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Artist Profiles

Bill Evans: 1929-1980

By Published: August 27, 2004
Evans had been sinking into a heroin habit in the late 50s, and by the time Helen Keane entered his life in 1962 it was in full bloom. He was married, and his wife Ellaine was an addict too. Evans habitually sought to borrow money from friends, every day calling a string of his friends in his address book from a telephone booth on the street outside his apartment, since his phone had been disconnected. Many became infuriated at being contacted again and again for money. One day when Lees blew up at him, saying he didn't even have enough for himself to eat, Evans called back an hour later to say he now had enough for both of them to eat.

His friends were afraid to withhold all money from him, because then he'd go to the loan sharks who'd threaten to break his hands if he didn't pay. At one point his friends, including Lees, Helen Keane, Orrin Keepnews, and his new producer Creed Taylor decided to withhold cash from him, while directly paying his bills, and they appointed the reluctant Lees to break the news to Evans.

Lees found Evans in his apartment, where the electricity had been shut off, but he got around that by running an extension cord from a hallway light under the front door. Evans was furious at his friends' scheme and angrily described the importance of his habit to him, as Lees relates:

"No, I mean it," he said. "You don't understand. It's like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm" (Lees, Meet Me, 156).

It was an elegant, aestheticized account of the process that was destroying him. Lees says that later after Evans was clean he claimed to have learned something valuable from his addiction: tolerance and understanding for his father's alcoholism. This leaves volumes unsaid, of course, namely the devastating effect on Bill's confidence of having an alcoholic father, and the unmet childhood needs which resulted in his own self-destructive addiction. At least he didn't have children during the time he was hooked.

Orrin Keepnews found it difficult to turn down Evans' request for money because of "the sweetness of his nature and his immense moral decency," unlike certain other musicians whose turpitude made him easy to turn down. But Bill would just wait there in the Riverside office until Keepnews would relent and give him some cash.

But when Helen Keane got Evans signed to Verve and negotiated a large advance from producer Creed Taylor, Bill took the money and meticulously paid back everyone what he owed them. He came by for Lees in a cab and went from apartment building to apartment building, with Lees holding the cab, armed with his cash and card file, and took care of all his debts. At the end he reimbursed Lees $200 for pawning his record player and some of his records. He had even went so far as to find Zoot Sims in Stockholm and gave him $600, a sum which Sims had simply forgotten about.

Overdub Albums

In the winter of 1962-63 Evans came up with the idea for his first multi-track solo piano album. Although overdubbing had been used before, specifically by guitarist Les Paul and Mary Ford (Paul had also pioneered the electric guitar), and by Patti Page, it had never been used quite like this. Neither producer Creed Taylor, nor Lees or Keane-who constituted the Evans inner circle at the time-knew quite what Bill had in mind. But Evans knew exactly. Nowadays, overdubbing and digital editing are standard procedure and are used to produce most popular music. Today the techniques are used to build a piece bit by bit, permitting numerous takes of each track and minute editing changes. But back then, with analogue tape running at 30 ips, the artist had to have a complete global grasp of everything before he laid it down. Evans was used to this level of conception. Once he had the session the way he wanted it, his friends were amazed:

The four of us in the control booth-Ray [Hall, the engineer], Creed, Helen, and I- were constantly openmouthed at what was going on. On the second track Bill would play some strangely appropriate echo of something he'd done on the first. Or there would be some flawless pause in which all three pianists were perfectly together; or some deft run fitted effortlessly into a space left for it. I began to think of Bill as three Bills: Bill Left Channel, Bill Right, and Bill Center.


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