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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Where were you staying when he called you?

JLB: Whenever I would work in New York, if I had to, he'd let me sleep on his sofa. I'd often hang at his house. He wasn't sick that morning. It got bad when we were already driving to Manhattan to see his doctor.

AAJ: So it started out as a routine doctor's visit?

JLB: Yes. We were going to see the doctor who was in charge of the methadone program he was in. Then suddenly, he got severely ill, and we took him to the ER.

AAJ: I imagine that the months before that were very painful for you, to see him going down from his addiction.

JLB: I ran the gamut emotionally. I was mad, I wanted to kick him in the pants. I wanted to reason with him! But obviously, it was way past that. Marc Johnson and I came to realize in the last two or three months that the end might be near. Bill was saying goodbye to his friends in the various cities we played in. But in a way, I didn't really see what was happening. When you're with someone every day, you almost don't see their gradual decline. But if you look at a photograph of Bill when I joined the group as opposed to a photo of him towards the end, it's startling! But honestly, that last night, when he sat down at the piano at Fat Tuesday, it was like he was 25 again. He was playing his heart out!

AAJ: What an incredible story on so many levels! And how close you became with him in friendship—like a brother.

JLB: The three of us were very close. He regarded Marc almost like a son, because he was much younger than us. And Marc and I still remain very close.

Joe LaBarbera Today

AAJ: Have you found ways to replace Bill in your life?

JLB: For me, it's not really about replacing him. His legacy lives on. I try to carry on the lessons I learned from him with musicians that I work with. I don't make comparisons. Working with Bill was a once in a lifetime deal. But I've enjoyed playing music every day in my life since then. It's just different.

AAJ: It's not as if you found a particular group to replace the Evans trio.

JLB: I carry it forward in lots of groups. I tour with Eddie Daniels in a quartet, I tour with Joe Locke sometimes, with singer Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson on occasion. I tour with Eddie Gomez and an Italian pianist named Dado Moroni. I'm in a wonderful quartet led by bassist Martin Wind. It's all great. It really doesn't matter the kind of music we're playing. I just like to get on the bandstand with musicians who are there for the right reason.

AAJ: Do you have your own steady working group these days?

JLB: Since I moved out here to Los Angeles, I've had a quintet that I've worked with for over twenty years. But we don't play too frequently anymore on account of everyone's busy schedules. I hope we can get a gig for August so we can reunite. It's Bob Sheppard on saxophones, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Bill Cunliffe on piano, and Tom Warrington on bass. Tom recently retired from his teaching job at UNLV and has moved to New Zealand, so he's not practically available, but will always remain a charter member of the band. More recently I've been hiring a very talented young bassist named Jonathan Richards.

Bill Evans will always have a place in my heart, and the music goes on despite his loss. He would have wanted it that way.

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