Adrian Johnson
Adrian Johnson
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How Jazz Healed a City

A young musician fought back against COVID lockdowns by taking music into the streets of Manhattan and saved us all

by
Emily Benedek
August 12, 2021
Adrian Johnson
Adrian Johnson

Last year, a few weeks before COVID-19 descended over the land, I bought tickets to the late show at New York’s temple of jazz, the Village Vanguard. I’d heard that the drummer, Evan Sherman, was a musician to watch. Though only 26, he’d already toured with such jazz greats as Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, and Jimmy Heath. As a mere 19-year-old, he’d played a weeklong gig with the legendary bassist Ron Carter, a member of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.

That Saturday night at the Vanguard, Sherman was once again playing with Carter, along with Emmet Cohen, a celebrated young pianist. Carter’s sophisticated harmony and solo quips pushed his bandmates in unexpected directions. Cohen, a charismatic virtuoso, responded by reaching deep into his own musical vocabulary. And Sherman, with the swagger of a young Gene Krupa, hair falling over his eyes, steered the trio with a strong cymbal beat, detailing the story with military licks, Afro-Latin grooves, and bass-drum bombs.

I spoke with Cohen and Sherman after the show. They jokingly called the trio “Two-and-a-half Jews,” because not only are they both Jewish, but Carter’s middle name is Levin. His parents, they told me, gave him this name out of gratitude to a Jewish pharmacist who had extended his generosity to the family over the years.

None of us knew it at the time, but three weeks later, the performance world fell silent. All clubs, theaters, and music venues were emptied and locked down. The curtain came down on the performing arts, and no one knew when, if ever, it would be raised again.

Seven months pass. The city has settled into a desultory quiet. The screams of ambulances day and night have faded into memory, but the city hasn’t yet rallied with its regular squawks and rattles of life. There are some hopeful numbers in mid-September, zero new deaths in the city and only 244 new cases, down from highs of 810 deaths and 8,021 new cases in April.

But the music scene is dead. People are still practicing alone at home, or posting solo snippets on Instagram. Emmet Cohen has been livestreaming a Monday night trio from his Harlem apartment, and a few young people have wandered out into the parks to play for spare change. I check in with Evan to see what he’s up to, but he’s like a bird whose wings have been clipped. A big band leader, he was accustomed to bringing 16 musicians around town to venues like the Rainbow Room, Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, The Django in TriBeCa, and Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing—getting people up on their feet and dancing. He held down a five-year residency at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club, where his big band had become known for its late-night dance parties. But with COVID restrictions, getting 16 musicians into a room together, even to rehearse, is a nonstarter.

The owner of a coffee shop in Chelsea has been inviting a few jazz musicians to play in front of his store. Evan played there a couple times, and I’d heard he’d be there on Sept. 13, but he tells me that a double-booking has left him without a gig. Indignant for him, I say, “Let me make a call.”

He admits to me later, “My hopes were not high.” But my friend Jeremy Wladis, proprietor of Good Enough to Eat, a popular restaurant on 85th Street and Columbus Avenue, immediately agrees to let Evan and a band set up outside his place. Like all the city’s restaurateurs during COVID, he’s desperately searching for any trick that might bring in more business.

I call Evan back and tell him he has a gig that night, and he rings off to put together a group. Not in our wildest imaginings could either of us have anticipated that over the next months, that single phone call would lead to more than 100 performances on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, along Columbus Avenue between 66th Street and 85th Street, employing hundreds of the city’s out-of-work, top-notch jazz musicians, and offering the city a pulse of life. Or that Evan and his bandmates would be applauded by thousands of appreciative New Yorkers, hollered at by irate neighbors, visited by multiple teams of cops, and showered with cash, mostly in $1 bills.

The ups and downs of the Evan Sherman Band, from COVID-enforced silence to turning the canyons of the city into its own juke joint, show how one young Jewish kid from New Jersey, one of the hottest up-and-coming jazz musicians in New York, saved himself, saved live music, and, hell’s bells, saved me as he helped NYC take its first steps away from tragedy and death—not to nirvana exactly, but at least back onto the surprising, aggravating, occasionally joyful, squeaky-wheel trail of a city lurching back to life.

And now, a year later, and once again summer, the sounds of jazz will, with any luck, accompany the city to a broader recovery. As composer, professor, trombonist, and éminence grise Frank Lacy likes to say: “Remember what came after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—the roaring ’20s!”

The first street performance, Sept. 13, 2020

Around 5:30 p.m., I walk over to Good Enough to Eat on Columbus with a bag of outdoor extension cords, duct tape, and a couple of tools. (The duct tape proves useful in binding up a musician’s wayward pants.) The restaurant is serving food at small tables outside. The entire front and side of the restaurant is covered by scaffolding—a New York scourge that in this case turns out to provide a nice acoustic bounce. Within minutes, Evan rolls down the street with his drums packed in black cases on a flat dolly, the cymbals in a heavy round backpack that totals almost a third of his weight. Evan is tall, about 6 feet, and skinny as a sapling, with deep-set green eyes and thick brown hair arranged in a quiff. He usually comes across as serious and thoughtful, but when he smiles, showing off a brace of brilliant white teeth, he goes full-on Hollywood.

After speaking with the restaurant manager, I pull tables and chairs away from the corner of the building to make a space, and Evan sets up his drum set. The bassist Tyler Mitchell, who played with the iconic drummer Art Taylor, one of the pioneers of modern jazz, sets up just to the side, in front of a glass case of the restaurant’s famous baked goods. Tyler is a regular member of the Sun Ra Arkestra—he shows me his vintage-style calling card. He has an easy-going vibe and a honey smile. He wears a white golf shirt and loose African-print pants. His girlfriend, the Italian alto saxophonist Nicoletta Manzini, is a tiny, no-nonsense redhead with close-cropped hair and cool tie-dyed clothes.

Evan Sherman

Evan Sherman© Michael Weintrob

“Playing with Tyler is the real thing,” Evan says. Tyler’s father, an artist, made portraits of famous jazz musicians, and was friends with John Coltrane, who frequented their house. The bassist Russell Hall, who played for years in a trio with Evan and Emmet Cohen, says, “Tyler IS jazz.”

At 6:00 p.m., they start. “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones, then “Light Blue” by Thelonious Monk. At first, the masked passersby appear unnerved by the appearance of musicians on the street and they skitter past. The music seems to be testing people, making them an offer they can’t quite accept.

Then the band plays “Fate in a Pleasant Mood,” a Sun Ra tune, and people begin to slow down; seven or eight pause to listen to Nico’s sensitive phrasing. The band then launches into a beautiful jazz waltz called “After the Morning” by the late pianist John Hicks. It’s a special treat, and people stop. A crowd forms, forming a semicircle around the band, pushing out into 85th Street.

Pianist Davis Whitfield arrives, a winsome, freckle-faced young man with a massive wave of hair tied up under a bandana. Luckily, the restaurant has an extension cord out front; Davis plugs in his Nord keyboard. The sound of a full quartet adds excitement and power. The band launches into Blue Mitchell’s calypso “Fungii Mama,” which attracts parents pushing strollers to stop and have a listen. A young tenor saxophonist from William Patterson University named Alex De Lazzari shows up with his friend, trumpeter Andrew Wagner; their solid frontline sound lassoes more passersby. After 8:00 p.m., a Columbia-Juilliard double graduate, Marty Jaffe, takes over the bass, and Juilliard student Jarien Jamanila arrives with a baritone sax. The audience is delighted by the growing big-band sound.

By 9:30, more than 10 young musicians are standing along the curb by the scaffold poles, dancing and talking. Their attention, though, is riveted on Evan, who, with a nod of his head directs the musicians to step in. In spite of the camaraderie, jazz is a hierarchical business.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Wladis, as the restaurant’s owner, is getting nervous. He watches for the dreaded city inspectors who can levy crushing fines. He doesn’t want to push the limits, and he flips when he sees some of the musicians on the sidewalk with beer cans, which they quickly dispose of. He says the band must finish up before 10:00, when noise laws kick in.

After the band plays its final notes, Jeremy rewards the musicians with platters of pasta and salad in the restaurant’s tented outdoor dining area, along with a few pitchers of beer and soda. A couple of rounds of whiskey shots and the party really gets going. Aside from all the fun, the bass drum bag, which had been open for donations all evening, yields its own reward: The band members each net $120—comparable to the pay for a one-nighter at a small NYC jazz club.

Evan, a little buzzed, turns to me and says, “Our teachers would say, ‘if you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.’” It seems the jazz spirits are smiling tonight.

Evan Sherman grew up in a musical family in Millburn Township, New Jersey. His father plays bass and guitar, his older brother guitar, his mother piano. Evan observes that it was only logical that he would play drums, since that was the missing instrument in the family band. As a baby, he banged pots and pans with spoons.

He was 5 when he picked out his own miniature drum set at Sam Ash on 48th Street. “I just remember being able to hear beats,” he tells me. He stuck a little scrap of wood in his mouth, as if he were Keith Richards with a cigarette, and wailed along with CDs of classic rock—boom bap! boom bap! At 8, he sat in with the band at his brother’s bar mitzvah.

Rock ‘n’ roll was his first love. “It took me a while to open up to jazz. I was like many close-minded people who think jazz is not cool. Luckily, I grew out of that. When I was 9, I saw one of my earliest drum idols, Mr. Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, play jazz at the Blue Note.” After the show, Evan asked the rock star to autograph his 8-inch mini-splash cymbal. Watts examined it, balanced it on his finger, flicked it with his fingernail, and said, “Oh, what do we have here?” Then he signed it with a Sharpie. Evan hung it beside his bed.

“My mom was always looking online for after-school activities.” She found something called the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra. “Life changing,” he says. “It was like going to church or temple every week.” That’s also where, at 13, he met Davis Whitfield, the pianist, and son of jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. “We were exactly the same age, and we became buddies.” They attended jazz camp in Litchfield, Connecticut, together. By 13, “I knew I wanted to be a professional jazz musician. A world had been unveiled to me.”

He read Miles Davis’ autobiography, and listened to the musicians he mentioned, like Bud Powell. “Listening to the music of Bud Powell and Bird was like reading the Odyssey. It doesn’t get any deeper than that.”

People warned him that being a musician was a hard life; he should develop a “backup.” He shook them off. He looked to his hero Michael Jordan, whom he saw as an example of someone who defied all that. “If I start at 13,” he thought,” I’ll probably get myself to a good position.” Many years later, Evan was in the recording studio with another one of his heroes, the trumpeter, composer, and band leader Roy Hargrove. Roy asked Evan, “How long you been playing?” Evan said since he was 5 years old. Roy replied: “That’s why you play like that—you’ve been doing it your whole life and it’s just in you.”

The second street performance, Sept. 16, 2020

Today, when I arrive outside Good Enough to Eat, Evan is already set up. He rises to his feet in gentlemanly fashion, then adds a couple of stutter steps, which I come to learn is a signature gesture. His limbs are loose, like a scarecrow’s, naturally operating independently of one other. We give each other elbow bumps. I see he’s wearing a pair of white and pink suede Air Jordans with black-and-white laces.

“Are you wearing your Air Jordans in honor of Roy?”

Hargrove, who tragically passed away from kidney failure in 2018 at age 49, was also a style icon who famously paired his sneakers with an array of fashionable suits.

“Of course, yes,” Evan says, glancing down. “I remember I couldn’t wait to show Roy every time I got a new pair of sneakers. He’d look at them, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I like those, yeah!’”

He pauses a beat and offers a sad smile. “I know that if he were still around, he would probably have gotten these for himself. So, yes, I wear them in honor of Roy.” Evan looks up, tips his head to change the mood. “But also MJ, of course,” he says, “Michael Jordan set the tone for my whole life. And there are connections between basketball and jazz music. Wynton [Marsalis] has a whole theory on it.”

Michael Jordan set the tone for my whole life. And there are connections between basketball and jazz music. Wynton [Marsalis] has a whole theory on it.

Before I have a chance to hear him explain, the other members of the band walk up: recent SUNY Purchase graduate and bassist Jason Clotter, tall, friendly and shy; Davis Whitfield again on piano; and Stacy Dillard, a beloved fixture of the NYC jazz scene. Stacy is smart, sensitive, and fierce on soprano and tenor sax. He stomps off the tempo to his own tune, “Groove.”

Evan notes on a Facebook post that this gig is “musician friendly”—that is, young musicians are welcome to join in. By 8:00 p.m., almost a dozen students are lined up around the restaurant and on Evan’s signal, they begin to sit in: Sarah Gooch, a dedicated jazz drummer from Maine, working on her master’s degree at Juilliard, whom Evan has been mentoring for a few years; Mason James, a recent Fordham graduate and staunch bebopper; Jayla Chee, a Juilliard sophomore who plays bass with class and glamour.

Evan’s girlfriend, Silvie Cheng, an internationally acclaimed classical pianist, drops by. She and Evan met while they were both students at the Manhattan School of Music and have been together for seven and a half years. In addition to her solo career, she tours extensively with her brother, Bryan, an outstanding young cellist, in their Cheng² Duo. She is bright, funny, and beautiful. Evan calls her “Jiā”—a shortened form of her Chinese name, which suggests “good-hearted, beautiful.”

Next thing I know, Joe Saylor, the drummer in Jon Batiste’s band, Stay Human, which performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, is behind the drums, accompanying Juilliard senior Jarien Jamanila on the baritone sax in Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” Instead of his signature black cowboy hat, Saylor wears a trucker’s cap and black hoodie. My mother is amazed when I tell her Saylor came by. “I love to watch him on Colbert,” she says. “There’s just something about him, the way he moves his body.” Every time I speak with her, she asks about Saylor. “You tell him your elderly mother loves everything about him,” she tells me. “He won’t mind.”

Onlookers are stopped along the entire length of the restaurant on Columbus, smiling, tapping their feet. A graceful young man wearing a checked poncho begins to spin and dance in the middle of the street. Diners turn their chairs to watch as several more tenor sax players show up.

At this point, Columbus Avenue has taken on the feel of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Saylor grabs a tambourine and plays his alluring, signature New Orleans rhythm. Evan slides back behind the drums. “Joe Saylor is an amazing spirit,” says Evan. The last time they saw each other was at Saylor’s pre-pandemic wedding, with Evan leading the band. “When I was off the drums and observing the scene, I felt how special it was for everyone to be together again. This was the first time in months that many of us had a chance to jam. And to see each other. That was a great night. It gave me a lot of hope and I’m still trying to ride that.“

To Evan, the greatest place on earth to jam is and always will be Smalls, the low-ceilinged jazz cave in the West Village, whose walls are adorned with photos and paintings of the musical greats who’ve passed through its doors. Owner Spike Wilner heroically managed to stay open throughout the pandemic, first via livestream, and then, as restrictions lifted, in person. In fall 2020, every other club was closed: Cleopatra’s Needle, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Birdland, Django, Ginny’s Supper Club, Fat Cat, Village Vanguard, and Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Small’s sister club, Mezzrow, was the only other club that stayed open. “Smalls is its own world,” says Evan. “A mystical place.” 

And for Evan, the universe’s coolest person to jam with was Roy Hargrove. A riveting performer and double Grammy winner who released 20 albums as a leader and an additional 60 as a sideman with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Common, D’Angelo and John Mayer, he was also a mentor to musicians like Jon Batiste and Norah Jones. In person, Hargrove was small and shy, qualities that seemed only to increase his personal magnetism. He was known for his love of the late night jam in New York, and the help he’d offer young musicians there.

August 2009, was Evan’s first night to feel the moonglow himself. He was about to turn 16. “It’s like 11:30 p.m. and I’m sitting in the front row at Smalls just there in my own world. I hear a trumpet coming from the back, and I’m thinking, ‘this sounds good’. And then I see Roy Hargrove walk right by me. And there he is, you know, wearing shorts and pink and black Nike Dunks and his bell was this far from my face.” He gestures with his hand. “And he played all that butter. It was jazz at its finest. Spontaneous, he just came in to play. And I was like … ‘you’re really here?’”

Evan had already put a plan in motion.

Roy Hargrove and Evan Sherman on the bandstand

Roy Hargrove and Evan Sherman on the bandstand © Sandro Nikoli

“Every Friday afternoon, I’d be thinking, ‘I wonder if Roy is going to be at Smalls tonight?’ A few hours later, Evan would board the 6:20 p.m. New Jersey Transit train in Short Hills bound for Penn Station. He’d catch the number 1 train and ride up to 103rd Street and Broadway, where he’d commence his club crawl. First stop was Smoke, at 106th and Broadway. He’d check out who was playing—people like “Louis Hayes, Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman.”

Next, he’d head down to 59th Street to Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center, to see Lewis Nash, Joe Lovano, or Cedar Walton—whoever was there. “They kind of were getting to know me after a while, every weekend, this little kid.”

Sometimes he’d have a friend with him, a fellow musician, often Davis Whitfield. They of course didn’t have money for the cover charges, so they talked their way in, or sometimes snuck in. They were occasionally thrown out. Evan was for a time banned by a famous jazz club after he was caught sneaking in the back door to listen to the drummer Billy Hart.

After Dizzy’s, he hit Smalls, where the jam sessions could go all night. Evan would stay ‘til the end, and then crash at the home of his friend and fellow drummer, Faron Tillson, who lives on Bowery at Houston. “My parents were cool to let me loose. Or, my dad cooled off my mom enough where she could at least get a few hours of sleep.”

The pursuit of his passion, however, required just one tiny deception.

“My mom thought I would be at Faron’s by 10:30 p.m.,” says Evan, when, truth be told, “we’d be coming in at 4 or 5 in the morning.” He felt bad about this, but not that bad. “I was fucking playing with Roy at Smalls and Fat Cat! And without those years, I would not have played with Roy, I would have not done any of that. And I would be miserable right now.”

Once, Faron fell asleep before Evan got back from the clubs. Unable to get into the apartment, Evan sat down on the sidewalk in front of his building. When Faron’s father went out to walk the dog a few hours later, he found Evan on the sidewalk, curled up against the front door.

The third street performance, Sept. 17, 2020

The first week of outdoor music at Good Enough to Eat, now dubbed “The Jazz Corner of the UWS” by appreciative neighbors, brings out many members of the New York jazz scene. Tonight, the jazz guitarist Russell Malone, who has toured with Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Benny Green, and Diana Krall, sits in to play the swing dance favorite “Shiny Stockings” with an appreciative young guitarist, Andrew Latona, by his side. The trumpet player, singer, and showman Benny Benack III drops by and is joined by Mariel Bildsten, a young trombonist whose new CD Evan co-produced. Emmet Cohen, who played with Evan and Ron Carter that February night at the Vanguard, strolls through to check out the hang. The city feels like it’s taking a deep breath.

Except there are some people who don’t like the music, and their presence will eventually force the band to move away from the “Jazz Corner.” A local resident complained of the “loud jazz music” on the internet site Nextdoor. He urged everyone to call 311 and make an official noise complaint against the restaurant. Seventy-four people responded to his comments—most in support of the jazz.

Tonight, a group of elderly ladies rally around Evan and explain that the letter writer is “an unemployed handyman who complains about everything.” The ladies tell Evan they love his music and they have typed up their own petition, titled: “Don’t let the music stop!” They are soliciting people to sign it. “This is to request your signature of affirmation of the serendipity that happened on our corner. It was a jam of joy to the heart, boost to the immune system and proof that life is still good during the pandemic. It has been glorious ‘noise’….”

The ladies have called the mayor’s office and left messages in support of the music. They even take the time to pass their views on to the local police station. Good Enough to Eat’s manager, Tracey, says that calls coming into the restaurant are “40-1” in favor of the music.

Nevertheless, the complaints have an effect. Jeremy Wladis, fully aware of the precarious business condition of his restaurant, and the quixotic quality of rules enforcement, still worries that the noise complaints might spur additional inspections that could lead to clampdowns. He apologizes, but the keyboard can no longer be plugged into the restaurant’s power source. He also wants the band to physically move away from the restaurant. The law is clear: Busking is legal in New York City. The band can play anywhere on the sidewalk as long as it doesn’t use amplification and stops before 10:00 p.m. But for a restaurant to hire a scheduled act, it needs additional certifications, which Jeremy does not have. And even though he is not paying the band, Jeremy feels he must avoid even the appearance of doing so.

We have to find a new place to play. Evan and I walk down Columbus and Amsterdam to survey the different blocks. We check out the foot traffic, we examine if the sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate a band. He eventually settles on a spot at the corner of 72nd and Columbus.

The complaints, even in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown, are a fact of life. One man, standing on the corner with two large shopping bags from an expensive gourmet shop—he says he’s a music “consultant”—announces he’s called the cops. A female passerby yells at him: “What’s the matter with you? This is the city of John Lennon!” Evan does what he can, obliging concerned neighbors by moving the band around, or playing in the afternoons rather than the evenings. “I hope that playing this music on the street will open other people up to it who wouldn’t otherwise hear it,” Evan says. “This music heals me. I know it can heal other people as well.” For the most part, traumatized New Yorkers look at the musicians with expressions of relief and puzzlement—as if they are surprised by their feelings.

Israeli modern classical composer Amir Shpilman says he isn’t surprised jazz on the street is helping New Yorkers get through their despair. “Jazz is a very, very special music. It could only have developed in America.” What it does, he points out, is almost impossible to describe in words. “It’s precious in the way the concept of the divine is for religious people who aren’t allowed to call it by its direct name. You don’t know what to call it, you can’t describe it.”

Jazz is precious in the way the concept of the divine is for religious people who aren’t allowed to call it by its direct name.

One particular man played a very important role in Evan’s life as he moved from high school to college: John Lee, Dizzy Gillespie’s longtime bassist, and the person Dizzy’s widow, Lorraine, entrusted with the leadership of his big band after her husband’s passing.“ John Lee is like the godfather, he’s the link to every jazz musician in the world,” said Evan. “He gave me a chance.” Lee heard Evan play as a 15-year-old at a New Jersey club called Papillon and asked him if he could play at the wedding of Jason Jackson, a lead trombonist for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and other notable groups.

“I was like, damn, all these musicians are going to be at this wedding.”

There was just one small obstacle: a tenth-grade Spanish test.

His parents said no.

Lee didn’t forget him, however. During Evan’s senior year of high school, in 2011, Lee, who runs the yearly “Giants of Jazz” concerts at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, asked Evan to play in that year’s concert in honor of the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath.

“John knew I was a big fan of Roy’s and that he and I had crossed paths at the late-night jams at Smalls. John paired me with Roy’s quintet that night. I was nervous but confident while we played. It was a dream come true to be on stage in a nice theater backing up one of my biggest heroes. During the first song, Roy did a little dance and threw his hat next to my hi-hat stand. That helped me settle in.”

When the concert was over, a few musicians squeezed into the elevator to the green room. Roy, as Evan would later see him do for years after, pulled his hat down low and tried to disappear behind his sunglasses. The late Lee May, who had produced the concert, thanked Roy for his appearance. Without looking up, Hargrove said, “I like that little drummer. Who was that?”

Someone said, “He’s standing right next to you.”

Evan says: “You could feel that all over, like in the Stevie Wonder song.”

But that wasn’t all that John Lee did for him. When Lewis Nash couldn’t make a one-night gig with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band in 2012 in Moscow, Lee asked Evan if he wanted the job. The last-minute booking left Sherman no time for a rehearsal, but no matter. Word flew through the jazz world after the show: “This kid came in and knew all the music!”

That changed Evan’s life forever. Once the news got out, everyone else started hiring him too, including Ron Carter. But it’s not by accident that Evan knew the music—he had hung around with Lee and Lewis Nash and the big band and memorized all the songs. To prepare for his first gig with Carter, Evan moved home to his parents’ house for a month to learn the music, playing through all the parts on piano and bass. His work ethic could kill a mule.

He took to heart an old saying by Ed Blackwell, a New Orleans-born drummer who worked with Ornette Coleman: “If you ignore the drums for one day, they’ll ignore you for two.”

It came as a shock to him, however, that in spite of all the musical knowledge he’d built up, he still wasn’t quite there yet. On his first tour with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, on stage in Budapest before 2,000 people, in 2014, the three other band members shouted out critiques (and insults) at him.

What was he doing wrong? “Oh, just the same things most young cats do—not listening and trying to show off. Roy used to say, ‘The young cats never know when to stop.’” Branford said, as they walked off stage: “Welcome to the big leagues, kid.” Now he had to learn how to play on a team.

And here we come to that theory about jazz and basketball.

Wynton Marsalis says it’s not just about finding the best players. It’s not just about developing superior knowledge. It’s not just about being able to make split-second decisions that are right, or executing the play or the musical performance with consummate grace. Wynton says the key to superior play both on the hardwood and on the band stand is a dedication to playing as a team. It’s about making the people around you better. He believes so much in the transformative power of cooperation in jazz that he wrote a book about it, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

Evan Sherman, on drums, Tyler Mitchell, on bass, and Jerry Weldon, on sax, during an outdoor performance, New York City, fall 2020

Evan Sherman, on drums, Tyler Mitchell, on bass, and Jerry Weldon, on sax, during an outdoor performance, New York City, fall 2020 © Donna Rotunno

“Everybody wants to be soloing,” said then-head coach of the Oklahoma Thunder Billy Donovan, after talking with Branford and Wynton Marsalis about what his basketball team could learn from jazz. “Everybody wants to be out in front. But sometimes the most important guy is the drummer because he is keeping everyone in rhythm, and he is the guy in the background. You have to be OK with that ego-wise.”

Roy Hargrove taught Evan the same lesson, but in a different way. “There would always be a bunch of musicians who would try to play with Roy at Smalls and Fat Cat,” said Evan. “If you were showing off and not playing for the team, he would just ignore you.” But if you “gave him good energy,” that is, if he could tell you were really listening, he would acknowledge you. He would say, “I like that. Yeah!”

The fourth street performance, Sept. 30, 2020

At the end of September, everything changed for Evan and his band because of the arrival of one musician. Call central casting and ask for a tenor sax man who tells a story with every blow of his horn, every shake of his head and bend of his knee, and if you’re very lucky, you’ll get Jerry Weldon. Passersby are dazzled by every growl, honk, and hurricane he cajoles from his instrument. And even if you’re the kind of New Yorker who likes to call the cops, you’d be hard-pressed not to be touched by Jerry’s sheer conviviality.

Jerry dresses in black, his hair slicked back with pomade. “Yeah, baby!” he calls out as a fellow musician launches into a solo. He turns his back to the crowd and slips into a shimmy of his own design. In March, COVID had dragged him off a multicity tour with Harry Connick Jr. The previous December, he’d spent a month on Broadway with Connick in A Celebration of Cole Porter. He was also part of Connick’s 2001 Broadway musical production, Thou Shalt Not, where he had a speaking part. A total professional, he played for 20 years with Lionel Hampton’s big band and has appeared with such giants as George Benson, George Cables, Mickey Roker, Jimmy Cobb, and Mel Tormé.

As a result, he’s accumulated his own collection of Catskill gags and one-liners, which he offers now and then when he’s feeling good.

“My girl. I love her. She’s just not the greatest cook in the world. She made alphabet soup last night. I spelled out H-E-L-P.

“My mother didn’t breastfeed me. She said we were just friends.”

“My father never took me to the zoo. He said the animals would find me.”

Every dumb joke cracks him up, and everyone around him.

Today, the band gathers on the corner of 73rd Street just off Columbus, beside the popular tableware store, La Terrine, now shuttered thanks to COVID. At this point, 58 storefronts on Broadway from 96th Street to 59th Street are empty.

But as soon as Jerry’s saxophone begins to spit and moan, people stop. A few drop $50 and $100 bills in the drum case. Kids dance. A sidewalk chalk artist spells in pastel: “Jazz will unravel all the wrinkles in your mind.” Bassist Tyler Mitchell, eyes closed in a blissful state, cigarette hanging from his lips, rocks from foot to foot while fingering flowing bass lines. Anthony Wonsey is cooking on the keys, and Evan Sherman is enlivening the trip with assorted fills, flourishes, and rat-a-tats, his arms and legs operating independently of one another, like Ganesha.

It’s a blissful day. The hits pour out, the sun is shining. Wonsey says he’s never felt more comfortable in a band. “When you’re outside,” says Evan, “All you hear is pure energy. The music flows free.”

The public votes with its wallet, and leaves $800 in the till, $200 for each musician. Today changes the game. For the first time, the band members realize they will be able to make it on the street, no matter how long the lockdown lasts. Thank you, Jerry.

More musicians come to play with the band. Joe Magnarelli, a veteran trumpet player with a mop of shiny, wavy hair and a huge and loyal following, jams happily with his pal and longtime bandmate Jerry Weldon. I take to recording the concerts on Facebook Live. One video of “Mags” playing the Rodgers and Hart tune “Lover” with the band on the corner of 72nd Street and Columbus on Jan. 2, 2021, the band members bundled in hats and coats, has circled the globe and garnered over 71K views. The Columbia freshman and trumpet player Ben Wolstein, who is largely self-taught, comes to work on his stuff, as does Josh Evans on trumpet, Grammy-winner Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, and Japanese sensation Erena Terakubo on alto. “Ben has learned the most shit,” says Evan, “he’s one of the best students I’ve ever worked with in terms of maturity and being open-minded. He listens and chooses when and how to play. And now he gives us ideas.”

The glamorous rising jazz star Veronica Swift happens upon the band by chance one night after a photo shoot and closes out the evening with “Embraceable You.” Bruce Harris, trumpeter, band leader and professor of jazz studies at SUNY Purchase, becomes a regular.

Sometimes the city itself is a fine accompanist. On several occasions while Stacy Dillard is blowing a note, a truck horn blasts exactly on pitch, causing Stacy to burst out with a yell or a laugh of delight. He is the group’s tone-conjurer; he seems not only to attract clear notes from the universe, but he is also the quickest to reproduce them. He can pick up the key of a messy “Happy Birthday” sung by partygoers and play it back within a beat or two. “That’s who we are,” Harris says. “We’re all ears.” This skill reveals itself in different ways: Evan does wicked impersonations of other musicians. He tells me many jazz musicians do hilarious imitations. It’s not only a natural outgrowth of their musical gifts, but also a way to keep their beloved teachers close.

Children are drawn to the music. A very serious girl, about 6 years old, leads her mother over to the band and listens intently. She returns day after day, and the band members notice. They love it when children and babies dance or dogs bark to the rhythm—they create their own swing. “This music is so spiritual,” says Harris. “And so resilient. Think about it, 100 years after its creation, we’re all still trying to work it out.” 

Evan offers special sessions on the street for the young cats who are the least experienced, even at times shouting out chord changes two beats ahead (a lesson from Roy), to guide them through a new tune. Everyone gets better on the street. Giveton Gelin is an angel-face, 22-year-old trumpet player and Juilliard student from the Bahamas who plays sometimes with Jon Batiste. Roy Hargrove had also taken a special liking to this young man, with whom he shares an uncanny physical resemblance and a special, sweet vibe. Over sushi with Evan one night after a gig, Giveton explains what Roy taught him: “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, man. Just leave it out there on the stage, because the more vulnerable you are, the more impact it will have. If you’re really being honest with people, that’s what seeps through.”

Playing music on the street also reflects, for better or for worse, a growing truth of the larger American economy—direct access to the customer is not only more possible, it’s become a necessity. And it’s not going to change. It takes a couple of leaders, Evan Sherman and Benny Benack III to show it can work—Evan on the street, and Benny curating live music at venues like Craftsman (on Broadway and La Salle) and Terremoto Coffee Shop on 15th Street. Their efforts have had a snowball effect. After the first week at Good Enough to Eat, the students and younger musicians branched out on their own into city parks, street corners, and beside friendly restaurants. Now, hundreds of musicians are out working. Jayla Chee, the Juilliard bassist, says: “We gotta give a shout out to Benny and Evan because otherwise there’d have been no music in the city during the pandemic.”

I ask veteran Jerry Weldon how he likes playing in the street. “Before, I liked it,” he says. “Now, I love it.”

“Roy and I played a jam session at Smalls and Fat Cat,” says Evan. “It was a nice night. We walked over to the taco truck on Grove Street at Seventh Avenue. It’s 4:00 a.m., we’re ordering our tacos and Roy says, ‘how old are you?’ I said, ‘I’m 17,’ and he goes, ‘I can’t wait to hear you when you’re 23.’”

Fast forward six years. Evan is on a plane to Ukraine to play at a jazz festival. His bandmate asks him, “Did you see the Roy Hargrove Big Band is playing Labor Day weekend at the Jazz Gallery?” He says, no, he hasn’t seen that. When he gets off the plane, he finds a message from Hargrove’s saxophonist: “Roy wants to know if you can play with his big band at the Jazz Gallery.”

“This was the first time I ever got called to play an official gig with Roy’s band,” he says. “And it was just like Roy said. I was 23 years old. Isn’t that amazing?”

That was the beginning of the final chapter of their relationship. “We were real close. And he was like, ‘we got to play a lot more together. Whenever you have something, let me know. I’ll try to be there.’”

By this time, Evan had his own big band. When Roy was in town, he didn’t miss coming by, showing up to play at Dizzy’s or The Django. “Playing tonite?” he’d text. “I’m coming thru.”

Roy was ill, but nobody knew to what extent. He’d been on dialysis for over 12 years because of kidney disease. Evan honored his mentor by writing big band arrangements for his original compositions and some of his favorite songs, like Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You.”

“Roy loved that song,” says Evan. “And he played it like it was a masterpiece. And it is!” Writing charts requires hours of composing and arranging parts for each of the band’s 16 instruments—but Evan did it with a full heart. He laid the arrangement on Roy like a specially prepared eight-course meal. What he got back from playing with Roy was … everything.

One night at Smalls, Roy was frustrated with how the musicians were playing. He thought they were loud, careless, and not listening to each other.

Evan sympathized. “What can we do?” he asked. Roy looked at him and said, “Don’t worry. I’m here.”

Those were the last words Evan heard Roy say. He died suddenly, two months later on Nov. 2, 2018.

In April of 2021, Smalls reopened to live audiences under the latest NYC protocols, and owner Spike Wilner honored Evan by asking him to lead its first Friday night jam. Soon, he was given a regular Tuesday night spot at 10:00 p.m. and a jam at 11:30.

Evan Sherman, back on dry land after the deluge, plays his heart out. He watches over the kids, nods them in, helps them out, just like Roy did for him. In July, he begins to master a CD of songs he recorded in 2020 with Jerry, Tyler, Wonsey, and Mags at the famed Rudy Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. It will be out in September. It’s called “Sidewalk’n.”

Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.

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