William "Bill" Merritt Evans didn't have much formal training, but he became an internationally known New Orleans-style jazz musician with a flawless ear for chord changes and harmony. And for more than five decades, Evans entertained with his trombone, string bass and a seemingly endless supply of jokes.
"He had an innate ability, he had a marvelous talent," said nearly lifelong friend and fellow musician Charlie DeVore. "And Bill had more one-liners than Henny Youngman."
Evans died of cancer on Sept. 10 at age 83 in Eagan. He spent most of his life in St. Paul, where he grew up and met his wife, Pat, who lived nearby. By the time she was 18 and he was 19, they'd started a family and would live in two houses in the same neighborhood for most of their 65-year marriage.
Though Evans played with several bands and had a full musical career that took him to Europe and Australia, he had a demanding day job. He retired from West Publishing, where he worked for 42 years, most recently as manager of the manuscripts department.
Musically, Evans was a natural. As a kid, he learned to read music by taking piano lessons, and he developed an ear for music — and the trombone — by listening to records. Constantly.
As a teenager, it was all about the trombone, which he played as founding member of the Mississippi Counts. He played for the Dukes of Dixieland as well, and in the 1950s when the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band needed a bass player, Evans raised his hand.
"He said, 'Well, I'm a front line trombone guy, but I'll figure it out,' " DeVore recalled.
Evans was also an original member of the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, and he played with the Pig's Eye Jass Band and the Mouldy Figs, and in the 1980s did a seven-year run with the Butch Thompson Trio as the house band on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion." He was also an owner of the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota.
Music and the manuscripts department at West Publishing didn't get in the way of time with family, Pat Evans said. He camped and hiked with his wife and kids, and vacations were often planned around trips to New Orleans, where Evans sometimes played at Fritzel's European Jazz Pub.
"We'd take the kids down there in an old beat-up car with a tire strapped on top of the station wagon and the kids hanging out of the windows," Pat Evans said.
Though Bill Evans was an accomplished musician, he only dabbled as a songwriter.
Evans had a signature stage presence and was known for his quick but thoughtful introductions and friendly banter with band mates, DeVore said. And while he loved to tell a good joke, he didn't have much patience for too much stage talk — it was all about the music.
More than once, Evans had to rein in the onstage chitchat when DeVore had the microphone.
"Bill would hiss to me, 'TMI — too much information,' " he said.
Evans' onstage charisma made him particularly memorable, DeVore said, recounting his recent visit to Preservation Hall in New Orleans with his grandson, where they bumped into former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
"So I said, 'Hey Chris, do you know Bill Evans?' and he said, 'Are you kidding, he's the mayor of Grand Avenue.' "
Evans was preceded in death by son Glenn, sister Barbara and a granddaughter. In addition to his wife, he's survived by his children Pam of Deadwood, S.D., Laurie of San Diego, Linda of St. Paul and Bill of Lino Lakes; four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Services have been held.