BRATTLEBORO—Samirah Evans recalls when she was 5 years old, her father would tuck her into bed after they’d sing jazz and folk songs together in harmony.
In her early teens, she and her father would often sing on a street, around the corner from Fenway Park.
“That’s how music got ingrained in me,” says Evans, who didn’t know at the time that singing, performing, recording, producing, and teaching would become her lifelong career.
Evans was born in Cleveland into a family of professional musicians. Her father, Richard Jones, was a singer and guitarist. Her uncle, Donald Jones, led a band, Don Gregory and the Montclairs, whose 1965 single, “Happy Feet Time,” was a regional hit in Cleveland. He also has artifacts in the holdings of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which Evans says with pride.
She received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she studied radio, television and film, marketing, and sales.
For over 20 years, she lived in the city she considers her “real home” — New Orleans — where she cultivated a musical career.
There, she met her husband, Chris Lenois, during a live broadcast on WWOZ, the famed radio station owned by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, where they each had their own shows.
Lenois, who grew up in Vernon, and Evans relocated to his home turf of southern Vermont in 2006, a year after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
The Commons sat down recently with Evans in her home studio to discuss the state of jazz, teaching the next generation, and keeping the American standards alive, among other topics.
Stepping out onto the stage
Evans revealed that what is foremost in her life is her more-than-30-year practice of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism. “It informs everything I do and how I navigate my purpose in this world,” she says.
In 1990, at her debut performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Evans was petrified to get on stage. One of her friends, another Buddhist practitioner, told her, “You are too focused on your ego; your focus should be on your mission as an artist, which is to move the audience who came to see you.”
“That advice gave me the confidence I needed to successfully pull off that performance and set the tone for who I am as an artist today,” Evans says.
After her debut, she began a run of 15 consecutive appearances as a leader or featured vocalist at the Jazz Festival. She was also a regular fixture in the music scene, performing in clubs and concert halls throughout the Crescent City, including Snug Harbor, Tipitina’s, and the House of Blues.
Evans toured North and South America, Europe and Asia, sharing stages with New Orleans notables and legendary artists, including James Brown, B.B. King, Dr. John, Aaron and Charles Neville, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Michael Franks, Poncho Sanchez, Katie Webster, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Duke Robillard, Levon Helm, and Jaimoe (of the Allman Brothers Band).
‘America’s classical music’
When asked why she thinks jazz is still so popular, Evans replies, “Jazz was once the popular music that people danced to. The reason why it’s still so popular today is because of the people who listen and appreciate it. And mentors in the industry have passed it onto their students who keep it alive.”
“Fortunately, there are young generations of musicians still playing America’s classical music,” she continues.
Evans dedicates time to perpetuating American jazz and blues music. She is currently an artist associate in jazz at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and she teaches voice lessons privately from her home studio.
“In addition to sharing what I’ve learned from on-the-job training, accompanied by topnotch musicians, I pass on everything I learned from my vocal coaches, who were classically trained,” Evans says. “The techniques I learned from them enables me to sustain my voice, which has been invaluable.”
Mentors through the years
“When I started singing jazz, I was inspired by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Barbra Streisand, to name a few,” says Evans.
However, Nancy Wilson was her number one inspiration.
“What I loved about Nancy was the way she interpreted a song,” Evans says. “She was sassy and soulful and could sing anything. And though Wilson was known as a jazz vocalist, she never wanted to be pigeonholed to a specific genre. She was often called a ‘song stylist.’”
“I have the same attitude towards the music I sing,” she continues. “My repertoire is eclectic. Most importantly, I choose songs that I believe in and tell the story in my own way.”
The late bebop pianist Willie Metcalf — Evans’ first mentor in New Orleans — taught her everything about the fundamentals of presenting and performing jazz.
Through his program, the Academy of Black Arts, Metcalf mentored many well-known artists, including Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison, to name a few.
Evans’ current mentor is bebop vocalist Sheila Jordan, whom she met while performing together in a show, “The Beatnik Café,” at the Vermont Jazz Center in 2007.
Jordan currently resides in New York but is originally from Detroit, where Willie Metcalf is also from — and where Evans found out that the two used to play together.
“Most might consider this a coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences,” Evans says. “I see it as my destiny to have had both Willie and Sheila as part of my journey.”
“I appreciate Sheila most for encouraging me to teach what I know,” she continues. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be teaching at Williams College today.”
A ‘living gift’ to the Windham County region
“Samirah Evans is a living gift to our region — she is a talented and authentic representative of a long tradition of artists who pass the torch of our music through example and mentorship,” wrote Eugene Uman, Director of the Vermont Jazz Center, in an email to The Commons.
“Samirah is not only a wonderful singer, she is also a generous soul, always making sure that the next generation of musicians feel welcomed and have access to the information that will facilitate them getting to the next level,” Uman says. “It is an honor to be a friend and colleague of Samirah’s,”
The Vermont Jazz Center is what convinced Evans to move to Vermont.
“VJC was vital to my being able to connect with the jazz community. When I met Eugene, I immediately felt I would survive in Vermont,” adds Evans with a laugh. The VJC is also where she found a few members of her group, Samirah Evans and Her Handsome Devils.
Uman remembers that soon after she arrived in Brattleboro, Evans created a mentorship concert series, “Sam’s Sunday Set and Shed.”
It began when a kid came up to Evans and said, “I’m too young to play in the clubs. Where can I play and get exposure?”
“I am a problem solver and a producer, so I wanted to set out to find a convenient place where young musicians would feel comfortable to play and show off their wares in front of an audience,” Evans says.
“So I convinced the owner of the [former] Elliot Street Café to let us hold concerts there where mentors and their protégées would be featured performers,” she recalls. “Then we’d have a jam session with other musicians who showed up.”
“It was really amazing and created a great community among musicians and music lovers of all ages,” recalls Evans.
Teaching a new generation
In 2018, Evans mentored Veronica Stevens, 20, of Newfane, a senior at Castleton University majoring in theater arts.
What started out as vocal lessons “quickly turned into a lovely and valuable relationship in my life which I am very grateful for,” Stevens says.
“There are a lot of things I loved about working with Samirah; she has a wonderful personality and makes it so enjoyable,” she says. “You have fun while you are working on your craft, using your voice. She has a very good understanding of seeing what a student needs help with — i.e., how to shape your mouth so that a certain sound will come out.”
Stevens called Evans’ studio “a calm, peaceful, open space and you feel very comfortable working on a very vulnerable craft.”
“Samirah is a very focused teacher but at the same time she connects with her students on a personal level. I really value that,” Stevens says.
Rei Kimura, vocalist and guitarist from the band Moxie, a former student of Evans, thinks “very fondly of our time working together, as it was a very pivotal point in my career as a singer.”
“Samirah changed my voice for the better and I seriously wouldn’t be the same without her influence and wisdom,” Kamura told The Commons by email.
Continuing education and new projects
Evans, who is still benefiting from an artist development grant from the Vermont Arts Council, appreciates how the organization reached out to support Vermont artists during the pandemic.
The program funds activities “that enhance mastery of an artist’s craft or skills, or that increase the viability of an artist’s business,” according to a description on the organization’s website. The latest round of grants from the program awarded $22,578 to Evans and 14 other artists in Windham County.
With her $1,950 grant, Evans decided to take private lessons on music theory and piano.
“This is my opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I’m going to school to study music. I’m learning a whole different language. It’s time consuming, but I love it.”
She also attended the Vermont Jazz Center’s Summer Jazz Camp last month to continue her theory studies.
Evans is also proud of being part of a network of more than 200 Black artists, Vermont African-American/African Diaspora Artists Network. It’s based at the Clemmons Family Farm, one of the rare African American owned farms in Vermont. The network has afforded her many creative opportunities, she says.
She is involved in a project with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to share her story as an African American receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Her story will soon appear on the CDC website, accompanied by a song she wrote, “The Proof Is in the Pudding.”
Evans, who has recorded three CDs, says she’s gearing up to go back into the recording studio soon to record a new album.
The New Orleans Time-Picayune named her debut, Give Me a Moment, the fifth-best new release of 2002. She has recorded two other full-length CDs as a leader — My Little Bodhisattva (2007) and Hot Club: Live at the Vermont Jazz Center (2009) — in addition to several downloadable singles.
She has also appeared as a featured vocalist on other artists’ recordings in New Orleans and New England.
“It’s way overdue!” she says of the new album.
• On Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12:30 p.m., Samirah Evans will perform at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center’s 50th anniversary celebration with guitarist Anand Nayak and bassist Reed Sutherland. They’ll offer a mix of music that will include New Orleans–style originals, jazz, blues, and pop.
Admission to the day-long community celebration is by donation.
• On Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m., Evans will perform as part of the Northeast Kingdom Performing Arts Series “Facing the Sunrise” at Catamount Arts ArtPort, Green Mountain Mall, 2000 Memorial Dr., St. Johnsbury.
Evans, on vocals, will be joined by Avery Sharpe on bass, Ben Kohn on piano, Connor Meehan on drums, and Ron Smith on saxophones. Meehan is the drummer with Evans’ band, the Handsome Devils. Admission is free.
For more information, visit samirahevans.com.