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Meet Jeff Evans

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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What's amazing is when the performers go all in, and lose themselves in the moment. I like to think that we in the audience complete the circuit to make the event a peak experience for everyone. —Jeff Evans
Our first Super Fan of 2019 is such a jazz head that he and his wife of 42 years got engaged at a jazz club. These days, Jeff frequently can be seen in the New York clubs indulging several of his passions at once. Living in a city he describes as "richly blessed" with venues, he makes it a point to go out to enjoy live jazz at least once a week, where he photographs musicians in action, and often discovers new artists via what he calls "the six degrees method."

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Kansas City, KS, but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. After a bit of back and forth, I have lived with my family in the New York City area for about 30 years. Besides jazz, my passions (which I like to call my "vices") include photography, beer and whisky, poetry, and reading up on developments on the fringes of science and technology. I like to combine my vices when I can. That is why live music is a good base—I can sit in a club and listen to music, drink, and take photos (at least in most places, and when the musicians agree). If there are lyrics and the lyrics are poetry, so much the better. I've begun searching out performances at the intersection of poetry and jazz.

What's your earliest memory of music?
I had a somewhat conflicted start with music in school. First, the whole 2nd and 3rd grade learned to play these plastic things, Tonettes, similar to recorders. When we were encouraged to move to actual instruments, I remember my father objecting, saying that it was just a way for the musical instrument people to make money. But we had music class throughout elementary school; we learned about music and composers, and sang from songbooks once a week. As we neared holidays, we brought in our pop and rock-and-roll records. The teacher played them on a record player and we would sing along—a kind of proto-karaoke. We even composed music. I didn't know what I was doing, so my scores were kind of random. I remember our teacher played our short compositions on piano, and she put a bunch of rests in mine.

How old were you when you got your first record?
The record that played the biggest role in my musical awakening was the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper. It came out about the summer I graduated from 8th grade. A few days prior to graduation, my family moved from Brookfield, IL (a relatively close in, settled suburb of Chicago) to an unincorporated area by Downers Grove, IL (a farther out suburb undergoing massive development). I couldn't yet drive, and the nearest store of any kind was a general store over a mile away on county roads with no sidewalks. It was a lonely summer for my two younger brothers and me. Both our parents worked and we had a lot of hours to kill. For a long time afterwards, when meeting someone for the first time, I would ask them to name their favorite album. If the answer wasn't Sergeant Pepper., they got an argument from me. It's amazing I had any friends after that.

I also recall having a boy/girl birthday party in our Downers Grove house, before which I borrowed a reel-to-reel tape recorder to make what later would be called a mixtape. I set up the reel-to-reel in our basement and played records—some borrowed, some my own—with the tape recorder microphone set up in front of the speakers.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
I think it was with a few friends in 1966 or 1967. I remember it was The Association, right about the time their hit "Windy" was released. I hadn't heard it on the radio yet. I went with a loose group of grade school friends, and I think it was the first concert for most of us. It was held in the local high school gym, as I recall. I think it was a double bill with The Vogues, who had a hit with "Five O'Clock World."

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
My indoctrination was slow and peripheral, then fast and much more intense. As a fan of acid rock, and then, to an extent, progressive rock, I became enamored of a Chicago band, The Flock. They had a violinist, Jerry Goodman, who later played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I never saw The Flock, but I did see the Mahavishnu Orchestra play live at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where I was a student at the time. So you might say that the Mahavishnu Orchestra was my gateway drug into jazz. But the real impetus was a bit later, when I had dropped out of RPI and was back in Chicago, dating a girl I knew from high school. Once when I asked what she might like to do on a date, she asked whether we might go to see a young jazz pianist named Monty Alexander, who was doing a stand at the London House. I said sure, and we went. We ordered drinks and they asked our ages, but didn't card us; we just said we were old enough (we weren't) and they didn't press the subject. On a later date she suggested Joe Williams at the Jazz Showcase. Both legendary clubs, and I understand the Showcase is still going, now operated by Joe Segal's son, Wayne. Well, the girlfriend left the picture shortly after, and I met the woman who I have been married to for more than 42 years. But the love of jazz has stayed with me. Much more recently I saw Monty Alexander play again, and had a chance to relay this story to him.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
For a long time, when our kids were young, our evenings out were limited by budget, time, and the paucity of available babysitters from the Gen-X generation. I got into it more frequently, and then regularly, after the kids were off at college. They're both in their 30's now.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
As often as my budget and schedule allow. I try to catch at least one performance a week. There are seasons, like from Thanksgiving through Christmas, where it's a bit of a challenge to work in music, with all the family things going on. I do make a special point of attending the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival each August in New York, and I indulge my freejazz proclivities at the annual Vision Festival in May/June. For a couple of years, my wife and I made a long resort weekend of it at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, where WBGO hosts its annual gathering.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
I have always been a process-oriented person. For me, witnessing a live performance, especially improvised music, is energizing. The vibe can be laid back or electric, and the sound is enveloping, even permeating. I like to hear some of my favorite musicians repeatedly, to hear them cover their familiar material in unfamiliar ways.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
When the performers go all in, and lose themselves in the moment. I like to think that we in the audience complete the circuit to make the event a peak experience for everyone.

What is the most trouble you've gone to or the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?
Kurt Elling was performing at the McCarter Theater in Princeton with a group calling themselves the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars: Kenny Barron, Regina Carter, Russell Malone, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Johnathan Blake. I left my office in the Financial District early, took the train home to Maplewood, NJ, picked up the car, and drove to Princeton. Trouble is there was a jackknifed truck on Route 1 that had traffic backed up for more than half an hour. I parked illegally in the theater drop off area, and the security guard took pity on me. I got inside just after Kurt had begun his first number. The farthest I've ever traveled to get to a jazz performance was to Barcelona. I confess that I was already in Barcelona for a week's vacation, but found the Jamboree. There we heard maestro Harold Mabern with Eric Alexander, Ignasi Gonzalez , and Bernd Reiter.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
So many. One that comes to mind is back with the girlfriend before meeting my wife. We were going to see Miles Davis at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. There was quite a crowd outside. No one was being let in to the theatre. Turns out Miles cancelled the performance due to illness. I never did get to see him.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Again, so many. Miles, of course. I would love to have been in the studio when Money Jungle [with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach] was recorded. Also, not exactly jazz, but certainly jazz-adjacent: Lord Buckley.

What makes a great jazz club?
Sometimes friends will ask me "What's a good place to go to hear some jazz?" Fortunately here in the New York City we are richly blessed with venues. I prefer to tell them, "Don't pick a place, pick the musicians." So for me a great club is one where great musicians play. That said, a great club is a listening room, not a bar or restaurant with background music. The staff, bartenders, and, yes, patrons should be welcoming. Nice food and beverages are a plus.

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
Because of where I work (lower Manhattan) and my commute, as well as the variety of musicians who can be found performing there, the West Village clubs are my first choice. In order, I am most often found at the 55 Bar, Mezzrow, and Smalls Jazz Club. I have been known to head as far uptown as Harlem and cross over to Brooklyn on occasion too.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
This one may not make anyone else's "most missed" list, but another West Village place, the Garage, is mine. Odd because it wasn't as much of a listening room as some others (mostly a bar/restaurant), but it did start sets at 6PM and I would go there, have a drink and listen before heading off to another club. I also heard some of my favorite artists for the first time there, so it was a great way for me to be exposed to new artists.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
I have to say my favorite, though seldom told, jazz anecdote involves me, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, Julie, and the Judy Roberts Trio. We were at one of the Lincoln Avenue clubs in Chicago. By this time, Julie and I were getting pretty serious. Anyway, the way I remember it, I proposed, and she said yes. Ask her and she will probably tell you it was the other way around. Anyway, whoever asked and whoever answered, it has worked out for the best. I also remember Judy doing a song, "I Want to be Seduced," which was made famous by Leon Redbone, which she says makes the song even funnier. It became her kinda signature song. She's now based in Phoenix.

How do you discover new artists?
One way is I listen to WBGO (88.3 FM, wbgo.org online) quite a bit. That's how I first heard Maria Schneider. Another major way is the "six degrees" method. Who was a guest on so and so's gig? This is how Melissa Stylianou led me to Amy Cervini, and Amy to so many others. Festivals are also great ways. I first heard Cecile McLorin Salvant, Aaron Diehl, and Sheila Jordan that way. Sheila is certainly not a new artist, but was once new to me. Friends' recommendations and house concerts, if you are lucky enough to get plugged in to them, are others.

How did you get into photographing at gigs?
I have been taking photographs semi-seriously for many years. In my more self-promotional moments, I tell people I have had my images exhibited in galleries and museums (including MoMA), and published in books and periodicals, and some people have actually purchased prints for their collections. For a while I took courses to get access to the school darkrooms, but eventually I set up a darkroom in my basement. I spent a lot of time shooting my daily commute between Maplewood, NJ and my office near Wall Street. When I changed jobs and was working in Midtown, I started photographing above ground, on the street. I called it my 5/6/7/8 project, as I noticed that each avenue had a distinct culture.

While casting about for a new project, I thought of shooting musicians in performance. I actually took a class in photographing musicians at the International Center of Photography, taught by Merri Cyr. She was great, offering not just technical and aesthetic guidance, but pulling back the curtain on the etiquette of shooting the music scene in New York. Our final project was to shoot at one or another of the Ludlow Street clubs where she'd arranged permission for us. It gave me courage to start asking bookers, proprietors, and especially musicians, if I could shoot the performance. I always offered to share images with the musicians. I have made many friends of musicians this way. As Facebook and other social media took off, some of my images have gotten traction. Maybe not all-out viral, but noticed.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?
I'm not a format purist at all. Some time back, my still-growing CD collection exceeded my vinyl. Not sure how many CDs I have but it's well north of 1,000. My vinyl collection (including some I inherited from an uncle who was a jazz fan) numbers a bit below that. I do listen to mp3s on my iPod, but they are all CDs I uploaded to iTunes from my collection. I sometimes play vinyl when I'm in a nostalgic mood, but most often I reach for a CD. As for streaming, I have only just dipped my toe in that water. It started when WBGO moved its transmitter (and maybe some tall construction in Jersey City and Manhattan got in the way) and my in-home signal got worse. Nothing I tried seemed to help. So now I stream WBGO from an old iPad. Just this week I dipped into Spotify. It's OK for casual listening, but the free tier lacks the ability to play albums in order, and of course has those jarring commercials. My main concern as a fan of the music is that Spotify doesn't pay the musicians enough. I will probably go on the paid tier but, as my wife says, it probably won't cut down on my CD purchases, because I want to support the musicians.

On the subject of record collecting...I should probably add this to my list of vices. I have been at various times involved in radio. In college, I was Program Director for a college radio station, worked in sales at an adult contemporary station in Binghamton NY, and now I do volunteer work during pledge drives at WBGO. Being around radio has made it possible to add to my collection by picking up duplicates and things that didn't fit the format

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?
I would probably want to play something I could carry with me pretty much anywhere I go. Guitar, or maybe small percussion instruments. The techie side of me is thinking maybe DJ-ing.

What's your desert island disc?
I don't want to overthink this—it's very close to a Sophie's Choice question for me. And I have a lot of "children." For some reason, "Sketches of Spain" comes to mind.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
It's the artists. And the fans. And by fans, I include the record label people, the bookers, venue proprietors, journalists, publishers, and audiences.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
...like life without a heartbeat.

Photo credit: Carmen Balentine

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