Nostalgic anecdotes by trumpeter Bud Bishop about his friendship with Bill Evans during the Southeastern Louisiana College years
Julian B. “Buddy” Bishop was a trumpeter, who had a small band of his own in the early 50’s. He was a fraternity brother of Bill Evans at Southeastern Louisiana College back in 1947. He and Bill were actually good friends, and he remembers many interesting stories about their friendship and time playing music together. He remembered that he had his fraternity (Phi Mu Alpha) “paddle” from pledging. On the back of the paddle you can still make out the signatures of Bill and Harry (Bill’s brother). Bill Evans was much more than music.
I had the privilege of knowing Bill at a time in his life when he was both an exceptional human being as well as a musical prodigy. This is an attempt to pass on some of my experiences with him that reflects his human side as well as his musical being. While shy is not the word I would use to describe the Bill Evans I knew, I can say he never displayed conceit or a sense of self-importance. He was simply a fun guy to be around and hang out with. The following stories are not in any particular order but rather a collection of memories of the time I spent with Bill. It is my hope that these memories can enlighten or enrich the body of previously collected work and that will be my reward.
One of the times Bill came down to New Orleans with me was for Mardi Gras. He was going steady with Fern Pottle (the dean of the music school’s daughter) and she was to be in New Orleans too. We arranged to meet up with her and the girl that she was staying with. Turned out that the girl was going steady with one of my friends who I had played with in the first large dance band that I had worked in. We had a blast. Bill had never seen anything like the carnival. Fern later married Connie Atkinson who was one of Bill’s best friends (photo on the left). (Red: Bassist Connie Atkinson passed away on December 5, 2009 at the age of 81. He was born in New Jersey on July 4, 1928. A musician, composer, arranger, and educator, Connie, originally from Highland Park, NJ, was the original bass player in the very first Bill Evans Jazz Trio and long-time friend of Bill. After graduating from high school, the trio attended and graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University. With Frank Robell on drums they played in clubs in New Jersey).
Our school, Southeastern Louisiana College, was located in Hammond, Louisiana which was a town of about 10,000 happy old souls. Occasionally we worked with a 6-piece unit that included a front line of trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax with piano, bass and drums completing the unit. One Saturday night our 6-piece unit had a gig that was way out in the sticks. They had an elevated dance floor surrounded by chicken wire. After we set up we started to tune our horns and soon discovered that the tenor sax couldn’t flatten his pitch enough even after wrapping his cork. So Bill said, “it’s ok, I’ll just transpose a half tone up.” He played the whole gig with that impossible transposition on a really BAD upright and he sounded great as always.
Bill had a solo gig at the Casa de Fresa Hotel in Hammond where he played for the after-church lunch crowd. This particular Sunday I went with him and got a table for lunch. I sat through the 2-hours of his gifted playing and when I reached for my wallet, it wasn’t there. I told Bill that it looked like I might have to stay and wash dishes. Then I asked him if he would spot me what I needed to cover the check. He said something like, “gee..that’s tough Buddy.” Then he smiled and forked over what I needed to get out of the place. We had played a gig the night before and the money was all safe and sound in my wallet when we got back to the dorm, and I settled with him then.
Bill on a couple of occasions stopped by my dorm room and asked if I wanted to go to the movies. I asked if he’d lost his mind. We had final exams that entire week, and I planned to be burning the midnight oil. He casually said, “Don’t you go to class?” As though, if you heard it once you would remember it. He had that kind of mind.
After every gig that we played at the college we all went to the Beanery, a coffee shop at the Hammond train station, for burgers and coffee. I always ordered a glass of warm milk to which I would add a spoon of sugar. It was my way of unwinding from the job. One night when I ordered the usual, the owner said, “I’ll fix you your milk, but you ain’t putting in no sugar.” I asked him how much the milk was and was told a dime. Then, how much is your coffee, “A nickel”. Then I protested that if customers could put sugar in their nickel cup of coffee, why object to my putting a spoon of it in my ten cent glass of milk. He answered, “people don’t put sugar in their milk and you ain’t gonna put none in yours.” Bill was the first to stand up and say, “cancel those burgers……we’ve changed our minds.” When the owner saw that we were all going to leave, he said “sit down, you can have all the sugar you want for your milk.” Bill wasn’t being a wise guy, but he saw the injustice of the man’s thinking and took an appropriate action. He always had a helping hand when needed.
Bill was quite an athlete. He was the quarterback of our Phi Mu Alpha (Music Fraternity) intramural football team. Bill had a great throwing arm, and he’d send Connie Atkinson (who was well over 6 feet) out for a pass, and Connie would haul it in and head for the goal line. We had an undefeated season and gained a lot of respect from the student body. (Turns out we could do more than toot horns)!
On one of Bill’s visits to my home in New Orleans, we went down to the French Quarter to visit some of the clubs I had worked in. We went into the Casino Royale which later became Al Hirt’s club. I’ve forgotten who the band was but Fred Crane, whom I had the pleasure of working with on several occasions and who later became Al Hirt’s pianist, was playing. I asked Freddie if Bill could sit in, and he said sure. Well, Bill knocked the socks off of everyone in the place. Sometime later, Fred told me how much he had enjoyed Bill’s playing and that he had been following his career with much interest. Last I heard, Fred had moved on to Texas and was making big bucks writing music for television commercials.
Bill was my sponsor to Phi Mu Alpha and was lenient with me during my pledge period. His brother, Harry, was not so understanding. Where Bill would give me a pat with my paddle, Harry would try to break the heavy plywood on my rear end. We were called “worms” and rather than paddle us Bill often had us sing the “Worm Song” on a moment’s notice:
I am a worm, I am a worm
A lowly, slimy, scummy worm
A scummy, slimy, lowly worm
To the boys of Phi Mu Al – PHA!
SLC built a new student union to use in the celebration of the school’s 25th anniversary. It offered many amenities for the student body, but the main use was to provide a large dance floor for the fraternity/sorority events. Tommy Dorsey was engaged for the grand opening. He played a brief afternoon concert prior to the gala dance that evening. The acoustics of that room were so “live” that the college president, Dr. Tinsley, asked Bill what could be done to improve the reverberation problem. Bill’s quick mind came up with a clever and economical solution to improve the situation. There was a large bronze seal on the wall behind the bandstand. Bill suggested that installing a working set of drapes might tone down the reverb. Within a week rich, plush, green velvet drapes were in place and the acoustics greatly improved.
The SLC marching band was to put on a concert at a parish fair in Bogalusa, La. The school provided our uniforms, but we supplied the white duck pants that completed the outfit. Bill came to my room the day of the trip and said that his pants hadn’t come back from the laundry and asked if I had an extra pair. I got the pants and hustled on over to the band room to meet the bus for the hour long trip. Bill was riding in Connie Atkinson’s car along with Frank Wroble. When we set up for the concert, I asked Connie where Bill was. He said that he’d tell me later. Well, Bill didn’t make the concert and this is the story that Connie told. On the way to the concert, Bill had asked Connie to pull over at the next filling station so he could go to the bathroom. They drove several miles and he hadn’t seen one. Finally he pulled into a station and Bill jumped out of the car and ran in asking “Where’s the bathroom?” The attendant said, “It’s out of order.” I’m not sure of the timing of his surrender, but it put him out of commission for the rest of the day. The following day, on the Music building bulletin board was a note that read, “Whoever has Buddy Bishop’s band pants, please return them immediately.” Bill removed the note and told me that he had taken them to the cleaners and they assured him that they would be like new when he picked them up. He did and they were. I left SLC after my sophomore year and was soon drafted into the Army. I was stationed at Camp Chaffee which was located in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
After I had completed a year in the 5th Armored Division band, I received a letter from Bill telling me that he was in an Army Band in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There was a guy in my outfit from Springfield, Missouri who drove home on a 3-day pass with some regularity. I asked if I could ride with him the next time he was going, and Bill and I set up a meeting at the Kentwood Arms Hotel in Springfield. It was like old home week when we met. Bill said he hadn’t brought any civilian clothes with him. I told him that I’d lend him everything he needed except the pants. He gave me a quizzical look and then burst out in a big grin and said, “I promise I won’t mess in ‘em.” We found our way down to the mezzanine and were delighted to find a Steinway grand piano right there in the balcony. I sat there and listened to him pour out his soul with the instrument. After supper, we returned to the Steinway, and he didn’t stop until ten pm. After breakfast the next morning, back to the mezzanine until I walked with him to the bus station where he headed back to camp. It was the last time that I spent with my dear friend and musical genius.
© Buddy Bishop, Charlotte, North Carolina.