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Bill Evans: 1929-1980

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Who Was Bill Evans?

Bill Evans, one of the most influential and tragic figures of the post-bop jazz piano, was known for his highly nuanced touch, the clarity of the feeling content of his music and his reform of the chord voicing system pianists used. He recorded over fifty albums as leader and received five Grammy awards. He spawned a school of "Bill Evans style" or "Evans inspired" pianists, who include some of the best known artists of our day, including Michel Petrucciani, Andy Laverne, Richard Beirach, Enrico Pieranunzi and Warren Bernhardt. His inescapable influence on the very sound of jazz piano has touched virtually everybody of prominence in the field after him (as well as most of his contemporaries), and he remains a monumental model for jazz piano students everywhere, even inspiring a newsletter devoted solely to his music and influence.

Yet Bill Evans was a person who was painfully self-effacing, especially in the beginning of his career. Tall and handsome, literate and highly articulate about his art, he had a "confidence problem" as he called it, while at the same time devoted himself fanatically to the minute details of his music. He believed he lacked talent, so had to make up with it by intense work, but to keep the whole churning enterprise afloat he took on a heroin addiction for most of his adult life. The result was sordid living conditions, a brilliant career, two failed marriages (the first ending in a dramatic suicide), and an early death.

Origins

Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929, of a devout Russian Orthodox mother and an alcoholic father of Welsh origins, who managed a golf course. Evans' Russian side accounts for the special feeling many of his Russian fans have for him that he is one of them. Bill received his first musical training in his mother's church; both parents were highly musical. He also held a lifelong attachment to the game of golf.

Bill began studying piano at age six, and since his parents wanted him to know more than one instrument, he took up the violin the following year and the flute at age 13. He became very proficient on the flute, although he hardly played it in his later years. Proficiency at these instruments in which great emphasis is laid on tonal expressiveness, might have encouraged Evans to seek the similar gradations of nuance on piano. He did, of course, thereby extending the expressive range of jazz piano.

Evans' older brother Harry, two years his senior, was his first influence. Harry was the first one in the family to take piano lessons, and Bill began at the piano by mimicking him. He worshipped his older brother and tried to keep up with him in sports too, and was devastated by his death in 1979 at the age of 52.

By age 12 he was substituting for his older brother in Buddy Valentino's band, where at one point he discovered a little blues phrase by himself during a stock arrangement performance of "Tuxedo Junction." It was only a Db-D-F phrase in the key of Bb, but it unlocked a door for him, as he said in an interview, "It was such a thrill. It sounded right and good, and it wasn't written, and I had done it. The idea of doing something in music that somebody hadn't thought of opened a whole new world to me." This idea became the central one of his musical career.

Also, by the late 40s Evans considered himself the best boogie-woogie player in northern New Jersey, according to an interview with Marian McPartland on the radio show Piano Jazz. That was the musical rage at the time; later, however, Evans rarely played blues tunes in his performances or on his recordings.

Evans' Reading Habits

Evans' mother was an amateur pianist herself and had amassed piles of old sheet music, which the young Bill read through, gaining breadth and above all speed at sight reading. This enabled him to explore widely in classical literature, especially 20th century composers. Debussy, Stravinsky, notably Petrouschka, and Darius Milhaud were particularly influential. He found this much more interesting than practicing scales and exercises, and it eventually enabled him to experience broad quantities of classical music. As he told Gene Lees, "It's just that I've played such a quantity of piano. Three hours a day in childhood, about six hours a day in college, and at least six hours now. With that, I could afford to develop slowly. Everything I've learned, I've learned with feeling being the generating force." (Lees, Meet Me, p. 150). And as he later told Len Lyons, playing Bach a lot helped him gain control over tone and to improve his physical contact with the keyboard (Great Jazz Pianists, 226).

College and After

Evans received a music scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College (now Southeastern Louisiana University) in Hammond, Louisiana, where he majored in music, graduating in 1950. There is an archive there now dedicated to him administered by Ron Nethercutt. His professors faulted him for not playing the scales and exercises correctly, although he could play the classical pieces perfectly with ease. In college he discovered the work of Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Nat King Cole and Lennie Tristano, who was to have a profound influence on him. He also participated in jam sessions with guitarist Mundell Lowe and bassist Red Mitchell. After college he joined reedman Herbie Fields' band. It was in this last position that he learned to accompany horn players. After that he spent 1951 to 1954 in the army, during which he managed to gig around Chicago. Upon his discharge he decided to pursue a jazz career and settled in New York. There he worked in the dance band of clarinetist Jerry Wald and saxophonist Tony Scott, and became known as an exceptional player in musicians' circles. His first professional recording was made accompanying singer Lucy Reed in 1955, and in 1956 he joined George Russell's avant-garde band and began studying Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept.

First Recording as Leader

In 1956 Mundell Lowe called Orrin Keepnews at Riverside and prevailed upon him and his partner Bill Grauer to listen to a tape of Evans over the phone. This was highly unusual, but Keepnews and Grauer heard enough to convince them they had to record Evans. But first they had to convince him! The very self-effacing Bill Evans didn't believe he was ready to record, and Keepnews and company had to persuade him to the contrary. The atmosphere in the studio was relaxed. Evans had chosen Paul Motian, his drummer with Tony Scott, and Teddy Kotick, an excellent young bassist, who had already worked with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. They recorded 11 pieces in a single day in September of 1956-it was Riverside's money saving policy-including four Evans originals: "Five," "Conception," "No Cover, No Minimum," and the eventual classic "Waltz for Debbie." This last tune was one of three short (under 2 minutes) piano solos Evans recorded after the other members were dismissed. The album, entitled "New Jazz Conceptions" was a critical success, winning Evans very positive reviews in Down Beat and Metronome (by Nat Hentoff). But it only sold 800 copies in a year.

Gaining Experience

As a sideman that year and the next he also recorded with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Art Farmer, and reedmen Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, vibest Eddie Costa, and avant-garde conductor-composer (-pianist) George Russell, whose Lydian harmonic system Evans had found very useful. That year he also met Scott LaFaro, while auditioning him for a place in an ensemble led by trumpeter Chet Baker. Evans was impressed by the young bassist, whom he found overflowing with almost an uncontrolled energy and creativity. When Evans later chose LaFaro for his own trio he found that LaFaro had his talents under better control.

During a concert at Brandeis University in 1957, which combined written-out classical style music and jazz improvisation (before Gunther Schuller had founded the "third stream" movement, which claimed to do just that) Evans distinguished himself during a long solo on George Russell's "All About Rosie." Schuller and Russell were part of the event, along with jazz bassist Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre and composers Milton Babbitt and Harold Shapiro. The solo constituted the announcement of the arrival of a new major talent, which his subsequent recordings would soon confirm.

Miles Hires Him

Evans' big break, though, came when Miles Davis hired him shortly thereafter, putting him in a rhythm section behind John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in addition to himself. Miles' former pianist, Red Garland, had walked out on him, and Miles needed someone more versatile anyway. He was looking for a player who could handle modal playing, and Evans was it. He had met Evans through George Russell, with whom Evans was studying.

A performance of the Ballet Africaine from Guinea in 1958 had originally sparked Miles' interest in modal music. Miles had very big ears and was always listening for new musical currents, both inside himself, from his past, and to new sources fellow musicians brought him. This African music, which featured the finger piano or kalimba, was the kind of music which stayed for long periods of time on a single chord, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. It was a very new concept in jazz at the time, which was dominated by the chord-change based music of bebop, which was really an extension of the American popular song. Miles realized that Evans could follow him into modal music. Moreover, Evans introduced Miles to Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Khachaturian, revealing new scales to him and generally expanding his appreciation for classical music.

Miles found Evans a very quiet, self-effacing person, so he wanted to test Evans' musical integrity. After all, Evans was the only white guy in a powerful, prominently black band. Miles needed to see if he would be musically intimidated, so he said to Evans one day,

"Bill, you know what you have to do, don't you, to be in this band?"

He looked at me puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, "No Miles, what do I have to do? I said, "Bill, now you kow we all brothers and shit and everybody's in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to f... the band." Now I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane [John Coltrane].

He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, "Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can't do it, I just can't do that. I'd like to please everybody and make everyone happy here, but I just can't do that. I looked at him and smiled and said, "My man!" And then he knew I was teasing. (Davis, 226)

So Evans passed the test. Here's why Miles liked Bill's playing:
About Bill Evans
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