The young Chicago-based singer-actor appears in the Jaeb Theater for his acclaimed holiday concert—and guess what? His mom lives in Tampa and will be at every show. If you want to be there, you better get tickets soon because they’re hotter than chestnuts in an open fire right now.
The Straz Center often has artists at the cusp of breaking out in their careers, like the time we hosted Jon Batiste and Stay Human (who?) only months before they landed their gig as Stephen Colbert’s house band (oh, them!). We have another of those acts lined up for a Christmas show as part of our cabaret series—Evan Tyrone Martin, whose show An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas strikes a perfect holiday harmony of golden-age nostalgia and youthful earnestness.
We caught up with Evan on the phone just a few days before the show started its holiday tour, which lands in the Jaeb this Thursday for five performances through the weekend.
The show originated last year, playing to packed audiences in St. Louis. The success of the show encouraged the producers to put Evan on the road the subsequent holiday season, and here we are.
“This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to tour with something that is my own, that actually features me,” says Evan, whose extensive performance career in Chicago included everyone from Jesus to King Triton. “Producers Michael and Angela Ingersoll had been looking for a new kind of show for Artists Lounge Live. Because they do so many iconic singers, they had been thinking about Nat King Cole for a little while. And they were kind of nervous about trying to find someone who could take on that particular catalog. It’s a very specific voice. It’s one that everybody holds near and dear. If you meet someone, they know about Nat King Cole and are probably a fan. If you hear a bad version of ‘The Christmas Song’ … it kind of angers you, you know?”
Evan, however, had an ace up his sleeve about landing the gig even though he himself didn’t know he was being considered to take on Nat King Cole for Artists Lounge Live. “They [the Ingersolls] called me and said, “We heard that you sound a little like Nat King Cole. Are you familiar with his catalog?” And I just about fell out of my chair because I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. He was one of my grandmother’s favorite artists.” Evan, who’d come to the Ingersoll’s attention by way of a music director who worked with him and the Ingersolls for separate projects, submitted a clip of “Smile” and was on contract by the end of the evening.
Although—as you’ll see at the show—Evan not only sounds like Nat King Cole, he also looks like Nat King Cole. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is not about Evan impersonating the great singer, however. The show is Evan taking us through a musical memoir of sorts, balancing Cole’s songs with his own family stories. “My goal was to hearken back to him as much as possible in the way that I present his music, the way that I sound, the way that I move, so that people felt as though they were at one of his concerts,” Evan says. “Throughout the concert, they could not only get to know a little bit more about him through me talking about his life, but they could get to know a little bit more about me because our trajectories, as far as music and performance, are kind of similar. We kind of had similar upbringings.”
Evan’s grandmother passed away while he was in high school, so she never got to see her grandson step into the legacy of her favorite singer. For Evan, though, performing the songs of someone so important to the greater Martin family helps him stay connected to his grandmother and others. “[Performing this show] brings me a little bit of joy to be able to hearken back. Both of my grandmothers taught me so much about music and all of it. And, my dad, who I actually recently lost this year,” he says “I’m able to hearken back and pay tribute to all of those people who taught me so much about performance. And they were non-professional performers, for the most part. But, I’m able to tie them into the show that would have meant so much to all of us and weave them into the fabric of the show. It means so much to me. I get to sing a song to and for my grandmother every time we do the show.”
“There’s something that changes in a singer’s voice and presence when there’s such an emotional connection to the music,” Evan says. “You can love a song, but when you feel as though you are literally connected to a song, that takes it to an entire different level in your performance and in the way that people feel it. I think that the fact that I can feel my family with me on stage and can dedicate certain songs to them specifically, I think that makes the connection just that much deeper and richer for both myself and the audience.”
Evan’s mother, herself a singer and Tampanian, plans to be at each of the five shows. “She’s putting together a cabaret show, knee-deep working on it now. She joined a couple bands in Tampa but moved to Alabama to take care of some family. [She’s back in Tampa now] so she really does just want to get back into seeing what’s possible. I’m excited to have her in the audience and maybe, maybe I can convince her to get up on stage one of those times,” he laughs.
To see An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin (and maybe his mom), get your tickets for any seats still available this weekend.