"My best friend is delete," laughs Orrin Evans, which might surprise those who pay attention to his often-provocative Facebook page. For once, however, Evans didn't launch the first salvo. The Philly-based pianist is embroiled in controversy not over something he wrote, but for throwing his support behind trumpeter Nicholas Payton's campaign to jettison the term "jazz" in favor of Black American Music, or BAM.
"I thought my house was gonna be firebombed," Evans joked during a panel discussion of BAM at New York's Birdland earlier this month, referring to the reaction he'd received since rechristening his music. His always-active Facebook page became the site of heated debate. Philadelphia magazine writer Victor Fiorillo penned a riposte titled "The Word 'Jazz' Will Now Be Racist."
The controversy began in November, when Payton posted "On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore," an online screed that declared "Jazz died in 1959" and "Jazz ain't cool, it's cold, like necrophilia." A follow-up a few weeks later compared calling his music "jazz" to calling him "nigger." The writings marked some of the last instances where he even deigned to use the word, since then substituting "the j-word."
The commentaries ignited a firestorm, raising protest both from jazz purists offended by the disparagement of the music and from others crying "racist" at the apparent exclusion of everyone but African-Americans from playing jazz. Payton was suddenly a pariah, unbalanced, by his own account accused of becoming "the Charlie Sheen of jazz."
Evans himself took offense when he first read Payton's manifesto. "I was like, what?" he recalls. "I've lived and died for this music every day. But then I picked up the phone and called him. And I found that while I didn't agree with everything he said — which would actually be boring — there were points that resonated with me."
Like the Occupy movement, the nascent BAM campaign seems to be uniting advocates with separate, often overlapping but occasionally conflicting agendas. The panel discussion at Birdland gathered five musicians — Payton, Evans, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Marcus Strickland, and bassist Ben Wolfe — united in the desire to banish "jazz" but differing in their justifications. "We've never sat down at a round table and picked a spokesperson," Evans admits. "There's five different viewpoints, which is cool, but there's 5 million motherfuckers talking about what jazz means to them."
Some aim to nix jazz for perceived racist connotations; Bartz is most strident on this point, comparing jazz to a plantation system with "house" and "field" musicians. He and Payton also point to negative stereotypes involving drugs and seedy clubs, though this would seem to be a problem mainly with older listeners. It's not likely that many would-be younger fans even see the music as hip enough to involve such scandals. To that end, Strickland, the panel's youngest member, cites an instance when he and some high school friends advertised themselves as playing jazz and were heckled by younger kids crooning lounge tunes; the saxophonist is seeking a clean break from such clichés. And for Wolfe, the panel's sole white member, the chief motivation seems to be in acknowledging the music's heritage.
Evans' reasons fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. The pianist is no stranger to provoking people on the subject of race and its relation to jazz. He co-leads a band called Tarbaby, after all. He's long been outspoken on the African-American heritage of jazz and how it seems doomed to be forgotten by both black audiences and the jazz cognoscenti. While he now eagerly adopts the BAM tag, banishing "jazz" from others' lips seems less important to him than it does to Payton or Bartz. "Jazz has saved many lives," he says. "I don't expect Jazz at Lincoln Center to change their name to BAM at Lincoln Center, and I don't really care. I don't give a fuck if you call me a jazz musician. But I want to reintroduce this art form and open it up."
One of Evans' chief motivations is to pay tribute to the music's ancestry. In early 2010 he told me, "If you're going to do an article in a food magazine on the best Italian cooks across the world, I think it would be disrespectful and audacious to have four black chefs on the cover. Throw an Italian cook up there; if you grew up with Italian cooking and it's in your heart, I can tell. The same thing is happening with jazz: You put four pianists on the cover of a magazine headlined 'Jazz Piano Today' and none of them are African-American? That's just disrespectful to the art form."
But more critical to Evans' mission is getting more black faces into the audience at his gigs. "This is my personal crusade: to gain more African-American listeners," he admits. "People say, 'How is that name gonna do it?' I don't know. But what I do know is this name isn't working. We can't deny that this is black American music, and maybe if we embrace that more, these other things will come into place."
Of course, any attempt to attract listeners of one color runs the risk of putting other colors on edge. "I want people in the club who look like me," Evans explains, "but I've never said, 'I want people in the club who look like me only.' The 'B' is the big issue. 'B' is not an issue for me, because that's how I was raised, and because I'm not trying to gain more white listeners. I'm sorry, I got a lot of them motherfuckers — and I love 'em all. But I would love to look out into the audience and see that my family came. And I honestly believe, and I could be proven wrong, that BAM might be a step in that direction."
Still, in a country constantly reopening the wounds of its racial past, injecting the subject into the very name of a genre of music could result in alienating audiences, no matter the intention. But Evans asks, "Why is it exclusionary when we all know and we all recognize that jazz is an African-American art form? If you think it's exclusionary to call it Black American Music, then you were never really playing jazz. But I understand where anything black, to people who are not black, is exclusionary if they're not comfortable in their own skin."
The abandonment of jazz by African-American listeners is not a new complaint for Evans. He made inroads to remedying the issue in his own East Mount Airy neighborhood, running a jam session at the bar Reuben's Marc for nearly two years that had a jazz trio as its backbone but invited soul and hip-hop artists to share the bandstand.
To that point, Evans has posed this hypothetical: If a jazz festival was happening around the corner, what images come into your mind? Who is on the bandstand, what is the atmosphere like, how is the crowd reacting? Now imagine instead a Black American Music festival.
"You'd be surprised — actually, I don't think you'd be surprised what the answers were," he says. "As a musician I thought, which festival do I want to be a part of? Because the second one sounded much more hip. Not because of the genre of music or the beats being played, just because of what people perceived beforehand. The misperception is that this music isn't sexy, isn't fun, and it's all of that with the right combination of people."
Positing a BAM festival, Evans runs down a potential lineup that includes Greg Osby, The Roots, Lalah Hathaway, Chris Potter, Ari Hoenig and himself — white and black, jazz, hip-hop and neo-soul, running the gamut of what BAM could mean. Which also points out a central contradiction in the movement: If the goal is to replace jazz, BAM is far too broad a term; if BAM is a marketing tool meant to unite jazz with its musical siblings like R&B and hip-hop, then you'd still need a new name for The Genre Formerly Known As Jazz. "I'm not claiming to know the answer," Evans says. "I'm willing to try some different shit."
As for the practicality of renaming a genre with such a lengthy and deep history, Evans points to the creation of neo-soul in recent years. But he realizes the uphill struggle such a change faces, recounting a story: As a 14-year-old upstart hanging around Ortlieb's Jazzhaus to glean the wisdom of his jazz elders, he ran into the late, great drummer Edgar Bateman one day. "How you doing?" Bateman asked the youngster. "I'm hangin' in there," Evans replied.
"He pulled me aside and went off," Evans recalls. "He started telling me the history of lynching and told me to always say, 'I'm blessed' or 'I'm doing well.' I understood where he was coming from and what it meant to him."
He pauses for a moment before continuing. "I still say I'm hangin' in there."
Orrin Evans plays a Valentine's Wine and Jazz Dinner on Tue., Feb. 14, 7 p.m., $63-$65, World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com; and Fri., Feb. 24, 8 and 10 p.m., $15, Chris' Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St., 215-568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com; orrinevans.org.