Some folks like to put jazz up in the clouds. Perhaps because I come at the art form not as a musician but as a melody-loving radio man, I listen to it at a joyous and child-like level.
And I know Jackson Evans once knew it that way, too. The guitarist is one of our city’s finest jazz players. But before he studied jazz theory in college, before he gigged it for a living, he was just a kid, out in northern Utah, who saw an awesome jazz guitarist.
“My grandpa took me to an art gallery where Corey Christiansen was playing,” he says. “It was the first time that I’d heard a quartet playing jazz and I loved it. That was definitely when I decided that this is what I want to do.”
Evans and his wife Maggie moved to Savannah from the Beehive State in 2004. Since then, local jazz fans like me have come to know his light fingers, technical wizardry and broad range. I’ve wanted to interview him for a while. And now is a great time for him.
“I feel like over about the past five years I’ve got a momentum rolling where I’m able to be creative and have the outlets that I need to push forward and drive forward,” he says.
He performs regularly these days at The Mansion on Forsyth Park and The Jazz Corner. But like a lot of creative people, Evans went through a period when he wondered if he should do something else.
That’s when Savannah guitarist and businessman Howard Paul put a custom Benedetto guitar in his hands and started promoting him as a Benedetto player. The confidence lifted Evans and convinced him to continue his craft in China, where Maggie studied art.
“This was the guitar I had in China with me,” he says of his instrument. “For two years, it was six or seven nights a week, three hours in performance.”
Evans describes his years overseas as another formative experience, a time when he had the luxury of multiple, half-year hotel contracts that allowed him to grow an artist. Part of his growth now involves his voice. This surprised me. He sings!
“I’ve been singing a lot the last year,” he says. “Maggie and I have started working independently more. I’ve taken over as the main vocalist in the band. It’s been fun.”
Evans’ pipes remind me of Chet Baker. There’s a fragility to it. When we met for music and conversation, he sang one of his own tunes, “Red and White.” The songwriting had an old timey feel to it, like Billy Holiday, absinthe and speakeasies.
“It’s about dead people floating around and that’s sort of Savannah-esque,” he says. “So when I sing it, I’m picturing Spanish moss and mansions on Jones Street.”
His original songs have a playful side to them. And that’s not easy for a man who’s had to work at not being so “jazz brainy” and up in the clouds.
“Jazz musicians now have to take from contemporary music and the history of it,” he says. “So what I’d call my ‘novelty vocal tunes’ have come out to be a mix of traditional jazz styles with contemporary singer-songwriter forms.”
I’m glad people believe in Evans and are giving him a platform to work on these things. It gives me a chance to watch a master at work.
“Learning to be creative and learning to live in that jazz mindset took a huge amount of effort,” he says. “It’s my life’s work. That’s what I’ve been focusing on since I was 12.”