One With the Stars of Big Band America
Despite an illustrious career as a musician, producer, and label head, the name Joe Evans is seldom included in the greater discussion of American jazz and swing music. But as Follow Your Heart details, he was very much at the center of the evolving rhythm and blues scene—playing in orchestras with Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, and developing the careers of groups such as the Manhattans and the Pretenders.
From an early age as a schoolboy in Pensacola, Evans was exposed to talented musicians and teachers. After passing over several instruments offered by his mother, Evans eventually chose the alto saxophone as his musical vehicle. In just several years Evans jumped from small town radio spots to playing at the Apollo Theater. His rather remarkable story provides a captivating look at jazz club and big band culture all while tracing decades of American racial history. As the title suggests, Evans admired other musicians and performers with a giddiness usually reserved for spectators. And it’s this humble, unpretentious tone that makes Follow Your Heart an engaging read.
The first chapters recount Evans’s childhood exploits and his budding infatuation with music. Just as he cycles through a handful of different instruments, he also goes through many music instructors. He describes Professor Seymour who refuses to loan out his saxophone, thus leading Joe to practice finger positioning with a broomstick. And the authoritarian Mr. Jessie, whose severe tactics backfire when he’s shot by one of his own students. Follow Your Heart is full of ironic and humorous vignettes involving famous musicians, such as the stories surrounding blind Al Hibbler who rose to fame singing in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. When a fellow musician stalls on a payment he owes Hibbler, the tenacious crooner cuts the lights, makes his way across the dressing room without a cane and jacks the poor guy up.
The majority of Follow Your Heart can only really be savored by jazz fans. When Evans describes his musical collaborations—which read like a laundry list of the era’s greatest musicians—the main pleasure derives from the name-dropping. It’s fun discovering that Jackie Wilson used to be a prizefighter or imagining band members waking up a drugged-out Charlie Parker right before his solo. These encounters are brief and the friendships, while important, are uncritical. It’s more a display of exceptional networking skills, something that helped Evans succeed in numerous professions.
While not necessarily a fault of his own, there is a noticeable absence of serious adversity in Joe Evans’s story. From his natural strength in sight-reading to his swift apprehension of real estate policies, the ease with which he picks up new trades seems atypical. One of the reasons for this widespread success was his mobility. As a saxophonist, Evans crossed from state to state to play with different orchestras. He performed abroad in Europe and the Middle East, spending a considerable amount of time in Italy. Evans explains how these unique experiences came at the expense of spending time with his family. In many ways, Evans is a loner. While on tour, he would stay in separate hotels from the rest of the band, even spending a night by himself in a funeral home. This distance allows him to make some valuable observations. There are few people with the erudition to compare Italian opera audiences to the brutally critical crowds at the Apollo Theater.
The life of Joe Evans is intriguingly scattershot and full of cameos from celebrities who only truly found fame after their lifetimes. At over 90 years old, Mr. Evans bucks the trend followed by most of his counterparts. He speaks with a humble wisdom that can only be attained by confidence and a genuine excitement for life. The concerts and exterior figures in the ‘40s and ‘50s may define Evans’s place in popular culture, but what makes his stories memorable is the wide-eyed spirit with which he has lived his life. Seemingly always appreciative, always learning, Joe Evans is just enjoying the ride.