BILL EVANS was born in Plainfield, N.J., on Aug. 16, 1929, to a mother of Ukrainian ancestry and a father of Welsh descent. His father had alcohol-related disorders. His early training was in classical music. He began piano lessons at the age of six and also studied violin and flute. He started playing in a high-school band when he was 12. Later he played a variety of piano jobs as a teenager in a number of Dixieland bands while he studied at the Southeastern Louisiana University. He was recruited by Ralph Pottle, a former band director, to come to Southeastern. Pottle discovered Evans on one of his recruitment tours around the country. Even though Evans is known as a pianist, Pottle actually offered him a scholarship to perform the flute in the Southeastern band. About 1950 Bill formed his first trio with his friends, the recently deceased Connie Atkinson on bass and Frank Robell on drums and played in clubs in New Jersey (The CD Very Early with posthumous released rehearsal tapes). Student by day, performer by night. He graduated with high honors and was the recipient of the university’s “Distinguished Alumnus Award.” Later Bill played in the 5th Army Band from 1950-1952. While there he formed a combo called “The Casuals” that played near the base, on the radio and various other venues. It was guitarist Mundell Lowe who encouraged him to go to New York. In 1955, with 75 dollars in his pocket, he moved to New York where he played with Herbie Fields and Jerry Wald. His early gigs were with Mundell Lowe, Red Mitchell, Tony Scott and Charles Mingus. From an interview with Mundell Lowe (by Ron Nethercutt)
Evans’ first significant record date was the Jazz Workshop album for George Russell in 1956. It included “Concerto For Billy The Kid,” the piece that first brought Bill Evans to the attention of many musicians and listeners. Bill Evans had to go in the army and played flute in the Fifth Army Band. Back in normal life he studied at the Mannes School of Music in New York composition and counterpoint. From 1955 he recorded as a sideman numerous albums. In 1956 he signed with the Riverside label, which featured his first revolutionary piano trio with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro, whose virtuoso cello-like improvisations highlighted the trio’s unique harmonic and melodic interactions. The Bill Evans trio developed an almost telepathic sense of interplay and a great mutual musical independence. The Bill Evans trios are sometimes interactive, intimate chamber music making that is similar to the greatest classical trios like the Beaux Arts, the Guarneri and the Altenberg trio. From an interview with Miles Davis about Bill Evans
Two years later, he worked with Miles Davis, who shared Evan’s love of the French impressionists Ravel and Debussy, which found their fullest expression on the 1959 modal masterpiece album and best-selling jazz record of all time, Kind Of Blue, which also featured the Bill Evans-Miles Davis evocative and beautiful ballad, “Blue In Green”.
The album opened a whole new world of melodic and harmonic possibilities. Nowadays all the players are jazzicons, all the compositions are jazz classics and the album still sounds sublime. After his collaboration with Miles Davis, resulting in several albums in one year, Evans worked with his own trio, until 1961 when Scott LaFaro was tragically killed in a car crash. Bill Evans was a quiet revolutionary whose Bud Powell, Ravel and Chopin based pianisms introduced a more florid way of playing ballads. Evans was an incredibly lyrical pianist, but he had the ability to be forceful and ambitious as well. Evans’ expressive piano work inspired a whole generation of players who appreciated his unique harmonic approach, his introspective lyricism, and his unhurried improvisation along with an analytical perfection. His chords have its own intrinsic colour, which creates a particular climate. Evans’ essence was defined by his tastful economy of expression. The notes he chose not to play were fully as crucial as the ones he did, “the breath in between the phrase”. The following statement by the famous classical pianist Arthur Schnabel certainly applies to Bill Evans: “The notes I handle are no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, that is where the art resides!” No pianist plays “deeper” in the keys, extracting a richer, more complex piano sound than Bill Evans. Most jazz pianists tend to think “vertically” in terms of chords and are concerned with the rhythmical placement of these chords than with melody and voice leading. His sparse left-hand voicings support his lyrical right-hand lines, with a subtle use of the sustaining pedal. The long melodic line, which, says Bill Evans, is “the basic thing I want in my playing because music must be always singing”.
Through Bill Evans, the piano was freed from rhythmic constraints and allowed to create subtle new ideas of touch and accent. He was a major sideman with Miles Davis in the late ’50s, and his groundbreaking trio with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro in the early ’60s introduced a freer conception of group improvisation during the famous Village Vanguard Sessions. The original Riverside releases Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are reissued in 2005 with a three CD box set The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings with a superb sound from the newly remastered original tapes adding previously unissued takes, spoken introductions and the band’s incidental conversations. The musical selections are presented in the chronical sequence of the original five sets, all of the highest historical importance.
Evans’ jazz trios, from the first with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, to his final trio of Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera, included jazz innovators, not merely sidemen. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Evans would lead some exceptional combos with drummers Larry Bunker, Jack DeJohnette, Eliot Zigmund, Joe LaBarbera, Marty Morrell, and bassists Chuck Israels, Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson. His last officially recorded performance was at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner between August 31 and September 8, 1980, just a week before his death resulting in two eight-CD sets Last Waltz and Consecration.
His very last gig, from 9/9 – 14, which turned to be a two days one, happened at the Fat Tuesdays jazzclub in NYC.
After two days of playing, Evans was much too sick to go on. An unofficial bootleg recording of this last performance on September 10 ends very touching with his composition “Turn Out The Stars”.
His very last gig, from 9/9 – 14, which turned to be a two days one, happened at the Fat Tuesdays jazzclub in NYC. After two days of playing, Evans was much too sick to go on. An unofficial bootleg recording of this last performance on September 10 ends very touching with his composition “Turn Out The Stars”.
On Monday afternoon, September 15, 1980, in New York, he died in the Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 51 from bleeding stomach ulcer or oesophageal varices as a complication of his liver cirrhosis after a lifelong drug abuse (From Jazz and Death by Frederick Spencer, MD, University Press of Mississippi, 2002). A service was held the next Friday at the “jazz church” of New York City: St. Peter’s Church, Lexington Avenue at East 54th Street. A death announcement in the The New York Times from September 17, 1980 headed: “Bill Evans, jazz pianist praised for lyricism and structure, dies”. In The New Yorker of October 6, 1980 Frank Conroy wrote an obituary of Bill Evans and Dave Dexter in september 27 in Billboard. More obituaries from Leonard Feather and Orrin Keepnews in Contemporary Keyboard Magazine from December 1980 (PDF).
Laurie Verchomin, who was 22 years old at that time, was Bill Evans’ girlfriend during the final 18 months of his life. She had five exclusive interviews about Bill with Marc Myers on his JazzWax blog. With drummer Joe LaBarbera she took Bill Evans to the emergency room of the Mount Sinai Hospital where he died. She wrote her book The Big Love / My life with Bill Evans. In the next excerpt of the book she describes in a honest and poetic way his final moments in symbolic metaphors. Used here by exclusive permission of Laurie Verchomin.
Bill Evans is buried next to his brother Harry, who committed suicide in 1979, about a year before Bill’s death, at the Roselawn Cemetery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the United States. Bill heard the message during a gig at Blues Alley in Washington. The two brothers were incredibly close and Bill Evans always acknowledged the musical influence of his older brother Harry who was also a pianist and professor of music at Louisiana State University. Harry recorded a documentary The Universal Mind Of Bill Evans. Bill teaches the viewer the meaning of jazz, through live performance and engaging discussion. Filmed as an informal discussion between Bill Evans and his brother, this documentary features in-depth discussion of Evans’ internal process of song interpretation, improvisation, and repertoire. Through demonstration on the piano, Bill uses the song ‘Star Eyes’ to illustrate his own conception of solo piano and how to interpret and expand upon the melody and underlying chord structure. There is a 2-LP recording of Harry’s playing that his son Matt issued privately several years after his father’s death. He published on his site The Harry Evans Trio the album Someday We’ll Be Together Again, recorded in 1969 in a club in Baton Rouge. Likewise Bill dedicated an album to Harry We Will Meet Again in 1980. Pat Evans, the wife of Harry Evans and sister-in-law to Bill Evans wrote a wonderfull article “The Two Brothers as I Knew Them: Harry and Bill Evans”. (Photo of the two brothers: Matt Evans, son of Harry)
“Bill Evans committed the longest and slowest suicide in musical history”
Gene Lees, 1928-2010
Published with permission of Jaap van de Klomp from his book “Jazz Lives” (Hardcover, 223 pages, Bruna, 2008)
Jaap has criss-crossed the U.S. and also made significant stops in Europe to photograph the graves of legendary jazz musicians. Jazz lives is a unique photo book. Through the photographs and the biographies of Scott Yanow,
jazz critic and journalist, it tells the story of the life and death of the greatest jazz musicians the world has ever known. The book was presented at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands in 2008. Website: Jazz Lives
From the book “Friends along the way” by jazzwriter, lyricist and composer Gene Lees (Yale University Press, 2003).
Helen Keane was since 1962 almost longlife for eighteen years Bill Evans’ personal manager and producer. Ed is the
artist Ed Pramuk who visited with Gene Lees Bill’s grave and who painted in 2002 a large mural “Turn Out the Stars”.
The 14 feet mural “Turn Out The Stars” in the Recital Hall lobby of the Pottle Music Building of Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA, is in 3 parts, to mark the 3 instruments of the legendary Bill Evans Trio, piano, bass & drums. The center panel of the triptych which is shown here features a silhouette of Evans at the piano.
In thinking of the great pianist Bill Evans, I think of spatial grace, measured breathing and nocturnal worlds. My strongest impressions of his music come from listening to his time-bending treatment of ballads that he builds into exquisite expressive moments.
I welcome his invitation to share an intimate musical experience which is both confident and vulnerable at the same time. My goal is to approximate in visual terms the slowly developing voicings and rhythms that flow from the Evans keyboard.
In researching a setting for this painting (based on one of his most moving compositions) a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” came to mind, providing the impetus for a starry-night setting. In a rush of emotion, the voice of the young Juliet defines her love of Romeo by crying out:
“…and when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
The two moons, overhead and below, are meant to create the effect of light from above and from within. They are a tribute to the magic that flowed from the hands and heart of Bill Evans.
Edward Pramuk, Baton Rouge (2002)
Recorded pieces like ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ , ‘Come Rain or Shine’, ‘Blue In Green’, ‘Israel’ and ‘Waltz For Debby’ became jazz classics. Evans recorded with Bob Brookmeyer, Toots Thielemans, Philly Joe Jones, Claus Ogerman, George Russell, Oliver Nelson, Shelley Manne, Jim Hall, Cannonball Adderley, Tony Bennett, Tony Scott, Art Farmer, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Lee Konitz.
He proved a bridge between the early bop style of Bud Powell and the modern approach of pianists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett.
His meticulous harmonic conceptions and pastel pianisms inspired legions of other pianists, including Warren Bernhardt, Richard Beirach, Bill Charlap, Marc Copland, Eliane Elias, Fred Hersch, Andy Laverne, Brad Mehldau, Michel Petrucciani, Enrico Pieranunzi, Ted Rosenthal, Kenny Werner and Denny Zeitlin. After Bill’s death in 1980, fourteen contemporary pianists recorded in 1983 a tribute album, including their statements on his music and personality.
Classical pianists admired his playing: the legendary pianist Glenn Gould and Bill Evans enjoyed a personal relationship and Gould had several Evans albums in his record collection. Classical musicians like the pianists Jean Yves Thibaudet, Eric Ferrand N’ Kaoua, Katia Labque and The Kronos Quartet performed his music. It is a mark of importance that the modern classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti cited him as one of the influences on his Etudes for solo piano. Bill Evans “Young and Foolish,” is mirrored in Ligeti’s fifth tude, “Arc-en-ciel”. “As far as touch is concerned, Bill Evans is a sort of Michelangeli of jazz” (Gyrgy Ligeti interviewed by pianist Benot Delbecq). John Mac Laughlin, Gordon Beck, Fred Hersch, Richie Beirach, Herbie Mann, Roseanne Vitro, Karen Gallinger, Eliane Elias, Mitchel Forman, Stephen Anderson, Masahiko Satoh, Nino Josele, Chris Wabich, Bud Shank and others released “tribute albums” for Bill Evans. Don Sebesky composed the title song of his Grammy Award winning tribute album I Remember Bill, Susannah McCorkle sang her beautiful interpretation on the album From Broadway to Bebop, Karen Gallinger on her album Remembering Bill Evans and Sherry Jones with her husband pianist Mike Ning from Kansas City on their album I Remember Mr. Evans.
“And when he touched the keys, he’d turn out all the stars.
Oh, how his heart could sing!
His song will live forever, even though his voice is still.
I hear the music, feel the magic.
Always, I remember Bill.”
The Swedish Monica Zetterlund, who died by an accidental fire, interpreted the song as well on her album Bill Remembered (2007); in 1964 she recorded with Bill Evans the album Waltz for Debby.
Bill Evans recorded extensively for Riverside, Fantasy, Milestone, Verve, Warner Bros and other labels. In 1981, Evans was elected by the critics into the Down Beat ‘Hall of Fame’. In 1963, 1968, 1970, 1971, and posthumously in 1980 he was awarded with Grammy Awards. Furthermore England’s Melody Maker Award in 1968, Scandinavia’s Edison Award in 1969 and Japan’s Swing Journal Award in 1969. Helen Keane was Evans’ almost longlife manager and producer. His second wife Nenette and son Evan founded the Bill Evans Estate. In 1996 The Bill Evans Piano Academy in Paris was founded. As a tribute his alma mater the Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond organizes an annual Bill Evans Festival. A historic document is the recording of a radio broadcast in 1978 of Marian McPartland‘s Piano Jazz series with Bill Evans less than two years before his death in 1980.
Bill Evans was a gentle, honorable and extraordinarily intelligent musician, who strived for high standards and aesthetics in his musical idiom. He was also a master of words, analytically talking about music leaving an amount of quotes and statements. He was engaged in philosophy and had a fabulous knowledge of English literature. But Bill Evans, bespectacled, shy, soft-spoken and vulnerable was also a modest, introverted and embarrassed man with little self confidence, believing he lacked talent. He suffered, his Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews says, from “a paralysing combination of perfectionism and self-doubt”. “Who Bill Evans was is an ongoing question for everyone, because he led such an introspective life” (His son Evan Evans in an interview in JazzImprov Magazine). He appeared to have a dysthymic disorder. He experienced a low self-esteem and a pessimistic outlook.
“I look on myself as a rather simple person with a limited perspective, and try to do things that will speak to me on the level that I respond. As I get older, I really feel that my perspective and aims get more simple” (Bill Evans). In interviews, though, he sounds thoroughly in control, completely aware of what he wanted from his art, and colleague musicians report that Bill Evans displayed a mischievous sense of humor. His French friend Francis Paudras: “Bill Evans has a lot of humour, sometimes unexpectedly, especially a dry sense of humour”, confirmed by his wife Nenette. Listen to Bill singing and playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. It’s out of tune, but it’s Bill Evans singing with a lot of humor. (The Complete Bill Evans On Verve Box, CD no.7 )
He preferred playing in a studio environment instead of performances with an audience. He communicated with a notable introspection that practically bordered on isolation. Evans was a shy, withdrawn performer that rarely communicated with the audience to even name the tunes played. It is obvious that this audience in turn seems to prefer a kind of voluntary exile, where the average Bill Evans aficionado may become so fascinated that he is inclined to consider him as a private discovered treasure. Many people take Bill Evans personally. His recordings are accessibly moody, and many respond to music exclusively through the emotions. He simply chose a different path for himself, one entirely reflective of his inward personality — and that’s what seems to touch listeners inside and outside jazz the most.
“Perhaps it is a peculiarity of mine that despite the fact that I am a professional performer, it is true that I have always preferred playing without an audience” (Bill Evans).
“You are the primary audience for yourself” (Bill Evans)
“I want always to communicate, but first and foremost with myself. And I know that if my music communicates with me, communicating with the audience follows automatically, I’m professional enough to admit people to my music.” (Bill Evans)
“Jazz will never be a mass appeal music but there is nothing more that I can give an audience than I give myself. I’m not trying to be abstract or esoterical. I’m just trying to play my conception of music, and I have to direct myself to that rather than the audience because I’m the only one who can tell if I’m achieving that objective.” (From a former interview with Bill Evans by Brian Hennessey in Jazz Journal International, October 1985)
“Ever since his early lyricism Evans had tended toward his natural introspection, and even when projecting strongly he seemed self-absorbed. His first thought was to play music that would satisfy himself, hoping meanwhile that his audience would meet him halfway. (From Peter Pettinger: Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Yale University Press, 1998)
On the other hand a quote by his lifelong manager Helen Keane about Bill Evans and his audience:
“I think one of the most endearing qualities of Bill’s personality was the almost childlike pleasure he got from the star treatment he recieved wherever he went.”
Visually, Bill Evans is a hunched mass of back and shoulders to the audience, his face barely a foot above the keys, his concentration mentally and almost physically bearing down on his listeners. Whitney Balliett (1926-2007), jazz critic of The New Yorker and author of many books on jazz, wrote about Bill Evans in the nineteen-sixties: “The most impressive of modern pianists is Bill Evans, a pale, shy, emaciated figure who wears glasses and long hair combed flat, and who, when he plays, hunches like an question mark over the keyboard, his face generally turned away from his audience, as if the struggle of improvisation were altogether too personal to be practiced in public. For Bill Evans, improvisation is obviously a constant contest – a contest between his intense wish to practice a wholly private, inner-ear music and an equally intense wish to express his jubilation at having found such a music within himself.” Someone described Bill Evans in the sixties as “He looked like a Harvard professor on a Harlem street corner.”
Your behavior on the stage reminds me of that of a classical concert pianist. “I agree, I think it’s true. When I myself attend a good concert I want to communicate in the same way with the music. When you hear good music performed by good musicians you do not think after one minute ‘there is someone who plays the piano extraordinarily’. You experience only the music itself. It does not have to do with the musician, nor his visual image, but just the music.”
Bill Evans picked up the heroin addiction in 1958 as a member of the Miles Davis Sextet, playing in black clubs, where he was the only white musician. Perhaps he was aware that many jazz fans thought him as a white newcomer unworthy of sharing a bandstand with celebrated sidemen like John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Miles Davis’s reaction to the oft-voiced complaints about Bill Evans’s color was, “I don’t care if he’s purple, blue, green or polka dotted, Bill has the piano sound I want in my group”. Bill Evans in an interview with Steve Hillis in 1980: “Miles is almost a professed racist; he talks like a racist, you know. It was a very heavy black-pride band at the time, you know. I consider to be maybe, still, perhaps the greatest jazz band that’s ever been and for him, you know, to call a white, you know, jazz pianist into the band, is just Miles, paradoxical and unpredictable.” Bill Evans: “I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience”. Evans was not a good fit into the rough-and-tumble music business. In part to shield himself from the outside world, he turned to drugs. It was probably Philly Jo Jones who, drummer with the Miles Davis band, first introduced him to heroin. Read the article by Ashley Kahn (Kind Of Blue: The Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece) in Jazztimes September 2001: “Miles Davis and Bill Evans: Miles and Bill in Black & White”.
Peter Clayton (1927 – 1991) was an English music broadcaster and writer, best known for presenting jazz music programmes on BBC. He wrote three books including A Bluffer’s Guide to Jazz. A short part of an interview with Bill Evans by Peter Clayton talking about Bill’s collaboration with Miles Davis (Courtesy of Brian Hennessey).
Evans’s girlfriend of that time, Peri Cousins, felt that reality was just “too sharp” for him. “It was almost as if he had to blur the world for himself by being strung out.” His lack of self confidence and shyness is probably responsible for his years of heavy heroin and after a 10-year abstinence also cocaine use. Two failed marriages (the first ending in a dramatic suicide) and the suicide of his older brother Harry have certainly contributed to his addiction. The constant reference to his addictive tendancies in most articles often dominates over his work as a musician. Moreover in some articles, authors insist he was an alcoholic, but in fact Bill never drank alcohol. They ignore the fact that Bill wished to kept his private life strictly private. If he had to have a public persona, it would be as a musician. But even then, his preferred playing environment was just an empty room without an audience. Evans took drugs only to help him to relax and to calm his nerves and not, as some might suppose, to make him a better musician. On the contrary, he would have abandoned the habit altogether, had he thought it was effecting his musicianship in any way (Brian Hennessey in Letter from Evans” Vol.2. No. 5, 1991). Perhaps most astonishingly, his playing became more intense, but also too fast and too mechanical in the last year of his life, not long after he switched from the use of methadone to cocaine. But after all his personal problems were seldom reflected in his playing; and to the very end, though he was obviously ill, whenever he sat down at the piano his pain turned into joy. Fortunately, he made a great many recordings during his lifetime, and it is the joy in his music that will live on.