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Artist Profiles

Bill Evans: 1929-1980

By Published: August 27, 2004
Bill Left would lay down the first track, stating the melody and launching into an improvisation for a couple of choruses, after which he would move into an accompanist's role, playing a background over which Bill Center would later play his solo. His mind obviously was working in three dimensions of them simultaneously, because each Bill was anticipating and responding to what the other two were doing. Bill Left was hearing in his head what Bill Center and Bill Right were going to play a half hour or so from now, while Bill Center and Bill Right were in constant communication with a Bill Left who had vanished into the past a half hour or an hour before. The sessions took on a feeling of science-fiction eeriness.

When Bill had completed the first two tracks, Creed and Helen and I all thought that he shouldn't do a third-that another one would only clutter what he had already done. We were wrong.

As the end of the track neared, the "third" Bill took the opening figure and extended it into a long fantastic, flowing line that he wove in and out and around and through what the other two pianists were playing, never colliding with these two previous selves. That final line seemed like a magic firefly hurrying through a forest at night, never striking the trees, leaving behind a line of golden sparks that slowly fell to earth, illuminating everything around it. I think Helen and Creed were close to tears when he completed that track. I know I was (Lees, Meet Me, 160).

Evans left for Florida, where he successfully kicked his habit for a while, then returned to New York in time to receive a Grammy Award for Conversations with Myself. Later Evans created two more overdub albums, Further Conversations in 1967, also on Verve, produced by Helen Keane, and New Conversations in 1978 on Warner Brothers, which opens with his tribute "Song for Helen," includes a tribute to his second wife Nenette ("For Nenette"), reinforced by the Cy Coleman standard "I Love My Wife," and the Ellington rarity "Reflections in D." It is generally considered to be the best of the three.

Evans' Fortunes on the Rise

Evans became better known and sold more records as the decade went on. He was soon making enough money for him and his wife to move out of Manhattan to a comfortable section of the Bronx called Riverdale. Meanwhile Creed Taylor had left Verve and started his own label CTI, and it fell to Helen Keane to take on the role of producer. Gene Lees helped set up the Montreux Jazz Festival and arranged for Evans to play in it in 1968 and thereafter, recording his performances from that year and 1970. When Evans left Verve he spent some time briefly recording for Columbia, but did not consider it very productive. At one point its president, Clive Davis, tried to get him to make a rock album, which Evans flatly turned down.

After that Evans went to Fantasy, which turned out to be a much more fruitful association. He produced some of his most mature satisfying work there. His fame only continued to grow as he acquired more fans among music lovers and disciples among pianists everywhere. Lees tells the story of a piano-playing Toronto dentist he had called when Evans had a toothache there. Lees had been turned down by the nurse because the call had come in after hours. When the dentist heard about it, he was appalled. "What," he said, "Do you realize you turned down God?" and rushed down to the Town Tavern where Evans was playing, tools in hand, to fix his ailing tooth (Lees, Meet Me, 166).

Personal Tragedy

It was also around this time, 1970, that Evans' wife Ellaine committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. As a result, he went back on heroin for a while, then got into a methadone treatment program, and stayed away from drugs for almost the last decade in his life. He married again, to Nenette, and had a child by her, whom they named Evan. His son became the inspiration for the beautiful tune "Letter to Evan." The marriage did not last, however, and soon he was living by himself in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge.

Last Decade of Recording


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