Portrait In Jazz: Bill Evans Trio
William John Evans, known as Bill Evans (pronunciation: /ˈɛvəns/, August 16, 1929 – September 15, 1980), was an American jazz pianist and composer who mostly worked in a trio setting. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and is considered by some to have been the most influential post-World War II jazz pianist. Evans’s use of impressionist harmony, inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire, block chords, and trademark rhythmically independent, “singing” melodic lines continue to influence jazz pianists today. Unlike many other jazz musicians of his time, Evans never embraced new movements like jazz fusion or free jazz.
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Evans was classically trained, and studied at Southeastern Louisiana University. In 1955, he moved to New York, where he worked with bandleader and theorist George Russell. In 1958, Evans joined Miles Davis’s sextet, where he was to have a profound influence. In 1959, the band, then immersed in modal jazz, recorded Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time.
In late 1959, Evans left the Miles Davis band and began his career as a leader with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, a group now regarded as a seminal modern jazz trio. In 1961, ten days after recording the highly acclaimed Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, LaFaro died in a car accident. After months of seclusion, Evans re-emerged with a new trio, featuring bassist Chuck Israels.
In 1963, Evans recorded Conversations with Myself, an innovative solo album using the unconventional (in jazz solo recordings) technique of overdubbing over himself. In 1966, he met bassist Eddie Gomez, with whom he would work for eleven years. Several successful albums followed, such as Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Alone and The Bill Evans Album, among others.
Despite his success as a jazz artist, Evans suffered personal loss and struggled with drug abuse. Both his girlfriend Elaine and his brother Harry committed suicide, and he was a long time user of heroin, and later of cocaine. As a result, his financial stability, personal relationships and musical creativity suffered until his death, in 1980.
Many of his compositions, such as “Waltz for Debby”, have become standards and have been played and recorded by many artists. Evans was honored with 31 Grammy nominations and seven awards, and was inducted in the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Biography – Early Life
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, United States, to Harry and Mary Evans (née Soroka). His father was of Welsh descent and ran a golf course; his mother was of Ukrainian Rusyn ancestry and descended from a family of coal miners. The marriage was stormy due to his father’s heavy drinking, gambling, and abuse. He had a brother, Harry (Harold), two years his senior, and with whom he would develop a very close relationship.
Given Harry Evans Sr.’s destructive character, Mary Evans would often leave home with her sons to nearby Somerville, to stay with her sister Justine and the Epps family. There, Harry began piano lessons somewhere between age 5 and 7. Even though Bill was deemed as still too young to receive lessons, he soon began to play what he had heard during his brother’s class. Soon, Bill would also receive piano lessons.
Later, the Evans brothers began to take piano lessons in Charlotte with local teacher Randy Newman. Evans remembered her with affection for not insisting on a heavy technical approach, like scales and arpeggios. He would soon develop a fluid sight-reading ability, but his teacher rated his brother as a better pianist. At age 7, Bill began violin lessons, and soon also flute and piccolo. Even though he soon dropped those instruments, it is believed they later influenced his keyboard style.
One night I got really adventurous on “Tuxedo Junction” and I put in a little “ping!” you know, that wasn’t written, and this was such an experience! To make music that wasn’t indicated. That really got me into starting to want to think about how to make the music.
Interview with Harry Evans. c. 1965.
From age 6 to 13, Evans would only play classical music scores. He cited Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as frequently played composers. During high school, Evans came in contact with 20th-century music like Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which he deemed as “tremendous experience”; and Milhaud’s Suite Provençale, whose bitonal language he believed “opened him to new things.” Around the same time also came his first exposure to jazz, when at age 12 he heard Tommy Dorsey and Harry James’s bands on the radio.
At the age of 13, Evans stood in for a sick pianist in Buddy Valentino’s rehearsal band, where Harry was already playing the trumpet. During that period, Evans reported his first deviation from the written music, in an arrangement of “Tuxedo Junction” while playing with the rehearsal band. Evans used to listen to Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, George Shearing, Stan Getz, and Nat King Cole among others. He particularly admired Cole.
Soon after, Evans began to play in flat dates like dances and weddings, throughout New Jersey, playing music like boogie-woogie and polkas for $1 per hour. As a result, his schoolwork suffered. He also formed a trio with two local friends. During the gigs, he met multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott, with whom he would later record. An important acquaintance during that period was bassist George Platt, who introduced Evans to the harmonic principles of music.
College, Army, Sabbatical Year
I have always admired your [Magee’s] teaching as that rare and amazing combination – exceptional knowledge combined with the ability to bring that same knowledge, that lies deep within the student, to life. You were certainly my biggest inspiration in college, and the seeds of the insights that you have sown, have in practice born fruit many times over.
Bill Evans talking about Gretchen Magee
After high school, in September 1946, Evans attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a flute scholarship. He studied classical piano interpretation with Louis P. Kohnop, John Venettozzi, and Ronald Stetzel. A key part in Evans’s development was Gretchen Magee, whose methods of teaching left an important print in his composition style.
Around his third year in college, Evans composed his first known tune, “Very Early.” He was a founding member of SLU’s Delta Omega Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, played quarterback for the fraternity’s football team, and was part of the college band. In 1950, he performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 for his senior recital, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in piano, and Bachelor’s in Music Education. Evans regarded the last three years in college as the happiest in his life.