcomers like Hope Udobi and Brandon Goldberg. The jam sessions hosted by Jonathan Michel, an artist on my Imani Records label, are a fantastic way to present a new artist to the audience and other musicians attending the festival. And, I get to be part of DC jazz Festival Education and take part in master classes with Rusty Hassan and evening concerts the University of the District of Columbia with its Jazz Director and Dean of Jazz Allyn Johnson. From presenting Dianne Reeves with my Captain Black Big Band and conducting master classes at Howard University Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble last year to presenting a new quintet this year with folks like Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Gary Thomas, Robert Hurst, and Ingrid Jensen, I feel nothing but grateful for the experience. When you trust in your support system, respect the legacy, remember Mama's prayers, and look for the light, you will find your shine on the other side of "The Red Door." Join me at the DC Jazz Festival as we celebrate finding your shine! I'll see you there and make sure you say hello!
Orrin Evans is the DC Jazz Festival Artist-in-Residence through December 2023.