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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: I wonder now if we can talk about Evans' personal life. As we know, he suffered from addiction to heroin, alcohol, and other drugs throughout his career, with periods of remission. What really moves me is my impression that even though his addictions progressed, he was always a good person, always responsible. It was as if he never got corrupted emotionally or morally by the addiction. To my knowledge, that is very rare. Do you have a similar sense?

JLB: First of all, Bill never drank alcohol. Somehow that problem got inserted in the dialogue recently but it's untrue. I totally agree with the rest of what you say. With many hard core addicts, the addiction becomes so all-consuming that it affects every aspect of their lives. Not so with Bill Evans. He was very responsible. I don't think we ever missed a gig because of his drug use. Marc and I always got paid, although towards the end there were a few problems. Addiction is so hard for me to comprehend. I tried to be a junior psychologist with him, but as you know anyone with an addiction is very clever and has all the arguments. But he didn't play that game. He simply said to me, "This is the way I'm living my life. Don't try to figure it out or help me deal with it." So that was it. I couldn't go against his wishes. That's the choice he made. That's the way he was. He was consistent across the board. If you check out his various interviews, you'll see that he never varied from his convictions on any point. Whether it was music or his life, he was always very up front, very clear. He considered his drug addiction as a personal problem.

AAJ: He seemed, despite his addiction, to continue to dedicate his life to his creativity. He also seemed to be a very dedicated father.

JLB: Unfortunately, being a father had its challenges for Bill, and that was probably the biggest disappointment in his life. I can't really speak about that in any detail because when I joined him he and his wife Nenette were already separated. He had his own apartment, would go and have visits, and things would be up and down. I'm sure it was a big letdown for him because he did want to have a family very badly. I know he loved his son, but I can't imagine that Evan had the kind of relationship with Bill that either of them really wanted.

AAJ: There's very touching home movie footage with Evan riding on the back of Bill's bicycle. Bill seems happy, but it appears from Evan's facial expression that he's unaccustomed to having his dad around him, like he's a bit of a stranger. That often happens with a father who is working and traveling a lot.

JLB: That's the life of a jazz musician. It comes with the territory.

AAJ: How did you experience going overseas with the trio?

JLB: We went overseas twice. We did two extensive European tours. We went to France, Italy, and some touring in Germany. We went to Brazil and Argentina on a South American tour. We were all set to go to Japan when Bill passed away. He was much in demand then. We were supposed to go to Russia in 1980, but Bill cancelled that trip because he was opposed to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, which he expressed in a lengthy letter to Downbeat, saying that although he would disappoint his fans there, he felt that as an artist he needed to protest that occurrence. He was definitely a man of strong conviction.

AAJ: There's a recording of one of the Argentina performances (Bill Evans Trio—Live In Buenos Aires 1979 (Yellow Note Records)) where he seemed to stretch the limits of rhythm and harmony beyond anything he did before. Does that ring a bell with you?

JLB: Yes, it's two LPs that I have in my collection. As you said before, he really loved the trio and was really stretching his own playing. He had one tune, "Nardis" by Miles Davis that he nicknamed the "rubber room" song [Laughter] where we could just go bananas and go all out. At the other extreme on ballads like "Minha" or "Gary's Waltz," it couldn't get any more delicate. Very poignant, sparse, and very moving.

AAJ: Did he play differently in different countries?

JLB: No. Not at all. I think that once he got on the bandstand, he could have been anywhere. Of course the fans in South America were extremely responsive. They'd been waiting for him to come for so long, and now suddenly he's here. So they were more demonstrative. But honestly, wherever we went, the crowds were very enthusiastic.

AAJ: Sometimes the musicians respond differently to different audiences in the way they play. But you said Bill played basically for himself.

JLB: I think he felt that if he was pleasing himself, that it would also please his audience. He wasn't deliberately trying to shut them out.

Bill Evans' Demise

AAJ: I was very moved reading about when he died that you took him to the hospital, going from New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge and taking him to the hospital in Manhattan where he later passed on.

JLB: Laurie, his girlfriend at the time, was staying with Bill, and we had been trying for a while to convince him to go to the doctor, but he kept refusing. Then, all of a sudden, on a Sunday night after we had just finished a week at Fat Tuesday, he said, "All right—I'll go to the doctor." And I said, "OK. I'm staying and Laurie and I will take you to the doctor." Unfortunately, when we were driving in Manhattan, he became seriously ill, so we had to take him right to the emergency room. We drove by Helen Keane's office to pick up something there, and when Laurie came back to the car, Bill started getting really violently ill. Even though he was dying, he's backseat driving, telling me which blocks to turn off on. It was crazy, but we did what he said.

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