Who is 90 years old, male but known as “mother”, brought new meaning to the word vibrato, can hear a wrong note from fifty paces, has more yarns than a knitting store and still plays a sexy saxophone?
The answer is Gordon Evans, one of the great musicians in Canada who celebrated his 90th birthday last month. We had a party for Gordon and rarely has a room been more filled with love and good vibes. Musicians, friends and admirers were there - young and old - all with lives touched by Gordon Evans.
Gordon grew up in downtown Toronto on Dundas Street just east of Parliament, and at that time on the corner of Berkeley and Dundas there was a little music store. One day Gordon’s brother came home with a ukulele and after they had fooled around a bit on it his brother said, “You should have a saxophone and we could play together.”
So on Gordon’s next birthday his father took him the Whaley and Royce music store on Yonge Street and bought him an alto saxophone - not an expensive one, for this was during the depression and they were not a wealthy family. With the saxophone came ten free lessons from a teacher on Ontario Street, and that was the beginning.
By age 15 Gord was playing at the Silver Slipper, one of the top nightclubs in town and that was the beginning of a 75-year career that takes us up to last month’s celebration.
Not that it was plain sailing all the way. During the war years, not the Crimean as we sometimes say to tease him, but the 2nd World War - (the one after the war to end all wars), he was invalided out of the Air Force with pleurisy and a collapsed lung. He was told he couldn’t play a wind instrument any more. A bitter blow, you might say, and it sidelined Gordon for some months. But eventually he did sit in one night with a band and everything seemed to be O.K. so he started taking engagements again, of which there were many during wartime, and eventually ended up in one of the top bands in the country, the Ellis McLintock band.
Fast forward a few years and in 1954 Gordon had the opportunity to join the Sam Donahue band, one of the best bands in the United States at that time. After that stint he returned to Toronto where he re-established himself as one of the busiest musicians on the scene. He frequently played for visiting stars at the O’Keefe Centre and Royal York Hotel.
One of the great stories concerns the time he was in the Royal York orchestra when the headliner was Don Rickles, who made a career out of insulting people. At the time Gord’s wife Joyce was heavily pregnant and came to the show one night with friends. They had a front row table and during Rickles’ act one of the men at Joyce’s table had to go to the washroom. Mr. Rickles immediately siezed on the moment and said to Joyce, “I suppose you think he’s coming back?” Joyce responded by saying, “Oh, he’s not my husband. My husband is playing in the orchestra.”
Rickles turned to the band and said, “All right, which one of you guys is responsible for this?”, whereupon the whole band stood up!
For once in his life Don Rickles was at a loss for words. Gordon Evans entered my life as one of the founding members of The Wee Big Band and for 30 years has held the lead alto chair.
He is, in my opinion one of Canada’s musical treasures. So, happy birthday Gordon. We all love you.
I have mentioned in earlier columns the emergence of The Old Mill as a significant player on the jazz front. This year’s Ken Page Memorial Trust fund-raising Jazz Party will be in the dining room there, May 21. I’ll be hosting some of Toronto’s top jazzers - Al Kay, Lorne Lofsky, Neil Swainson, Kevin Turcotte and Don Vickery. In addition The Gala will introduce a new young talent to Toronto, 15 year old pianist Alex Einewein, whose first CD was recorded last year and reviewed in last month’s WholeNote. And from Italy, Rossano Sportiello, one of the most brilliant pianists to take the international jazz scene by storm, will make his first Canadian appearance.
It promises to be a very special evening of jazz that swings. And it is for a very good cause. In 2008 the KPMT gave financial support to The 1000 Islands Jazz Festival, the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival, the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival and the Markham Jazz Festival, and to workshops and master classes at Humber College and the Uof T Faculty of Music. It also assisted three young Toronto musicians to take part in the Jazz Series Programme at The Banff Centre - and that is a partial list of the KPMT achievements.
May April shower you with music - at least some of it live! Happy listening.