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Secret History of Jazz

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Nestled in suburbia, a seasoned globe-trotter relaxes on his living room love seat. His afternoon has consisted of running errands around Chesterfield County -- a long line here, a long line there. Now he recovers from his retail conquest in front of the bay window surrounded by framed photographs and artificial flowers. Joe Evans, the world-traveling storyteller, is seasoned by age. It's natural. He turned 91 in October, and he's releasing his autobiography this month.

At times, he's unsure about what year he did what, but his senior moments are seldom. He recalls when Duke Ellington had Jay-Z status and when payola was considered Italian cuisine. He remembers picking up the alto saxophone in Pensacola, Fla., in his preteenage years, mastering it. He crossed seashores armed with his trusty woodwind and a handful of reeds. He was first alto for Satchmo. His horn backed Richmond's Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He performed alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Sam Cooke.

Do The Manhattans ring a bell? He discovered them.

His autobiography, "Follow Your Heart: Moving With the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues," co-authored by Christopher Brooks, arrives in bookstores this month. It tells a secret history of American music through one of the players caught up in it. Brooks, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, met Evans when the elder jazzman audited Brooks' African-American music class in 1994 after relocating from New Jersey.

"Over the course, I would raise names like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, and he'd say 'Oh yeah, I played with them,'" Brooks says of that fall semester. "I was blown away and knew I had to explore more."

"More" includes Evans setting his sights on New York, sax in hand. At 23, he moved to the Big Apple and soon found himself sitting in on musicians' sets. Bandleaders would pass out sheet music, and Evans recalls nods of approval when he treated intricate chord changes as cakewalks. "I could play with any band, any band, because I could read anything they put in front of me," he says.

Soon he scored gigs in the 1940s with Ivory Joe Hunter, Jay McShann, Fitzgerald and Robinson. Then he spent 1953 in Italy with Freddie Mitchell, moving on to Lionel Hampton the next year. These bands transported eighth notes throughout Europe. A thousand miles away from Dixie, Evans was wetting reeds and blowing notes in London clubs, Milan theaters and Paris bistros — no small feat for a black man in the 1950s.

"Pensacola was not the world. I'm from the deep South and with the racial climate, I was very fortunate," he says. "Had I stayed in Florida, I don't know what would've happened. You had to leave the South to have an opportunity. There was not too much mobility, in any direction, except down."

When Evans returned to the States, he performed at the Apollo Theater and the Roseland and Savoy ballrooms. In 1960, he took a sax sabbatical and scouted fresh talent, leading him to five singers from Jersey City named The Manhattans.

"They were one of the best singing groups out," Evans says. "They were right up there with The Temptations. They had flash, movements together, superb and beautiful. ... They were the first to start wearing white gloves in the dark while singing on stage."

He was enthusiastic about the band's take on the R&B sound, but despite that innovation, major record labels weren't burning up Evans' phone line.

"They kind of forced me in the business," he says. "I didn't want to get caught up with all of the organizing of artists."

Evans started Carnival Records in 1962 and signed the quintet. He penned "I Wanna Be." Once the tune was complete, Evans headed to WWIN in Baltimore. Disc jockey Kelson Fisher was the first to play the platter during his 8 p.m. to midnight shift.

"He played the record, and before I left, people were calling, and kept calling and calling and that's how it all started," Evans says.

"I Wanna Be" became Carnival's first hit. More songs came. The Manhattans hit the road, and Carnival added more talent to its roster. In 1969, wanting a push for more exposure, The Manhattans parted ways with Evans. They joined up with King Records. Seven years later they recorded the platinum-selling single, "Kiss and Say Goodbye."

Evans says he was not bitter about the split.

"I didn't hold that against them," he says. "I made a mistake with The Manhattans. When I met them, I treated them as they were my sons. I didn't treat them like business associates. I didn't sit down and discuss the business with them. I just wanted them to sing and perform well."

Evans gradually decided to step back from the music industry. When he suffered a stroke in 1993, his wife, Anna, suggested moving to Richmond. They settled in a cozy house near a golf course south of the James where he now rehashes his excursions.

"He has experienced the deaths of his parents, his only brother, outlived two wives and performed with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and he keeps it in perspective," VCU's Brooks says. "That level of grace is what I most admire about him."

Climbing from his love seat, Evans zips up his jacket. He's headed to the front door with his keys.

"I had a pretty varied life," he says. "I feel I have done more than I was supposed to in one life. I got to see the world. I knew people in Pensacola with bachelor's degrees who shined shoes in the barbershop. I've been blessed."

Out the door. He's off again. This time, he's headed to Chesterfield Towne Center for a walk. S



The Richmond Jazz Society brings Joe Evans and Christopher Brooks to the Capital Ale House Music Hall Tuesday, April 8, at 7 p.m. to discuss Evans' book "Follow Your Heart." Music by the Johnny Peyton Renaissance Big Band. Tickets are $7-$10. 643-1972.



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