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Orrin Evans on Creating Music Based on Thomas Hart Benton Mural

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of AXA Equitable 2012

There was a party on Wednesday night at The Roof in downtown Columbia and at the center of it was jazz musician Orrin Evans. Evans is the leader of the New York-based Orrin Evans' Captain Black Big Band which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create a piece based on the mural America Today by Neosho, Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton.

You’ve probably seen Benton’s famous mural in the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, but America Today is likely Benton’s best-known mural. It shows colorful, vibrant scenes of Americans working in the 1920s. Evans and his band will perform their commissioned piece tonight at the Missouri Theater as the culminating event of the three-day "In Sync with Thomas Hart Benton" event put on by the "We Always Swing" Jazz Series and the State Historical Society. This will be just the second time this piece has ever been performed in public.

KBIA’s Ryan Levi caught up with Evans at the party last night and talked with him about his music and this piece.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s important to know about Orrin Evans?

I don’t know if there’s anything important to know about Orrin Evans. It’s just important to know that you will find out something different every day, and that’s important to me, to discover and explore and evolve. So the Orrin Evans you knew on Monday might be a little different on Friday, I hope. There’s gonna be some similarities, you know, I’m always going to be an Aries, my birthday’s always going to be March 28, but hopefully my music, my life, my outlook on the world will evolve every day. And instead of saying this is who Orrin Evans is, I prefer to just say I’m a work in progress. Every day.

Let’s talk a little bit about the music you’ll be performing here in Columbia as part of this week of Thomas Benton. It was a piece commissioned by the Met in New York. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came to be?

Basically, a promoter in New York – her name is Meghan Stabile – presented an opportunity to us do a concert based on the work of this artist. This artist that we didn’t really know at that time. I’ll say I didn’t know, but I did some research at that moment, and I’m really excited about it and I appreciate her even inviting us to do that.

You said you when heard that you were going to be doing the piece, you did a little research and looked at the piece. What in that art, in his work, kind of speaks to you and kind of inspired you or pushed you into the music?

I saw a New York or a city that I once loved. I saw it was okay to be different. I saw it was okay to have a good time. I saw it was okay to hang out late and go to work in the morning, and that’s what I wanted this piece to be like. I saw, I want to say the real world, but the world has changed so drastically so I don’t want to be presumptuous and say the real world, but I saw a world that I like, you know? Like come on, let’s have a good time. This is the only life you have to live.

This is a New York piece, you guys have talked about that a lot. It’s based in New York, it’s from New York. Is there any different mindset or feeling coming to the middle of the Midwest, to Missouri to play that kind of music or to play that piece?

No, not at all. We say New York because that’s where we’re from, but the reality is I should take New York out of it, and say it’s the city and the city that we all don’t know. It’s the speakeasy. It’s the after 2 a.m. It’s when the bar closes. It’s the guy’s house that none of us know about. It’s the doorbell. It’s the knock 3 times. It’s not so much New York. We use the term New York because that’s where we live, but I know it exists here. I know it exists in every city. There’s somewhere we don’t know. There’s a killing party happening, and that’s what this is. That’s what this whole piece is to me.

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