Seattle musician Evan Flory-Barnes defies boundaries. Best known as a jazz bassist and composer, his show for On the Boards — “On Loving the Muse and Family” — aims to evoke the vibe of old-time TV variety shows, while also including dozens of local musicians.
When he was a little kid staying up late to watch “The Tonight Show,” Evan Flory-Barnes loved that moment when announcer Ed McMahon said, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny,” and Johnny Carson came bounding onto the TV screen.
Only Flory-Barnes wanted to be that smiling host emerging from behind the curtains.
Now, at 39, the multitalented and adventurous Seattle musician will get his chance.
That’s not the only character Flory-Barnes plays in his ambitious new piece “On Loving the Muse and Family,” a mélange of music, memoir, comedy and storytelling. Commissioned by On the Boards, it premieres at the avant-garde performance center March 1 through 4.
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Evoking the era when Carson, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and others welcomed famed musicians and others to perform and chat on their weekly TV shows is a materializing dream of Flory-Barnes, a Rainier Valley native best known as a jazz bassist and composer — but also an artist who defies easy labels.
“My show is tilting back to the Nat Cole Show, to Sammy Davis Jr., the Dean Martin Show, to old doo-wop and soul vocal groups, it’s covering all that vibe,” explained Flory-Barnes, a stocky, spiky-haired fellow whose open, easygoing manner and joyful smile are matched with a searching artistic intensity.
Rather than dwelling only on the slick side of 1950s to ’70s showbiz, when variety shows reigned supreme in prime time, he plans something that’s not campy but more in tune with his own very contemporary, very eclectic and community-oriented aesthetic.
“With these old variety shows there was this style, this humor, this vibe that I really admire,” he’ll tell you. “Also, a lot of them happened in times of various struggles and civil unrest, but they also embodied excellence, humor, style, grace — all these things that I feel can’t be forgotten about, especially in the context of performance and expression. That’s a big desire of mine, to bring that back.”
He describes the first half of the piece as “very stylized,” and the second “as a conceptual meeting of love and relationships and philosophy and spirituality, with me expressing my own life experience through music. It’s more like a concert, but at the same time it has stories about very specific aspects of relationships.”
An in-demand instrumentalist, composer and conductor who has also dabbled in sketch comedy and singing, Flory-Barnes will hold forth as a TV host character he calls Nathaniel T. Watts — “a combination of Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and [spiritual teacher] Alan Watts.”
But the Columbia City resident is also involving 40 members of his extended artistic family, an aggregation reflecting his broad tastes in music — including a soul vocal trio called The Traumatics, as well as members of the True Loves funk band and the Seattle Girls Choir.
Growing up in a Rainier Valley clan with aunts who were classical pianists, a father who favored soul crooners like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and a Louisiana-bred grandpa “who liked to sit down and improvise on the piano,” Flory-Barnes has always been open to “all genres” of music. He also absorbed the liturgical chants and chorales at Catholic services he attended with his mother, along with gospel music from black churches.
He picked up the electric bass and started playing gigs with hip-hop and jazz bands in his teens. But at Garfield High, instead of joining the school’s award-winning jazz band, Flory-Barnes dived into the classical repertoire in Garfield’s highly regarded student orchestra.
“I was kind of thrown in the deep end,” he remembers. “I went from playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ on the stand-up bass to Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. It was a big learning curve, but that Garfield experience was really special.”
His teacher, longtime Garfield orchestra director Marcus Tsutakawa, remembers young Evan as “very quiet, but very diligent. He worked hard, and really wanted to learn.”
A trip abroad with Tsutakawa and the student orchestra was another educational breakthrough. “We went to Munich, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague,” Flory-Barnes recalled. “It was an eye-opening experience, with the world suddenly seeming really big, but also really small because you were connecting to the music and the people.”
At the University of Washington, he studied with bassist Barry Lieberman and worked on his own compositions and orchestrations. But he found the academic framework too “rigid and bureaucratic,” and left the UW without a degree to focus more on writing and performing.
Listening to Flory-Barnes tell it, working a day job at Cafe Solstice for years was another valuable kind of education. “It was really enriching to be there and talk with people, treating the cafe as this joyful environment. I was teaching lessons, playing gigs, everything from poetry gigs to jazz gigs to funk gigs, playing a wide range of music. That’s what I love, having this musical passport to experience all these styles and be part of all these communities.”
One comrade has been trumpet player and actor/comic Ahamefule “Aham” J. Oluo, who also saw music as part of a broad-ranging creative palette. The two joined forces in the “band of brothers” Industrial Revelation, an award-winning quartet that describes itself as an ensemble that merges “jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and the simply indefinable into a glorious whole — all without hacking out an unnecessarily complicated ‘progressive’ fusion-mishmash.”
A dozen years ago, notes Oluo, “almost on a whim, Evan and me put on a show at Langston Hughes arts center. We put together an orchestra, we called up two of our favorite MCs … wrote the arrangements, and we promoted it ourselves. I think we have both always been drawn to this kind of grand scale do-it-yourself undertaking, going big but with complete freedom.”
More recently, Flory-Barnes was recruited as composer-musician for Oluo’s jazz-theater experiment, “Now I’m Fine.” It combined the trumpeter’s bittersweet autobiographical monologues with a 17-piece modern jazz orchestra. A hit at On the Boards, it moved on to a well-received turn at the Public Theater in New York.
A few years ago, when then-On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski turned to Flory-Barnes in an elevator and asked point blank: “So where’s your show, Evan,” the seed (and with some OTB seed money) was planted for “On Loving the Muse and Family.”
Getting several dozen of your musical friends to join in on your neo-variety show may sound daunting. But as Oluo says, “Evan is someone that everybody loves. He’s warm and inviting, he’s great to hang with.”
And as a musician, “he’s truly one of the most adaptable players I’ve ever encountered. I think that comes from the fact that he’s always focused on the feel, making sure the vibe is right.”
While Flory-Barnes has been busy trying to get the “vibe” right in his latest project, he considers this show a new concept he can refine and build on in future. “It feels like something that will be a very new adventure,” he says, “and yet very natural to me.”
Evan Flory-Barnes: “On Loving the Muse and Family,” March 1-4, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $12-$30 (206-217-9886 or ontheboards.org)