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Nenette Evans: My Life With Bill

Bruce Guthrie BY

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He said that my voice 'washed' over him. I took this as a great compliment, coming from a man for whom the most subtle nuance of sound was a well-honed science.
—Nenette Evans
Originally from Southern California, Nenette Evans met and married Bill Evans in 1973. Ms. Evans now handles the legendary pianist and composer's estate along with attorney Steven Lowy and others. She is also involved with the Bill Evans Piano Academy in Paris, France. I met Nenette through her friend Carol Baker and our work with the Chet Baker estate.

In this interview, Nenette discusses how she met Bill Evans and her introduction to his music.

Concerts By The Sea

All About Jazz: How did you meet Bill Evans?

Nenette Evans: I was  a part-time waitress at Howard Rumsey's club Concerts By The Sea in Redondo Beach, California, while also working in my dad's accounting office by day in Buena Park.

Howard Rumsey had been playing recordings by the Bill Evans trio on the music system in the club weeks  before Bill arrived. In between the current artist's sets, Howard and his wife Joyce piped in the upcoming artist's recordings. Meanwhile, Howard reverentially talked up Bill's imminent arrival like the second coming. Howard ordered me—in a nice way—to aurally caress the music, to absorb it, in effect to embrace it in the same zealous, almost prayerful way he did. I can remember him standing next to me in the nearly empty club, asking "Hear that?" and pointing out some particular aspect of Bill's playing. "Sure, I did," nodding and smiling weakly. There were no options with Mr. Rumsey when it came to Bill Evans!

AAJ: So that was in 1973?

NE:  Yes. By the time Bill's trio arrived at Concerts By The Sea, I had already listened to many jazz artists on the radio and television. Jazz was very popular then, even in the mainstream against the dominance of rock, thanks to personalities like Steve Allen and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. I especially liked Dave Brubeck. My grandparents had introduced me to Broadway show tunes and George Shearing.

Though I was cordial to the Rumseys, I didn't really get into the whole jazz scene. Finally, after much cajoling, I had obediently (if not half-heartedly) genuflected before Howard's altar to Bill Evans—more to please the awestruck Howard Rumsey rather than for any other reason.

At the club, there were a couple of guys who wanted to go out with me. One was drummer Dick Berk. Dick told me a horrific story about his family in New York City.  His wife and child had been murdered while he was at a gig. It was a horrible thought and I always had a soft spot in my heart for him because of that terrible, life-changing incident. He always said I ran away with the pianist. Dick later formed the group the Jazz Adoption Agency. There was also a tall, handsome bassist from another group who approached me.

When Bill would show up at the club, he would stand near me as if to place himself at the forefront of the others, his admiring gaze boring in on me. His fixation on me was vaguely uncomfortable. I was complimented to a degree but resisted encouraging him in any way. I was not seeking his attention or that of any other possible suitor.

I vigorously ignored Bill's advances when he came to the club. He was playing in California during that time but kept popping into the club to see me. I had just ended a relationship with a man who was still in the area and still doing construction work for my father, who was building a deli in downtown Los Angeles. He was staying with  my mother until the job was done but we were done for sure. I was decidedly not looking for any entanglements.

Bill was still playing in the Southern California area so he pursued me whenever he found time on his hands or on his days off, driving to Redondo Beach from other clubs like Shelly's Manne-Hole or Diamonte's. It was humorous because whenever he was spotted in the club, the current performers assumed that he had come in to see them play.

Bill sometimes approached me in the parking lot when I was getting to my car after work.  He left ridiculous notes on my windshield with stick figures pleading for his amorous attention. This somewhat annoying cartoon ploy seemed a bit old-fashioned.

Today, this type of love bombing might be referred to as "stalking." Perhaps it was then, but in a non-threatening, grammar school kind of way. Once I took one of Bill's pathetic notes off the windshield of my old Volvo sedan, tore it to bits in front of him, threw it on the ground, got in my car and drove off.

It was clear from the start that whatever drew Bill and I together was not a musical attraction. Our introduction came about innocently enough. When Bill finished with one set on this particular night, I leaned forward out of the dark where I was standing by a column in the middle of the room. I simply asked Bill about a solo piece that he had been playing each night. The significance of the solo piece was important because it highlighted the music and playing itself. To my untrained ear, it was noteworthy because it was unadorned by bass and drums. It had caught my attention in the sense that it didn't particularly fit into the category featured by previous artists at the club.  In fact, it seemed to stand out for the fact that time itself seemed to linger and expand into something that suggested a certain mood or atmosphere.

Had that Steve Swallow tune, "Hullo Bolinas," been played with other instruments, it would have just blended with the rest of the music. Since drummer Marty Morell suggested that Bill play it as a solo piece, I have to credit him with our initial introduction.

Bill later said that he fell in love with me that moment. He said the sound of my voice drew him to me. As I have written in my memoir, whatever synchronistic events that may have led to our introduction, our hearts collided under overwhelming, call it, cosmic  pressure. Bill said that he barely saw me in the dark but, when he heard my voice, he fell in love with me at that moment. He said that my voice "washed" over him. I took this as a great compliment, coming from a man for whom the most subtle nuance of sound was a well-honed science. I have read that studies indicate certain properties in a person's voice can actually determine a mate.

Bill Evans At Home

AAJ: Nenette, can you talk about Bill Evans at home and the music he liked, either his music or that of others? What were his musical habits, for example the amount of time he spent practicing?

NE: I was reminded recently about a cute ditty that Bill played for me in Riverdale. I was cleaning his piano and he said that he used to hear his mom cleaning the piano keys, so he wrote a tune called the "Dust Rag Rag." Animated, as if to bring that memory to life, he immediately played the crisp, jaunty piece in the tiny room where we managed to squeeze the Chickering & Sons piano. I thought it was very sweet of Bill to share that with me.

Other tunes we talked about included some show tunes and popular music, since Bill always had to think about these songs for his next recording. Some music was sent to him from his publisher, the Richmond Organization, or was given to him by composers during his travels. A lot of his recordings came about this way. One beautiful piece given to him was "Minha," by Brazilian composer Frances Hime.

The pieces for his records were chosen more randomly rather than in a thematic way. I'm sure Bill had many factors outlined in his mind, but there was no fuss about anything when preparing for a recording. It may have been done in any number of other ways, with any other music known or unknown to himself or others. Speaking as a non-musician, in my observation there just seemed to be a certain randomness in the selection of music that would appear on his albums.

Our very special tune was "Hullo Bolinas," written by bassist/composer Steve Swallow. Since that tune was instrumental in our introduction to each other, Bill agreed that he would never play it in public again. In general though, at home or anywhere, Bill would play anything I asked him to play; it was never a chore for him. One time he gave me a list, an introduction to the history of classical music. It was written on a small piece of paper, maybe a matchbook cover.

Gary Burton said that Steve Swallow went to several of Bill's concerts—at Carnegie Hall and again in New Haven, Connecticut—where he thought Bill might play "Hullo Bolinas." To Swallow's consternation, Bill never played it. It was our sacred song and we made a pact at one point to commemorate our meeting. It was not to be sullied in front of an audience. Bill did play the captivating piece once in South America. He said he got a thunderous ovation at the end. But that was before our secret pact. It is also on The Tokyo Concert (Fantasy, 1974) record if anyone wants to hear it.

AAJ: What about practice times?

NE: That is the most frequently-asked question. I usually answer the same way: never! He did enjoy going through music occasionally, but it could hardly be characterized as practice.

I once read an interview with Bill where he discussed the fact that when he played, he often didn't know what he would play until he played it. This reinforces my observation of Bill's casual, unregimented proclivity toward the music. This may have been his way of keeping things fresh. It proved to work well for him, wouldn't you agree?

The simple fact was that he played so much while touring, he was always in shape and ready to slip right into performance mode. Bill would always call from the road to make sure the piano tuner had been to the house.

AAJ: How did you feel about Bill writing a tune for you called "For Nenette?"

NE: Naturally, I was thrilled. Bill wrote a tune for most everyone in his life. I don't think he wrote one for his mother, but I could be mistaken. Bill had very complex feelings toward his mother so it would not be a surprise to think that he was waiting for the right moment, which may have never came. Frankly, I had never expected a tune to be written for me, which was later changed to "In April." Joyce Collins, the Los Angeles pianist and singer, told me how much she loved playing and singing that piece.

AAJ: How did it come about?

NE: Bill's process for naming tunes for different individuals was not what one might normally think. He was always writing something, and if it occurred to him he would title it with that person's name or perhaps an anagram, for example "Re: Person I Knew" for producer Orrin Keepnews or the children. I was responsible for several titles. "Since We Met" was one, and "Bill's Belle" was another, named for his music editor at the Richmond Organization, Judy Bell.

AAJ: Efforts to be controlling in relationships are far from uncommon, and can be manifested in curious ways. Is it true that Bill insisted that you not listen to rock music during your relationship?

NE: All of my friends were into rock and that was what we listened to predominantly. Also, my first true love was a bassist in Los Angeles who played with a local group, the Storybook People. George Biondo (Steppenwolf) played in venues where I could not enter, because I was too young. So I was dating a musician who I never heard play! I had to wait outside while he did his gig. Our relationship was very chaste, very Catholic.

I had other boyfriends and George had other girlfriends but we remained close. We lost touch for a large chunk of time since my father moved the family and his office from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County, California. At some point, George had moved on to be with another rock group that became popular. I went to college and met a doctor in Newport Beach marina who had a schooner. It was all very "adventures in paradise." We had a brief affair, bearing a darling little girl named "Maxine." [Maxine Evans is a photographer in Los Angeles and is writing a memoir.]

AAJ: What is the story behind Bill and you listening to rock music, and Bill's thoughts about George?

NE: Bill had strong feelings about rock music and other forms of music. He thought that those who listened to rock were empty-minded. He felt that rock was shallow and not enduring. He said it was fleeting, a cheap, immediate thrill. He referred to rock music as "being hit over the head." Bill spoke of how certain musicians— you might know who they are—"sold out" by incorporating rock into their repertoires or styles. He was very distressed by the lowering of musical standards, as he saw it. He said it made him worry about the state of the world. The "world" he referred to was one in which selling the most records was the final measure of success and musical excellence. In retrospect, I find it amusing.

In 1975, after Bill and I moved to Closter, New Jersey from Riverdale, New York, George would call me from the road. Bill was never bothered by the fact that an old flame was contacting me. Though he was jealous at times, it wasn't that. It was all about the music. He had shut down the rock attraction for me. He forbade the music from our lives completely (not that it was ever in his life, except to undermine his life's work). He may have had a justified reaction to it on that account. But I had to tell poor George never to call again because Bill disliked rock, and perhaps, by extension, him.

Many years later, after Bill died, I had some contractors working at my house in California. They had the radio on, I heard a song and I asked for the name of the group because I thought it was terrific and I had never heard it before. The electrician and the carpenter looked at me like I was from another world. It turned out to be Queen singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." I was a total rock illiterate! I had been completely reprogrammed by Bill. I was from another world: planet Bill Evans!

This was and still is a strong testament to Bill's gentle but persistent persuasiveness when it came to musical purity.

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