Who was Bill Evans?
Bill Evans, one of the most influential and tragic figures in post-bop jazz piano, was known for his highly nuanced touch and the clarity of his content, which was considered highly sentimental. He recorded over 50 albums as a leader and received five Grammy Awards.
He gave birth to the “Bill Evans style” or “Evans inspired” school of pianists , which includes some of the best-known artists of our time, including Michel Petrucciani, Andy Laverne, Richard Beirach, Enrico Pieranunzi and Warren Bernhardt. His inescapable influence on the very sound of jazz piano has touched virtually every major figure in the field. He will remain a role model for piano students the world over, even inspiring a magazine devoted solely to his music and influence.
Yet Bill Evans was a self-effacing person, especially early in his career. Tall and handsome, cultured and eloquent about his art, he had a “confidence problem”, as he called it, while devoting himself fanatically to the smallest details of his music. He believed he lacked talent and so had to compensate by working hard, but to keep up the pace he took heroin for most of his adult life. The result was squalid living conditions, a brilliant career, two failed marriages (the first ending in a dramatic suicide) and an early death.
The origins of Bill Evans
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929, to a Russian Orthodox mother and an alcoholic father of Welsh descent, who ran a golf course. Evans’ Russian side explains the special feeling many of his Russian fans have towards him, as he is one of their own. Bill received his first musical training in his mother’s church; both his parents loved music.
Bill began studying the piano at the age of six, and since his parents wanted him to know more than just one instrument, he started playing the piano. So he took up the violin the following year and the flute at the age of 13. He became very good at the flute, although he hardly played it in his later years.
Evans’ older brother Harry, two years his senior, was his first influence. Harry was the first in the family to take piano lessons, and Bill began to play the piano by imitating him. He revered his older brother and tried to emulate him even in sport. Bill was devastated by his death in 1979 at the age of 52.
At the age of 12, he replaced his older brother in Buddy Valentino’s band, where one day he discovered a little blues phrase of his own during a rendition of “Tuxedo Junction”. It was just a Db-D-F phrase in the Bb key, but it unlocked a door for him, as he said in an interview:
This idea became the focal point of his musical career.
What’s more, in the late ’40s, Evans considered himself the best boogie-woogie player in northern New Jersey, according to an interview with Marian McPartland on the Piano Jazz radio show. This was the musical fashion of the day, but later Evans would rarely play blues tunes in his concerts or on his recordings.
Evans’ reading habits
Evans’ mother was an amateur pianist herself, and had amassed stacks of old scores, which young Bill read, acquiring breadth and, above all, speed in sight-reading. This enabled him to explore a wide range of classical literature, particularly twentieth-century composers.
Debussy, Stravinsky, notably Petrouschka, and Darius Milhaud were particularly influential. He found it much more interesting than doing scales and exercises, and it introduced him to vast amounts of classical music.
As he told Gene Lees:
“It’s just that I played such a huge amount of piano. Three hours a day as a child, about six hours a day at university, and at least six hours now. With that, I could afford to develop slowly. Everything I learned, I learned with feeling as a generating force.”Bill Evans
University and beyond
Evans received a musical scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College (now Southeastern Louisiana University) in Hammond, Louisiana, where he majored in music and graduated in 1950.
There is an archive dedicated to him, administered by Ron Nethercutt. His teachers criticized him for not playing the scales and exercises correctly, even though he could play the required pieces perfectly. At college, he discovered the work of Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Nat King Cole and Lennie Tristano, who had a profound influence on him.
He also took part in jam sessions with guitarist Mundell Lowe and bassist Red Mitchell. After university, he joined the orchestra of reedman Herbie Fields. It was there that he learned to accompany the horn players. From 1951 to 1954, Bill did a stint in the army, but managed to get gigs around Chicago.
On his discharge, he decided to pursue a career in jazz and moved to New York. There, he worked in the dance band of clarinetist Jerry Wald and saxophonist Tony Scott, and established himself as an outstanding player in musicians’ circles.
His first professional recording was made accompanying singer Lucy Reed in 1955. In 1956, he joined George Russell’s avant-garde group and began studying Russell’s Lydian chromatic concept.
First recording as leader
In 1956, Mundell Lowe called Orrin Keepnews at Riverside and convinced him and his partner Bill Grauer to listen to an Evans tape over the phone. It’s highly unusual, but Keepnews and Grauer hear enough to convince them that they should record Evans. But first, they have to convince him!
Bill Evans, very self-effacing, doesn’t think he’s ready to record, and Keepnews and company have to persuade him otherwise. The atmosphere in the studio was relaxed. Evans had chosen Paul Motian, his drummer with Tony Scott, and Teddy Kotick, an excellent young bassist who had already worked with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.
They recorded 11 tracks in a single day in September 1956 – Riverside’s economy policy – including four Evans originals: “Five”, “Conception”, “No Cover, No Minimum” and the eventual classic “Waltz for Debbie”. The latter is one of three short piano solos (under 2 minutes) that Evans recorded after the other members were dismissed. The album, entitled “New Jazz Conceptions”, is a critical success, Evans getting very positive reviews in Down Beat and Metronome (by Nat Hentoff). But it sells only 800 copies in a year.
That year and the following year, he recorded as a sideman with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Art Farmer, reed players Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, vibraphonist Eddie Costa and avant-garde conductor-composer (-pianist) George Russell, whose Lydian harmonic system had been very useful to Evans. That year, he also met Scott LaFaro, auditioning for a place in an ensemble led by trumpeter Chet Baker.
Evans was impressed by the young bassist, whom he found bursting with energy and almost uncontrolled creativity. When Evans later chose LaFaro for his own trio, he found that LaFaro had mastered the music better than he had.
At a concert at Brandeis University in 1957, which combined classical-style written music with jazz improvisation (before Gunther Schuller founded the “third stream” movement, which claimed to do just that), Evans distinguished himself in a long solo on George Russell’s “All About Rosie”. Schuller and Russell were part of the event, as were jazz bassist Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre and composers Milton Babbitt and Harold Shapiro. This solo heralded the arrival of a major new talent, as his subsequent recordings would soon confirm.
Bill Evans hired by Miles Davis
Evans’ big break came when Miles Davis hired him. Placing him in a rhythm section behind John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in addition to himself. Miles’ former pianist, Red Garland, had left him, and Miles needed a more versatile musician anyway. He was looking for a player who could play in modal mode, and Evans was the one. He had met Evans through George Russell, with whom Evans was studying.
It was a performance of the Ballet Africain de Guinée in 1958 that had sparked Miles’ interest in modal music. Miles had his ears everywhere, and was always on the lookout for new musical currents, both within himself, from his own past, and from the new sources brought to him by his fellow musicians.
This African music, featuring the finger piano or kalimba, was the kind of music that stayed on a single chord for long periods, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. This was a very new concept in jazz at the time, which was dominated by the chord-changing music of bebop, which was in fact an extension of American popular song.
Miles realized that Evans could follow him into modal music. In addition, Evans introduced Miles to Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Khachaturian, revealing new scales and generally broadening his appreciation of classical music.
Miles found Evans to be a very quiet and self-effacing person, so he wanted to test his musical integrity. After all, Evans was the only white player in a powerful, predominantly black band. Miles needed to see if he would be intimidated musically, so he said one day:
“Bill, you know what you have to do, don’t you, to be in this band?”
He looked at me quizzically, shook his head and said, “No Miles, what do I have to do? I said, “Bill, now you know we’re all brothers and all and everybody’s in this together and so what I’ve come up with for you is you’ve got to do it with everybody, you know what I mean? You’ve got to f… the band.” I was joking, but Bill was very serious, as was Trane [John Coltrane].
He thought about it for about fifteen minutes, then came back and said, “Miles, I’ve thought about what you said and I just can’t do it, I just can’t do it. I’d like to please everyone and make everyone here happy, but I can’t do that. I looked at him, smiled and said, “Boy!” And then he realized I was teasing him. (Davis, 226)
So Evans passed the test. Here’s why Miles liked Bill’s playing:
Bill had this quiet fire that I loved at the piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down a clear waterfall. I had to modify the band’s sound to suit Bill’s style by playing different, softer pieces at first. Bill played under the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red [Garland]’s playing had carried the rhythm, but Bill had underplayed him, and for what I was doing now with the modal stuff, I preferred what Bill was doing.
Evans recorded with Miles Davis from February to November 1958. But Evans wasn’t comfortable in the band after 7 months. He wanted to form his own band, as did Adderley and Coltrane.
They would all eventually become leaders in their field, and Miles’ band, though at the top of jazz, was stifling them. What’s more, Evans didn’t like all the moves, and the harassment he received from black fans for being the only white musician in the band. He also received a lot of criticism for not playing fast enough or loud enough, for being too delicate.
Evans’ second album as leader
Evans released his second album as leader, once again for Riverside, in December 1958. By this time, he had officially left Miles’ band. For this recording, he chose Miles’ drummer Philly Joe Jones, with whom he would work on several subsequent occasions, and Dizzy Gillespie’s bassist Sam Jones (no relation). The influence of his time in Miles’ band is evident in his rousing version of “Night and Day”, as well as in his choice and performance of Gigi Gryce’s hard bop tunes “Minority” and Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo”.
The real classic of this session is his original “Peace Piece”, originally conceived as an extended introduction to Leonard Berstein’s “Some Other Time” standard. It became a jazz standard, and he performs it during a 6-minute 41-second piano solo on the album. The tune is based on a succession of scales, which the musician extends at will before moving on to another scale, a new kind of balance at the time between the structured and the free (although the concept is similar to that of Indian ragas). The tune, therefore, will never be played the same way twice. This is the very nature of a free tune: the structure as well as the melody are unique to each occasion of performance.
The more dynamic swing of this album is accompanied by a more personal and nuanced touch. Evans moves away from the dominant influences of his jazz training – Bud Powell, with his extended horn lines, and Horace Silver, with his bluesy percussive approach – and towards the sound that would characterize his mature years. It shows a great deal of exploration and growth in the 26 months between the two recording sessions, including assimilating the influence of Lennie Tristano’s long, flowing lines into his playing.
With his stint with Miles having only strengthened Bill’s reputation, Keepnews decided to title the album Everybody Digs Bill Evans and to include testimonials from Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal and Cannonball Adderley on the sleeve. Released in May 1959, it sold much better than the first.
Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis
Nevertheless, Evans played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album (recorded in March-April 1959), even though he was replaced by Wynton Kelly. Miles had planned the session around Evans’ playing. According to Miles, Wynton Kelly combined what he liked about Evans with what he had liked about Red Garland, and Kelly actually played on a track on this album, “Freddy Freeloader”. The album was born, like so many of Miles’ projects, from a musical impression floating around in Miles’ mind, in this case the aforementioned African Ballet, combined with gospel music he’d heard when he was six years old in Arkansas.
Miles wrote only sketches for the session, to draw on the spontaneity of his musicians, and without rehearsals. It worked so well that everything was accepted on the first take. Evans brought his deep musical integrity and imagination to the task, as Miles put it:
“Bill was the kind of player who, when you played with him, if he started something, he’d finish it, but he’d push it a little further. You knew that subconsciously, but it always put a little tension into everyone’s game, and that was good.”
Evans was extremely aware of every factor in his music and musical development, making him one of the most eloquent jazz musicians on the scene. Throughout his career, he conducted numerous interviews, which not only document his opinions on a variety of musical subjects, but also offer us his eloquent voice as a thinker. One of the clearest messages he gave was about his own development, his difficulties and the rewards of those difficulties:
Evans once told Gene Lees that he didn’t think he had much talent, and later that he had to work so hard on his harmonic concept because he “didn’t have very good ears” (Lees, Meet Me, 151-2).
Evans’ chord voicings
Although he rarely mentions it, Evans is primarily responsible for reforming jazz voicings on the piano. A voicing is the series of notes used to express a chord. Until then, chords were expressed either by spelling out the chord, with the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th and sometimes 9th, or with a selection of these notes. Bud Powell had pioneered the use of “shell” voicings, or alternations between the outer and inner notes of a chord, i.e. root and 7th, 3rd and 5th or 3rd and 7th.
Evans abandoned roots almost entirely to develop a system in which the chord is expressed as a quality identity and color, the root being left to the bassist, or to the left hand on another beat of the bar, or just implied. This system has become quite widespread, and a student can find it explained in a large number of books on jazz piano theory and technique. But Evans had to derive them from composers like Debussy and Ravel and make them a standard system so that they could be used unconsciously, automatically, and in so doing, he transformed jazz piano.
The piano trio concept: equal instrumental voices
From then on, Evans embarked on a career characterized mainly by trio recordings. His conception of the trio was much more egalitarian than that which prevailed at the time. Evans gave the bassist and drummer more active roles than most rhythm section sidemen in trios, resulting in a greater degree of interaction between the musicians. He made a series of live recordings at the Village Vanguard in 1961, embodying this principle. These recordings remain among his best, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Evans, who was usually very critical of himself, was very pleased with these recordings. He also revealed his predisposition for the waltz, which would remain a constant throughout his career.
When bassist Scott LaFaro died tragically that same year in a car accident at the age of 23, these recordings took on even greater significance in his memory. Evans didn’t record for almost a year, while he mourned the loss of LaFaro. For the rest of his career, Evans looked for LaFaro’s bass equivalents. He may later find them in Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson.
Aware of his stylistic identity and influence
Evans maintains that he was unaware of the extent of his influence on jazz piano, although he came to believe it after hearing it so many times. He considered that his own style was simply necessary to express what he wanted to express. Here’s how he explained it:
First of all, I never try to have an identity. It’s something that’s happened automatically, I think, by dint of putting things together, taking them apart and putting them together in my own way, and somehow, I suppose, the individual ends up imposing itself…. I want to build my music from the bottom up, piece by piece, and assemble it according to my own way of organizing things…. I simply have a reason I’ve given myself for every note I play (Enstice and Rubin, 139-140).
Evans on his own sound
As a corollary to a musician’s stylistic identity, one ends up developing a unique sound. This can be very difficult to define, though easily recognizable to the ear. Not everyone has one. “I think having your own sound is, in a sense, the most fundamental kind of identity in music,” says Evans.
But it’s a very tricky thing how you get there. It has to come from within, and it’s a long-term process. It’s the product of a total personality. I don’t know exactly why one person will have it and another won’t. I sometimes think that the people I appreciate most as musical artists are people who have had… they’re like late arrivals….. They’ve had to work a lot harder… to get ease, fluidity… Whereas you see a lot of young talent who have a lot of fluidity and ease, and never really carry it anywhere. Because in a way, they’re not conscious enough of what they’re doing (Enstice & Rubin, 140).
Bill Evans’ mature style
Bill Evans’ mature style has had such an influence on jazz piano over the last thirty years that in many ways it’s almost undetectable. We can talk about his highly nuanced touch, melodic shapes and chord voicings and still be far from the essence of his sound. To clarify this essence, it is useful to isolate and describe the elements of his style, which other pianists have taken up with varying degrees of fidelity to Evans, and then to see what remains of Evans alone.
At the most general level, today’s jazz pianists tend to resemble Evans more than his two great predecessors and pianistic influences, Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano. Like Evans and unlike Powell and Tristano, the contemporary style uses a greater proportion of formed phrases than continuous lines; it uses a greater proportion of chromaticism and non-major scale modes than Powell certainly did; and it uses Evans’ chord voicings as a starting point for its harmonic conception. Secondly, his approaches to touch, harmony and melodic form are highly individual.
Closer to Evans stylistically are the members of his “school”, mentioned above, whose playing refers directly to his style. In the work of these pianists, you will more frequently hear typical Evans traits such as stirring inner voices, block chord melodies, rhythmically truncated melodic lines that leave the listener in suspense, scalar passages – particularly diminished scales in thirds, and his poignant harmonies, including reharmonizations and original tunes with harmonic structures similar to those used by Evans.
Yet when you listen closely to Evans’ own recordings, you hear things that aren’t present even in his closest followers, for example, the fine gradation of touch that offers emotional nuance at a truly surprising level of sensitivity. All of Evans’ outward figures can be imitated, even the nuances of touch, but this is only the superficial structure of his music. The key to the uniqueness of his sound, which is immediately identifiable and has never been perfectly reproduced by anyone else, lies deep within his aesthetic consciousness. Putting into perspective how he arrived at this sound gives a clue to the nature of this consciousness, of this emotional intention expressed musically, which is the deep engine of his music and explains its uniqueness.
Evans’ inner musical motor
We know that Evans disliked exercises and avoided doing them; that he quickly and accurately read an enormous amount of printed classical (and other) music, and interpreted it perfectly; that he insisted on playing nothing without feeling; and that he felt he had arrived at his mastery and characteristic sound by a long way, not by imitating anything, or by any method other than assimilating huge quantities of music. From this point of view, a fingering exercise would be an unacceptable shortcut, as it would deprive the musician of the emotional potential of music by unacceptably isolating technique from feeling. By taking the time to refuse to do this throughout his training, Evans recreated jazz piano for himself, and by extension for the rest of the field.
Evans’ students say he never explained in detail what he was doing: chord voicings, fast passages, whatever you wanted. But Evans wasn’t just picky: he insisted on the same standards of authenticity for his students as he claimed for himself. But this leaves us with a paradox. If it’s impossible for anyone to recreate Evans’ style by simple imitation without his internal engine investing every musical gesture with its emotional content, then by following Evans’ path, by playing no music without an investiture of emotion, the student will necessarily form a unique musical personality different from Evans’.
Of course, that’s what Evans, the teacher, wanted. We didn’t need another Bill Evans. His pedagogical approach challenged the student to be as profound and as original as he was.
The effects of Bill Evans’ style
But having said that, what can Bill Evans’ music accomplish, given its expansive emotional charge and infinitely fine nuances of touch? In a word: intimacy. His music manages to address the most intimate thoughts of an attentive listener, so close to the organ of thought and feeling that you don’t know whether you’re producing the effects or the music is. When you emerge from the intense, delicate reverie the music has induced, the rest of jazz piano can seem unbearably crude – even Evans’ disciples. It may take you a while to reset to appreciate another player’s distinct musical personality. But you will have felt the power of Evans’ aesthetic purity, and when appreciated under the right conditions, it is awe-inspiring.
Many people have had this experience and become devoted fans, wondering all the while if anyone else knew what they were experiencing. Yet this is the paradox of music that achieves intimacy. It offers the illusion that it’s only for you. Lees describes this at the beginning of his article.
Evans meets his long-time manager
Evans’ personal friend, jazz writer Gene Lees, left an editorial position at Down Beat in 1962. He had recently met manager Helen Keane and formed a strong personal relationship with her, insisting that she hear Bill Evans. But Evans already had managerial contracts – in fact, two of them, which was an official mistake on the part of the musicians’ union. First, Lees brought Keane to hear Evans. He was playing at the Village Vanguard. Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte owed their debuts to him, and Lees understood that Keane could do wonders for Evans’ career. As soon as she heard the first few seconds, she said: “Oh, no, not that one! That’s the one that could break my heart.” But she was ready for it.
Then Lees arranged a lunch with the union president, a personal friend of his, and presenting the conflict, asked him to cancel the two existing contracts.
His drug addiction
Evans had fallen into a heroin addiction in the late ’50s, and by the time Helen Keane came into his life in 1962, it was in full swing. He is married, and his wife Ellaine is also an addict. Evans used to borrow money from friends, calling a series of friends in his address book every day from a phone booth in the street outside his apartment, since his phone had been disconnected. Many of them became furious at being contacted again and again for money. One day, when Lees lashes out saying he doesn’t even have enough money to eat, Evans calls back an hour later to say he now has enough money to feed them both.
His friends are afraid not to give him any money, because then he’d go to the loan sharks who’d threaten to break his hands if he didn’t pay. At one point, his friends, including Lees, Helen Keane, Orrin Keepnews and his new producer Creed Taylor, decided not to give him any money, while paying his bills directly, and they tasked the reluctant Lees with breaking the news to Evans.
Lees found Evans in his apartment, where the electricity had been cut off, but he circumvented this by running an extension cord from a hall lamp under the front door. Evans was furious at his friends’ ploy and angrily described the importance of his habit to him, as Lees recounts:
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “You don’t understand. It’s like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake up in pain like death, then you go out and score, and that’s the transfiguration. Every day becomes all of life in microcosm” (Lees, Meet Me, 156).
It was an elegant, aestheticized account of the process that was destroying him. Lees says that later, once Evans was clean, he claimed to have learned something valuable from his addiction: tolerance and understanding of his father’s alcoholism. Of course, this leaves a lot unsaid, including the devastating effect on Bill’s confidence of having an alcoholic father, and the unmet needs of his childhood that led to his own self-destructive addiction. At least he didn’t have children during his addiction.
Orrin Keepnews found it hard to turn down Evans’ request for money because of his “gentle nature and immense moral decency”, unlike some other musicians whose turpitude made him easy to turn down. But Bill was waiting there, in the Riverside office, for Keepnews to give in and give him money.
But when Helen Keane signed Evans to Verve and negotiated a hefty advance from producer Creed Taylor, Bill took the money and meticulously repaid everyone what he owed them. He picked up Lees in a cab and went from building to building, Lees holding the cab, armed with his money and card file, and took care of all his debts. In the end, he repaid Lees $200 for pawning his record player and some of his records. He even went so far as to find Zoot Sims in Stockholm and gave him $600, a sum Sims had simply forgotten about.
In the winter of 1962-63, Evans had the idea of making his first multi-track solo piano album. Although overdubbing had been used before, notably by guitarist Les Paul and Mary Ford (Paul had also pioneered the electric guitar), and by Patti Page, it had never been used in this way. Neither producer Creed Taylor, nor Lees or Keane – Evans’ inner circle at the time – knew exactly what Bill had in mind. But Evans knew exactly. Today, overdubbing and digital editing are standard procedures and are used to produce most popular music. Today, these techniques are used to build up a track bit by bit, allowing numerous takes of each track and painstaking editing changes. But in those days, with analog tape running at 30 fps, the artist had to have an overview of everything before laying down the track. Evans was used to this level of design. Once he had the session just the way he wanted it, his friends were amazed:
The four of us in the control booth – Ray [Hall, the engineer], Creed, Helen and I – were constantly in awe of what was going on. On the second track, Bill would play a strangely appropriate echo of something he’d done on the first. Or there would be an impeccable pause in which all three pianists were perfectly together, or a deft stroke that fit effortlessly into a space reserved for it. I began to think of Bill as three Bills: Bill Left Channel, Bill Right Channel, and Bill Center Channel.
Bill Left would lay down the first track, stating the melody and launching into an improvisation for two or three choruses, after which he would take on the role of accompanist, playing a background over which Bill Center would then play his solo. His mind was clearly working in three dimensions simultaneously, as each Bill anticipated and responded to what the other two were doing. Bill Left could hear in his head what Bill Center and Bill Right were going to play in half an hour’s time, while Bill Center and Bill Right were in constant communication with a Bill Left who had disappeared into the past half an hour or an hour before. The sessions took on an eerie sci-fi feel.
When Bill finished the first two tracks, Creed, Helen and I all thought he shouldn’t do a third – that another would just clutter up what he’d already done. We were wrong.
As the end of the track approached, the “third” Bill took the opening figure and extended it into a long, fantastic, flowing line that he wove in and around what the other two pianists were playing, never colliding with those two previous selves. This final line resembled a magical firefly crossing a forest at night, never touching the trees, leaving behind a line of golden sparks that slowly fall back to earth, illuminating everything around it. I think Helen and Creed were on the verge of tears when he finished this piece. I know I was (Lees, Meet Me, 160).
Evans left for Florida, where he managed to kick the habit for a while, then returned to New York in time to receive a Grammy Award for Conversations with Myself. Evans later created two more overdub albums, Further Conversations in 1967, also on Verve, produced by Helen Keane, and New Conversations in 1978 on Warner Brothers, which opens with his tribute “Song for Helen”, includes a tribute to his second wife Nenette (“For Nenette”), reinforced by the Cy Coleman standard “I Love My Wife”, and the Ellington rarity “Reflections in D”. It is generally considered the best of the three.
Evans’ fortunes grow
Evans became better known and sold more records as the decade progressed. He soon earned enough money for him and his wife to move from Manhattan to a comfortable Bronx neighborhood called Riverdale. Meanwhile, Creed Taylor had left Verve and launched his own CTI label, and the role of producer fell to Helen Keane. Gene Lees helped set up the Montreux Jazz Festival and arranged for Evans to play there in 1968 and later, recording his performances that year and in 1970. When Evans left Verve, he recorded briefly for Columbia, but didn’t consider the experience very productive. At one point, its president, Clive Davis, tried to get him to do a rock album, which Evans flatly refused.
After that, Evans moved to Fantasy, which proved to be a much more fruitful partnership. It was here that he produced some of his most mature and satisfying work. His fame has only grown, as he has gained more and more fans among music lovers and disciples among pianists worldwide. Lees tells the story of a Toronto pianist and dentist he called when Evans had a toothache. Lees was refused by the nurse because the call had been made after working hours. When the dentist found out, he was appalled. “He rushed to the Town Tavern where Evans was playing, tools in hand, to repair his diseased tooth” (Lees, Meet Me, 166).
It was also around this time, in 1970, that Evans’ wife Ellaine committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. As a result, he returned to heroin for a time, then entered a methadone treatment program, and stayed away from drugs for almost the last decade of his life. He remarried Nenette, with whom he had a child they named Evan. His son became the inspiration for the beautiful melody “Letter to Evan”. The marriage didn’t last, however, and he was soon living alone in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge.
The last decade of recording
Evan’s last decade of recording shows him growing even more as an artist. His 1974 live LP, Since We Met, is one of his best, containing new versions of his ruminative ballad in memory of his father, “Turn Out the Stars”, his radically beautiful “Time Remembered”, the Earl Zindars beauty “Sareen Jurer”, performed in both 3/4 and 4/4, and the Cy Coleman waltz “See-Saw”, among others. In 1979, he gave a magnificent concert in Paris, which Helen Keane then turned into two LP albums on Musician, entitled simply Paris Concert, Edition I and II. Here we discover an unrivalled rhythmic dynamism, mobilizing all his stylistic resources, filling the entire musical space with expanding energy. He takes fruitful risks, as when he opens his classic “Nardis” with a solo piano improvisation, a kaleidoscopic exploration of figures and forms, finally settling on the familiar Middle Eastern-sounding melody, bringing the rest of the rhythm section into a triumphant release of suspense. The audience was ecstatic.
Last addiction and death
In 1980, Bill Evans began using cocaine, a fashionable drug he imagined to be “harmless”. But in reality, it needs to be replenished in the bloodstream every few hours, not just once a day like heroin, and as a stimulant, it wears you down all the faster. In late summer of that year, Bill asked his drummer Joe LaBarbera to take him to hospital, as he was having severe stomach pains. He calmly directed Joe to Mount Sinai, checked in and died there on September 15.
Tributes poured in, and in 1983 a double album was produced with pianists who had been influenced or touched by Evans, each contributing a unique piece. His stature has continued to grow, with a newsletter devoted to his music and followers, edited by Win Hinkle in North Carolina, and now on the Internet. Along with Oscar Peterson, he has become one of the most enduring forces in jazz piano.