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Bill Evans: 1929-1980

AAJ Staff By

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As a corollary to a musician's stylistic identity, one eventually develops one's own unique sound. This may be very difficult to define, although easily recognizable by ear. Not everyone has one. "I think having one's own sound in a sense is the most fundamental kind of identity in music," said Evans.

But it's a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes form inside, and it's a long-term process. It's a product of a total personality. Why one person is going to have it and another person isn't, I don't know why exactly. I think sometimes the people I seem to like most as musical artists are people who have had to-they're like late arrivers....They've had to work a lot harder...to get facility, to get fluency...Whereas you see a lot of young talents that have a great deal of fluidity and fluency and facility, and they never really carry it any place. Because in a way they're not aware enough of what they're doing. (Enstice & Rubin, 140)

Bill Evans' Mature Style

Evans' mature style has been such a pervasive influence in jazz piano over the past thirty years that in many ways it is almost undetectable. We can speak of his highly nuanced touch, his melodic shapes, and his chord voicings and still be at a distance from the essence of his sound. To clarify this essence it is useful to isolate and describe the elements of his style, which other pianists have picked up with different degrees of fidelity to Evans, and then see what is left to Evans alone.

At the most general level, jazz pianists today tend to sound more like Evans than they do like his two great piano predecessors and influences, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano. Like Evans and unlike Powell and Tristano, the contemporary style utilizes a greater proportion of shaped phrases than continuous lines; it utlizes a greater proportion of chromaticism and non-major scale modes than Powell certainly; and it utilizes Evans' chord voicings as a point of departure for its harmonic conception. After this, approaches to touch, harmony, and melodic shape are highly individualized.

At closer stylistic proximity to Evans are the members of his "school," mentioned above, whose playing makes direct reference to his style. In the work of these pianists you will hear more frequently such typical Evans traits as moving inner voices, fleet block chord melodies, rhythmically truncated melodic lines which leave the listener in mid-air, scalar passages-especially diminished scales-in thirds, and his poignant harmonies, including reharmonizations and original tunes with harmonic structures similar to those Evans used.

Yet when you listen closely to the recordings of Evans himself you hear things not present even in his closest followers, for example, the fine gradation of touch that offers up emotional nuance at a truly surprising level of sensitivity. Any of Evans' external figures can be imitated, even nuances of touch, but that's just the surface structure of his music. The key to the uniqueness of his sound which is immediately identifiable and has never been perfectly duplicated by anyone, lay deep within his aesthetic consciousness. Putting into perspective how he arrived at his sound offers a clue to the nature of this consciousness, this emotional intention expressed musically, which is the deep engine of his music and accounts for its uniqueness.

Evans' Internal Musical Engine

We know Evans disliked exercises, avoided playing them; that he read quickly and accurately an enormous amount of classical (and other) printed music, and performed it perfectly; that he stressed that he played nothing without feeling; and that he felt he had arrived at his mastery and hallmark sound the long way around, not by imitating anything, or by any method other than the assimilation of enormous amounts of music. From this perspective a finger exercise would be an unacceptable short-cut, since it would remove the player from the emotional potential of music by unacceptably isolating technique from feeling. By taking the time to refuse to do this during his entire formation Evans recreated jazz piano for himself, and by extension for the rest of the field.

Personal students of Evans say that he would never spell out anything he did for them: chord voicings, fast passages, whatever-you just had to figure it out if you really wanted it. But Evans wasn't just being difficult: he was insisting on the same standards of authenticity for his student as he claimed for himself. But that leaves us with a paradox. If it is impossible through mere imitation for anyone to recreate Evans' style without his internal engine which invested every musical gesture with his emotional content; then by taking Evans' route, by playing no music without an investiture of emotion, the student would necessarily formulate a unique musical personality different from that of Evans.

Of course, this is what Evans, the teacher, wanted. We didn't need any more Bill Evanses. His teaching approach challenged the student to be as deep and as original as he was.

Effects of Evans' Style

But having said this, what can Bill Evans' music accomplish, given its expansive emotional charge and infinitely fine nuances of touch? In a word: intimacy. His music manages to address an attentive listener's inmost private thoughts, so close to the thinking and feeling organ that you are not sure if you are producing the effects or if the music is. When you emerge from the intense and delicate reverie the music has induced the rest of jazz piano may sound unbearably coarse-even Evans' followers. It may take you a while to reset in order to be able to appreciate the separate musical personality of a different player. But you will have felt the power of Evans' aesthetic purity, and when appreciated under the proper conditions, it is awesome.

Many people have had this experience and become devoted fans, wondering all the while if anyone else knew what they were experiencing. Yet this is the paradox of music that achieves intimacy. It offers the illusion that it is addressing itself solely to you. Lees describes it at the beginning of his article.

Evans Meets His Long-Term Manager

Jazz writer Gene Lees, a personal friend of Evans, was in 1962 leaving an editorial post at Down Beat. He had recently met manager Helen Keane and formed a strong personal relationship with her, insisting that she hear Bill Evans. But Evans already had managerial contracts, in fact, two of them, which constituted an official mistake by the musicians' union. First Lees brought Keane to hear Evans. He was playing at the Village Vanguard. Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte owed their starts to her, and Lees realized Keane could work wonders on Evans' career. As soon as she heard the first few seconds she said, "Oh, no, not this one! This is the one that could break my heart." But she was willing to do it.

Then Lees set up lunch with the president of the union, a personal friend of his, and presenting the conflict, asked him to cancel both of the existing contracts.

His Drug Habit

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:
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