Pianist, bandleader, composer
Clever, Perceptive, but Troubled
And when he touched the keys, he’d turn out all the stars/Oh, how his heart could sing!/His song will live forever, even though his voice is still/ I hear the music, feel the magic/Always, I remember Bill.” So sang Susannah McCorkle in a beautiful rendition of Don Sebesky’s musical tribute to pianist Bill Evans.
To the careful listener, Evans’s sound is almost always instantly recognizable. He has been called “the poet” “the first player who ‘filled’ romanticism with modern tension” “a gifted and sensitive composer” a player who “not only sounds the time and spins the melody, but [who] also gives each piece a particularity—a depth of color—and a center of emotional gravity that make many other pianists sound rather thin by comparison.” Critics and fellow musicians invariably refer to his tone— his sound—in attempting to describe the music of Bill Evans, probably the most influential jazz pianist since Bud Powell in bebop’s heyday. Many elements combine to create this sound, not the least of which include the life experiences and personality of the artist.
For the Record…
Born William John Evans, August 16, 1929, in Plainfield, NJ; died September 15, 1980, in New York; son of Harry L. Evans and a mother of Russian descent (a pianist); married twice; wives’ names, Ellaine and Nenette; children: Evan (son), Maxine (adopted daughter). Education: Received degrees from Southeastern Louisiana College, 1950; studied at Mannes College of Music in New York, 1955.
Began piano lessons at age six; also studied violin and flute; played a variety of piano jobs as a teenager; taught at Lenox School of Jazz, Lenox, MA, 1959; worked with guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Red Mitchell, leaders Herbie Fields, Jerry Wald, and others, 1954-56; played with composer/drummer George Russell, beginning 1956; joined Miles Davis’s band and recorded under own name, 1956; formed own trio, 1959, thereafter playing regularly around the world in clubs and at concerts, mostly in trio format. Military service: Served in U.S. Army, 1951-54, as flutist in band.
Selected awards Five-time winner of Down Beat’s critics poll, beginning 1958; England’s Melody Maker Award, 1968; Scandinavia’s Edison Award, 1969; Japan’s Swing Journal Award, 1969; five Grammy awards.
Though others have attempted to explain the magic of Evans, this often painfully shy, meditative musician is widely quoted on his own playing, giving us some clues to his inner thoughts. His reputation for reclusiveness and introspection grows out of his early reluctance to record on his own (“I don’t have very much talent,” he once said), the intimate sheen of his compositions, and his physical presence at the piano: head bent over the keyboard, intensely focused, seeming to bea part of the instrument. Only in his lateryears—afterworking steadily for a quarter of a century, with awards and accolades piling up, and with a legacy of approximately 50 albums—did Evans begin to acknowledge his own unique contributions to music.
A Natural on the Keys
Evans studied piano at age six, soon adding violin and flute to his arsenal, but he later claimed “it was always the piano.” Disdaining formal practice as a child, he worked his way through stacks of used sheet music marches, songs, and classical music that his mother had bought. Thus did he acquire a skill at sight reading that served him all his life. He earned a scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College and in 1950 was awarded degrees both in music (as a piano major) and in music education. Though he often avoided the specific exercises prescribed in college courses, he regularly demonstrated his ability to play the concepts those exercises were purported to teach by encompassing them in his playing of compositions. With uncharacteristic bravado, he told writer/lyricist Gene Lees, “They couldn’t flunk me because I played the instrument so well.”
Not that Evans was avoiding playing or learning. He was as studious as his early professorial photographs depicted, making up for his own perceived “lack of talent” through hard work. Well into his career, Evans told Lees, “It’s just that I’ve played such a quantity of piano. Three hours a day in childhood, six hours a day in college, and at least six hours now.” While playing jazz, “spontaneous music,” he called it, at every opportunity, Evans also knew the “contemplative” repertoire: Johann Sebastian Bach, Aleksandr Scriabin, Frederic Chopin, Darius Mil-haud, Igor Stravinsky. He once sight-read Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes at their marked tempos. His music reflected the deep understanding that this intense study produced; his considerable technique always served the music rather than being an end in itself.
As a high school student in the late 1940s Evans began playing local dance jobs in bands of various configurations, sometimes as the leader, often with the better adult jazz players. Always he was an avid listener. As a youngster he appreciated boogie woogie but was moved by pianists like Earl Hines, Nat “King” Cole, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and George Shearing and by instrumentalists such as tenorist Stan Getz, altoist Charlie Parker, and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Evans reportedly told Marian McPartland in a 1978 interview on her National Public Radio Piano Jazz program, “[Our band] played opposite Nat Cole at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. I wrote my brother… ‘I sat at the same piano and played the same keys that Nat Cole played. It was reverential.’”
Throughout his years at college Evans played not only in the school groups, but on his own as well. After graduation, he worked with the band of Herbie Fields before being drafted into the U.S. Army. While playing flute in the Fifth Army Band throughout his 1951-54 assignment at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, near Chicago, by night Evans became a part of the city’s jazz scene. During this period he played with the bands of Tony Scott and Jerry Wald, among others. Evans collaborated with avant-garde composer George Russell for several years beginning in about 1956, integrating modal music (stressing structure and form) into jazz playing and producing such recordings as “All About Rosie” and “Concerto for Billy the Kid.” In 1957 Evans was featured on the “East Coasting” album with bassist Charles Mingus.
Played with Miles Davis
Though Evans etched his first Riverside album as a leader and drew increasing attention from music insiders, it was his eight-month stint with trumpeter Miles Davis’s sextet in 1958 that propelled the pianist toward stardom and instilled some measureof self-confidence. This all-star group included such luminaries as alto saxist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, tenorman John Coltrane, and bassist Paul Chambers.
After leaving Davis to work as a leader, Evans was asked to return in early 1959 to record the groundbreaking Kind of Blue album. Cut in two sessions, the album quickly became one that was listened to and emulated by much of the jazz community and is still regarded as one of the most influential of all time. Davis’s biographer, Ian Carr, stated: “The qualities of Bill Evans areof crucial importance to the music of Kind of Blue.” Indeed, though Davis is credited as composer on all but one tune, the shy Evans told British writer Brian Case in a Melody Maker interview: “Coupla tunes more or less mine, one totally mine.” And as Davis told critic Nat Hentoff in 1959, “Boy, I’ve sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.”
Formed Own Trio
Evans had been experimenting with a trio format and in 1959 he hit upon the combination that has remained the hallmark of the Evans sound, with a young Scott LaFaro on bass and drummer Paul Motian. Their first album, Portrait in Jazz: Bill Evans Trio, recorded in December, featured seven familiar standards and two Evans originals. It embodies many of the qualities that marked nearly every Evans album: relatively brief treatments (the longest cut is five minutes, 22 seconds) of the selections; fresh, thoughtful reworkings of familiar tunes (an up-tempo “Autumn Leaves,” a swinging “Some Day My Prince Will Come”); dense harmonic structure and beautiful, distinct voicings, often using the bass to free the piano for exploration; and perhaps most important, interplay among the three that reflects great freedom within structure.
“I’m hoping the trio will grow in the direction of simultaneous improvisation. If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a 4/4 background? The men [I] work with have learned how to do the regular kind of playing, and so I think we now have the license to change it,” Evans told music writer Michael James.
A word that Evans used often in his interviews in describing his fellow musicians was “responsible.” He expected them to know the music and their instruments well enough to foster improvisational freedom. In a 1979 interview with Wayne Enstice and Paul Rubin for Jazz Spoken Here, Evans stated, “I respect the American popular song very much and some of the masters that have composed in that form … and I studied this very hard, analytically and diligently as I was growing… There’s still explorations that I haven’t begun to make yet into handling these things.”
Evans noted in the same 1979 interview: “In my mind Scott LaFaro was responsible in a lot of ways for the expansion of the bass. I think he is acknowledged, at least within musical circles, as being more or less the father or the wellspring of modern bass players. And when we got together I realized that Scott had the conceptual potential, he had the virtuosity, and he had the experience and the musical responsibility … to handle the problem of approaching the bass function in jazz, especially with a trio.”
This trio performed and grewtogether from its formation in 1959, a growth that is reflected in the double album, The Village Vanguard Sessions. Recorded live at Evans’s favorite New York nightclub on June 25, 1961 (at both matinee and evening sessions), this album is often cited as a model of trio musicianship. “We try to dedicate ourselves to the total musical statement, whatever it might be,” said Evans, “and try to shape it according to musical ends and not ego ends.” This, however, was to be the last performance of this trio; ten days later LaFaro was killed in an automobile accident. So distraught was Evans that he did not play for some months.
A re-formed trio, with Chuck Israels on bass, began playing together in early 1962 and recorded two albums in May and June for Orrin Keepnews on Riverside. Here again Evans has plumbed the depths of mostly familiar standard tunes, plus a few originals, to produce the unique Evans trio sound. Given the nature of this sound, bassists were extremely important to Evans; he was fortunate, sometimes after considerable effort, to unearth several great ones. Following Israels in 1963 was Gary Peacock, after which came a long association with Eddie Gomez stretching from 1966 to 1977, the last nine years with Marty Morell as drummer. This group is generally considered to be the second great Bill Evans trio. His last group, with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, met with critical and popular approval as well.
For two decades Evans’s principal passion was his trio and it is in this context that most listeners associate him. Though the personnel changed some during the years, these groups always sounded highly polished and organized. Amazingly, Evans told McPartland that the trios had had only about four rehearsals in 20 years. “I try to reach out for things that are natural and fundamental… I choose the people as responsible musicians and artists so that I can give them that kind of freedom and know that they’re going to use it with discretion toward a total result… With Scott [LaFaro] it was a once in a lifetime thing, but I have had marvelous experiences with other bass players, with Eddie [Gomez] certainly for eleven years, and now [with] a new young bass player—I don’t know what I can say about … Marc Johnson… He’s just gorgeous.”
Interspersed with all the trio activity, Evans created a recorded legacy of collaboration with a wide variety of musicians. In various contexts these include: singer Tony Bennett, harmonica master Toots Thielemans, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, altoist Lee Konitz, guitarist Jim Hall, and tenorist Stan Getz. He has recorded the music of Claus Ogerman, with symphony orchestra, and of Gunther Schuller. In addition, Evans found time to produce several solo albums. Two, Conversations with Myself in 1963 and 1970’s Alone, won Grammy Awards. In these Evans used multiple tracks to perform duets and trios with himself, sometimes using an electronic keyboard in place of his favored acoustic piano. Some of Evans’s original compositions include: “Waltz for Debby,” “Blue in Green,” “T.T.T.” (“Twelve Tone Tune”), “Peace Piece,” and “34 Skidoo” (using alternating 3/4 and 4/4 time). “Song for Helen” was written for his longtime manager, producer, and friend, Helen Keane.
Clever, Perceptive, but Troubled
Gene Lees wrote that Evans was “elegantly coordinated” and, contrary to his fragile appearance (created partly by his bookworm’s spectacles, slicked down hair, and poor posture), was strong and lean. He had played sports in college, was “a superb car driver… a golfer of professional stature and… a demon pool shark.” In later years, Evans’s appearance underwent a radical change; he sported long hair, a full beard, and more stylish glasses. His mind was sharp, given to self-analysis. He enjoyed anagrams, naming one of his tunes “Re: Person I Knew,” for his friend and producer, Orrin Keepnews. But throughout the 1950s and 1960s Evans fought addiction to heroin. His friend Lees wrote that he finally kicked the habit in about 1970 and was drug-free for nearly ten years, however he reverted to using cocaine toward the end of his life.
Though he remains one of the most lyrical of the ballad players, Evans, in contrast to pianist Art Tatum, told Len Lyons, “I never listen to lyrics. I’m seldom conscious of them at all.” The title of one of Evans’s 1958 albums is “Everybody Digs Bill Evans.” In 1984 Gene Lees surveyed more than 60 well-known pianists, including Dave Brubeck, Dave Frishberg, Roger Kellaway, and Billy Taylor, asking them to name five pianists who they thought were the “best,” “most influential” and “personal favorite.” The results: best—Tatum, 36; Evans 33; Peterson, 27; most influential—Tatum, 32; Evans, 30; Bud Powell, 24; personal favorite—Evans, 25; Tatum, 22; Peterson, 19. It seems everybody does dig Bill Evans.
Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Fantasy, 1958.
(With the Miles Davis Band) Kind of Blue, 1959.
Portrait in Jazz: Bill Evans Trio (recorded December 1959),Riverside.
The Village Vanguard Sessions, Milestone, 1961.
Conversations with Myself, Verve, 1963.
Bill Evans at Town Hall, Verve, 1966.
Intermodulation, Verve, 1966.
The Complete Riverside Recordings (12 CDS) were released between 1956 and 1963; The Complete Fantasy Recordings (nine CDS) were released between 1973 and 1979.
Berendt, Joachim E., The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond, Lawrence Hill, 1975.
Carr, Ian, Miles Davis, Morrow, 1982.
Enstice, Wayne, and Paul Rubin, Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-Two Musicians, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Lees, Gene, Meet Me at Jim&Andy’s: Jazz Musicians and Their World, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists, Morrow, 1983.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, Morrow, 1989.
Down Beat, October 22, 1964; March 11, 1976; October 1979; December 1980.
Gene Lees Jazzletter, November 1992.
High Fidelity, July 1985.
Melody Maker, September 27, 1980.
New York Times, September 16, 1980.
Additional information for this profile was taken from the liner notes to Portrait in Jazz: Bill Evans Trio, Riverside, notes by Orrin Keepnews; The Village Vanguard Sessions, Milestone, notes by Michael James; How My Heart Sings, Riverside, notes by Evans and Keepnews; and Bill Evans/New Conversations, Warner Bros., notes by Nat Hentoff.
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