Remembering Carl

My lovely and talented friend, Carl Evans Jr, has passed away after a lifelong struggle with diabetes. I believe that Carl was the nicest person I've ever met, without exception. Even-keeled in his temperament, joyous in his heart even though his soul was obviously too buoyant for his flawed body, and a total natural when it came to music. He had two brilliant children, Rachel and Carl the 3rd.
You might have heard his name in the context of the smooth jazz group Fattburger, which he co-founded with another deceased friend of mine, Hollis Gentry lll. Long before those days, Carl, Hollis and Nathan East did me the honor of recruiting me and turning me onto jazz, helping me grow as a player and a human being along the way. I was only 12 years old when I was asked to fill in for their drummer at a rehearsal and then a gig. I have told this story here before, but I would like to repeat it now.
I knew nothing about jazz except that I thought you had to read music, so being a stone-cold rocker I assumed that jazz was for wimps. But the gig paid something like $5 or $10 and I jumped at the opportunity to get paid.
Sitting in rehearsal, I realized that I was--for the first time in my life--the only white guy in the room. It was a fascinating moment for me. The cadence of their language sounded like music, and their obvious camaraderie was very appealing (they had grown up playing together in church). Their musicianship was huge, far more advanced than mine, at least harmonically. They chose a song--The Creator, by Pharaoh Sanders--and suddenly Hollis started counting it off. I stopped him and said "I don't know this song at all--what do I play?" Hollis looked at me and smiled and said in his already deep voice at 15 "This is jazz, man--you just listen and then play what you feel."
Those wise words probably jumpstarted puberty for me. We launched into the song and played straight through for what seemed like a 30-minute jam. There were nothing but smiles all around. I fell right into the feel of jazz that day, and at the end of the session they urged me to join them in the Crawford High School jazz ensemble. I auditioned soon after and that launched a lifelong association with them. We played dozens of jazz festivals, gigs (in several different formats--acoustic quartet, 9 piece funk band, swinging big band, etc).
In the early '70s, I felt like race suddenly became a barrier between us. They seemed to get into the Black Power movement, and I was drawn to the world of Frank Zappa and progressive rock music. We parted ways as they went on the road with Barry White and I moved into Synanon after high school. Several years went by without much contact, until I dropped into a San Diego club on a visit back home and ran into Hollis who invited me onstage. It was a bracing moment -- Hollis played great and was very warm to me, but he seemed out of it, which I knew was a result of his intermittent drug use. Soon after that night, I got in touch with Nathan, who had been my closest personal friend of the group at the time. I will never forget spending time at Nathan's bustling house -- so many brothers and sisters, so many laughs with his father and warmth from his mother. Nathan's career was already on the rise, recording with Lionel Ritchie and Phil Collins and countless others. I was inspired to look up Carl and found that the easy feeling of our relationship had returned. We spoke on the phone pretty often, and both Carl and Hollis played on my solo albums. What they brought to my music was outstanding, and decidedly different from what other guest artists could bring.
Then twenty years ago, KPBS did a TV special on the four of us, a 'where are they now?' thing focusing on our careers since taking the high school jazz festival circuit by storm. They brought us all into the studio and we played together for the first time since high school. I have the VHS tape, which gets more precious with every passing of my friends. Today only Nathan and I survive (Hollis died a little over a year ago).
Carl was so smart musically--his music education was pretty strong, but his intuitive gifts were more significant imo. He had a knack for using voicings that were far more sophisticated than you'd expect from a 15 year old kid. He really used to turn my head when, instead of playing a G7 chord he'd automatically play an A7 over G, which sounded so poignant it would break my heart. I used to go up to him after every rehearsal or gig and make him show me what he had done in a particular song (the same with Nathan, which was how I learned how to play the bass). I think they were kind of amused at their drummer trying to cop their licks and tricks on their own instruments at first, but as I grew as a composer and multi-instrumentalist I felt as if I gained their respect as a player.
I grew closer to Carl during the early '90s, when his diabetes started impacting his health. He was touring with Fattburger and during a stop in Visalia, he came to spend a couple of days with Glenda and me at Synanon. I was stunned to see that his vision was almost gone and that he could only walk with a cane, but we hung in my studio all day and got to know each other again. He had the knack of making you feel like his best friend.
From then on, I would visit him when I came to San Diego to see my folks, and then more frequently when I moved back to SD. He was producing local artists and still recording and touring with Fattburger when he was physically able. A failed kidney transplant left him weaker than ever, but our phone calls would often last an hour or longer as he was always in the mood to talk, to tell jokes, to reminisce, to cut up our favorite players. We ended every phone call by saying "I love you."
I last saw him this February when he was recovering in the hospital from having his leg amputated. It was not a visit I was looking forward to. A couple of nights before, I had attended a packed benefit concert at a local club and got to talk with his daughter Rachel. Even though everyone was optimistic, I felt like he was slipping into that period when visits might be an imposition, but I pushed through my own resistance and spent the most wonderful, loving and sad 90 minutes with him. He was much smaller than the last time I'd seen him -- more hair gone, a rounder face that looked so much like his father when I'd met him 35 years earlier, but his charm and energy were intact. We talked about love as a force, we held hands and told each other beautiful things, said our thanks for the opportunity to be friends. We laughed so hard that a nurse came in because it sounded like we were yelling! At that time I had just finished co-producing the San Miguel Jazz Festival and we started making plans for Carl to play there at the end of 2008. He then said "You know, I'm sure I'm going to need another kidney transplant, so we had better plan for the next year instead of this year." I agreed and told him there would always be a place for him on any stage I was involved with.
He moved back home and I am sad to admit that I couldn't bring myself to call him again after that visit. I kept putting it off. I wanted him to heal, but my heart was so broken by the possibility that the end was near that I selfishly put off checking in with him. I hope he forgives me for this lapse. When I got into San Diego last night, the first thing I noticed was a message I had printed out from Nathan last February giving me Carl's new home phone number. The THINGS TO DO list I brought with me from Mexico had "CALL CARL!" and his phone #. I was resolved to call him this very morning, but when I checked my email I saw one from Nate with Carl's name in the subject line and I knew I was too late. The story ends there.
RIP Carl. If love is the energy that keeps the planet turning, then I hope you know that you've kept it spinning for a good long time. Rest up and I hope I will see your pie-eating, major 7th chord-playing soul again some day. "

With love,
Doug Robinson ‘72