Bill Evans

Article Index

Bill Evans  

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


William John "Bill" Evans (pronunciation: /ˈɛvəns/, August 16, 1929 – September 15, 1980) was an American jazz pianist and composer who mostly worked in a trio setting.[2] Evans' 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.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, he 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.[3]

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 Gómez, 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.

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.[4]

Early life

Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Harry and Mary Evans (née Soroka). His father was of Welsh descent and ran a golf course; his mother was of Ukrainian ancestry and descended from a family of coal miners.[5] The marriage was stormy due to his father's heavy drinking, gambling, and abuse.[6][7] He had a brother, Harry (Harold), two years his senior, with whom he would develop a very close relationship.[7]

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 with local teacher Helen Leland. Even though Bill was thought to be too young to receive lessons, he soon began to play what he had heard during his brother's class.[8] [9] Soon both brothers were taking piano lessons. [10]

Evans remembered Leland with affection for not insisting on a heavy technical approach, with scales and arpeggios. He would soon develop a fluid sight-reading ability, though his teacher rated his brother as a better pianist.[10] 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. He later cited Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as frequently played composers.[11] 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, Bill stood in for a sick pianist in Buddy Valentino's rehearsal band,[12] where Harry was already playing the trumpet.[12][13] Soon, Bill began to perform for dances and weddings throughout New Jersey, playing music like boogie woogie and polkas for $1 per hour.[14] Around this time he met multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott, with whom he would later record. Another important influence was bassist George Platt, who introduced Evans to the harmonic principles of music.[15]

Evans also used to listen to Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, George Shearing, Stan Getz, and Nat King Cole among others. He particularly admired Cole.

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[5]

After high school, in September 1946, Evans attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a flute scholarship.[16][17] He studied classical piano interpretation with Louis P. Kohnop, John Venettozzi, and Ronald Stetzel.[18] A key part in Evans' development was Gretchen Magee, whose methods of teaching left an important print in his composition style. Soon, Bill would compose his first tune.[5]

Around his third year in college, Evans composed his first known tune, "Very Early".[14] 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.[19]

During college, Evans met guitarist Mundell Lowe, and after graduating, they formed a trio with bassist Red Mitchell. The three relocated to New York. However, their inability to attract bookings prompted them to leave for Calumet City, Illinois.[20] In July 1950, Evans joined Herbie Fields's band, based in Chicago. During the summer, the band did a three-month tour backing Billie Holiday, including East Coast appearances at Harlem's Apollo Theater and shows in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. The band included trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, trombonist Frank Rosolino and bassist Jim Aton. Upon its return to Chicago, Evans and Aton worked as a duo in clubs, often backing singer Lurlean Hunter. Shortly thereafter, Evans received his draft notice and entered the U.S. Army.

During his three-year (1951–54) stay in the army,[13] Evans played flute, piccolo, and piano in the Fifth U.S. Army Band at Fort Sheridan. He also hosted a jazz program on the camp radio station and occasionally performed in Chicago clubs, where he met singer Lucy Reed, with whom he became friends and would later record. He also met singer and bassist Bill Scott and Chicago jazz pianist Sam Distefano (his bunkmate in their platoon), both of whom became Evans' close friends. Evans' stay in the army was traumatic, and he had nightmares for years. As people criticized his musical conceptions and playing, he lost his confidence for the first time.[21] Around 1953 Evans composed his most well known tune, "Waltz for Debby", for his young niece.[22] During this period, in which Evans was met with universal acclaim, he began using recreational drugs, occasionally smoking marijuana.[23]

Evans was discharged from the Army in January 1954, and entered a period of seclusion, triggered by the harsh criticism he had received. He took a sabbatical year and went to live with his parents, where he set up a studio, acquired a grand piano and worked on his technique. The self-critical Evans believed he lacked the natural fluidity of other musicians. He visited his brother Harry, now in Baton Rouge, recently married and working as a conservatory teacher.[8]