BILL EVANS – A PERSON I KNEW by Brian Hennessey (Part one, Jazz Journal International, March 1985)
Bill Evans confounded many of the myths about the origins and motivations of major jazz innovators: Born in 1929, he spent his early years in a comfortable middle class home in Plainfield, New Jersey and considered that any musical ability he had developed was the result of careful and sometimes painful application — the effort of a disciplined professional rather than a gifted and dedicated natural.
Evans was much impressed by the simplicity and economy of William Blake’s writing and his success in transferring that simple beauty to the keyboard has assured him of a place amongst the few true jazz innovators. In part one of this appraisal, BRIAN HENNESSEY traces the pianist’s career up to 1969, and recalls some of Evan’s own comments in the many conversations they had together. Harry Evans, Bill’s older brother, had been taking piano lessons for two years when, at the age of six. Bill first climbed onto a piano stool. Bill was encouraged to start lessons with the same local teacher and his studies were confined to classical pieces for the next five years.Bill did not need much prompting to practice and found sight reading little problem, but he was just as happy swinging a club on his father’s golf driving range.
Harry progressed to playing trumpet in a high school band and when the regular pianist developed measles, Bill was asked to deputise for one gig. He was presented with a pile of stock arrangements and had little difficult in playing them exactly as written. A few more gigs were offered and, one night, while playing Tuxedo Junction in B flat, Bill was inspired and added a D flat, D, F line in the right hand. It sounded good to him and after playing nothing but the written note for six years, he found his first step into improvisation both a thrill and a music lesson in itself.
At the age of 17, Evans left the family home to take a four year graduate course at Southeastern Louisiana College in New Orleans. Whilst there, he met a seasoned bass player with the unlikely name of George Platt and frequently mentioned him in later years as the man who helped him most with his early jazz education.
‘George would call out the changes for me without ever suggesting that I should have learnt them for myself. Finally, instead of thinking of them as isolated changes, I worked out a system upon which traditional theory is based. I just used numbers 1, 5, 6 and so on and gradually began to understand how the music was put together.’ His understanding included the ability to play both the violin and flute, but it was on piano that he obtained his first professional engagement, with the Herbie Fields band, shortly after graduating from college in 1950.
‘You know, I have often been condemned for not playing strongly but when I was with this band, I would come off the stand with split finger nails and sore arms. We worked hard trying to sound like the full Lionel Hampton Orchestra. I left the band when I was called into the army for three years. At the time, I thought that a career in music might not be the best thing for me but the army allowed a delay in any decision. I was not too excited about playing with instruments of war and so they allowed me to play flute in a marching band. Most nights, I was around the clubs in Chicago both listening and playing.
‘After the army, I went home to my parents and took a year off. I set up a little studio, acquired a grand piano and devoted a year to work on my playing. It did not come easy, I did not have that natural fluidity and was not the type of person who just looks at the scene and through some intuitive process, immediately produces a finished product. I had to build my music very consciously, from the bottom up. I was always conscious that I did not have that natural talent that appears so obvious with some artists. My message to musicians who feel the same way is that they should keep at it, building block by block. The ultimate reward might be greater in the end even if they have to work longer and harder in the process.’
In 1955, with 75 dollars in his pocket, Evans moved to New York. He was still uncertain that he wanted to make music his career but the need to pay the rent soon found him chasing society gigs, Jewish weddings and interval spots. He worked with a big band led by Buddy Valentino and one night, found himself playing opposite Nat King Cole in a Harlem ballroom.
‘Nat was one of my favourite piano players and, I think, one of the most underrated. I sat at the same piano and played the same keys as Nat King Cole. It was reverential.’
Evans’ first significant record date was the Jazz Workshop album for George Russell in March 1956. Russell included a com¬position called Billy The Kid, an attempt as George put it, ‘to match the vigour and vitality of pianist Bill Evans’.
‘I had known a singer named Lucy Reed, in fact she was on the first record I ever made. We also did a concert together and George had written some arrangements. We went for a ride on the Staten Island fer¬ry that day with George and his wife. At the time, they were living in a very small hotel room — stove, bed, sink, ironing board, piano, all in one room. We went back there that evening and after moving the ironing board onto the bed, I played the piano. George responded positively and said he would like me to do his next album. It was a wonderful thing for me because there were many pianists around New York who could have done the job, but George gave me the opportunity. I respect George to the utmost, a pure musician with complete integrity. People do not always understand about paying dues but here is a fine example. George worked behind a lunch counter for five years whilst living in this hotel room and working on his Lydian concept. He had recorded some eight years earlier and some people may have thought he’d arrived. Yet he still had plenty of dues to pay, just to do what he really wanted to do.’
During 1956, Evans supplemented a dwindling bank balance by working for various Tony Scott groups. Despite Scott’s claim that it was he who discovered Bill Evans, the period did little to further Bill’s career or extend his musical vocabulary.
In September 1956, after an introduction to Orrin Keepnews, he secured a recording contract with Riverside and his first trio album was issued as New Jazz Concep-tions. The album included a short solo performance of Waltz For Debbie, a piece written for his niece and destined to become his best known composition.
>Returning to his New York apartment in the early hours of one August morning in 1957, Evans found a telegram from Charles Mingus. He was asked to make a recording date later that day with a Mingus group that included Clarence Shaw and Jimmy Knepper. Evans made the date and had to grapple with five Mingus originals. The entire album was completed that day and was released as The Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop.
Evans’ capacity to handle new material with apparent ease and refreshing originality brought him further recording work from a variety of sources. In 1958, he made albums with Eddie Costa, Don Elliott, Helen Merrill and Hal McKusick. In May that year, he made his first record with Miles Davis. He joined Miles as a result of a telephone call asking him to deputise for Red Garland at a weekend concert in Philadelphia.
‘I thought that Miles was the king of modern jazz at this time but until his call, I had never spoken to him. I know that he had heard me playing solo piano one night at the Village Vanguard. I made this date and he asked me to stay with the band. I did, for about eight months and it did a great deal for my confidence. I thought it was the greatest jazz band I had ever heard but being on the road drained me in every respect. Two days before the Newport Jazz Festival, I did a record for Cannonball Adderley with Blue Mitchell, Sam Jones and Philly Joe. Cannonball had asked Miles to write something for the date and he produced Nardis. He came along to the studio with it. It was certainly different, it moved differently and you could see that the guys were struggling with it. Miles wasn’t happy either, but after the date he said that I was the only one to play it the way he wanted. I must have helped his royalties over the years because I have never stoped playing it. It has gone on evolving with every trio I have had.”
In September 1958, Evans recorded with Art Farmer and Benny Golson to produce the album Modern Art. This is an excellent example of Evans’ great ability to refresh old material and add an extra dimension. Those long flowing lines, the harmonic left hand and the crystal clear execution still provide joy to Evans fans. In the American Record Guide that year, Martin Williams wrote: ‘It is a great pleasure to report on a new jazzman who has largely absorbed his influences and not only made a style that is homogeneous but which also shows real originality in line, harmony, rhythm, a meaningful variety in touch and dynamics and a flexibility that suggests further development’.
The Downbeat readers’ poll of 1958 placed Evans 20th in the piano section but the comments on the cover of his second album for Riverside, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, suggested that some of his fellow musicians rated him more highly.
Wynton Kelly replaced Evans in the Miles Davis Quintet but in March 1959, Davis was to record the classic album Kind Of Blue.
‘I had been out of the group for a few months but Miles called me to make this date. He said he had some things sketched out and I should call round to his apart-ment on the morning of the date. I took a tune of mine called Blue In Green. We talked over various tunes and I wrote out some parts for the other guys in the band. I suggested that instead of staying on one level of tonality, we should go through various levels and Miles agreed. In a sense, we co-composed Flamenco Sketches that day but Blue In Green was entirely mine. Now I knew that on the album it is credited to Miles but he did the same thing with two of Eddie Vinson’s tunes. Tune Up and Four. It’s a small matter to me but when someone asks me about it, I tell the truth.
‘I suppose that King Of Blue has been a far reaching influence but when we did the album, we had no idea it would become that important. I have wondered for years just what was that special quality but it is difficult for me as a contributor to be objective about it. Of course, just to record with a band like that was a special experience for me. You can wait a lifetime for such opportunities. It was one of the most comfortable times I had with that rhythm section. We did all the tracks in one after¬noon. There was always some kind of magic and conviction with Miles. Whatever he did became a point of departure for so many people. I don’t think that is true today. I wish he would play more, I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master, but I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. The rock and pop thing certainly draws a wider audience. It happens more and more these days, that unqualified people with executive positions try to tell musicians what is good and what is bad music. It’s tempting for the musican to prejudice his own views when recording opportunities are so infrequent but I for one am determined to resist the temptation.’
1959 was to be Evans’s most prolific recording period. A quartet album which featured Evans and Bob Brookmeyer on pianos was issued as The Ivory Hunters. Then a septet album with Chet Baker and another with Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre. Two more albums for George Russell. A quintet album featuring Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh and an excellent duo collaboration with Jim Hall called Undercurrents. Evans even replaced John Lewis in the MJQ while Lewis arranged then conducted the music for the album Odds Against Tomorrow. In December that year, Evans was to record his first album with the illustrious trio featuring Scott La Faro and Paul Motian — Portrait In Jazz.
‘I remember that I had been looking for a special kind of bass player for sometime. I think that perhaps my approach to the concept of the first trio required a different kind of player. I wanted to make room for the bass and try to leave some fundamental roles empty so that the bass could pick them up. If I am going to be sitting there playing roots, fifths and full voicings, the bass is relegated to a time machine. I think in terms of a tune having a total shape and, for example, I try to avoid getting to full intensity too early. Any one thing done for too long gets tiring. Contrast is important to me. I even thought that drums would be a problem and we might be better without them. It was remarkable that Paul Motian came along and identified with the concept so completely that drums were no longer a problem. As for Scott, I remember that he sat in one night at the Composers’ Club in New York. I was astounded by his creativity, a virtuoso. There was so much music in him, he had a problem controlling it. It was like a gusher and he could not contain his ideas. He certainly stimulated me to other areas and perhaps I helped him contain some of his enthusiasm. It was a wonderful thing and was worth all the effort that we made later to suppress the ego and work for a common result.’
Evans had now found a trio that could advance his conceptual ideas: More freedom for each member of the trio with bass and drums less dedicated to rhythm and bass lines and becoming more melodic in character whilst still maintaining harmonic integrity.
‘What is most important is not the style itself but how the style is developed and how you can play within it. Sometimes, Scott, Paul and I would play the same tune over and over again. Rarely did everything fall into place but when it did, we thought it was sensational. Of course, it may not mean much to the listener as most people in clubs do not listen on that level anyway. What gave that trio its character was a common aim and a feeling of potential. The music developed as we performed and what you heard came through actual performance. The objective was to achieve the result in a responsible way. Naturally, as the lead voice, I might have shaped the performances, but I had no wish to be a dictator. If the music itself did not coax a response, I did not want one. Meeting both Scott and Paul was probably the most influential factor in my career.’
It became a priority for all three members of the group to further its development whenever possible. They were still obliged to accept other work but had a mutual understanding that a gig for the Bill Evans trio took precedent.
George Russell again called on Evans to join pianist Paul Bley for the album Jazz In The Space Age. In March 1960, Evans se¬cured some work for his own trio at Bird- land. He also recorded with Donald Bird and Pepper Adams and was featured with trombonists Jay Jay Johnson and Kai Winding. Scott La Faro joined him on an album under Gunther Schuller’s leadership called Jazz Abstractions.
In February 1961, the trio returned to the studio to record their second album for Riverside — Explorations. Over two years had elapsed since the trio had first re-corded. In the same month. Evans joined Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, George Barrow, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes to record a superb album for Oliver Nelson called The Blues And The Abstract Truth. All six titles were composed and arranged by Nelson and were based on the traditional 12 bar blues and the form and chord sequence of I’ve Got Rhythm.
On the 25th June 1961, Evans could not have known that he was about to record the most important album of his career. Two live sessions for Riverside at the Vil-lage Vanguard were later to be released as Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie. The musical content of these albums is sufficient to justify their place in jazz history. The death of Scott La Faro in a road accident some 10 days later makes these recordings unique. The producer Orrin Keepnews has recently released some alternative takes from these sessions on the Milestone label and entitled Bill Evans — More From The Village Vanguard.
I am thankful that we recorded that day because it was the last time I saw Scott and the last time we would play together. When you have evolved a concept of playing which depends on the specific personalities of outstanding players, how do you start again when they are gone?
‘We had many wonderful times with the trios that followed but it was not quite along the same lines. When Eddie Gomez joined me, it was a new opportunity. He is certainly not the same as Scott, but in the same class. Eddie has got to be one of the greatest ever bass players in jazz.’
It took nearly a year for Evans to ‘start again’ with a new trio. In December 1961, he recorded with Herbie Mann in a quartet that included Paul Motian and Chuck Israels. Around this time, his health deteriorated following a severe hepatitis infection that was to result in permanent and serious liver damage.
The new trio made two albums for Riverside in May 1962. An all ballad selec¬tion under the title Moonbeams and eight more titles were issued as How My Heart Sings. Later in the year, Evans expanded his trio into a quintet which included Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, Percy Heath and Philly Joe Jones to record Interplay. A month later he was back in the studio with Zoot Sims, Jim Hall, Ron Carter and Philly Joe to record an album of his own compositions and arrangements. This session was not released until some 20 years later and after his death. Orrin Keepnews explains why on the album cover of the Milestone release Interplay 2.
Evans signed a new recording contract with Verve in 1962 and his first album was recorded in New York in August that year. Shelly Manne had flown in from the West Coast and Monty Budwig replaced Chuck Israels for this one date. The album was released as Empathy. In January the following year, Evans recorded the first of three overdubbed albums. Conversations With Myself resulted from Evans and one grand piano recording three separate tracks then combining them as an artificial duplication of simultaneous performance. A formidable task for any musician and although Evans won a Grammy award for the album, he was not entirely satisfied with the result and promised to do better next time.
In December, he was in the studio again, this time with Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Again, Evans found some very tired tunes to revitalise: Noel Coward should have heard I’ll See You Again from this album. Many Evans fans considered that Gary Peacock was just the player to re-kindle the original trio’s conceptual ideas.
‘Chuck left the trio for a few months around this time and Gary played some dates with us. I thought he was a rare talent with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, his life took him on a detour into diasthetic spiritualism and his bass playing was left by the wayside. The album was prepared hurriedly and it did not really represent what we could have done together.’
This album, Trio 64, was recorded on the day that Evans was to be the special guest soloist on an album for Gary McFarland. Gary had gathered a septet that included Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Richard Davis and Ed Shaughnessey and had composed pieces to feature Bill Evans. On the sleeve notes, McFarland does not conceal his admiration for his guest: ‘I built this album around Bill — around everything he is, his melodic gift and harmonic concep¬tion, his magic. That’s what it is — magic. On one track you will hear examples of the blues feeling that Bill is capable of. Many player have limited resources but not Bill, he has such broad resources. They say he is in a romantic groove all the time but that just isn’t so. Anything you put in front of him. Bam! it’s covered. And when he comps, he comps in the true sense: he com-plements. He does not sit back with cotton wool in his ears, just playing the changes. He listens. For my taste, he is the perfect pianist; he does everything perfectly’. The album for McFarland was to be the last that Evans would record other than under his own name.
In 1964, Evans embarked on his first European tour. Concerts had been arranged in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Sweden. Whilst in Stockholm, the trio recorded an album with Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund. Chuck Israels was back and Larry Bunker had forsaken more lucrative studio work to join his favourite pianist.
‘I had not met Monica before this date but someone had sent me a recording she made of Waltz For Debbie and I was im¬pressed with her voice. When we got to Stockholm, it was like a reunion. We struck up a good friendship and did the record while we were there. We included two Swedish folksongs which were new to me and, of course the lyrics were Swedish. But that didn’t matter as I do not know the full lyrics to any song. I only listen to the music.’
On his return to the USA, Evans was encouraged to record an album for Verve with Stan Getz. Ron Carter and Elvin Jones made up the quartet with Richard Davis replacing Carter on three of the tracks. Neither Getz or Evans were happy. with the result and the record was not immediately released.
‘Both Stan and I had a mutual desire to do a record together but when it was over, we both felt that we had not got to the level we wanted. Stan had a clause in his con¬tract that would prevent the release of anything that he did not approve and so the re¬cord was not issued. However, later, Verve released it without approval. I am not so unhappy about it now but this is the sort of thing that record companies do without reference to the artists involved.’
In January 1965 and prior to a second European tour, the trio recorded Trio 65 for Verve. In May, the trio opened at the Ronnie Scott Club in Gerrard Street. But only just, for as Ronnie Scott recalls in his book. Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues; the piano hired for this important event would not go down the narrow entrance stairs to the club. Just in time, Alan Clare’s home was invaded and his treasured but smaller grand piano was borrowed for the week’s engagement.
It was certainly a full house on opening night with as many musicians as full paying customers. Concerts in Germany and Denmark followed the successful London engagement and the trio was joined by Lee Konitz for these performances. In October and again in December, Evans returned to his home state of New Jersey to work on a symphony orchestra recording under the direction of Claus Ogerman. Evans’ desire to present a broad and varied output was the stimulus for his venture and the inclusion of compositions from Bach and Chopin widened his potential audience. ‘As I travel around, I find people have worn out copies of this record. For the Chopin track on that album, I owe a debt to Gil Evans for the idea. We were sup¬posed to do a record together, in fact they had already made the album cover. One of the ideas on the album was to do the Chopin C Minor prelude. It lends itself well to a blues kind of feeling. It might also add to the impression that I am only a romantic impressionistic player. When I play live performances, people come up to me and say “you play more aggressively than I expected”. I hope that the essential quality comes through, not of a harsh rough nature because it does not matter how physical you are playing.
‘I hope you will find examples in my work of many different kinds of playing from the romantic to the straightahead. The romantic side has been overemphasised. I have worked hard over the years in developing the language of jazz and sometimes I think that if I have made any contribution at all, it is in terms of motivic development. I really enjoyed making this album with Claus and record my deepest respect and admiration for him as he really did most of the hard work on the project.’
In February 1966, a symphony orchestra with soloist Bill Evans was presented at the Town Hall in New York. The first set comprised performances by the trio, this time with Chuck Israels and Arnie Wise. The result was released as Bill Evans At Town Hall Volume One. The second half of the concert featured the orchestra and although this was well received on the night it was never considered suitable for release as Volume Two. Evans had returned from Florida after the death of his father and in the two weeks between these events, he had composed a tribute which he performed as a solo item at the concert. He again found himself without a trio. Arnie Wise, a New York resident, did not wish to travel and Chuck Israels had decided to move on. Evans had to make two more records that year under his contract with Verve. For the first, he teamed up with Jim Hall to record Intermodulation: ‘I loved working with Jim Hall. The wonderful thing about him is that he is like a whole rhythm section. There is one track called Jazz Samba. We could not have got the same result with a full rhythm section. It’s hard to get that buoyant moving feeling. It’s just wonderful when you have just Jim behind you. He just propels it along and you do not have to make any great effort with his support.’
Before entering the studio for the second album that year, Evans had found Eddie Gomez. Eddie had been working with Marian McPartland and had told her that his real ambition was to work with Bill Evans one day. Marian had become resigned to discovering bass players and seeing them move on to greater things. Evans called on Shelly Manne again to complete the trio and Creed Taylor produced the album, A Simple Matter Of Conviction. It was a further 12 months before Evans recorded again, this time a second attempt at a solo overdubbing album avoiding the ‘too busy’ feel of his first. He confined the effort to just two tracks instead of three but Further Conversations With Myself still did not satisfy him.
In June 1968, the Bill Evans Trio made their first appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. This time, a young and innovative drummer named Jack DeJohnette had joined the group. During his short stay, he not only impressed audiences but prompted Evans into more adventurous and less calculated performances. By late 1968, DeJohnette had left the trio and Evans next record was a solo performance entitled Alone. In the sleeve notes, Evans gave encouragement to lay jazz enthusiasts by indicating that to get the most out of music, you just need to be listening well and any attempt at a technical appreciation could spoil the pleasure.
In 1969, Eddie Gomez introduced a young drummer, Marty Morrell and stability in personnel was to be achieved for the next five years. Two albums were recorded that year — What’s New? which featured Jeremy Steig on flute and Autumn Leaves taken from a live festival performance in Pescara, Italy.
Despite the death of Scott La Faro and the subsequent personnel changes, Evans had been working nine months of each year and recording regularly. His health had improved but the unavoidable strains of constant travel and uncomfortable hotel rooms did threaten his wellbeing unless he took plenty of rest. He never displayed either envy or greed and was grateful that he had managed to carve a small niche and reputation in the world of jazz. He would not compromise on the type of music he would play and was grateful that his audience was growing both in size and respect. He had 10 more years to pursue his ideals.
‘The whole rock scene pushed jazz into a corner in the sixties. Work and recording opportunities were less frequent, particularly for new talents. I was fortunate because I had obtained some recognition prior to the rock explosion and I could never complain that I had no work. I do not know people’s reasons for the music they play. You can play any music you want but you have to live with it. I play for myself first, not what I think people want to hear. Perhaps I am less flexible as I grow older. There will always be those in the avant garde as I was at one time. They come along and contribute but I do not think there are a great number of genuine avant garde artists. There are not that many people ahead of their time. George Russell once said that the avant garde was the last refuge of the untalented. When the smoke clears and time passes, we will know just who was who.’
© BRIAN HENNESSEY