Vail Jazz Alumni: Drummer Evan Sherman goes back to basics by playing on the street for tips
Vail Jazz Foundation
“If people had told me I’d be busking at this stage of my career—in front of a fruit stand, no less—I wouldn’t have believed them for a minute,” said jazz drummer Evan Sherman. But performing on a New York City sidewalk is exactly what this 2009 alumnus of the Vail Jazz Workshop has done to stay creative during the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sherman’s band was wrapping up a tour on March 11, preparing to head to New York to perform in a tribute concert at Lincoln Center to the late saxophonist Jimmy Heath, when the plans of entertainers everywhere came to a screeching halt. He was also to join the faculty of the Vail Jazz Workshop last summer, alongside fellow drummer Lewis Nash, and that got put on hold, too.
For three months, Sherman stayed inside his New York apartment, practicing with no definite purpose in sight. Then, on June 15, he received a call from a bass-playing buddy: “Do you want to go back to work?” It turned out to be in front of a produce stand at the corner of 200th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Sherman continues to be touched by the generosity of the stand’s proprietor, who helped fund the performance and who handed out bananas to the gathered spectators.
Throughout the summer and fall, until the weather become too chilly, Sherman and four other bandmates continued to perform weekly outdoor shows, in front of that fruit stand and at other pop-up locations throughout the city. They were partly funded by the Jazz Foundation, and they relied heavily on the famous tip jar. As Sherman notes, in the 1942 movie Casablanca, Sam the piano player had a tip jar.
“That’s how it was done in the past, and that’s how it’s done these days,” Sherman said.
Two highlights of these outdoor performances burn bright for Sherman. The first is the response from children.
“The kids would get up to dance and instinctively choreograph the most incredible moves,” he said. “They showed us how everyone should relate to music.”
The second was a surprise sidewalk appearance by jazz megastar Wynton Marsalis. An NBC producer had caught Evan’s sidewalk performances and wanted to film it for The Today Show, promising to bring a mystery musician to sit in. Sherman had played with Marsalis in the past as part of Live at Lincoln Center and then as a member of Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Still, seeing his friend and professional idol appear on the sidewalk, trumpet in hand, was an incomparable thrill, not only for Sherman and his bandmates, but for the jubilant audience as well.
Sherman started playing drums at age 5. Seeing The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts perform live at the Blue Note jazz club opened 9-year-old Sherman’s mind to the allure of the music, and by age 13 he was obsessed. Throughout high school he and a classmate would head to Smalls jazz club in Manhattan for a turn during open mike night. They also performed at the Sunday jazz brunch for kids at the Jazz Standard and were the featured Saturday night performers at a sushi restaurant, “for $30 and free sushi.”
What brought this busy teenager to the Vail Jazz Workshop? “What made me want to come to Vail was when I first heard Lewis Nash, the drum instructor. I totally fell in love with his drumming. A teacher of mine was friendly with Lewis, and I heard them discussing me: ‘How can we get Evan to Vail?’ ”
His chance came in 2009. Memories of that summer still stand out more than a decade later.
The Vail Jazz Workshop was different from other training he had experienced. The intimate size, the geographic diversity, the intensity of the training and the glimpse inside the lives of professional musicians all made lasting impressions. But it was the culminating Labor Day Vail Jazz Party that really stands out.
“Not only did the faculty play, but many other jazz heroes showed up. I met Benny Green [piano] and Antonio Hart [saxophone] that weekend. Saxophonist Joel Frahm and I had pizza together.” What budding musician wouldn’t be impressed?
A quote from his Vail Jazz Workshop experience feels particularly relevant now that Sherman is back to basics, making ends meet with street drumming. John Clayton, lead instructor of the Workshop, every summer cautions his students: “If you want a life in music, don’t have a fall back plan, because if you do, you’re going to fall back.”
After all, improvisation is what jazz is all about.
The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts the dozen most promising high school musicians and pairs them with six jazz professionals for 10 days of intense instruction, including public performances. The pros impart what to expect from a career in music life and reflect on their own experiences. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Workshop took place over the internet.