Friends of Bill Evans

Gene Lees, Helen Keane and his European friends Bernard Maury, Francis Paudras and Brian Hennessey.

Two personalities had a great influence upon the musical career and personal life of Bill Evans: Gene Lees and Helen Keane. Gene Lees introduced impresario Helen Keane to Bill Evans in July 1962 in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard. Gene Lees was over ten years the partner of Helen Keane and was always central to the relationship between impresario and musician.

Gene Lees

Gene Lees (February 8, 1928 – April 22, 2010) is a Canadian journalist, lyricist, singer and composer. He was editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat, later he published on freelance basis and wrote among other things for The New York Times. He contributed liner notes to close to 100 recordings of artists including Stan Getz, John Coltrane, and Quincy Jones.

He published a lot of books on jazz as Waiting for Dizzy and biographies of Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck. Lees, who studied composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston wrote the lyrics for many songs during the 1960s. He became a close friend of Bill Evans and he wrote the lyrics to his compositions “Waltz For Debby”, “My Bells”, and “Turn Out The Stars” and contributed liner notes to his recordings as Conversations With Myself. He introduced also Helen Keane to Bill Evans, who became his personal manager and producer and who would fashion his following career. In Friends along the way: Helen and Bill (268-285) by Gene Lees (Yale University Press, 2003). Gene Lees defined the music of Bill Evans as “Love-letters written to the world from some prison of the heart.” He is the author of another fourteen books of jazz history and analysis including Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musicians and Their World with an excellent chapter on Bill Evans: The Poet (Oxford University Press,1990), Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White (Da Capo Press, 2001), Singers and the Song (Oxford University Press, 1987) and You Can’t Steel Steal a Gift (Bison Books, 2004). Since 1981, he had published his idiosyncratic Jazzletter, a monthly collection of essays that was something of a blog before the term was invented. It became an underground sensation among musicians and critics, and Mr. Lees often reworked articles from his newsletter into his books. See also Reflections of Gene Lees on his birthday by Harrigan Logan (2006).

Gene Lees talking in one of his Jazzletters about Claus Ogerman, Bill Evans and Glenn Gould:
One of the most significant albums Claus Ogerman wrote for Creed Taylor during that period was Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra, recorded in September 1965. Bill and Claus selected themes not from the popular-song repertoire but mostly from classical composers, their names forming the titles for the tracks. I attended the recording sessions of that album. In 1974, Claus made a second album with Bill Evans, Symbiosis, which can only be described as a jazz concerto. It is a remarkable work of art, and, interestingly, led to one of the friendships in Bill’s life and Claus Ogerman’s too. It came about this way. Bill Evans enormously admired Glenn Gould, and since I had turned Glenn on to a number of Bill’s albums, the feeling was reciprocal. When Symbiosis was issued, I was living in Toronto. Bill played an engagement there. He came to our apartment for dinner before the gig. Glenn called. I told him there was someone I wanted him to meet. I put Bill on the phone. They talked at least an hour and apparently talked more later. (Most of Glenn’s friendships were conducted on the telephone.) Bill sent a copy of Symbiosis, of which he was in his quiet way quite proud, to Glenn. “Glenn wrote me a very nice letter, which I still treasure,” Claus said. As well he might. In the letter, dated June 12, 1977, Glenn wrote: “I have to tell you what a fantastic construction it is, and what a tremendous impression it has made on me. Symbiosis is very much my kind of music. I find your harmonic invention quite staggering, and recently, indeed, I’ve been listening to the work almost obsessively. As a matter of fact, I have included it in a CBC” — Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — “program which I am guest hosting this summer and which will include only works that, in one way or another, have had a particular influence upon me over the years.” Claus said, “I think Glenn Gould was one of the greatest players in the century. (Jazzletter, Volume 20, No. 9 – September 2001)

Other extensive Jazzletters about Bill Evans by Gene Lees (PDF):
Jazzletter: Re: Person I Knew.
Inside The New Bill Evans Trio: Down Beat 1962.

“I remember my amazement not so much at the brilliance of his playing, itself a cause to wonder, as at the emotional content of his music. Until then I had assumed, albeit unconsciously, that I alone had the feelings therein expressed. His playing spoke to me in an intensely personal way”. (Gene Lees in Meet Me At Jim And Andy’s, Oxford University Press, 1988).

Asking Gene Lees why he didn’t wrote the definitive work on Bill Evans? “It is difficult for me to write about Bill. His life, Helen’s, and my own were too closely involved for too long a time. For the last two years I have been trying without success to find a way to write an extended portrait of Bill.”

Gene Lees: “The level of Bill’s dynamics was usually low, like his speech. He was a very soft player. But within that range, his playing was full of subtle dynamic shadings and constantly shifting colors. Some physicists have argued that a pianist cannot have a personal and individual “tone” because of the nature of the instrument, which consists of a bunch of felt hammers hitting strings. So much for theory. It is all in how the hammers are made to strike the strings, as well of course as the more obvious effects of pedaling, of which Bill was a master”.

Gene Lees and Bill Evans talking about identity, the set of characteristics by which a musician is definitively recognizable (NPR 2008).

Helen Keane

Helen Keane (1923-1996) was, except the producers Orrin Keepnews of Riverside and Creed Taylor of Verve, Evans’s personal manager and producer since 1962 and remained that almost longlife for 18 years, until his death in 1980.

She was one of the few women on the business side of jazz. Helen started as a secretary at MCA, a large talent agency. At the age of 19 she became the first female agent at MCA. Later she joined CBS and remained there for seven years. She left CBS and opened a personal management office. It was at this time that Gene Lees introduced Helen to Bill Evans. Overall, Helen produced some thirty of Evans’ records over a period of 15 years on the Verve, Warner, Columbia, CTI, Fantasy labels. Seven of these albums produced for Bill Evans were Grammy winners, and numerous others have been nominated for the award; the most recent were awarded in 1980 for the Best Jazz Recording by a Soloist and Best Recording by a Group. She was responsible for bringing Evans together with singer Tony Bennett and she produced two albums with this unique duo. She produced in 1989 the Fantasy boxed 9 discs set titled The Complete Fantasy Recordings and the 1991 release Blue in Green – The Concert in Canada for Milestone, a compilation of several live recordings in Canada. Furthermore she produced the 45 minute video The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, now reissued as DVD. She died in 1996 in New York at the age of 73 because of breast cancer. She was cremated and buried at Mystic, Connecticut. The memorial service was held at the Saint Peter’s Lutheran, the “jazz church” in New York. After the untimely death of Bill Evans, an impressive tribute album was recorded by Helen Keane and Herb Wong; they put together an all-star line-up of 14 contemporary fellow pianists who made also statements on the music and personality of Bill Evans. Helen Keane: “He was a pure, beautiful soul. Even when he was in the worst private torment, he kept on giving beauty to the world right up to the end. That’s how we should remember him.”

She was profiled in Linda Dahl’s book Stormy Weather (Limelight Edition, 1996), a history of women in jazz and was the only non-performer to be accorded a full chapter.

From the interview: “The ideal way to function as a manager is to be the producer. They are two separate functions, but the manager really knows more about the artist than anyone else – his or her creativity, life, habits, how disciplined or undisciplined they are when they work, what music they like best, how they choose their material, how they like to record. Therefore the manager can obviously be the best producer – that is, in personal management, where the artist trusts and will feel more comfortable with that person in the control room than almost anybody else. I’m just sorry more managers don’t realize this”.

Helen Keane has spearheaded several projects which have kept Bill Evans memory and music available and accessible. She was invited to the 1992 IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) convention to present a lecture on Bill Evans.

In 1991 Helen Keane produced a celebration concert for Bill Evans at the New School Auditorium in New York.

From a press release: Last night, Helen Keane and the New School presented A Celebration of Bill Evans, a concert of pianists paying musical tribute to one of the geniuses of jazz piano. Playing solo and in improvised duets, pianists George Shearing, Barry Harris, James Williams, Joanne Brackeen, David Berkman, Geoff Keezer and Don Friedman, entertained an enthusiastic audience with superlative keyboard artistry.

Bill Evans European friends Bernard Maury, Francis Paudras and Brian Hennessey
Francis Paudras and Bernard Maury from France and Brian Hennessey from Britain were close friends of Bill Evans when visiting Europe.

Bernard Maury

Bernard Maury (1943-2005) was jazz pianist, harmony specialist and founder of the Bill Evans Piano Academie in Paris (“If rhythm is the body of music, then harmony is its soul”). He was one of the best Bill Evans connoisseurs worldwide. “I had some great times with Bill Evans. When he sat down at the piano I never missed a note.

He was one of the great names of jazz, try as he might to deny it – he was a very modest man. “It didn’t come at all naturally,” he told me. “I had to work darned hard.” He would play certain sequences again and again so I could really understand them. He never gave lessons, but if he felt someone was receptive to his music and could see what he was up to, he would go out of his way to explain. I had already been trying to analyse his music for quite a while. Two years before, I’m not sure I would have had the faintest idea about what he was doing. Bill was one of the most important jazz pianists of the second half of the century, up there with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Modern jazz musicians owe him an enormous debt. In the world of jazz he’s also a direct descendent of the French school of Faure, Ravel, Debussy and Lili Boulanger” (See Interview with Isabelle Leymarie). Bernard Maury introduced Evans the music of Lili Boulanger and he was fascinated with her polychordal and modal music. “When he returned to New Jersey in 1972 we wrote us a long letter to share his enthusiasm, indicating (underlined) the passages that in particular moved him”. He played with Toots Thielemans, Johnny Griffin, duo with Michel Petrucciani. In the late ’80s, after the untimely death of Bill Evans Maury began a series of tribute concerts with piano duets along with former Evans student Warren Bernhardt. He gave lectures at Berklee School in Boston and masterclasses at several universities in Europe and USA. He died in 2005.

Francis Paudras

Francis Paudras (1935-1997) was really fond of piano, not only jazz piano, but also classical piano for example, Ravel, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, and he had a special admiration for Glenn Gould. He was beside an amateur pianist a sharp follower of jazz in Paris and collector of jazz-related artifacts and patron and friend of several jazz musicians like Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Jacky Terrasson.

He became caretaker of the alcoholic and psychiatric pianist Bud Powell during his stay in France. He wrote a portrait of Bud Powell (1924-1966): The Dance of the Infidels, a moving jazz memoir. Bill Evans wrote the foreword and coda of the book. He remarks, “If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell.” In turn Paudras wrote the liner notes for the last live recordings of the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott in London in 1980. The book served as the basis for Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight (1986), starring saxophonist Dexter Gordon and pianist Herbie Hancock.

Francis Paudras had a country house, the “Manoir La Cure”, 45 minutes drive from Poitiers. He recorded more than 300 hours of music in the two years he stayed there.

It became a jazz haven, attracting other greats, including Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday: the lady sang the blues there for more than two months. Paudras drank heavily. He had lost all his money, both his marriages had failed and most of his jazz friends were dead. He hanged himself in the cellar of the Manoir in 1997, aged 62, surrounded by empty wine bottles. During the funeral service, the pianists Maurice Vander, Jacky Terrasson, and Bernard Maury played some of his favorite tunes. See below a short YouTube clip of Paudras at the piano, recorded at his beautiful 14th century mansion in Antigny in France.

Francis Paudras at the piano

Paudras drank heavily. He had lost all his money, both his marriages had failed and most of his jazz friends were dead. He hanged himself in the cellar of the Manoir in 1997, aged 62, surrounded by empty wine bottles. During the funeral service, the pianists Maurice Vander, Jacky Terrasson, and Bernard Maury played some of his favorite tunes. See here a short YouTube clip of Paudras at the piano, recorded at his beautiful 14th century mansion in Antigny in France.

An excerpt from an interview with Francis Paudras in the French magazine Le Jazzophone from 1980: “Since 1964 every time I see Bill, I discovered another man. In 1972, I saw someone different, not only physically but also in his behavior. I saw Bill evolve, but not only in historical sense, I saw him metamorphose in every respect. Bill had edema, that was always so, because it is a difficult to treat disease.

He had sore ankles and like everyone has remarked, very swollen hands, consequences of a disease of his liver. He did eat very little, satisfied with a café au lait with some sandwiches. Eating for him, was something really secondary. His obsession was music and especially his exploration in music. He was already as far as I can remember a delicate character without being sophisticated. When I say delicate I also want to say very distinguished, very elegant, as is his music. He also has a crazy sense of humor. And he always expressed himself clearly by carefully choosing his words. And moreover he is an intelligent and cultivated person. When you’re with him, the whole environment changes in quality.”

Francis Paudras and Bernard Maury made a fine photo assembly with Bill Evans shaking hands Bud Powell in
front of a pictorial history of the piano in jazz on the cover of the French jazz magazine Le Jazzophone (copyright, 1980).

Bill Evans was influenced by Bud Powell: “Because Bud got such a sense of the form”. He considered him as a most underestimated pianist. Bill Evans: “He had the potential of a true jazz player….. Because of his history, he never got to use that potential that much, though he did plenty. His insight and talent were unmatched in hard-core, true jazz.” (Down Beat’s tribute edition 1966). Bill Evans’ early album New Jazz Conceptions was in certain respects his final tribute to Bud Powell.

Bill Evans and Francis Paudras, Nice 1978
Bernard Maury and Bill Evans, at the home of Francis Paudras 1979
Bernard Maury, Walter Davis Jr. and Bill Evans, 1979
Bill Evans, Francis Paudras and Marc Johnson, Lyon 1980
Bernard Maury, Nenette Evans and Vicki Pedrini, California 1997
With permission and property of Nenette Evans

Finally Alain Gerber (France, 1943), although not a friend, must be mentioned. He studied literature and philosophy before becoming a novelist and jazz critic. His writings, which won several prizes, include 24 novels, including four “novelized” biographies of American jazz figures. He has also written extensively for the principal jazz periodicals in France.

Gerber has been a presenter on France Musique and France Culture and has been awarded le Grand Prix du Roman de la Ville de Paris for the totality of his writings. Gerber produced 50 programs about Bill Evans on the theme Le Jazz Est Un Roman in 2000. The series was entitled Mort et Résurrection de Bill Evans (Death and Resurrection of Bill Evans) on the Radio broadcasts of France Musique and was followed by a series of four broadcasts entitled Autour de Bill Evans (Around Bill Evans) in 2001, featuring some of the numerous outstanding sidemen who played in Evans’ succession of trios. Gerber wrote a 350 page book, Bill Evans (Fayard, 2001). The book and program were based on copious secondary sources. His principal sources were observations on Evans by Canadian jazz critic and lyricist Gene Lees (editor of Downbeat) and the 1998 biography by Peter Pettinger, plus published interviews with Evans’ sidemen and by Evans with the French critic François Postif, as well as books on Miles Davis and on others who crossed Evans’ path.

Brian Hennessey (died September 4, 2014)

Brian Hennessey, brother of pianist and jazz writer Mike Hennessey, is the founder of the The Bill Evans Memorial Library, an immense tribute archive of material relating to the finest jazz pianist of his generation Bill Evans. A very useful resource to visit.

Today, the library includes over 600 hours of audio recordings, over 10 hours of interviews and discussions, over 50 transcriptions, lead sheets and rare notations, feature articles spanning 37 years, video and DVD material. During a business visit to New York in 1962 Brian went to meet Bill at the Village Vanguard and offered him some playing dates in England. Brian and Bill Evans have become mutual friends and Evans was his houseguest many times during his concerts in Europe. “Away from the piano, Bill was articulate, witty, highly intelligent and sensitive. He was certainly one of the most important experiences of my musical life and what he gave me both directly and indirectly is incalculable”. Read Brian’s reminiscence of the start on January 9, 1972 of a four week residency of the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott’s in London (In: Bill Evans: How My heart Sings by Peter Pettinger, page 206-207, 1998, Yale Press). He is director of the Welsh Jazz Society and working for Jazz UK magazine. He wrote the two articles Bill Evans – a person I knew in UK Jazz Journal InternationalMarch 1985 and October 1985.

Asking Brian to tell something about his relation with Bill, he properly said: The only thing I do avoid is to relate personal matters concerning Bill’s life. I believed him to be a private person with no desire to have his private life exposed to the world. I respect that belief.

When you have been so influenced and emotionally moved by an artist’s work, you can be forgiven for thinking that they are not as a normal human being. They function on a much higher plain and concentrate solely on their art.

When one of these icons arrives at your house as a guest, you soon realise (well in Bill’s case anyway) that his interests were not solely confined to music and the piano. I remember a comment from Bill that appeared on the liner notes of his Empathy LP: “Sometimes it can happen that you see everything in terms of music. It’s like a fixation. You can’t help it. But it’s bad if you can’t pull out of it. Nothing should be that dominating. If it is, it’s perverted.” He was really quite a normal human being when he was allowed to be. Apart from his love of literature (a particular fondness for William Blake and Thomas Hardy and Zen of course) he was interested in discussing International politics particularly from a moral point of view. He turned down a lucrative tour to the USSR as a moral protest to the invasion of Afghanistan. On his first weeks pay day on his first visit to London he asked me to take him to the Amex office in Piccadilly. There he first paid off a number of outstanding bills paid through Amex in New York. That left him with around £100. He split that in two and donated half to a plea from Oxfam for funds to relieve starvation in Biafra.

He loved trap racing and spent a good time watching shows and sports on TV. He really loved watching BBC TV because of its absence of commercials. On his visits to our home, I doubt if he touched our grand piano more than two or three times. Of course he had little need to as he was usually playing five nights a week at Ronnie Scott’s in London. He loved spending time with our two children, he met them from school, chatted to them while they had tea and he did actually show our daughter Karin a few enticing chords on the piano. So this short interlude of normal family life really appealed to him but it was something that was impossible to achieve permanently because of the nature of his occupation.

It was on Bills first visit to the U.K. and our home ( I had first met him at The Vanguard in May 1962) that one of us mentioned the name Shelley Manne. Bill had recorded Empathy with Shelley in New York in August 1962. Bill said that apart from hearing some of the tracks immediately after the session, he had never heard the actual record and had been unable to find a copy. I had a copy and he was impressed. He then went through a number of other LP’s that were in my collection and that featured him on piano. He mentioned that major Record companies soon removed “jazz” recordings from their inventory if they did not sell fast enough. I responded that collecting his recordings had become a pleasurable hobby of mine and I would try to ensure that his work would remain accessible to anyone interested even though the record company had lost interest. Before he left London to return to New York, I supplied him with a pack of cassettes recorded from my LP collection of some of his work that he had never heard. So the first customer of the “Evans Library” was a Mr. Bill Evans.

Through various means and some brief advertising in “jazz” magazines across the world, I have had contacts with fellow Evans devotees in many countries. Over the years, they have supplied me with tapes of live gigs (not always good quality) and I have reciprocated. Gradually the Library has grown and as I say on the first page of the web-site – “Bill would say much of this stuff is best forgotten” but I think better to leave it to the listener to decide.
© Brian Hennessey 2011