Satchmofest 2017: Q&A with Evan Christopher

Evan Christopher

For the third year, Louisiana Cultural Vistas/KnowLouisiana.org partnered with Satchmo Summerfest presented by Chevron to produce the print program for the festival’s annual symposium, a series of lectures and discussions about Louis Armstrong, traditional jazz, and New Orleans music. Click here for a schedule and more about Satchmofest, taking place August 3-6 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint.

On August 6, clarinetist Evan Christopher performs at 1 p.m., followed by a 3:30 p.m. presentation, “Farewell to Storyville,” a discussion of the District’s social life and musical legacy. He talked to LCV Brian Boyles while on tour in New York City.

Brian Boyles: You continue to create work that reexamines musical traditions and the way they’re perceived by contemporary audiences. What are the questions you’re asking lately?

Evan Christopher: When I’m dealing with these traditions, I’m trying to make sure the focus isn’t simply on preserving the past, but rather keeping the traditions relevant. Where are the points where you can introduce contemporary elements into the tradition, stylistically or in the presentation, and at what points are you getting away from it? What are the most important lessons that our traditions offer? That’s the biggest question I’m grappling with. I’m about to head over to Jazz at Lincoln Center to present a program about how to acculturate listeners and help them make aesthetic value judgments about what they’re hearing in performances of traditional New Orleans music or early jazz. How we feel about a performance is subjective. Whether something is a good or bad performance, or coming out of the tradition or not, those are the conversations that need more attention. First, it’s important to make a distinction between traditional New Orleans music and early jazz. After that, it’s important to remind people that certain elements we would call “craft” are not as subjective as people think they are. I’ll incorporate food analogies because that’s something everyone can relate to, feeling like they’re an expert about a certain type of food or wine. We can enjoy a restaurant experience that’s not quite making it, even though we know it’s not the best. It’s the same thing with music.

BB: Give us an example of a distinction you’d want an audience member to make.

EC: Here’s a simple one. The styles and vocabulary of the instruments in traditional New Orleans music adopt a lot of vocal elements, from blues to French opera. Once you take out those vocal elements, we have to recognize that we may no longer be experiencing that style of music. If you have instrumentalists that aren’t using or being taught the power of vocal inflections in their sound, one might reasonably judge their performances as less representative of the tradition. That’s one I feel strongly about.

BB: What aspects of Storyville interest you?

EC: The type of music that was played there seems to have allowed a wide range of musicians to participate. We find musicians crossing outside of their social environments to make music there because it was profitable. You had musicians going against what their families wanted them to do, in places that had a decidedly bad reputation. And there was enough of a tourist attraction that musicians were aware of the expectations placed on what they played. There are parallels in the way today’s tourism pushes expectations for musicians, and we’ll also talk about the musical activity in the venues just outside of the District. There’s also a mythology about how much music was actually happening in Storyville. For the conversation at Satchmo SummerFest, we’re including the additional area in proximity to the train station and along South Rampart Street where there were larger saloons that were hosting more musical entertainment than actually inside the District.

BB: What’s an aspect of Armstrong’s work or influence that deserves further attention?

EC: I think there’s a tendency to over romanticize how much artists like Armstrong were driven by their personal aesthetics, as opposed to their cultural milieu. I would love to see people have the awareness of just how important the musical environment in New Orleans was to these artists, and the demands it put on them in terms of the skills they were developing, how it shaped the way music is perceived and used. In the case of Armstrong and New Orleans, the existence of a progressive juvenile system that actually put an instrument in his hand, or the immigrant family, the Karnofskys, who looked after him—these things made Armstrong possible more than his artistic vision. I think that’s important because, in a way, those are the lessons we need to learn in New Orleans today in order to make sure future Louis Armstrongs are possible. If we ignore those elements, it’s harder to convince people that our musical culture can move us forward.

BB: You’re a new father. How has that impacted your work, creatively and professionally?

EC: The baby is really encouraging me to enter all of my work situations with more gratitude. I’m discovering that there’s a huge connection between sincerity and being grateful, meaning artistic conviction and sincerity is completely related to whether you’re able to enter your exchanges with other people with openness and gratitude. That’s the biggest thing my family is teaching me.

Visit www.clarinetroad.com to learn more about Evan Christopher.

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