Bill Evans followed his musical studies at the Southeastern Louisiana University from 1946 till 1950 and received his Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance. From 1980 till 1999 the trombonist, arranger, conductor, music researcher, educator, and broadcast manager Prof. Ron Nethercutt developed at the faculty the Bill Evans archive. After the death of Bill Evans in 1980 Ron began collecting memorabilia in order to compile a reference center for pianists, musicologists, and others. He also wrote the liner notes of the album “Bill Evans Homecoming: Live At Southeastern Louisiana University” (Fantasy 1999), recorded live at Southeastern Louisiana State University, Hammond, Louisiana on November 6, 1979. He later contributed many articles for the quarterly newsletter “Letter From Evans” (26 issues: 1989-1994) by the well-known Evans historian and bassist Win Hinkle, author of “The Bill Evans Jazz Resource” and “Win’s Bill Evans Blog”. Ron was also the moderator for the initial annual Bill Evans Festival. Southeastern named Bill Evans its first “Alumnus of the Year” in 1969.
A lecture that Prof. Ron Nethercutt gave at Southeastern in October 14, 2008.
Bill Evans was described by some as a “troubled” man who occasionally appeared to be unhappy or otherwise preoccupied. His introverted on-stage personality was perhaps due to his shyness and modesty. He happily discussed jazz with friends and fellow musicians but he sometimes found socializing with other musicians difficult.
Chuck Israels, who replaced Scott LaFaro, told me in an interview that Bill was difficult to understand. Chuck and I had a wonderful discussion in Chicago at an International Association of Jazz Educators convention. A tape of that interview is being left here at the Bill Evans Archives. I must apologize for the background noise, it was done in the hotel restaurant, and lots of musicians in the same room tend to make a lot of noise, even when eating! We were interrupted several times by folks coming up to Chuck and telling him hello, and even the waitress kept coming back to the table; I think she wanted to get recorded too! Eddie Gomez, the bass player who worked with Bill the longest, revealed in an interview that the trio nicknamed Bill “The Phantom” because of the way he would simply vanish at the end of a gig. Laurie Prior was told “they would turn to speak to him and he’d be gone from the bandstand, having slipped away to his hotel room to watch TV. Here he was reported to have spent long daytime hours with the curtains closed watching sports.” Maybe not exactly the sort of programming you might feel a jazz pianist might enjoy. Perhaps he was remembering his days as the quarterback for the music fraternity inter-mural football team. That team went on to win the contest of all the fraternities on campus.
Prior revealed that “though Bill was prone to constant introspection and even depression, as well as on-and-off drug problems for many years, he seemed to have the strength to study passionately, and not just music.” On a BBC-Radio Series in 1990 entitled Along came Bill, it was said that he made an in-depth study and became something of an expert on the works of William Blake and Thomas Hardy.
But Bill had an ability to escape, through the calmness he found in jazz. Some say Bill had the ability to stand back from himself and listen to the sounds he made, almost as if another person was playing. There is always a reflective approach in his music where you hear Bill connecting to his own emotions and laying his soul bare for us all to hear and feel.
An interview I did with Pat Evans, Bill’s sister in law, revealed great insight into the Bill Evans not seen by many. Pat told me, “I was 19 years old when I met Bill Evans, and he wasn’t much older; he was 21 and his brother was 23. Obviously I later married his brother, but I have never known a more sensitive man in my whole life. In some cases a very, very, kind man, and in other cases a very, very, complicated typed of human being.”
Pat told me “I think Bill came to visit us for the family part of his life. He wanted to do the ordinary things that families do, he wanted to go bowling, go to the movies, or just sit around and barbecue on the patio and talk about boyhood memories.”
In a master class that Bill once gave he was asked questions about his unique harmonic approach, which he seemed to find inside any given key signature, another key trying to get out. He dismissed his harmonic interest as something that most good musicians normally have, and indicated that the quest for melodic line was a far more difficult one to master. Gretchen Magee told me that Bill’s interest in Ravel and Debussy continued to be expressed in his harmonic structure.
Bill himself said he might have gone in either of two directions at one point in his career; after obtaining his degree he had to choose between a classical performing route, or entering the jazz world. He chose jazz and what a good job he did! Think what we would have missed?
Bill Evans had an identifiable style; it has often been said that if you catch a tiny fragment of his playing you instantly know it’s him. However many have tried to duplicate his art, but few have captured his magic. It is almost like someone trying to copy Houdini; the tricks are the same, but the secret lies hidden with the performer. But in an aesthetic sense it may not be so much style as it was the message. Prior said, “To me, Bill’s music was like the feeling you get when you enter a huge cathedral and sense an instant and abstract respect for the vast architecture — the sheer size and awesome splendor of the art that went into creating it. The music in such places lets you fully realize the present moment! Time seems to stand still. As long as Bill stayed there, just playing, we would stay there and listen.”
His theory teacher, Gretchen Magee at SLC, as it was known then, remarked on the interplay between both hands. It has been described as being similar to the techniques used in choral writing. By making a few number of notes overlap, it appears to make the harmony appear to be larger and expanded.
By handling the chord voicing in a sparse manner, Bill could emphasize a few notes without trespassing on the venue of the bass player. Equal weight was sometimes given to all the voices on the piano so that what came out was, in fact, akin to an orchestration. I have heard many thoughts regarding Bill’s position when playing. The one I feel most logical is perhaps his need to here the exact weight of the hammer on each string in order to help determine the emphasis to be used by each finger. Evans once said, “I want my music to sing, and as long as it has that element of singing, I’m happy”.
His was a tremendous musical discipline. In the video The Universal Mind of Bill Evans (Rhapsody Films, 1966) which I have also left here for the archives, his brother Harry asked him to explain this “less is more” phenomenon in his playing, and he demonstrated how some players are tempted to force too many notes into the space provided.
Bill never told Harry how he did this; telling him that “I want you to discover, not imitate.” Harry’s wife Pat, also an SLC grad, told me that Bill rarely discussed music with Harry. She said that his visits to Baton Rouge, where Harry was Supervisor of Music, were a period of relaxation for Bill, and an escape from the pressures of performing. That film incidentally was one of the few times the two brothers did an in-depth discussion of music. Bill often said “Style has to happen to you, you can’t force it.”
Bill and Harry idolized one other in separate ways, and Harry’s wife often thought that the part of Bill’s life that Harry cherished was the music. And the part of Harry’s life that Bill cherished was the family.
Frequently when Bill was engrossed in that deep concentration playing a solo he often had his head bowed down inches from the keyboard and his eyes tightly closed, putting maximum concentration into what he was saying through the instrument. Then the music seemed to come out of the top of his head directly into the keyboard, as though nothing intervened on this thought process. His fingers operated automatically as a direct extension of his thoughts. Watching his hands in close-up, they appeared to be using movement more economically than was possible to create such complex phrases.
Julie Prior in a story written for Jan Steven’s wonderful Bill Evans website said she “sensed his total lack of egotism in his performances. He never indulged in showing off; the music was too important to him for that.” I’ve heard many times that Bill Evans was his own fiercest critic.” Prior thought Bill felt “music was mountain that just has to be climbed,” or perhaps a bayou that had to be explored. Bill’s concert at Southeastern, recorded by me and released on Milestone entitled “Homecoming” was unique. Evans had a rapport with the audience that was unusual. He introduced all the songs, and even addressed the audience and spoke of his days with humility and pride. This was a very different Evans; from the many times was not at ease with audiences. That night he shared his musical journey with an audience which included some of his teachers, classmates, and friends, in addition to jazz fans from Hammond, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other surrounding communities. I brought a few CDs of that concert which was released by Riverside records in California.
As a composer, Bill used simple melodies, but within complex structures. “Your Story” is a classical kind of theme on a tiny melodic phrase of just two notes. I first heard it on a video tape from the Merv Griffin TV show. Mundell Lowe was the Musical Director for Merv Griffin at that time and sent it to me. It became known to jazz fans, “The Diddly-ahh tune” and he was asked to play it regularly. It moves one tiny two-note theme and made it easy for the listener to hear the possibilities that could be from one simple idea. Billy Strayhorn used only two notes in his Satin Doll, made famous by Duke Ellington. The effect was one of taking the listener musically by the hand, and saying come here – this way – look at that view, did you ever see such simplistic beauty?
I would like to close this part of my presentation with how Pat Evans concluded our interview several years ago. “He said to me that if he had anything to give, he could only give it through is music. What he meant to me is that he has been a very intrinsic part of my life; and a great influence in my life. And he made me love jazz, and that is a wonderful gift.”
Ron Nethercutt, October 14, 2008, SLU, FANFARE (Published here with permission of the author)
Posters of the annual Bill Evans Festival at the Southeastern Louisiana University.