Pianist Darrius Willrich, drummer D’Vonne Lewis and bassist Evan Flory Barnes have spent most of their lives immersed in the world of jazz.
Both Willrich and Barnes did not start playing their instruments seriously until high school, but advanced from there. The communities they grew up in were impacted by the prevalent music of the time, including R&B, rock, blues, and hip-hop — styles that are heavily influenced by jazz.
Unlike his bandmates, Lewis was introduced into the realm of jazz early. He started playing the drums on pots and pans and continued to do so relentlessly because of the influence of his family.
All three musicians described their exposure to the jazz community in Seattle in a roundabout way. Willrich and Barnes said that they were unaware of the kind of influence jazz had on their home communities until much later.
“It was kind of a revelation at first. Once I realized, ‘Oh this is all going on’ is when I started playing,” Barnes said.
Even though Lewis was immersed in the jazz community early, he was unaware of how prolific his grandfather was until much later in his life when he started to learn more about jazz.
“At his funeral. That’s when I found out he had a big connection to the whole entire music scene here in the Northwest. That really kind of just opened my eyes and really open doors for me. I still carry that connection with him,” Lewis said about his grandfather.
The Folks Project, in which these three jazz musicians recently performed at the Frye Art Museum this past Sunday, is focused on celebrating jazz culture in Seattle. More importantly, focused on preserving what it means to be a jazz musician.
Contrary to popular belief, jazz did not stop in the 1960s as other music became popular. It evolved and grew into a style that would leave a lasting mark on the community of Seattle.
Jazz culture is deeply rooted in the history of Seattle. Seattle jazz was born on Jackson Street in the 1920s and has flourished into a rich community since then. Jazz clubs popped up all along Jackson Street, which is now part of the International District.
Musicians like Barnes, Willrich and Lewis grew up in these rich communities, completely immersed in jazz and the music that was influenced by it.
Jazz has been growing and changing ever since.
Though Seattle is not the center of the jazz scene, greats like Quincy Jones, Dave Lewis, Ray Charles and many others entered in and were impacted by the jazz scene of Seattle.
The jazz community in Seattle is one of many levels, as Willrich describes it. There are points of entry for every skill level. Whether a musician is just starting out or if they are an experienced professional, there will always be a place for them somewhere.
“It’s not like it’s one way here. You’ve got these pockets that are feeding themselves out of pure love for it because that’s what they’re interested in,” Willrich said.
What many forget, and what The Folks Project strives to help the Seattle community remember, is that jazz did not stop in the 1920s and 30s. It kept evolving in communities around the United States, particularly in Seattle.
“I would want to see jazz musicians or musicians in general to take more current tunes and make them their own,” Willrich said.
Though classic songs like “Autumn Leaves” are still a staple the the jazz musician repertoire, knowing that the heart of jazz was revolutionary in the music of its time is what makes jazz so influential to this day.
This is exactly what the Folks Project strives to do: preserve the heart of jazz, what made it so powerful at the time, but still give the music room to breathe and change with the musicians it interacts with.
“I just became aware of all the different kinds of music and this city’s history, not only for jazz, but also for people being able to remix things. Something that Quincy Jones talks about in many interviews is that when they were here [Seattle] they did everything,” Barnes said.
“That’s something we have talked about. That combination of doing all kinds of music and remixing it to make it their own.”
The next Folks Project event will be held in June at the Frye Art Museum.