Accompanist Paul Evansmith talks music, dance, value of improvisation

Image of Paul Evansmith in checkered suit sitting at a piano with one hand on the keys and another on a synthesizer propped up on the piano
Courtesy of Paul Evansmith

Paul Evansmith has been accompanying dance classes at Lewis & Clark for over 10 years.

Evansmith, who studied at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) and Arizona State University (ASU), has been playing music since he was four. When it comes to what music means to him and why it is such a big part of his life, he asked, “How much time do we have?” 

“Music early on in my life was a friend that wouldn’t treat me like crap,” Evansmith said. “So that is to say that I was an utter and complete loner growing up in school, so much so that children would take the time to walk across the football field just to pick on me and throw stuff at me. I was that kid, that anybody older and younger would make fun of, and pick on. So when I came home, I would just be able to play.”

Dancing has been in his life since he began taking dance classes his freshman year of high school, before eventually exploring the professional dance world. However, it was not until he took a dance class at ASU that he realized being a dance accompanist was a possibility for him. When the accompanist for one of his classes did not show up, Evansmith offered to play since he had extensive music experience.

Evansmith said playing improvisationally in this manner came naturally to him. It was not until near the end of class that this chance encounter grew into an opportunity.

“The boss comes in, the person who is in charge of all the accompanists comes running in because he was notified late,” Evansmith said. “He’s watching me play for the dance class. He’s like, ‘Do you want a job?’ Immediately, he’s like, ‘I’ll give you a job right now starting tomorrow.’”

He has not stopped being an accompanist since. Though it may sound unusual to fall into opportunities like this, Evansmith said it is a common thread for his career. For him, this pattern embodies how fundamental improvisation has been in his life as a whole. When he was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago at 50-years-old, this quality of his life became more evidently linked with his brain function.

“It is completely and utterly intuitive to me, and natural to, to be given random and unforeseen circumstances, because that’s how I live my entire life,” Evansmith said. “And so being able to be confronted with that, I have no idea what’s going to happen in dance class from moment to moment, and that’s totally fine. That’s how I live my life, so music is immediately accessible for that.”

Another opportunity that occurred by happenstance in Evansmith’s career was performing for President Bill Clinton. The CSULB saxophone ensemble that he was a part of was invited to give a private performance to Clinton. This same ensemble including Evansmith eventually performed at the 10th World Saxophone Congress in Pesaro, Italy in 1992. 

Evansmith also recalled his experiences working with a playback theater ensemble that worked with incarcerated youth. Years later, a standout moment as a result of that experience was when he was unpacking his gear for a gig in Arizona. Two people tried to intimidate him, but a third intercepted.

“I was just like, ‘Do I know you?’ He was like, ‘Oh yeah man, you used to come and teach us drums at the prison,’” Evansmith said. “He started to talk about how that changed him. I remember the conversations with him from prison because he was begging us – like we had anything to do with it – because he was going to get released soon, to not be sent back to his parents and back to his (community) because there’s no way out.”

Though the man from the program was sent back to his home where he was unable to escape the gang he was part of, Evansmith said this was an example of how he utilized his influence as part of the gang for the better. Recalling this interaction, Evansmith began to choke up.

These examples illustrate how large of a role improv has in Evansmith’s life, and how he hopes to continue living in this way. 

“I can easily say one of the most important things in life is the improvisation of that process,” Evansmith said. “Actually with Eric, I’m hoping to start essentially, eventually, a nonprofit organization devoted specifically to the sort of education about the improvisational thought process. It’s not like I need to educate people how to improvise, because people already do. It’s just so many people don’t realize they do that, so it’s more like awareness of improvisational thought process.”

Despite the many accomplishments of his career, as a single father still going through a divorce Evansmith said the thing he is most proud of does not relate to his career.

“The thing that I’m the most proud of, or the most happy to be a part of, the biggest thing in my life – that is my daughter,” Evansmith said. “That’s it. I mean, nothing else even can kind of seem to break through that.”

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