Merle Evans: Toscanini of the Big Top January 29 2014, 0 Comments

Merle Evans was born in Columbus, Kansas in 1891. His father was a foreman in a coal mine, and he had six siblings. Evans had an early job selling newspapers on corners and he used his cornet to call attention to the headlines. After holding several other jobs, Evans left home and joined the S.W. Brundage Carnival Company as a cornet player. Evans held several other jobs, including as a band director for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show featuring performer Buffalo Bill.

Evans was hired as the band director for the newly merged Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919. Evans held this job for fifty years, until his retirement in 1969. He only missed performances due to a musicians union strike in 1942 and the death of his first wife. He wrote eight circus marches, including Symphonia and Fredella. Evans played to an estimated 165,120,000 circus fans, remaining active in circus music until his death at the age of 96.

On July 6, 1944, a fire broke out during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut. The fire killed around 168 people.  The Wallendas were performing on the high wire, with the Evans and his band playing some soft waltz music, when Evans first spotted the flames at the big top's sidewall. He stopped the waltz with a flick of one hand. Some of the spectators thought the fire was a joke - or part of the act, but Evans knew better. The quick reaction of Merle Evans and his band is credited with saving thousands of lives. When Evans saw the fire, he signaled that the band should play John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever used in the circus as the “disaster march,” indicating an emergency. All the musicians knew the march by heart. As the band began to play, the performers heard the music and immediately began the evacuation. Accounts state that Evans and his band played until it was no longer safe to do so, and then evacuated and reformed outside, where their playing helped to pace the evacuation and steady the crowd. It was likened to the work of the Titanic band in 1912.

Merle Evans loved the music of the circus and knew the tempi of every known circus march, waltz, and polka, and clown music. He often complained about recordings made depicting the circus march and using the well-known expression “Screamers,” which he said were an abomination because they were, “too fast, too loud, and often poorly played."

After his retirement in 1969, Evans continued to contribute to the greater band community through various workshops and guest conducting opportunities. He passed away at his retirement home in Sarasota Florida on December 31, 1987. Evans would often perform with the circus bands when they had as many as 25 musicians. In his later years the numbers were deflated and he often appeared with small six or seven piece bands, playing trumpet and conducting at the same time. He was certainly one of the finest musician- bandmasters in American history, contributing greatly to the American music scene.

The marches heard on Altissimo!'s Under the Big Top are taken directly from the original march editions of the circus march. The tempi and instrumentation heard on this masterpiece recording are as Evans would have played them himself . The marches selected are the most well know of the circus marches from the repertoire.

- Jack Kopstein