Part one of an interview with Nenette Evans by Bonnie Biggs in 1989 for the Jazz Link magazine. She is the wife of Gunnar Biggs, jazz bassist in the San Diego area and connected with the Library at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Nenette Evans, who met the pianist at Howard Rumsey’s defunct Redondo Beach jazz club Concerts By The Sea, was married to him in 1973 and is the mother of his son, Evan Evans. She is active in educating and supporting other jazz widows with copyright and estate questions as well as being the administrator of the Evans estate. She was raised in Fullerton, moved east after marrying the pianist and returned to Orange County after his death. Now she is a resident of Laguna Niguel. Several compositions of Bill Evans were dedicated to beloved persons in his environment, like “For Nenette”.
The Genius of Bill Evans
by Bonnie Biggs
Bill Evans (August 16, 1929 – September 15, 1980) was one of the most influential pianists of his generation. After his pivotal recording of Kind of Blue with Miles Davis in 1958, his explorations in various trio formats set new standards for interplay and independence among the voices of the jazz trio. His music had an uncommonly lyrical, introspective quality. Gene Lees, in his recent book Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s, notes in his chapter on Bill Evans that a large number of musicians and fans can recall with great clarity the moment they first heard Bill Evans, much as they can recall the moment they learned of John Kennedy’s assassination. My own discovery of Bill’s music took place in the mountains at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts in Idyllwild, California. My husband, Gunnar, was attending a faculty retreat for the SDSU Music Department. David Ward Steinman, faculty member, pianist, composer and Bill Evans scholar, took me aside and played the 1958 recording of ‘Peace Piece’ for me. On many occasions I have tried to describe my experience of those six and a half minutes. People who know Bill’s music nod and share their own unique “discovery” story. People who don’t, smile with caution. Suffice it to say, it changed my life forever. Bill’s music is replete with a raw, meaningful beauty that transcends all that we think we “know” about life. I have had the distinct pleasure of building a friendship with Nenette Evans (Bill’s widow) over the past year and a half. Our relationship was initiated by my involvement in a project to establish an official Bill Evans Archive at the new California State University in San Marcos. While the project is still slowly underway, our friendship has blossomed and given my life a magical dimension. Nenette shared the last seven years of Bill’s life and was gracious enough to provide poignant insight in the following interview.
BB: Tell me how you met Bill, something of your life with him and about the birth of your son, Evan. NE: I had a five-year-old daughter, Maxine, now 22. Bill had never been married and had no children, of course. We married and several years later, Evan was born. Evan was the joy of his life. He was also a devoted and loving step-father. Maxine currently works for a doctor in Newport Beach and Evan has been composing since age 11. Now at 13, his aim is to write film scores and get a degree in engineering.
BB: You have spoken to me about the harmonic breakthrough that Bill felt he was about to make before his death. Will you share some of those insights here?
NE: Bill was, as has been pointed out elsewhere, frequently stagnant creatively. He was at times frustrated by his inability to become motivated; no doubt tied to his long term depression. He expressed this often. There was for him this sense of something being just out of reach.
I remember that film producer Francis Paudras had extended an invitation to come and take a rest in the country, to relax: to feel free to compose.
Bill spoke of a large work, a work he always wanted to do. He would get enthused about it. It was obvious that he was tired, but there were demands which dogged him. He said the business was fickle …his fans would forget him… he needed to be “out there” performing. He was simply too tightly wound with this pervasive tiredness.
Other times, there was this sense of completion musically. When we met, Bill told me that he had said all he had to say (in music). But in 1980, the year of his death, he became very excited about his work …to quote his journals… “lately I’ve been discovering something wonderfully basic…right in the middle of modern harmony.’ He felt that he was making an important breakthrough in music. This is really a subject for musicologists.
BB: What’s going on right now in the way of recordings or releases of Bill’s work?
NE: Currently, Fantasy is releasing a CD box collection of the years that Bill was with Fantasy. I understand the Riverside collection went gold in Japan. Charles Blancq, of the University of New Orleans is doing an authorized musical biography of Bill. I learned about Charles through his book on Sonny Rollins.
Francis Paudras called the other day. He has just finished a tour promoting his book and film on Bud Powell. This wonderful work is dedicated to Bill. He’s been working on a book and docudrama of Bill for many years. These are some of the projects I am aware of. There are others, of course.
Evan has been collecting photos of Bill and would like to put together a photo book on Bill. If anyone wishes to contribute by way of photos, they can send them in care of E3 Productions, 122 Avenida De LaBaz, San Clemente.
BB: Nenette, would you like to discuss Bill’s drug problem?
NE: It seems to be a senseless tragedy which needs deep understanding in Bill’s case. When I met Bill, he talked to me extensively about his past problems. At that time, I was not aware of the hard drug thing and I associated it with something unseemly, criminal, underworld! Since Bill seemed to be none of these things, the reality of what he was trying to tell me was largely denied by me. I was very optimistic…a Californian…outdoorsy, health conscious. This behavior about needles and worse was incomprehensible. Something totally remote.
Bill played in a club in the San Fernando Valley and someone approached me in the ladies room to say that Bill looked so wonderful. She said that she had heard that he was dead. I simply couldn’t put this together. It wouldn’t register. But because Bill felt so strongly about his past, largely I think to alert me to the continuous threat he himself felt, he spoke a great deal about his helplessness over the problem. He talked about his colleagues and how they had suffered similarly. He impressed this on me until it made a small connection.
Of course, I can see now that I simply refused to understand it. It was just too horrible, too degrading. It was always strange to me the way he spoke about it. Like a dreaded childhood illness. Something some people can get, something contagious.
Finally. I can remember, this was still early in our relationship, I agreed to that if he ever touched drugs that I would chain him to a chair. Relieved, he said “good.”
Lately I’ve become familiar with a term called “self-medicating.” Though Bill had been in analysis several times in his life, sometimes I feel that his depression. I thought of it as melancholia, was unfathomable. I was unaware of such things as lithium. It’s a shame that some of his doctors didn’t recommend this route.
Obviously, there are a lot of questions, but it does seem clear that Bill may have actually used drugs to medicate himself. To my knowledge drug hotlines were scarce to non-existent in the pre-Belushi days and I don’t know what he was telling his doctors. The bottom line is that we’ve come a long way in examining issues like these in the last ten years.
BB: Would you share some of Bill’s childhood memories at this time?
NE: Obviously, there were problems. One doesn’t have suicides of both children without major dysfunction. I’ve been in touch with some of Bill’s closest and earliest childhood friends and they noted nothing but a happy early life. Curiously, the stories I got from Bill’s only brother and the totally different picture presented by Bill, made it sound like they came from two different homes.
Bill’s brother, Harry, told me about a sometimes drunken, abusive father, while Bill talked about a domineering and blaming mother who wouldn’t allow his father simple pleasures, such as occasional gambling at the track.
I once confronted Bill with this obvious disparity. Bill was aghast at the mere suggestion. I found Bill’s mother to be a warm but difficult woman: focused more on herself than the achievements of either son. There was a sense of pride, of course, but in general, she was overbearing and self-absorbed. I once commented that since she was an attractive older person, active mentally and physically, would she ever consider re marriage. Talk about the wrong thing to say! She was adamant about the first time having been enough agony for her and about her glorious freedom and so on.
Bill seemed embarrassed by his mother’s crude description of marriage to his father. Yet he later confided deep disappointment that his father had never said that he was proud of him, even after the Grammy’s. Perhaps Bill’s rebellion was turned inward. He put everything into his music. But my feeling is that he intellectualized his pain and medicated his loss of personal expression. Healthier outlets of his youth …sports, career dreams were replaced by hack work and ‘making it’ in New York. Oh, he blamed the Army. But when his brother died, the halcyon days, youth, and innocence were completely blown away.
His early friends talk about a different Bill Evans than the melancholy Bill I knew. And with the death of his brother. Bill actively plotted an escape from pain.
It’s just my personal opinion that It was easier for Bill to blame drugs than it was for him to grasp the significance of say, his childhood. I’m reading a book by Dr. Alice Miller on the problems of the gifted child and the search for the true self. She claims that there are certain events early on which the child is helpless over and yet the child suffers without ever really knowing why. She also says that it is not uncommon for the parents to have a grudging and competitive attitude toward their gifted child and at the same time pressure them on to the greatest achievements. Compound this possible scenario and Bill’s entrance into a black dominated field and you begin to get a faint understanding of his development.
In closing, Bonnie, talking about Bill is painful and complicated. Bill was enigmatic. Of course Bill wanted to be remembered for his music above all. On another day, I might have said a number of different things about Bill. In many ways Bill was a tower of strength, yet in the end, his weaknesses dominated him. It’s taken me ten years to begin to comprehend this tragedy. When Evan was a little younger, he said that when he thinks of his father, he sees him in heaven dressed in white, playing a white piano on his own private cloud.
Editors note: Bonnie Biggs holds a Master of Library Sciences degree and is the Coordinator of Library Services at SDSU, San Marcos campus. She is also responsible for providing nights of great Jazz in the lovely, new library facility. She is developing a wonderful selection of Jazz records, Cd’s and videos as well as books for the library. San Diego is fortunate to have this beautiful woman in our midst. The entire Jazz community benefits as Ms. Biggs brings integrety and sensitivity in all that she does, as demonstrated by this interview with Nenette Evans.
Copyright Jazz Link and published here with permission of Nenette Evans.