I grew up with the burning desire to learn to play jazz. Living in a small town about 40 miles from St. Paul, I used to hear about Doc Evans from time to time. I didn't know much about him, but he did have his name in the paper once in a while, and he was said to be the best traditional jazz musician around. He belonged to that glamorous jazz world that I wanted to join.
I was about 15 when I got my first look at Doc. He was onstage at the old St. Paul Auditorium, leading an eight-piece band and splitting the bill with the legendary pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. Doc had brought out the heavy artillery: an eight-piece band with two trumpets and two out-of-town guests, pianist Knocky Parker from Florida and banjoist/singer Clancy Hayes from the West Coast. They had obviously been rehearsing, and I remember Doc's music stands and how very surprised I was to see jazz musicians reading their parts. It was a long time ago, but I know some of the arrangements on this CD were in Doc's book for years, and so they may have played, for instance, "Black Bottom Stomp" or "Mabel's Dream."
The next time I heard Doc, it was the fall of 1961. I was making my way through freshman orientation at the University of Minnesota, and one afternoon I found Doc and a five-piece band - three horns, guitar and bass - playing just outside Perrine's bookstore near the campus in Minneapolis. A few friends and I stopped to listen, and when they took a break we talked to the trombonist, Don Thompson (no relation).
There was in fact a lot of jazz on the U of M campus in those days, including noon-hour concerts, some with Doc, in the Coffman Student Union lounge. Whether you were busy studying, playing or socializing, jazz always made for great background music throughout my student years, so it was never hard to persuade someone to accompany me to the live concerts. During my first winter there, a few of my dorm-mates and I played the intermission at a dance featuring the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band, a group of dedicated traditionalists who invited me, just a few months later, to become their clarinetist. That launched my career and my obsession with New Orleans jazz.
One Sunday afternoon, Doc showed up at a Hall Brothers concert in a south Minneapolis American Legion hall. We saw him standing in the back, kibitzing and shaking hands. He didn't stay long, but somebody told me later he had been asking about me, the "new clarinet player." Within a few weeks, he was phoning me for occasional jobs. These were pickup affairs, all very casual, but Doc was very much in charge. He was working with a pool of regulars, including Augie Kepp or Don Thompson on piano (Thompson also played valve trombone), Art Gold on bass (his main gig was with the Minneapolis Symphony), Hal Runyon on trombone, Loren Helberg or Harry Blons on clarinet, Red Maddock or Eddie Tolck on drums, and about a dozen more. In this way I got to meet and play with just about every jazz musician in the Twin Cities who played any sort of pre-bop style.
Much of Doc's leadership emerged from his horn. He sounded exactly as he does on this CD - relaxed and lyrical, a master of the kind of playing that cuts through and defines an improvised ensemble without apparent effort. It was the most graceful kind of lead, with that silvery tone shining through and pulling everything together in a way that sounded like nobody else.
I think it was the summer of 1965 when Doc invited me to do two weeks with him at a VFW lounge in Minot, North Dakota. I rode out there with him in his Volkswagen bus, just the two of us, and we had a lot of time to talk. Among many other well-known musicians, Doc had worked a lot with the fine pianist Don Ewell, whose records I had been admiring. Ewell had been a regular at Jazz Limited, the famous Chicago club that opened in 1947 with Doc in charge of the house band. Like me, Doc loved Ewell's playing, and he had many stories, including one that comes to mind because I think it says as much about Doc Evans as it does about Don Ewell. As Doc remembered it, one night a well-known "modern" pianist, notorious for his disdain of traditionalist "moldy figs," came into the club and sat directly in front of the band, making it obvious he was there to check out Don's playing. As Doc reported it, Ewell immediately and abruptly altered his playing style from the usual impeccable stride to a very convincing version of bebop, very much the avant-garde in the late '40s. The visiting pianist loved this, and began applauding and shouting encouragement. Doc was dumbfounded, but all was made clear when Ewell turned to the band and very distinctly said, "Isn't that a silly way to play piano?"
In fact, there was a lot of discussion about piano playing on that Minot trip. Doc himself played very good jazz piano, and he had a lot to say on the subject. My favorite pianist at the time (still is) was Jelly Roll Morton, whom Doc also favored, but he said I really ought to listen to James P. Johnson - advice I eventually took, but not until a few years later.
There really was much to learn about Doc on that Minot trip. The gig itself was easy, just four sets a night with a quartet including Doc, myself on clarinet, Don Thompson on piano, and Tom Andrews on drums. The patrons, among them quite a number of Doc's fans, were there to relax and dance. On some of those long afternoons, though, things at the old VFW took on a very different tone. Doc wanted to practice his cello, and so I was invited to sit at the piano and try to sight-read through a stack of classical duets with him, much to the bemusement of the regulars at the bar. This was a halting, tentative procedure with many pauses for discussion, but somehow over the two weeks we plowed through at least part of a stack of demanding music. That was my first inkling of Doc's classical aspirations; I hadn't even known that he was the founder and leader of the seventy-piece Bloomington (Minnesota) Symphony Orchestra, that he loved to play chamber music, and that he was a composer of classical music as well as jazz.
In the short time before I was drafted in early 1966, I did quite a bit of work with Doc. For one surreal week, probably the spring college break of 1964, we rode up and down Daytona Beach on a flatbed truck with a seven-piece all-star band that included Knocky, Munn Ware on trombone (I knew of his records with Sidney Bechet), and Don Franz of St. Louis on tuba.
The music on this CD sounds very much like what I played with Doc during that period, especially on a gig like the one at the brand-new "Roaring Twenties" club in downtown Minneapolis in late 1964. The place was a converted strip joint, an ill-fated and naive effort to bring something just a little classier to the notorious Hennepin Avenue club scene. There were to be no strippers, just Doc's seven-piece band and a changing cast of singers, dancers, and comedians. Inevitably, it wasn't long before the place began to drift toward its old entertainment policy - apparently the Avenue's habitual clientele preferred derrieres to Dixieland - but while it lasted, Doc ran a tight ship. The music stands were out, and I know we played things like "Black Bottom Stomp," "Mabel's Dream," "Four or Five Times," and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."
Looking back, I can see that Doc Evans was a man who always put his money where his mouth was. He refused to compromise his extremely high standards. He felt, as I am certainly not the first to say, that he was on a mission to bring the music he believed in to the general public.
Accordingly, his performances, even at places like the "Roaring Twenties," were always meant somehow to enlighten as well as to entertain. He was probably never more in his element than during his seven-year summer concert series at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he could bring in guests and showcase the music’s grand history. The music on this CD was recorded immediately after the Walker concert of 1956, showing that those events were worthy of the legendary status they eventually acquired.
For a while there during the early 1960s, although I was unaware of it, I was one of Doc's students as well as an occasional sideman. I'm happy I was there, and I'm happy that he made these records to remind all of us of what he could do.
BUTCH THOMPSON February, 2002
Pianist and clarinetist BUTCH THOMPSON is a well-traveled and well-known performer and recording artist who lives in St. Paul. Famous for his long association with public radio's A Prairie Home Companion, he tours widely. For more, see www.butchthompson.com
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