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My Early Years with Bill Evans, Part 2

Chuck Israels By

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Chemical dependencies of various kinds became an inescapable fact of Bill's life. He told me that the only recording he ever made that wasn't under the influence of drugs was his first one. —Chuck Israels
Bassist and composer Chuck Israels was raised in a musical family. He studied the cello and played guitar in junior high school. Later musical training took place at Indian Hill, a summer workshop in the arts directed by his parents, and at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. A year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided access to the considerable jazz activity in Boston where Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, Joe Gordon, Serge Chaloff and bassist John Neves were among the many musicians who lived and performed regularly in the area. Chuck took up the bass in order to fill out the M.I.T. orchestra and soon found a demand for his abilities in the Boston jazz scene. While at Brandeis, Chuck played in a trio with pianist Steve Kuhn, who was then at Harvard, and Arnold Wise, a drummer studying at the Massachusetts School of Art. A concert at Brandeis which involved the participation of jazz musicians Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, Barry Galbraith, Bill Evans, Joe Benjamin and composers Gunther Schuller, George Russell and Charles Mingus, presented Chuck with the opportunity to meet and perform with musicians who later provided entré into the New York jazz scene.

Chuck is currently writing a memoir of his life in jazz, and this is the second of three excerpts from it.

Peter Rubie


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I'd heard Bill Evans in 1955 or 1956 at a New York club called The Composer and was immediately taken with his playing, but I don't remember meeting him until June 1957. While I was a student at Brandeis University, three jazz composers and three classical composers were commissioned to write pieces for an orchestra of jazz musicians who would come to Brandeis, spend a week or two rehearsing the material, and then perform it during an arts festival. My teacher, Harold Shapero, wrote "On Green Mountain," based on something by Monteverdi. Milton Babbitt wrote a 12-tone piece called "All Set," with a complicated vibraphone part, and Gunther Schuller wrote "Transformation." The jazz composers included George Russell, Charlie Mingus} and Jimmy Giuffre. Art Farmer, Louis Mucci, Jimmy Knepper, Jimmy Buffington, John LaPorta, Hal McKusick, Teddy Charles, Barry Galbraith, Joe Benjamin and Bill Evans were all in the band, and Gunther Schuller was the conductor. I knew of all of them, but Bill was the most important to me.

I was able to listen to rehearsals and hang around with the musicians. Bill, probably the youngest of the group, was quiet, but cheerful, with a sly smile and a hint of humor. And there was a palpable sense that all the musicians were impressed with him. Gunther, even with the responsibility of conducting and organizing everything, was accessible and friendly.

There was no nearby off-campus place for the players to eat after rehearsals, so they ended up at the student union cafeteria and snack bar. There was a piano there, so I figured out when the musicians were likely to turn up and arranged for Steve Kuhn and Arnie (Arnold Wise) to be there playing with me. This was a time when there was virtually no jazz played by university students. I knew we were a good trio. We'd played at a professional level in Boston gigs and as accompanists for Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz when they'd played concerts at Brandeis. I knew the New York musicians would be surprised by the level of our playing, and it was important to me that they hear us. When they did, they stayed, listened intently, and nearly forgot to eat. It was the first time Bill Evans heard me play.

As I mentioned, I heard the news of Scott LaFaro's death in July while I was in Italy, and then spent the summer in Europe traveling and playing. In October 1961, after a week in Stockholm (a city even more strikingly beautiful than Copenhagen) I returned to New York. My friend Paula said there'd been a couple of phone messages from Bill and that I was to call as soon as I got my bearings. In New York, you can get anything on a 24-hour basis, even bearings.

As far as I was concerned this phone call had been inevitable. Despite the powerful blow he felt at Scotty's loss, Bill was too much of a musician to stop playing for long, no matter how much he'd loved Scotty. And he was too strong a musician to have depended so much on anyone to shore up his musical spirit that he wouldn't find a way to go on. I was simply one of two logical choices, and I didn't think Bill knew about Steve Swallow, though there's no question he could have done the job as well. I was as prepared for this in many respects as anyone I knew; in the ways I wasn't prepared, I thought Bill would take up the slack.

Orrin Keepnews has described my demeanor at this time as arrogant. I didn't experience it that way, but I understand how my behavior could have looked like that. You try and cover up your sense of inadequacy with bravado. And I was plagued by conflicting feelings of insecurity and confidence, neither of which were fully justified.

The three most important things in music are rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm—in that order. No two musicians feel and express rhythm in exactly the same way, but some are more compatible than others. On the strength of this issue alone, I thought Bill would like my playing. This is a sensual, intimate thing, and Bill's music just felt right... when I'd played with him four years earlier and when I heard the records he had made before the trio with Scotty. When Bill took aim at a point seven or eight measures ahead, superimposing complex cross rhythms on the meter until he landed securely in an intelligible place, I knew what was happening on the deepest, most intuitive level.

If you'd asked me about the pitches, or the harmonies, I'd have made educated guesses that were more right than wrong; but I was far more secure about the rhythm. True compatibility communicates itself—and if I knew it, Bill had to know it too. No question. We both felt the beat the same way and we both knew it. I recognized the potential for a partnership, and I thought Bill would be sensitive enough to feel the same conclusion. If I was scared, and I probably was in hindsight, I repressed it and didn't think about it. In retrospect, I can understand how that might come across as arrogance.

We had one rehearsal, if you could call it that . . . actually it was really an audition. I went to Bill's apartment on 106th Street, between the north end of West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. Paul Motian was there, and we played a few things. Bill was quiet but not unfriendly; no one had a lot to say. When I was around Bill, I had the impression that the best way to communicate was through playing music. I know others who later spoke with Bill about his work, and theirs. But I thought it was my responsibility to take care of that independently of him. I don't know where I got that idea, but it prevailed throughout our relationship, and the tone was set at this early encounter.

Paul was chattier, but both were clearly in audition mode. I needed to pass, so I concentrated on myself rather than them. When we played I focused on being as open and receptive to what they were doing as I could manage. There was a dichotomy in my behavior—social self-centeredness, likely because I was unconsciously trying to cover up my insecurities, and a musical, I hoped generous empathy when I could forget about myself and just focus on the music we were making. That at least is how I remember it. I don't recall discussing Scotty's death—it could be that my burning desire to communicate through the music, to be accepted as part of the trio blotted out all the rest . . . or maybe the poignant loss we all shared just couldn't be articulated in words by any of us. It was in the music where that conversation somehow happened.

After mis-timing a rubato ending, I asked if Bill would nod to indicate the changing tempo. That's what I was used to from watching the first violinist in string quartets back in my cello playing days. Bill said, "No, just listen." He was right. There's an inherent logic to appropriate changes of speed in music, and if you listen, you know. Visual indicators are mostly superfluous in good ensembles. I tried it. It worked perfectly then and for the better part of the next six years.

I remember that we played Bill's signature theme, "Five." I'd heard it on his first record and a few times since. It's tricky, based on the chords of "I Got Rhythm," overlaying quintuplets every four beats in the A sections and quadruplets over every three, quarter note beats in the bridge. That's complicated, and I couldn't have told you what it was at the time. I'd have a hard time reading it even now, but I heard it and played it in a New York minute. That was the stuff that counted. I didn't know enough tunes, or enough about harmony, and certainly not enough of Bill's highly developed way of treating the harmonies of standard tunes. All that could come later.

It was the rhythm that mattered.

According to journalist, Adam Gopnik, in an article published in The New Yorker in 2001, Paul Motian said, "Bill was in a state of shock. Look at my gig book: nothing, nothing, nothing with Bill, until December. Bill was like a ghost."

Orrin said in his book I pulled Bill out of his slump and got him back into playing. I doubt it. Bill got himself out of whatever state he had been in, and for a number of reasons had to get back to playing. I was just lucky the timing was right.

Our first gig was at a club in the black section of Syracuse. There was an upright piano, painted white, and we stayed in a hotel above the bus depot. I think it was Bill's idea of a place to hide out while we pulled the music together. There were bookings in the next few months for a long run at the Hickory House and a couple of weeks at the Village Vanguard opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Something happened at the hotel before that first gig that set the tone for part of my relationship with Bill. He invited me into his room where he and his wife Elaine were shooting heroin. It was a grisly scene: a belt around Bill's upper arm to make the veins stand out, a hypodermic needle in his forearm, and an eye dropper in place of a syringe, squeezing blood in and out of his vein. To Bill, it seemed a normal part of his life and nothing to hide. To me it was both morbidly fascinating, and frightening. I told him I'd rather not see that again, and in all the years I knew Bill, I never did.

Chemical dependencies of various kinds became an inescapable fact of Bill's life. He told me that the only recording he ever made that wasn't under the influence of drugs was his first one. I'd first met him around 1955 when he was playing at an east side jazz club called The Composer and again at Brandeis in 1957—both times before he had started using drugs. He was intelligent, with a wry sense of humor. His intellect and the beauty in his music never left him, but some of the humor slipped away, and as Bill's life became increasingly cloaked in a cocoon of opiates, his emotional contact with the world—and eventually even his music—became more remote. No one knows how much Bill's experience of the external world was changed by drugs, but careful listening to his music reveals how certain energies slowly ebbed from the expression of his inner world. You can hear something happening to his music if you compare the recordings he made before 1961 to those that came after. There are some positive developments, of course, but there is also a creeping introspection. There are momentary exceptions, but generally there is gradually less effort to reach outward to the listener. The precision of nuance and articulation never left, but the strength of emphasis abated.

Bill was a fascinating personality, at first a little shy then increasingly withdrawn. He was always articulate and insightful with words as well as music and brilliant when using words to describe music. His speech was as direct and un-flowery as his playing—avoiding unnecessary elaboration of simple ideas. When obstinately probed about what his secret improvising method might be during an interview (with a musician who ought to have known better), he had to answer three times that all he was doing was expressing the form of the tune as he heard it. The interviewer was reluctant to let go of the question and Bill, cordial as he usually was, didn't step out of his role to supply a new answer. He just kept answering what he had been asked until the interviewer relented. Which was more perverse: the inanity of the question or Bill's refusal to take the interviewer's cue and expand upon it? He demonstrated his process by playing. Though he could have talked a lot about what he was doing, the musical example was sufficiently eloquent to render talk superfluous.

Bill was usually kind-hearted. Once when drummer Mel Lewis's daughter Anita was a student at Indian Hill, (my parents' summer arts camp in Stockbridge, MA) he made the three-hour trip from New York with Mel and we played for the students. He was often insightful about people as well. A virtuoso jazz clarinetist sat in with us for a set at the Village Vanguard and then complained (at the little table in the back hall) that he had a cold and did not play anywhere near his best. Bill listened patiently to the apology; when the musician left he noted that people play the way they play at given times in their development—the variation between their best and worst is objectively much less than their subjective experience of it. This guy, in spite of his consummate instrumental skill and wide knowledge, simply did not make much music. It wasn't as bad as he thought, but his best night wouldn't have been much better.

Bill talked about his addiction only rarely; you got the feeling he was applying his powerful intelligence to a cleverly defended rationale for maintaining his habits. I imagine he might have done the same thing in his therapy sessions. We all try to do that—depending on our therapists to have even more clever techniques, so that over time we are helped out of our own traps. But you have to want to get out, and Bill seemed committed to strengthening his prison. There were things about it he liked.

I wasn't going to understand it, and I certainly wasn't going to get Bill to change his behavior. Many people who cared about Bill and assumed I held some power because of our daily contact asked me why I didn't help him. I cared as much as anyone, and I had a substantial investment in Bill's health, but I didn't know how.

Heroin remains a mystery to me. No one has ever tried to get me to use it, nor do I think they could. No description of its charms can overcome the picture I have of the ravages. I don't know any old junkies. They are motivated by some sense of self-preservation to quit, or they die. I don't always know an addict when I see one, nor do I always recognize when someone I know is using. Heroin affects people differently and seems to affect the same people differently at different times. I never knew when Sal Nistico was using heroin, only that he was in and out of those problems. It never noticeably affected his powerful musical energy, or intelligence, and he was always a little paranoid whether he was using or not. There is something fascinating about a substance that seems to alter consciousness so powerfully while leaving some people's skills and intellectual abilities more or less intact.

I mention all this about drugs because they were ever present with Bill, hovering in the immediate background even when he was momentarily clean; their effects on his performance were usually not noticeable in the short term. If Bill's health and well-being weren't in obvious crisis we generally ignored the problem. No other course seemed productive. He showed up, communicated what was necessary to organize the music, and played like an angel.

Photo credit: Bob Rosenbaum

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