Doc Evans’ Centennial

DOC EVANS CENTENNIAL: 1907-2007

By Paige VanVorst

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Doc Evans was one of the mainstays of the original Audiophile label—sixteen of the 110 known releases on E D Nunn’s label featured Evans, and we’re gradually releasing them on Jazzology CDs, generally including two LPs on one CD.

This time out we’ve got a great release featuring Doc’s final Audiophile LP coupled with one of the best of his early LPs, and the release coincides with Doc centennial, which was celebrated formally October 5-6, 2007 at Carleton College, Evans’ alma mater. The festival included a concert by a handpicked all-star band including Butch Thompson and Jon-Eric Kellso as well as panel discussions on Evans’ life and music.

Scene One: October, 1957:
Setting, Garden Court, Southdale Shopping Center, Edina MN

Southdale, the world’s first indoor shopping mall, was celebrating its first anniversary. A bandstand was set up near one of the fountains and a six-piece dixieland band was entertaining the shoppers. A ten-year-old music fan, whose interests had hitherto been in the music on the Top Forty, sat on the floor in front of the band, transfixed. He’d never heard anything like this but he reacted like all children his age, clapping his hands furiously along with the music, letting it pour all over him.

The bandleader was Doc Evans and the ten-year old was the author, hearing his first jazz.

Scene: March 1965
Setting, Jazz Record Center, midtown Manhattan

The young jazz fans was now in college, visiting New York on a spring break tour, ignoring most of the scheduled events to browse the record shops in Tines Square and environs.

The Jazz Record Center was kind of scary—this was the big time, the Big Apple, and the place looked sort of scruffy, but it was clearly NYC’s largest jazz record store. I got to talking with one of the other customers and mentioned I was from Minneapolis. “Then you must know Doc Evans? Is he still playing?”

It never dawned on me that Evans was more than a local figure, that anyone in New York City would know or care about him. “Sure, he’s always got something going around town. He’s been keeping busy for years. In fact, one of our neighbors plays in his band.” Bill Peer, Doc’s banjoist, lived a block or two from us and I’d been in the school band with both of his sons.

Scene: July 1969
Setting: A Minneapolis park

Barry Martyn’s band were touring the US for the summer, six young British musicians dedicated to New Orleans music, relaxing between weekend engagements at the Hall Brothers’ Emporium of Jazz.

They were completely amazed to be able to go to a park and hear the Doc Evans band. For free, thanks to the Musicians’ Union’s Recording Performance Trust Fund. As New Orleans purists, Martyn’s men knew Evans only because he had recorded with Bunk Johnson, and they were amazed that he was a) still alive and b) white. They had assumed he was a contemporary of Bunk’s.

Doc Evans was a very proficient cornet player dedicated to traditional small band jazz. He was also a dedicated family man and generally preferred working around the Twin Cities, turning down offers to go into the big time if it involved leaving home or doing much traveling. He seemed happy with this and it certainly provided the Twin Cities with a lot more first-rate classic jazz than was available in other cities. The Twin Cities was always a good market for traditional jazz, probably more than anything else because of Evans’ proselytizing.

Paul Wesley Evans was born in Spring Valley, MN, June 20, 1907, the son of a Methodist minister. His mother’s family were fairly musical and there was always some music around the house, mostly classical, and while at West Concord High School he mastered the violin, piano and alto saxophone. He was a serious student and gained the nickname Doc early on—it stuck and I doubt most people even knew he had a first name.

Evans went to Carleton College in Northfield MN, graduating in 1929 as an English major. While in school he was an active member of the Carleton Collegians, the college dance band. He initially played alto sax in this band, but during his time in school he picked up a battered cornet and began bringing it along on jobs until he finally decided that he wanted to play the cornet and he began leaving the sax at home.

After graduation, Evans moved to Minneapolis and began working toward a MA in English at the University of Minnesota. He began working music jobs, initially as a member of Norvy Mulligan’s band at the Nankin Cafe, a venerable Chinese restaurant in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

Evans was staying at the Y, which was right across from the Minnesota (later Radio City) Theater. Paul Whiteman’s band paid the theater a visit in 1928. As Evans remembered it, “They had Bix, the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby—almost anyone you can name. I took a sack of sandwiches along and stayed all day. Spent the time between stage shows out in the lobby.”

As he remembered Bix: “They never caught that tone on records—doggondest thing you ever heard. Here was that big band—you remember what a mess that band was—no mikes in those days, but when Bix stood up to solo over all that noise, the notes just sailed out and broke like bubbles over everyone’s head…He couldn’t play much, but he had heart. And that tone!”

He found it difficult to concentrate on his studies and play music, so he left graduate school after a year and took a teaching job back home at West Concord High School. He didn’t enjoy teaching all that much, as he felt the students weren’t interested in what he was teaching and didn’t enjoy having to force them to learn what he was teaching; he was glad when his position was eliminated the following year in a Depression-forced budget cut.

Evans continued to work throughout the thirties, though jobs were scarce. He took an interest in dogs and started a kennel to raise cocker spaniels—he was very successful and his output included more than ten champions.

Evans’ profile began to rise with the end of the 1930s—Herman Mitch opened a nightclub in the small town of Mendota, just across the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling. The five-piece house band was led by pianist Red Dougherty, and the intermission piano was handled at different times by Bob Zurke and Joe Sullivan. Name bandleaders would go out of their way to hear the band from Mitch’s and Evans got offers to tour with, among others Claude Thornhill and Ray McKinley.

The job ended after about two years when gas rationing made it difficult to make the trip to Mitch’s and Evans started scuffling again, though he had started to build a reputation. John S “Jax” Lucas, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, submitted articles to both Downbeat and the Record Changer and arranged for Evans to record in New York for Moe Asch’s Disc label, a predecessor to Folkways. He recorded six sides in April 1947 as Doc Evans’ Dixieland Five—the others included Ed Hubble, trombone; Tony Parenti, clarinet; Joe Sullivan, piano and George Wettling, drums.

The next step in Evans’ career was also due to Lucas’ intervention. He arranged for Doc to play a concert for the University of Chicago Hot Club; one of those in attendance was clarinetist Bill Reinhart, who was starting a nightclub, Jazz Ltd, in partnership with his wife. He met Evans after the concert and hired him to lead the band. Jazz Ltd opened June 11, 1947 and Evans proved popular—he was extended several times and wound up moving to Chicago for five years. When he wasn’t working at Jazz Ltd he was elsewhere in town—he was at the BeeHive, the Tailspin, the Bar of Music, and the Blue Note.

In addition, he got more chances to record—he recorded with the Jazz Ltd band, and under his own name for Dublin, Art Floral and JoCo. He was also involved growing jazz revival scene—he contributed early reportage on the Minneapolis scene for Jazz Information and contributed an article to Art Hodes’ Jazz Record magazine. While in Chicago he appeared with Bunk Johnson (he’s in that hilarious silent movie featuring Johnson) and he went to Minneapolis to appear in concert with Johnson and Don Ewell at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union.

Evans tired of the Windy City after five years and returned to the Twin Cities in the Fall of 1952. He put together a band and began working around town immediately. In 1953 he was hired to play three concerts as part of an outdoor concert series at the Walker Art Center—the series included all sorts of music—chamber music, woodwind ensembles, etc. Evans was a sensation—they normally drew about two or three hundred people for a concert, but Evans drew six hundred for his first concert and each succeeding one drew even more. The concerts were the “in” place to go on summer nights in Minneapolis with all the city’s beautiful people gathering to her jazz, and see and be seen. The concert series ran annually for ten years until the courtyard was taken down to build the Tyrone Guthrie Theater.

Doc Evans planned these evenings carefully—each one had a theme and he delivered carefully-scripted introductions. Occasionally he would invite a guest star, such as in 1959 when he invited Wilbur DeParis and Omer Simeon for one of the concerts—Simeon was near death (he would live another month) but played well and recorded a few numbers with Doc’s band.

The Doc Evans band made a relatively large number of records during the 1950s—the local Soma label issued five LPs, including three recorded at the Walker Art Center concerts in 1957, and E D Nunn’s Audiophile label began recording Evans in 1953 and there were ultimately 14 Audiophile LPs.

The road was never an attraction for Evans but he undertook a short tour with Turk Murphy’s band in 1955—Columbia issued an LP of the band’s performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

Doc Evans generally distanced himself from the excesses of 1950s dixieland—no striped suits or straw hats. As a Look Magazine writer sent to interview Evans said, “He’s the most colorless damn musician I ever met.” Evans did a little showing off—he reportedly led a parade out of the Saddle Bar and onto a Hennepin Ave bus at least once—but he took his music seriously.

Evans was also a perfectionist—he knew what he wanted and he hired the men that would give it to him. He had routines worked out for most tunes and anything new or difficult would most likely come with a written arrangement, except for the solos—more or less the way Jelly Roll Morton organized his Red Hot Peppers sessions. He was also unlike many musicians of his generation in that he usually picked the tunes—heíd listen to requests but if he didn’t like a particular number he’d say so, which didn’t endear him to club owners.

In 1957 Evans realized the dream of every musician—he opened his own nightclub. The Bow and Arrow was a rundown bar in Mendota, later famous as the Hall Brothers’ Emporium of Jazz and now home to a firm hat builds decks; it started life as a potato warehouse. Evans opened the Rampart Street Club and kept it going four years, though it was never an economic success. One of my friends was there night they closed—they had a full house and at least three of their fans had lugged tape recorders down to record the event for posterity—the business agent from the Musicians Union walked in to bid the band a farewell and had a hard time not noticing the clear violation of union work rules—“I just see six fine musicians playing wonderful music,” he said.

During the 1960s Evans began to get calls for out-of-town appearances—he went to New Orleans in 1964 and recorded Doc Meets Doc with Doc Souchon, Raymond Burke and Armand Hug, among others. In 1965 he recorded a concert in Tampa with Burke, Souchon, Knocky Parker and Paul Barbarin. He was a regular at Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee’s Manassas Jazz Festival and appeared in 1970 at the Hello Louis Concert, a birthday salute to Louis Armstrong organized by Floyd Levin and held at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. He was even hired by the Methodist Church to play at Daytona Beach for three years (1964-66) to entertain the students there for Spring break.

In 1963 Evans founded the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, a civic ensemble. He was the conductor, composed an occasional number for the group, and was featured on cello, an instrument he studied in earnest beginning when he and his wife took lessons. Butch Thompson said he worked two weeks in 1965 at an American Legion hall in Minot, ND; Evans brought along his cello and they spent days practicing classical numbers in front of an assortment of barflies who’d probably never seen a cello.

Evans’ commitment to the future of jazz included mentoring a number of younger musicians in the Twin Cities area as well as publishing (in conjunction with Schmitt Music) a series of dixieland arrangements designed to be played by high school bands. These arrangements are still in print, available from a website maintained by Evans’ son, www.docevans.com.

Doc Evans was found dead at the wheel of his car January 10, 1977. He was an asthmatic and it is believed he suffered a fatal asthma attack as a result of the bitter cold; he’d just walked to his car from a meeting of the Board of the Musicians Union local.

We’re glad to celebrate Evans’ centennial with another release of his Audiophile material. This CD includes his last Audiophile session, recorded in 1967 while the band was working at the Gaslight Club, a fine restaurant in Minneapolis’ Seven Corners area. The band was Evans working group except E D Nunn suggested the addition of trombonist Alan Frederickson, who also recorded for Audiophile with the Queen City Jazz Band. Nunn took one look at the Gaslight, which was festooned with heavy brocade to provide a Gay 90′s motif, and decided not to record there; the session was held at the Hall Brothers Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, where the chief obstacle was the roar of jets taking off from nearby Twin Cities International Airport.

The other half of the CD was recorded ten years earlier and issued originally as Classics of the 20s. The band was augmented for several numbers by Bob Gruenfelder, who worked with Evans off and on for several years—Evans was unable to play during the hay fever season and he’d move over to the piano and hire Gruenfelder (and later, Bill Price) to take his place.

This is our fifth CD compiled from Doc Evans’ Audiophile recordings. As with the others, it is both a musical and audio treat. E D Nunn was one of the geniuses of 1950s recording, and his work has stood the test of time—there are few records contemporary to these that have a greater frequency response and Nunn was a master at picking the right room and the right microphone placement for maximum fidelity. I’m listening to the new CD under my headphones as I write this and the presence is breathtaking.