The training and repertoire of Bill Evans from the age of six to thirteen was strictly classical. He studies Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Villa-Lobos, Milhaud. At his senior recital in 1950 at the Southeastern Louisiana University he started with Bach, Brahms and Chopin. He finished solo with the first movement of the Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven. He graduated with a degree in piano performance and teaching. Later, as honor graduate, he played the whole concerto with the college orchestra. Subsequently he studied at the Mannes School of Music in New York composition and counterpoint. Later on during his career as a jazz pianist he remains inspired by classical composers and pianists. Bill Evans and the celebrated Bach interpreter Glenn Gould (1932-1982) had a mutual admiration for each other. Gene Lees, a notable Canadian musician, writer and lyricist and a friend of both Bill Evans and Glenn Gould introduced the two in 1970. In 1977 during a radio broadcast Gould, as a host, played a part of the recording of Symbiosis by Bill Evans and Claus Ogerman. It was the harmonic originality of Bill Evans that inspired Gould’s comment after attending a concert in Toronto: “He’s the Scriabin of jazz” ( Issue 1999, volume 5, number 1 of the Glenn Gould Magazine). Bill Evans also shared Gould’s fascination with serial composers and composed two pieces T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune) and T.T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune Two), based on the twelve-tone principle. Glenn Gould also owned a copy of the Evans’ album Conversations With Myself (1963). Bill overdubs himself – not once, but twice – to create an amazing and confusing stereophonic contrapuntal experience with three Bills having nice conversations together, “triple play”. Gene Lees suggested that the two pianists review each other’s recordings in the High Fidelity magazine, and they agreed, though in the end Evans chickened out, perhaps he was daunted by the task.
Evans and Gould shared another similarity: They had the same characteristic posture behind the piano, hunching down with the face close to the keys, as if lost in prayer to the muse and bent to his inventions. “Bill Evans would sometimes get so involved in the piano that he would lean over and lean over and you’d think he was gonna be swallowed by the piano” (From a Nat Hentoff interview for Ken Burns Jazz series, 1996).
The Italian piano virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
(1920-1995) attended a concert of Bill Evans in Milan. After the performance the maestro made the next comment: “Bill Evans would be an ideal interpreter of the music of Gabriel Faur”. Michelangeli was like Bill Evans known for his note-perfect performances. According to Peter Pettinger in his biography Michelangeli was in turn much admired by Evans (page 90).
Gabriel Faur (1845-1924) was a French composer, organist, pianist and teacher. His musical style influenced many 20th century composers with his harmonic and melodic language. Gabriel Faur was a transitional figure in musical history, changing from the romantic to the impressionistic era. Claude Debussy and Ravel, the first full-fledged impressionists, certainly pick up where Faur left off. In his solo piano pieces, generally from the latter half of his career, both the romantic inspirations and the impressionistic harmonies are evident. Faur uses a romantic framework to advance his very forward-looking impressionistic ideas. Impressionism in music is a movement in European classical music that had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century. Impressionism focused on suggestion and atmosphere as a reaction to the overflow of the romantic epoch. This romantic era was characterized by a dramatic use of the major and minor scale system, impressionistic musicians inclined to make more use of dissonance and more uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. Gabriel Faur introduced elements borrowed from the ancient church modes into classical music. At the end of his life Bill Evans discovered the work of composer Lili Boulanger, a friend of Faur, also belonging to the French school, who used modes as in her “Pie Jesu”. When Bill Evans visited Paris, his friends Francis Paudras and Bernard Maury introduced her music and Evans was fascinated with her polychordal and modal music. The jazz pianist Bernard Maury, founder of The Bill Evans Piano Academy in Paris: “Bill Evans 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 Lili Boulanger, Henri Dutilleux, Faur, Debussy and Ravel”. (UNESCO Courier , 1996 by Isabelle Leymarie).
The impressionistic tonal way of music is characterised by tone paintings based on this whole tone scales, chord transitions, elimination of functional harmony and a preference for modality with use of major and ninth chords. These features were consistently used, for instance, in the impressionistic piano works of classical composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. These impressionistic structures have also been applied to jazz since halfway the twentieth century. Corresponding to the predominating tonal stage of development, tonal impressionistic style approaches were used in almost all the style periods of jazz. Especially by musicians like Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Red Norvo, Pete Rugulo, Lennie Tristano and Paul Bley, but particularly in connection with the modal style of playing of George Russell, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Lalo Schifrin. Generally speaking modern jazz harmonies from the nineteen forties of the last century onwards represents a fusion of impressionistic chords and European functional harmony with specific tonal expressions of African-american music.
From the beginning of the early twenty-first century, it seems that the world of music is embracing a wide variety of musical styles as never before, and jazz-oriented music is one of the main influences. Contemporary classical performers are including transcriptions of Art Tatum (Steven Mayer) and Bill Evans (Jean-Yves Thibaudet) in their recordings and concert programs. An example par excellence is the Ukrainian composer and pianist Nikolai Kapustin (1937). He has combined a classical approach to composition with an authentic command of jazz styles. A striking example of this are the Twenty-four Preludes, Opus 53. It’s an assimilation of the stylistic language of jazz and its application to written composition. His work combines classical and jazz in a more integrated way than many others who have attempted such a synthesis.
• The influence of Claude Debussy’s and Maurice Ravel’s music on jazz, as seen in the compositions
of Bix Beiderbecke, Bill Evans and Miles Davis (Ed Byrne, 1989)
• Maurice Ravel and Bill Evans: Observations on certain aspects of the French music in the piano
score in the beginning of the modern era of jazz (Cesare Grossi, 2006)
• French Music Reconfigured in the Modal Jazz of Bill Evans (Deborah Mawer, Lancaster University)
• French stewardship of jazz: The case of France Musique and France culture
(Roscoe Seldon Suddarth, University of Maryland, 2008)
• A study of the exchange of influences between the music of early twentieth-century Parisian
composers and ragtime, blues, and early jazz (Geoffrey Jennings Haydon, 1992)
• Jazz and the Classics: A Study of American Crossover Solo Piano Works from 1920 to 1935
(Kristen Joan Helgeland, 1999)
• Impressionism in jazz: a study of the influence of the French musical idiom, from Bix Beiderbecke
to Bill Evans (Philippe Fourquet, master’s thesis, 1993, Bill Evans: page 162-203)
• Classical influences on the jazz styles of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, and Dave
Brubeck (Peters, Jason, Northern Illinois University, 2013)
In the preface of his thesis Fourquet refers to a broadcast interview with the The House Of Sound, recorded in Washington in 1979, just before a concert of Evans at the Blues Alley jazzclub. Interviewer: I imagine you’ve studied classical music… Bill Evans : Yeah… Question: … and you .. eh… were into Alban Berg and into Schoenberg as well… B.E.: Hum…hum… Question: … eh… in your playing, I hear more of romanticism and more of impressionism… B.E.: Yeah… Question : … so I assume you’ve done over all there is to it ? B.E.: Yeah !
“To me there’s not much difference between classical music and jazz. I play classical music at home for my own pleasure, still, but I think I’ve already drawn as much from the classics as I could. If you get deep enough into any music, the language and fundamental principles are the same, but if you’re just imitating a style that’s another thing. By trying to learn the language of music I look to all kinds of music.”(Bill Evans talking to Frank Everett in the British Jazz Journal, Aug 1968)
Art Farmer, jazz trumpeter, expressed surprise that serious classical study had not hurt Evans’ jazz playing: One of the rare things about him is that he started as a classical player, and it hasn’t hung him up in any way. It has added to his taste, but he’s not a prisoner of his taste. (Down Beat 32, January 28, 1965: 30)
Bill Evans, sometimes wrongly accused of aesthetic conservatism, in an interview: “That may be more the type of harmonies I am using, which, anyway, coincides with the way jazz was developing. I mean, I love impressionism, but I don’t strive for a cloudy effect; I’m striving for a lot of clarity really. I haven’t thought much about this parallel because I’m just trying to reflect what I like to hear . . . it’s just me, whatever it is. . though I’d be happy to be associated with Debussy in any way!”
Various observers have noted the apparent influence of certain classical composers in Evans’ voicings, particularly Ravel, Debussy and Chopin. Was the influence absorbed directly and deliberately? “No more than from jazz,” he said. “It’s whatever I’ve liked the sound of. I’ve built it by my own study, never consciously looking at a voicing in a score and saying, ‘Gee, this would be nice to use'” ( Gene Lees, Down Beat, November 1962)
But it is not a secret that the impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel influenced Bill Evans. The constructional knowledge of music that Bill Evans later brought to jazz was firmly rooted in this European classical tradition, as was his thoroughly trained and exquisitely refined touch at the keyboard. He brought a new, introverted, relaxed, lyrical, European classical sensibility into jazz with his chord voicings. Classical pianists like Jean-Yves Thibaudet have recorded note-for-note transcriptions of Evans’ performances, bringing out the direct lineage with classical composers (Jean-Yves Thibaudet: Conversations with Bill Evans, Decca, 1997). In interviews, Evans often stressed that pianists should thoroughly learn technique and harmony so that they can put their inspiration to maximum use. Reading the book on the making of Kind of Blue by Ashley Khan, he said that Miles Davis was heavily influenced by pianist Bill Evans who was, in turn, really influenced by Maurice Ravels work which frequent characteristics of unresolved harmonies. A composition like “Very Early” is very simple and rich. He wrote this composition already in his third year at high school, his alma mater the Southeastern Louisiana University in in Hammond, LA.
The harmonies are very sophisticated as usual with Bill Evans. It has something of Debussy or Ravel, and could nearly be a “Prelude” or a “Valse noble et sentimentale”. In the late seventies a leading jazz radio station in New York had a weekly show on which noted jazz musicians played and discussed recordings. On one occasion the guest disc jockey was Bill Evans. Among others his playlist included Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales”! It is probably no coincidence that the known French poet and jazz critic Jacques Rda wrote 5 poems with the title Tombeau de Bill Evans with reference to Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel: “Displacement”, “Conversations With Myself”, “Peace Piece”, “Interplay” and “Explorations”. (L’improviste II – Jouer le jeu, Gallimard 1985), also published in the French Jazzmagazine.
Evan Evans, the son of Bill Evans , is film music composer and produced in 2000 an album Practise Tape No.1 with originally magnetic recordings of unknow date at Bill’s New York City apartment in the 70s during personal practise sessions.
“My father practised an average of eight hours a day in later years”. That this music was so powerful can only be a testament to the importance of perseverance, dedication, and above all, as he and I agree, discipline.
Again one can hear Bill studying classical music like Bach and Granados.
Bill, some critics say your music is impressionistic. What do you think?
“I love impressionists. I love Debussy. He’s one of my favorite composers. I’m not crazy about painting, but if I was, I would prefer the Impressionists. Sometimes, I feel like I’m living two
hundred years behind, back in the eighteenth century, not in the twentieth. So I don’t know if I’m an impressionist or not. I have the desire to change, but I feel I can’t as long as I’m not able to replace what I’m doing by something better. I haven’t found anything better yet, so I’m satisfied with what I have”.
(Interview in 1965 by Jean-Louis Ginibre, former editor-in-chief
of the French monthly Jazz Magazine, March 1965, also published in JazzTimes, Febr. 1997)
Three excerpts from interviews with classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (left), the former Bill Evans drummer Eliot Zigmund (middle) and Bill Evans about his classical influences of (right).
Orrin Keepnews, the former producer of Riverside Records, looking back recently: “I couldn’t discuss Bill Evans with other piano players back in the day – they couldn’t stand the direct comparison to Bill – they could not figure out what he was doing ….. I still can’t after 40 years ….. It’s like having Ravel, Debussy and Satie coming back through Bill ….. how incredibly lucky we are to have been a part of his music and soul – well, they will never “Turn Out the Stars” on Bill ….. even in 500 years!”
“I went through a lot of mental pains and anguish about choosing between jazz and classical. I realized that where I functioned was where I should be, and where I functioned was in jazz, so that was it.” (Bill Evans)
Evans’ girlfriend Peri Cousins witnessed his daily fare: “He would usually play classical music. Of course, you know, he was a romantic. He played Rachmaninoff, but also played Beethoven and Bach. He would play that and then just drifted into jazz in a very fluid kind of way. It was wonderful to hear this, that was my privilege.” (Letters From Evans, vol4, no3, 1993)
From an interview with the Dutch trombone player Paul Duynhouwer who studied at Berklee and the Lennox School of Jazz: “When I arrived in New York my first concern was an accommodation. Fortunately I found rather quickly an apartment on West 83rd Street in Manhattan. When I got there with my trombone case the manager of the building asked me if I was a musician. He told me that in the apartment complex another musician was living who played the piano very well. That turned out to be Bill Evans. I could hear the most beautiful piano music from a higher floor. Almost all classical music, especially Bach …… In August 1959 I went back to the Lennox School of Jazz. Bill Evans also went to Lenox for teaching. Bob Brookmeyer, who also lived in New York, came to pick me up in his Morris Minor. First we had to visit Bill Evans, who had moved to a bigger apartment on Riverside Drive. Evans had his thirtieth birthday and Brookmeyer went to congratulate him. In his apartment was a Steinway grand piano on which I saw a music book – Bach again! (Ben IJpma, Jazz Bulletin, 2013).
Bill I have a question, gives a classical education complications or difficulties for a jazz musician? “No, not that I know, you should only take the appropriate attitude. So in a few seconds I can change from Mozart to jazz; it is like maneuvering with a car. I speak of course as a professional musician with 17 years experience. This approach thus goes beyond the framework of hearing or assessment, it grows in yourself and it takes a long time before it matures.” (Interview Felix Manskleid, Jazz Hot, Februari 1960)
“All of Bach certainly is essential to any musician. I have grown closer to Bach as I grew older; there is such a wealth of knowledge and feeling in his music that one can never fylly discover it. To me it is a constant food of inspiration and motivation, and it is a thrill and a pleasure for me to spend a few hours with Bach whenever it is possible. This would also be true of Brahms, as well as such modern composers as Hindemith and Bartok. I’ve read some Schoenberg and have found some of the music quite beautiful; however, most of my time has been spent with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and of course the French and Spanish impressionists. There’s a whole world of music to be discovered, and I can’t possibly see why anyone would wish to deny (himself) both the knowledge and pleasure of this music. Is someone is unable to read some of this music, he should at least listen to it through recordings”. Asking Bill Evans if his control of the piano can be vitally assisted by his experience with classical music. “Definitely. I say that because you are compelled to think another person’s thoughts, therefore, your hands are directed into areas that they might not normally travel if left to their own impulses. If you play only your own ideas, you will naturally favor your strong points and, at the same time, avoid your weak areas. You can’t play the piano wrong and, at the same time, play Bach right or, for that matter, any composer”. (Interview by John Mehegan, January 1965 issue of Jazz, he was an American jazz pianist, lecturer and critic for the New York Herald Tribune and wrote many books.)
“Because there is no substitute for spending a couple of hours with Bach, and I know it’s necessary because it makes your fingers think in ways you would never let them think themselves. For a pianist playing a fugue by Bach is one of the deeper things that exists”. (Bill Evans)
“Until I was 30 I did spend a great deal of time reading repertoire, from Bach through contemporary. I spent quite a bit of time on Bach for the purpose of developing tone control and independence and so forth. Bach changed my hand approach to playing the piano. I used to use a lot of finger technique when I was younger, and I changed over to a weight technique. actually, if you play Bach and the voices sing at all, and sustain the way they should, you can’t really play it with the wrong ap-
proach. It’s going to straighten you out in a hurry if you have a concept of what it should sound like” (Interview in Keyboard, June 1980)
From another interview: “When I got out of the Army I started to deal with playing a lot of different music. I covered a lot of ground, from Baroque up to contemporary classical music, but mostly I played a lot of Bach. And I think it changed my technique. It brought my hands closer to the keyboard, and it brought me to using a lot more of a weight transference thing – without appearing to be moving my hands a great deal. With Bach, one has to play that way in order to get any sense of the music at all. So, in doing that over a period of two or three years, my hands started to approach the keyboard differently, and I became more expressive in a different way. What I’m trying to say is that even though I had gone quite a good distance in my jazz and in my creative understanding, I still had to go through that period with Bach to just move a couple of inches further; I suppose I could have continued to do that to an even greater degree. So that’s one example of how changes can occur even at a late stage in your development.” (Interview by Michael Spector, Contemporary Keyboard, March 1977)
Bill Evans had an exceptional toucher, that’s why the German music journalist and book author Joachim-Ernst Berendt dared to compare this with the touch of some classical pianists. “In today’s terms, he was the first “modal” pianist. He might be designated a “Chopin of the modern jazz piano”, with the eminent skill, without comparison in jazz, to make the piano “sound” in a way that places him (in terms of sound) in the vicinity of a pianist like Rubenstein” (Joachim E. Berendt, The Jazz Book, translated 1983)
Chuck Israels, the bassist of the Bill Evans Trio from 1961 till 1966 made a clarifying analysis of the music of Bill Evans in an article on his website : Evans’ view about rhythm was a combination of the swing of Bud Powell with the more varied cross rhythms of Bartok and Stravinsky; he carried this synthesis to great lengths, achieving a rare subtlety of placement and drive. His sound was in his fingers and the subtle linear aspect of Evans’ harmony was Chopinesque just as his textural interjections were often derived from Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Debussy. His bass lines were steeped in knowledge of Bach. The entire piano literature was open to his voracious pilferage. (Published here with permission of Chuck Israels)
When making a comparison between Bill Evans and Bach one can make reference to the tension in the music of Bach between linear autonomy and harmony. In the early music of Bill Evans as in Bach, that tension was alive, rich and productive. In the later approach of Evans, a more worked out harmonic activity restricts the linear melodic independence. His approach to the instrument reflects a firm commitment to the heritage of Western keyboard music that began with Bach and reached its final splendor in the impressionistic era. The improvisations of Bill Evans are then mostly harmonic, the significance of almost every note of the top line dependent on its attached harmony.
The piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff was long a favorite of Bill Evans; on his final European tours he carried with him a cassette of the composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he and the trio would study. Bill Evans was a friend and mentor of the also classical educated jazzpianist Warren Bernhardt. Warren recalls: “We played several times four-hand pieces and arrangements of Mozart and Beethoven. I remember how much Bill loved the harmonic construction of the slow movement of the Third piano concerto of Rachmaninoff. Warren about these sessions: “I never heard him make a harmonic mistake …… sometimes he would search for weeks, even months, for the right keys.” Also a lot of Bill’s harmonic conception, Bill told me, came out of playing Bach. He often dramatically altered the harmonic structure of the pieces he played, omitting the root note in his voicing of chords to create a constantly evolving chromaticism that could be called “infinite harmonic take-twoness.”
Bill Evans did not consider the book of classical music closed after his student years to only live on his roots as a jazz pianist. Nenette Evans: “When he played at home it was primarily classical. Several times he and Warren Bernhardt played 4 handed pieces. Bill had a vast amount of sheet music, some he would look at, others not. I rarely, if ever, heard him play jazz at home.” His son Evan Evans about the discovered “Practise Tapes” of Bill Evans: “I get the impression that he would practise some classics like Bach or Ravel, and he would just do that for a while, as if to shake out the blues and traditional jazz and exercise his hands. It’s like he goes into this classical music for 10 or 30 minutes, or an hour or two, and he would just bear down with this classical music. But then, suddenly, he would burst into his own thing. Obviously he was hoping there’d be some correlation with the mastery of the classical music – that something would be brought across, or, that part of what he discovered artistically by playing would be brought in his own music. A kind of osmosis.”
About Evans writing about the philosophy of music: “There was someting around the order of ten to twenty thousand pages that my father wrote about very strange, abstract ideas on the philosophy of music.” (Interview with Evan Evans in 2000 by Eric Nemeyer in Jazz Improv).
An example of his solid classical background is recalled by George Shearing during a visit at Shearings music library in the fifties. Shearing put on a record of a Schumann string quintet where the piano part was missing. Stunningly Bill played the piano part as if he has played the music for years. “People are perpetually astonished at record dates at how perfectly he can read and simultaneously interpret music he has never seen before. Paradoxically, Evans has always had an aversion to formal practise. He infuriated teachers at Southeastern Louisiana College by his inability to play the scales and arpeggios assigned for him to study. Unfortunately for academic theory, he could play flawlessly full compositions containing those same scales and arpeggios.” (Gene Lees)
Bill Evans talking about modern twentieth century composers: “All the great masters like Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven, Bartok and Strawinsky are my favorite composers. But I don’t quite understand what’s happening today in classical music. I try to understand, but it doesn’t move me.”
About inspiring musical events and experiences in his life: “I can remember the 78 album of Petruschka by Igor Stravinsky which I got as a requested Christmas present in high school; and just about wearing it out and learning it. And my first hearing of the polytonality in the piece “Suite Provenale” by Darius Milhaud , which opened me up to certain things. From Jazz Spoken Here by Enstice, Wayne, and Paul Rubin. (Da Capo, 1994)
Pianist Dr. Billy Taylor introduces Bill Evans at Carnegie Hall in 1973:
A consequence of the priority of the composer’s written score is that improvisation plays a relatively minor role in the European and classical traditions, in sharp contrast to jazz, where improvisation is central. Improvisation in classical music performance was more common during the Baroque period than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and recently the performance of such music by modern classical musicians has been enriched by a revival of the old improvisational practices. During the classical period, Mozart and Beethoven sometimes improvised the cadenzas to their piano concertos but they also provided written cadenzas for use by other soloists. Bill Evans discussed this issue in an interview on the DVD the Universal Mind of Bill Evans:
“In the 17th century, there was a great deal of improvisation in classical music. And because of the fact that there were no electrical recording techniques or anyway to permanize, or to “catch” music, and to record it. The music was written so that it could be permanize that way. And so slowly and surely, the writing of the music and the intepreters of the written music, gave way to more and more intepretation, and less and less improvisation. Until finally, improvisation became a lost art in classical music, and we have only the composer and the interpreter.”
Bill Evans didn’t see jazz and classical music adversary, he distinguished only between composed and improvised music. “The basic difference between classical music and improvised music is that in classical music you can take three months, to compose, for example, one minute of music, while in improvised music, one minute of time is one minute of music.”
A striking statement: “If jazz is America’s classical music, Bill Evans is our most classic pianist”.
“I think jazz is the purest tradition in music this country has had. It has never bent to strictly commercial considerations and so it has made music for its own sake. That’s why I’m proud to be part of it. What I like in jazz is, that it’s basically straight and honest music.” (Bill Evans)
“Bill Evans is the most “French” of American jazz musicians.”
Question: “Bill Evans, is he a musician for pianists or a pianist for musicians? None of both, Bill Evans is an universal artist.”
Oscar Peterson raised the level of playing the piano in jazz to the proficiency long the norm in classical music. One musician made his proper observation: “It was said in their own time that Liszt conquered the piano, Chopin seduced it. Oscar is our Liszt and Bill is our Chopin.” (Quote from an article by Gene Lees, lyricist, composer and friend of Bill Evans. From his book: Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s”, Jazz Musicians and Their World, 1988).
Finally, it is no coincidence that particularly a classical trained international concert pianist Peter Pettinger (1945-1998) wrote a biography on Bill Evans, one of the best jazz documents ever: How My Heart Sings (Yale University Press, 1998). A concert pianist who looks at the work of a jazzpianist”. This British pianist teached piano at the Cambridge University and recorded classical and jazz albums with the violist Nigel Kennedy and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber.