Greetings hipsters. Branching off my recent diaries focused on Miles and Coltrane, I wanted to dwell on Bill Evans this week. However, in doing so, I also want to talk about some racial issues within jazz. I did want to include Dave Brubeck this week, but as always things ran long. Brubeck will come in the future and facilitates discussing a different set of racial issues within Jazz.
Bill Evans, August 16, 1929 – September 15, 1980, is considered one of the greatest pianist in the history of Jazz. His accomplishments were many. His life story is rather sad. His music is profoundly beautiful. I’m writing this intro after finishing the rest of the diary and after spending all day writing this and double checking all the tunes I checked out his past week…I’m left feeling melancholy and facetiously thankful that I don’t really drink anymore.
Please pass through the orange portal and enjoy….
There are few questions that are asked about Jazz and some of them are simultaneously contradictory and combined. Two very different questions often get forced together: Who are Jazz’s greatest innovators?—and—Who are the greatest Jazz musicians? That first question has a much shorter answer than the second, but sometimes we act like the answer to the second question is supposed to be the answer to the first. For example, is Alto saxophonist Phil Woods a great Jazz musician? Abso-freakiin’-lutely. He is one the best Alto players in the post-war period. But was he a great innovator? Did he change how Jazz was played? I don’t think it is an insult to say “no, he was not.” This does not diminish what he has done, all the recordings and all the great music he has made. The fact is that there are very very few musicians who have had that sort of influence: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Bud Powell, Ella, Billy, Miles, Trane…Bill Evans (Im leaving a few names off this list for brevity’s sake).
If the allusion isn’t clear, the point is that the majority of Jazz’s greatest innovators and trend setters have been African-American, while at the same time there have been many great and historically significant Jazz musicians who were not such innovators and who were of the full range of American races and ethnicities. But if we do name Jazz’s greatest innovators, there are some Euro-American names that do deserve to be on the list. And without debate, Bill Evans is one of them.
I wrote this in the comments in one of my previous jazz diaries, but it deserves to be stated again. From the work of (the somewhat radical) sociologist Frank Kofsky, I tend to think about performers in the music industry as being divided into a few levels. At the top are the innovators who shape how the music is played, then there are the highly successful performers who develop a unique style but do not influence how the music is played over all, and then there are the “rank and file” who imitate the innovators and spread and standardize their ideas. In Jazz, the majority of the greatest innovators are African American. Many of Jazz’s most famous white musicians better fit into that second category and I would absolutely assert that that list includes iconic musicians such as Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck. The “rank and file” is composed of musicians of color, white musicians, European and Japanese Jazz muscicians, and virtually anyone who plays jazz but does not fit into either the first categories. Perhaps that third category needs expanding.
And maybe is worth pointing out that Bill Evans’s earliest recordings maybe show a member of the “rank and file” more than one of Jazz’s greatest innovators. This does not question the quality of the music; in fact…the title of Bill’s third album as a leader says it all….
From 1958’s Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Oleo (with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones)
Jazz as we know it was created by two men in New Orleans. They did not do this in consort. They were named Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and they were both men of color. Jazz combines European harmony and African rhythmic styles and melodic practices with strong influences from African American folk music (Spirituals and The Blues). It also absorbed the European classical tradition’s value for virtuosity. It was African Americans absorbing the cultural heterogeneity of the United States and using that to create a musical tradition as complex and with equal breadth and depth as the European Classical tradition, but one with swing.
White Jazz musicians have been involved with the music since the 1920s. The other great earliest solo-ist in Jazz was Bix Beiderbeck, a white guy from Iowa. To call Jazz simply African-American music does the music and our country a disservice, but to call Jazz what it really is…and to really understand what this means…is to change the narrative of race relations in the 20th century. Jazz is American music, and like much of American cultural production its greatest innovators were men of color. The bulk of the Jazz repertoire is the repertoire we often refer to as “The Great American Songbook” and those compositions were mostly written by White men, a fair number of whom were Jewish. Jazz was one of the most powerful agents pushing the country towards desegregation before Rosa Parks. It’s just not as simple as “Jazz is African-American music”. And the influence of European Classical music is incredibly strong.
That is from one of Bill Evans most classic recordings, Portrait in Jazz released 1959. So is this next one.
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, NJ in 1929. He had one brother with whom he was very close. He studied music through his youth and his childhood was devoted to learning and playing classical music. He began playing Jazz in his teens and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Music. He was drafted into the Army after college and served from 1951-54. He would perform on base, ran a jazz radio show for the Army and managed to do gigs in Chicago on the side. Upon being discharged in 1954, he took about a year off and spent time with his brother (now in Baton Rouge) and its suggested that this is when he starts getting high.
In 1955, Bill moves to New York to study classical composition. He begins to do gigs around town while also studying the advanced harmonic ideas of George Russell. Bill gets the attention of producer Orin Keepnews and records his first record in 1956. By 1958, through Russell, Miles Davis meets and hires Bill for the group. The result is Kind of Blue (check out my diary from last week for Kind of Blue and Miles related stuff). Bill does not stay with Miles long; instead he forms his own group with drummer Paul Motion and Bassist Scott LaFaro
Through Bill Evans, Jazz’s harmonic vocabulary expands. Herbie Hancock will do the same a few years later. Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson will do the same in their composing a few years later. And Bill does more. This trio reinvents the piano jazz trio. Scott LaFaro is not keeping time in the way that Paul Chambers would. He is playing like a lead instrument at times and is not as restricted to playing quarter note walking bass line at all times. This is from both LaFaro’s concept and Bill’s compositional and arrangement ideas heavily influenced by classical music, but at all times remaining Jazz.
Here is an example of an excellent Jazz trio, The Three Sounds, playing in the standard style of the time (albeit a touch more bluesy than Red or Ahmad might do).
And here’s Evans with LaFaro and Motion from 1961’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard
But it runs even deeper because this is a style of playing one can try to emulate. The “rank and file” I referred to earlier has more power than they think and musical styles are shaped by economic forces whether I like that fact or not. Jazz musicians of all levels need gigs. Many gigs are in restaurants and solo piano and piano trios have often been a preferred format for “Jazz for dining.” A piano player can do their best to play like Bill Evans and it will work in a gig where no one is really listening to you and your job is to provide a mood and ambiance. You can’t do this trying to play like Monk or Bud Powell. It does work if you try to play like Erroll Garner. Whether or not playing like Ahmad or Hank Jones will work depends on the crowd. Bill Evans always works and has worked for going on 50+ years now. There is a practicality to trying to play like Bill Evans for some musicians. And many pianist love Bill Evans simply for musical reason and so have many non-pianists.
In 1961. The quartet released their last album, titled for Bill’s most well known composition, Waltz for Debby
Rocco Scott LaFaro, born April 3rd 1936, was killed in a car accident on July 6, 1961. He was only 25 years old. In six brief years he recorded with Evans, Ornette Coleman, Booker Little, Stan Getz and a few others. His influence on Bass playing can be heard in most everyone who comes after him. This was a great loss to Jazz and devastating to Bill Evans. It’s suggested he never truly got over losing his friend. He certainly stopped performing for a few months when it happened. Gershwin’s “I Loves you Porgy” became a tune that Bill would perform until his passing, always solo, and some say always for Scott.
Paul Motion will go on to make a tremendous amount of music. He frequently records with Keith Jarett in the 1970s and by the late 1980s forms his own trio with contemporary Jazz greats, Joe Lavano and Bill Frisell. It is absolutely worth dwelling on the achievements of Motion and I will get to that…eventually…but just so that you can be reminded that Jazz is still living and breathing….
Back to Bill…he probably started Heroin while he was in Mile’s band, but LaFaro’s death drove him down into greater depths and by 1962 Bill is a full blown addict and so was his girl friend Elaine (whom he would never legally marry, but for all other intents and purposes they were). But he reforms his trio in 1962 now with bassist Chuck Israels. He also meets Helen Keane in 1962 who would eventually become his manager and help Bill quite a bit, despite his efforts at self-destruction.
Live in 1965 w/ Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker
He also records the innovative Conversations with Myself in 1963 where he overdubs himself to create piano duos.
Not to mention the first of a handful of duet records with guitarist Jim Hall (63 and then again in 66).
His drug addiction also started to affect his playing, as can be heard in the uneven The Solo Sessions, Vol.1 and Vol.2, recorded in January 1963 but released posthumously. While injecting heroin, he hit a nerve and temporarily disabled it, performing a full week's engagement at the Village Vanguard virtually one-handed.
Though he recorded many albums for Verve, their artistic quality was uneven. Despite Israels's fast development and the creativity of new drummer Larry Bunker, they were ill-represented by the perfunctory album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, featuring Gabriel Fauré's Pavane. Some recordings in unusual contexts were made, such as a big-band live album recorded at Town Hall that was never issued due to Evans's dissatisfaction with it (although the jazz trio portion of the Pavane concert was made into its own somewhat successful release), and an album with a symphony orchestra that was not warmly received by critics.
In 1966, Bill met Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez, born October 4, 1944, who stays with him until 1977. Their first great recording was with Jack DeJohnette on drums, 1968’s Live at Montraeux.
Martin Morell will join the trio in 1968 and stay with Bill and Eddie until 1975. This is a stable period in Bill’s life and for a while he largely kicked heroin.
Bill records some with on a Fender Rhodes in the early 70s with this group
And they make a live recording with Stan Getz in Europe
But…like my friend Pelligrino once said to me, Heroin is a career choice
In the early 1970s, Evans was caught in a New York airport with a suitcase containing heroin. He was not charged, but he had to begin methadone treatment along with Elaine….
While working with in Redondo Beach, California in 1973, Bill Evans met Nenette Zazzara; and fell in love with her, despite his long-term relationship with Elaine. When Evans broke the news to Elaine, she pretended to understand, but then committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. Evans's relatives believe that Elaine's infertility, coupled with Bill's desire to have a son, may have influenced those events. As a result, Evans went back on heroin for a while, then got into a methadone treatment program and stayed away from drugs for almost the last decade in his life. In August 1973, he married Nenette, and, in 1975, they had a child, Evan. The new family, which also included Evans's stepdaughter Maxine, lived in a large house in Closter, New Jersey. However, the marriage did not last, possibly because of his drug addiction, and Evans was soon living by himself in Fort Lee. Nevertheless, both remained very close until his death.
As I’m writing this, and after spending a week listening to Bill Evans, I’m quite moved by the sadness, depression, and sheer artistic beauty in the story of Bill Evans. My mind drifts to comparisons to Van Gogh, though Evans received far more accolades in his lifetime than Van Gogh did in his.
There are the really lovely recordings with Tony Bennet in the mid 70s.
Bill changes drummers and Elliot Zigmund joins the band.
Gomez and Zigmund leave Evans in 1978. Bill tries different trios, including reuniting with Philly Joe Jones for a short while.
Marc Johnson becomes Bill’s bassist and eventually Joe LaBarbera becomes the drummer in Bill’s last trio.
In April 1979, Evans met Canadian waitress Laurie Verchomin, with whom he would have a relationship until his death. Verchomin was 28 years younger.
At the beginning of a several-week tour…in the spring of 1979, Evans learned that his brother, Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had committed suicide aged 52.This news shocked him deeply, and some of the concerts had to be canceled. His friends and relatives believe that this event precipitated his own death the following year….
During the late 1970s, Evans became addicted to cocaine. He started with one gram per weekend, but later started taking several ounces daily. (Note from bloggist: Several ounces would be in the range of the final scene in Scarface. While this is Verchomin’s claim, I would say it is likely exaggerated) His brother Harry's suicide may have also influenced his emotional state after 1979. For example, he bought three plots in a Baton Rouge Cemetery, where Harry rested. It is also known that he voluntarily quit his treatment for chronic hepatitis….
On September 15, 1980, Evans, who had been in bed for several days with stomach pains at his home in Fort Lee, was accompanied by Joe LaBarbera and Verchomin to the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he died that afternoon. The cause of death was a combination of peptic ulcer, cirrhosis, bronchial pneumonia, and untreated hepatitis…. He was interred in Baton Rouge, next to his brother Harry.
I’ve not seen mention of it, but there appears to have been a bit of a “Cult of Bill Evans.” Racially, Bill is perhaps the very best example of an iconic, brilliant, and innovative white jazz musician. But he is also much like great NBA star, Larry Bird. Who are the greatest basketball players ever? Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were centers and therefore in a category a bit of their own, but not Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. There are many who would argue between Magic and Michael for who was the best ever, but the truth is that Larry Bird and the Celtics defeated Magic and the Lakers several times. Larry Bird is THAT good and if he isn’t quite as good as Magic and Michael, then he’s number three.
But maybe Larry Bird attracted white fans to basketball who might otherwise not have wanted to watch. Perhaps there were white basketball fans who claimed Larry Bird as their favorite because he was white and good enough to be someone’s favorite player. On the court, Larry Bird was every bit as deserving of all of the basketball praise he received. But off the court, maybe he got some of his adulation because he was white.
When one discusses gender issues in employment, not only must we recognize “the glass ceiling” but we also must recognize “the glass elevator.” The glass elevator is the phenomenon where men rise through the administrative ranks quickly to positions of power in fields dominated by women: School Principles, Directors of Social Work organizations, etc. In Jazz, as in Basketball, there are more mechanisms to insure a meritocracy, but those rules do not hold for show business.
In the 25 years between 1959 and 1985, the Grammy award for Best Instrumental Jazz recording went to a white artist 17 times. Bill won 5 of those (Phil Woods won 3, Chick Corea 5, Andre Previn 2, Stan Getz 1). He won a total of 7 Grammies and was nominated 31 times in his lifetime. John Coltrane received his first Grammy posthumously in 1982.
It also seemed to me that the only Jazz pianist that school band directors in the late 70s and early 80s seemed to be aware of was Bill Evans. I played alto sax as a kid, so all my Dad’s friends would say “hey! I hear you’re going to be the next Charlie Parker,” but as I got more and more into the piano in High School the only name I would ever hear from music educators was Bill Evans. Well…him and Brubeck. Mind you, there was into the 1990s a Bill Evans newsletter one could subscribe to which would include transcriptions as well as news and interviews.
The admiration for Bill Evans is rightfully deserved, but the fanaticism around him is largely maintained by a white jazz audience. The questions is not would we be talking about Bill Evans 55 years after Kind of Blue and 34 years after his death if he were black, because the answer most likely is that Jazz would. Kind of Blue probably would not have happened quite the way it did without Bill Evans and that in and of itself places him in Jazz history. The question is if Bill Evans had been black, would he have survived as long as he did? Would he have gone the way of Paul Chambers instead? And would his name be so well known among the most casual of Jazz fans?
Bill Evans changed Jazz. He introduced harmonic ideas that are now standard approaches. He changed the approach to the Jazz trio. He helped keep acoustic Jazz alive in the 1970s. There are many great Jazz musicians--I have material for diaries for months to come--but very few people have affected music the way Bill Evans has. And his influence is still felt today.
Thanks everyone. I think next week will be (non singing) women in Jazz in honor of Mother’s Day. Please support your local Jazz musicians and all local live music.
EDIT: Rec list! Wow thank you. I'll leave the ironic part of this for everyone else to figure out.