Saxaphonist Joe Evans played with everybody who was anybody in the jazz/swing/pop world – Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton. But as a child, he rejected every musical instrument his mother tried to force him to play.
This enjoyable, readable bio is the work of raconteur Evans in tandem with Christopher Brooks, Professor of African American studies and anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. While Joe spun his fascinating tales of life as an African American musician in the south in the era of Jim Crow and beyond, his recollections of his participation in the business end of the music world, and his personal vignettes of the greats and near-greats he traveled and performed with, Christopher interviewed friends and family to round out the portraits of this hard-working, modest talent who became a grandfather figure to Brooks' family.
Evans had his first inkling of what great music could be when he stood outside a Bessie Smith concert in Pensacola, Florida. He heard the low moan of Bessie's voice and watched in amazement as fainting women in the audience were carried out of the theater. His mother stood beside him, clutching his hand and shaking her head in time to the music emanating from the Belmont Theater. A few years later, Evans' mother, called Muh, bought him a violin. Evans did not take well to this instrument. Forced to carry it in its case to lessons, he was teased as a sissy by school toughs and finally took the violin out of its case and whacked the mockers over the head with it. He told his mother he had been defending her honor, which placated her somewhat, so she bought a piano. He had no greater success with piano. Next time, the instrument was a trombone, which he insisted on trying despite Muh's objections. He had seen a local jazz band that included a trombone and he was so determined to play that he arranged his own lessons. Unfortunately he couldn't afford a trombone and the only "ax" his teacher could offer was a saxophone. He did so well that Muh finally relented and bought him his first sax. The rest, you could say, is history.
Evans took numerous formal lessons and learned to read music for the sax, his primary"ax." His competence, natural talent, dedication to practice and willingness to study music put him ahead of others, and he got his first gig with a real band in his teens. Muh vetted the group and made sure Evans did not get into any trouble – and was at first suspicious and then very impressed when he brought home his first pay, about $35, just for blowing a horn.
Being a hard-working young man who never got into the drug scene, Evans rarely lacked for work, and fell into playing with some of the stars mentioned above. His bus touring in the pre-integration days was the source for many tense adventures, beginning with his arrest for the crime of being in a car driven by a black man whom the police claimed was speeding (he wasn't). Later Evans moved to New York and even lived for a while in Italy, where he enjoyed listening to opera music. He was able to pick and choose his gigs and could turn down anything that didn't suit him. His reminiscences of touring and gigging with a variety of characters make great reading. His style is simple, and he pulls no punches in describing the world of the stars, wild women and heroin addicts he observed, and the racism he so often encountered.
Later he began promoting bands and producing records, at a time when the music business was wide open and it was possible to break in with unknown groups and make a killing with a hit single. He and his wife and her sister were the sole proprietors of Carnival Records. Ray managed a rag-tag group called the Manhattans and promoted The Pretenders, enjoying some successes.
Life post-performance for Evans included going to college and working as Adjunct Professor of Music at Essex County College in New Jersey. In 1994, he was inducted into the Music Makers Hall of Fame. Muh would have been proud of her oldest son.