Follow Your Heart: Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues

joe_evans.jpgTitle: Follow Your Heart: Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues
Author: Joe Evans, with Christopher Brooks
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
ISBN-10: 0252033035
ISBN-13: 978-0252033032
Pages: 167
Year: 2008

They call me raggedy, call me raggedy, ‘cause my clothes are in pawn,
Call me raggedy, call me raggedy, ‘cause my clothes are in pawn,
But when you see me tomorrow,
I’ll have my best clothes on.

This tune, sung by a man selling fish on the outskirts of Pensacola, Florida one day in 1921, was Joe Evans’ first encounter with the twelve-bar blues. “Young as I was, I felt something click deep inside me. For the first time, I had a feeling that was almost as haunting and soulful as the fishman’s voice. That feeling became a touchstone for the rest of my life.” Thus begins the autobiography of Joe Evans, the third installment in the University of Illinois Press’s new African American Music in Global Perspective series, co-edited by Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim in affiliation with the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University.

Joe Evans is now in his nineties, and his broad=deep perspective spans many historical events, musical periods, and roles (in addition to performing, he has also worked as a music executive and entrepreneur). With saxophone in hand, Evans joined musical icons on stage that most people living today have only read about, heard on recordings, or seen in archival video footage; included among this legendary and diverse lineup are Billie Holiday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Johnny Hodges, Nat “King” Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, and Lionel Hampton. Evans actually met “Ma” Rainey! Evans’ stories remind us that these symbols of jazz and R&B history were actually living people, but he also tells us about other talented lesser-known musicians that would otherwise be lost to the annals of time.

After two Forwards (one by Tavis Smiley and the other by Bill McFarlin) and one Preface (by Christopher Brooks, whose interviews with Evans constitute the core of the book), Follow Your Heart is divided into three parts. In Part One, Evans chronicles his journey from the time the music bug hit him as a child in Pensacola, Florida to his first professional stint in Ray Shep’s band. Part Two begins with Evan’s trek to the proving ground of New York City, tracing his tenure in various big bands both in the states and on the international circuit. Part three begins with Evans returning to New York City right around the time the Savoy closed in 1958, follows his debut on the R&B scene with performances for Motown and the establishment of his own label, Carnival Records, and ends with his pursuit of a college education around the age of 60. A bonus section at the end of the book provides an abridged discography of songs arranged and produced by Evans for Carnival Records (catalog numbers included).

Joe Evans’ life story is riveting, and particularly so because it speaks to all the things that matter when you talk about music. Behind the notes, the rhythms, and the tunes, there are real people, real industries and institutions, and real social conditions that shape our lives. Throughout Follow Your Heart, Evans describes a deeply personal account of how each these ingredients came together in the life of one man, returning always, however, in the end, to the people that mattered to him. In the Epilogue he writes,

There is a song that summarizes how I sometimes feel at this point in my life: “I’ll Be Seeing You,” written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain. As far as I am concerned, nobody delivered it quite like Billie Holiday. No mater how many times she sang that song when I am was performing with her, I never failed to be moved. That line “In all the familiar places” is like a person trying hard not to say good-bye or let go of someone very dear to them. So even when the absent person is not physically present (as in death), the performer will be reminded of the impact they had on them and their life. Well, there are many people who had that impact on me. I believe I will see them again.

For further information:

“Carnival Records: Solid Soul Sounds from New Jersey”
Dave Moore’s detailed investigation into the history of Carnival Records, the label that Evans founded

I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer
Autobiography of opera singer Shirley Verrett, co-authored with Christopher Brooks

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott