Legendary jazz pianist Junior Mance left his native Evanston more than half a century ago, but the last time he performed here, in 2011, he left little doubt about his feelings for his home town. Inspired by a rousing reception from an audience that included many old friends, he declared near the end of his set: “This is the best homecoming anyone can could ever ask for. I am Junior Mance FROM EVANSTON, ILLINOIS.” The crowd roared its approval.
Mr. Mance’s trio will return to the Unitarian Church, 1330 Ridge, for a performance at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2. The concert, a fundraiser for the church,
is part of a world tour celebrating 75 years in music, which includes stops in Israel and Japan.
Despite a recent stroke, Mr. Mance, 85, still travels extensively and performs regularly at New York’s Café Loup. He was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1928, and grew up in Evanston. “I started fooling around on the piano when I was just 5,” he recalled. “We had an old upright in our apartment. Before television, all homes had a piano. My dad worked in a dry- cleaning store, but he was a good musician and taught me boogie-woogie and stride piano. I just had a hunger for the music.”
By the time he graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1947, he was already an established performer, having played in Chicago and the suburbs from the time he was 10. At the age of 13 he had a regular solo gig at a bar in downtown Chicago. “The bartender had to pay off the cops,” Mr. Mance said. “It was a wide open town then; the gangsters owned the place.”
During the war he often filled in for musicians who were drafted into the military. He attended Roosevelt College and signed up for music classes in 1947 but was suspended for playing jazz. So he joined Gene Ammons’ band.
“My mother was very upset, she wanted me to study to be a doctor,” he noted. He later played with Lester Young before being drafted in 1949. While stationed at Fort Knox he was recruited into the U.S. Army Band by Cannonball Adderley, with whom he would later perform. He said the assignment saved his life: His company was sent to Korea and most of the soldiers were killed or injured in an ambush.
He settled in New York City in the early 1950s and has played with many jazz greats, including Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, Dinah Washington and Maynard Ferguson. He called Mr. Gillespie “the best music teacher” he ever had, learning musicianship and showmanship from the bebop trumpeter. He said of Charlie Parker, “The man had a mind like a steel trap.” Mr. Mance shares a birthday with the eccentric giant of jazz piano, Thelonius Monk, and said, “We were this tight (holding up two fingers). No wonder I was so weird.”
Mr. Mance formed his own trio in 1961, following the release of “Junior,” his first recording, on Verve Records. He has since recorded some three dozen albums under his own name and appeared on more than 100 other records. In 1959 alone he appeared on nine albums, including performances with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. In 1988 he joined the faculty of the jazz program at the New School University in New York.
In 1997 he was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame, which called his playing “soulful and swinging … a bluesy, dexterous style that never lacks
for excitement or emotional depth.”
Throughout his long career he has toured the world, performing and recording regularly. “That’s all I did: work and travel,” he said. What finally slowed him down was a severe stroke in June 2012. Doctors worried that he would never play again.
“They didn’t know him very well,” said his wife, Gloria. “I told them he had to play: it was like breathing to him.” Sure enough, the day after leaving the hospital he was back at the piano rehearsing, and three months later he was off for a 10-day swing through Europe. A month after that he was performing in Japan for two weeks.
Longtime Evanstonian Byron Wilson was Mr. Mance’s next-door neighbor when they were growing up; later Mr. Mance married Mr. Wilson’s first wife. “Even as a kid he was a hell of a pianist,” Mr. Wilson recalled. “He played a lot of boogie-woogie back then, that was the popular style.” In the 1970s and ’80s Mr. Wilson, a part-time jazz impresario, booked Mr. Mance with other musicians for gigs in Evanston. “It sounded so good, people were clamoring to get in,” he said.
For his upcoming Evanston concert Nov. 2, Mr. Mance will perform with his current trio, which consists of Hidé Tanaka on bass and Michi Fuji on violin. Tickets for the fundraiser are $30 general admission, $50 premier (first 3 rows) and $100 for first row (limit 20), which includes a private reception with Mr. Mance and his band after the concert. Some special discounts may apply. Tickets are available at ucevanston.org and through the church office at 847-864-1330 and on Sundays after church.