"I've never approached the Piano like a thing in itself, but as a gateway to Music". (William John 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".
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).
From the book "Friends along the way" by jazzwriter, lyricist and composer Gene Lees (Yale University Press, 2003).
Click to enlarge
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.
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.
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.
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.