Charming, straightforward autobiography of one of the great, unheralded figures in jazz and R&B.
A well-respected saxophonist for Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton, among others, Evans enjoyed a reputation for dependable, no-nonsense craftsmanship that provided him with a steady career remarkable for its longevity. (And flexibility: When the music business no longer provided enough of a living, he went to college and got a graduate degree at age 58 in 1974, then took a civil-service job with the state of New Jersey.) From his youth in the middle-class African-American neighborhoods of Pensacola, Fla., to his gigs in the house bands of New York’s Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom, to the creation of his own record label in the 1960s, Evans’s story serves as a history of American popular music and of the African-American experience during the mid-20th century. In many ways, his book provides a fitting counterbalance to the slew of tempestuous musical biographies that recount familiar tales of meteoric rises and tragic falls. While he kept his distance from the poor choices made by many better-known artists, Evans remained close enough to see the toll taken by alcohol and heroin on such colleagues as Holiday and Parker, both of whom he recalls with great respect and fondness. The lives of such figures have been mythologized elsewhere, but Evans gives the reader a fresh look at legends like Hampton and Armstrong, depicting them as working musicians rather than romanticized historical figures. His narrative is brought forth clearly and pleasurably, although perhaps too simplistically, by admiring coauthor Brooks (African American Studies and Anthropology/Virginia Commonwealth Univ.). Lightweight forewords by Tavis Smiley and Bill McFarlin trade in adulatory superlatives that would probably embarrass their modest, down-to-earth subject.
With the grace and directness of a beloved grandparent, Evans captures both the rarified and mundane aspects of a life in music.