Director Darryl K. Evans and members of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Jazz Ensemble, prepare to practice in the university’s band room. (Special to The Commercial/Deborah Horn)
In the moments before a 12:30 practice is scheduled to start, a couple dozen University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students start assembling in the band room. It’s an expansive room, but members of the university’s Jazz Ensemble gather in a tight knot at its center.
They are quiet as they wait.
In walks the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Jazz Band director, Darryl K. Evans.
With little fanfare and a warm, “Good afternoon,” Evans tells his students to run through a few scales. They usually play together three days a week for about four hours.
“I plan to take what I’ve learned here and go back to Dallas,” UAPB senior and music education major, LeManuel Williams, tells an onlooker before practice.
He wants to hand jazz off to the next generation as a music teacher, as well as “teach the life skills I learned under Mr. Evans, like being timely and working hard.”
It’s hard to separate the jazz department from the man. Evans has a gentle smile and a seemingly ethereal light shines out from the depths of his inner self to those around him. It’s obvious his students, like senior Stephanie Baker, respect and admire him.
Baker traveled from her home in Detroit to accept a UAPB music scholarship four years ago. Still somewhat a novelty in the world of jazz — women were relegated to the position of singer until just a couple generations ago — Baker is one of only three women in the jazz band.
She says, “I do most of my talking through my trumpet,” however, she adds, “Mr. Evans has inspired me … [academically] I’m where I need to be.”
Ultimately, she wants to play for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra or perhaps for the one in Atlanta.
She rejoins the class that’s now playing “Stolen Moments,” a jazz standard composed by Oliver Nelson around 1960.
It’s obvious Evans does what he loves. His feet are tapping rhythm and his head marks time, while his hands wave unspoken commands to the eager and serious young musicians.
Occasionally, Evans snaps his fingers, obviously enjoying the music as one student after another performs a few seconds of improvisation on their particular instrument. Many of his students have never played jazz or improvised on an instrument, but Evans says they often turn out to be his best students.
When giving instructions about jazz-style improv, he said, “I’d rather you be loud and wrong than silent and right.”
Drummer Calvin Martin came to UAPB four years ago on a marching band scholarship but switched to jazz while still a freshman.
“I didn’t know much about jazz but it’s become very important to me,” says Martin, who plans on a professional career after graduation.
He also says, “Mr. Evans is a great guy and an excellent teacher.”
The UAPB Jazz Ensemble, it’s official name, plays as many as 16 performances each year.
“Most are requested. We perform at jazz festivals and banquets,” Evans says.
The 25-piece band recently played at the 26th annual Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts and impressed folks like Staphea Campbell of Pine Bluff.
“They’re really great,” she said near the end of the evening.
Like Cassundra Haynes and her husband, Calvin, she was delighted with the on-stage talent.
Cassundra Haynes says, “Oh, I enjoyed their music. It made the evening more classy and took it to a whole other level.” She also enjoyed the blend of old- and new-school of the jazz band’s play list. Evans says he likes to bring a mix of traditional and modern jazz to their public performances.
Both women enjoyed UAPB junior and jazz singer Phyllissa Dunk’s rendition of George Gershwin’s 1935 “Summertime.”
“It was beautiful,” Haynes says.
Evans says Dunk, who is from Dallas, Texas, is a talented singer and is a definite plus to the band.
As well as offering an accomplished sound for entertainment, Evans says, “I try to encourage my students to be as professional and reliable as possible.”
That means looking sharp, being enthusiastic and showing up on time. After all, many of his students plan to pursue careers as musicians and will need more than just talent to succeed.
At the same time, Evans says, “We like to have fun” when performing live. That was obvious at the Chancellor’s Banquet.
Interim Chancellor Calvin Johnson also enjoyed the Jazz Ensemble at the banquet.
“If you look at UAPB, we have a long history of excellent performances and of course, our talent speaks for itself,” he says.
Even as a student on campus, Johnson remembers concerts in the student union by various musical groups at the university. Live performances give the students experience they don’t get in the classroom.
“More recently, I feel the quality of music is even greater,” in part, Johnson says, because of the technology available to music students. He also credits a highly qualified teaching staff including Evans.
Johnson says, “I feel the Jazz Ensemble is a hidden secret and if you listen to the students, they’re marvelous, and they take pride in their performance.”
Ever higher intervals and octaves
Long before jazz was considered one of the nation’s greatest contributions to the arts, the musical genre was a mainstay on the UAPB (then AM&N) campus.
Since the 1940s, the then AM&N Orchestra played at various locations on the campus and throughout southeast Arkansas, according to “Horns Up!!” by T.T. Tyler Thompson.
Evans feels this was “forward thinking” on the part of the school’s administration, even though jazz was a rather young art form at the time, and especially given that is was considered disreputable and relegated to back rooms and speakeasies only a few years earlier. Jazz’s roots can be traced back to Southern black communities around the turn of the 20th century.
According to Wikipedia, jazz was a mixture of African and European musical traditions, depending on the use of blue notes (musical notes performed at a slightly lower pitch than major scale) and improvisation. Right from the start, jazz was continually shifting, with some of the forms including ragtime, St. Louis, Kansas City and West Coast and modern styles.
Trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.”
Evans agrees and hopes to impart a sense of pride in jazz’s history and the importance of its changing role to his students.
“Jazz is definitely a genre worthy of study and its style continues to change and grow. Some of my students have no awareness of jazz’s rich history,” he says.
But that quickly changes.
The UAPB Jazz Ensemble, in its present form, was organized in 1975 by Odie E. Burrus Jr., now deceased. The 25-piece group is made up of kids from across the country playing various jazz styles, with an emphasis on developing the students’ improvisational skills.
Eight to the bar
Evans took the reins 10 years ago.
When he came to UAPB in 2003, it was on a temporary basis, Burrus was dying of cancer and the jazz department had fallen on hard times.
A native of Chicago, who started playing trombone in the seventh grade, Evans earned a music education degree at Grambling State University at Grambling, La. While there, he studied with the legendary Conrad Hutchinson Jr., and then earned a master’s degree in music from Northwestern State University of Louisiana at Natchitoches, La.
After graduation, he taught at various levels throughout the South before landing at UAPB. For about a decade, he spent his free time playing with the Shreveport Jazz Ensemble.
He married Erika Smith, and they have three children.
Through his education, professional work and 25 years of teaching experience, Evans brings a unique mixture of skills to UAPB.
“I want to keep the bar high,” he says about the university’s music department.
Senior Calvin Martin, a native of Chicago, like junior Brian Cole, native of Detroit, had never heard of UAPB or Pine Bluff, but both are glad they signed up for the music program.
Cole says, “It’s a professional and disciplined program, and Mr. Evans has taught me to have a passion for what you do. He has pushed us to succeed.”
Stephanie Baker says, “He has kept us focused and made us better. I love Mr. Evans.”
These days, Evans’ jazz band is experiencing a rebirth — or perhaps a renaissance.
Michael J. Bates is the music department’s interim chair and he says, “The department was down. Mr. Evans was instrumental in a resurgent that brought back the Jazz Ensemble.”
He sets a great example for his students, too.
“I like his ethical character, it’s one that both students and faculty members admire,” Bates says.
Like the other departments at UAPB, he says Evans is making the most of his limited classroom assets.
“While other institutions have more resources and a larger faculty, we do more than stand on our own. We feel we have an excellent department and are extremely efficient in producing musicians and (music) teachers,” Bates says.
Now, the jazz band is considered by many to be one of the country’s premier collegiate jazz bands and, in addition to local and state performances, it has played at the regional and national level. As important, the band has performed with jazz artists and greats like Tony Baker, Ron Carter, James Leary and Clark Terry. The list goes on.
Evans says his goal is to continue the university’s “tradition of excellence, promoting, preserving and perpetuating the rich cultural heritage of jazz music.”
While many people know Evans as UAPB Jazz Band director, he’s also Department of Music-band assistant director of (marching) bands, directs the Black Concert Band and is low brass and theory instructor.
Hosea Connie from Chicago, who says jazz is his “thing,” says, “I feel like I’m growing as a musician because of Mr. Evans. He’s a real cool, laidback teacher.”