Bill Evans - Biography

Bill Evans was a poet of the piano, a sensitive and shy man whose approach to the instrument emphasized communication and expression over mere technique. “Music should enrich the soul,” he said, “it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise... through art you can be shown part of yourself you never knew existed.” One of the most broadly influential pianists of the modern era, his hushed introspection, classical sensibilties, and innovative expansion of the jazz trio format have inspired legions of pianists from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to Richie Beirach and Brad Mehldau.

William John Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on August 16, 1929. He began his music studies at age 6. His mother, an amateur pianist with an interest in modern composition, bought piles of used sheet music for her son, everything from marches to pop songs to classical pieces. Instead of practicing, Evans worked his way through the stacks, acquiring excellent sight reading skills. As a child, Evans also played flute and violin, although he later proclaimed that “it was always the piano.”

He played popular music and jazz at home and then on local dance jobs, getting his start as a sub for his older brother Harry. Evans received a music scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College, graduating in 1950 with a degree in piano performance and education. First attracted to the boogie woogie style, he soon discovered such players as Nat "King" Cole, Bud Powell and Earl Hines. Later, he was influenced by Horace Silver and Lennie Tristano. His formal studies also gave him great familiarity with the classics, and he was especially interested in the works of Bach, Scriabin, Chopin, Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud.

After graduation, Evans joined a band led by saxophonist Herbie Fields. Drafted in 1951, he served in the US Army until 1954, stationed outside Chicago with the Fifth Army Band, where he played flute. By night, Evans made himself part of the city's potent jazz scene. He made his first offical recordings in 1953 as part of the Jerry Wald Orchestra. Upon discharge, Evans went to New York, where he played in a band led by clarinetist Tony Scott. He also resumed his studies, taking composition classes at Mannes College of Music. There he met pianist, composer and music theorist George Russell, whose Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization was a crucial influence on modal jazz. Evans recorded with singer Lucy Reed in 1955 for Fantasy. The following year brought a flurry of sessions, beginning with a Russell Tentet at the end of March. Record dates with Tony Scott in July included guitarist Mundell Lowe in the group. Lowe, who’d met and played with Evans back in Louisiana, was one of the first artists signed to the independent Riverside label. He was impressed with Evans’ playing, but the pianist, lacking in self-confidence, was reluctant to do any self-promotion. Lowe resorted to playing a homemade tape over the phone for Riverside co-owners Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer. As Keepnews recalled in his liner notes to a later Evans re-issiue, “the sheer bravado of the call may have actually been the most effective play.” Convinced, Keepnews and Grauer agreed to a contract. Evans was ready to record his first album as a leader in September 1956, a trio with bassist Teddy Kotick, associated with Charlie Parker, and drummer Paul Motian, a frequent associate who Evans knew from the Wald group. New Jazz Conceptions (1956 Riverside) introduced “Waltz For Debby,” perhaps Evans’ most well-known song. It was issued to excellent reviews, much apprecation from the musical community, and dismal sales.

It took more than two years for Evans to return to the studio, telling Keepnews at one point that he didn’t feel that he had anything new to say. Evans remained busy meanwhile, playing and recording with Russell, Scott, Charles Mingus, and composer Gunther Schuller. Then in the spring of 1958, he was hired by Miles Davis for his famed sextet with saxophonist John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Though Evans was in the band only through the end of the year, his introspective approach to improvisation was a strong influence on Davis. The trumpeter loved Evans’ sound, noting in his autobiography that “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall." Adderley also used Evans on a number of projects that year, notably Portrait Of Cannonball (1958 Riverside).

An increasing desire to devote himself to his own style prompted Evans to leave the Davis band. On December 15, 1958, having decided that he finally had something to say, Evans recorded his second  album for Riverside. Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1959 Riverside), with its all-text cover of laudatory quotes from Davis, Adderley, George Shearing, and Ahmad Jamal, teamed the pianist with one-time Davis drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Sam Jones. Keepnews, who produced all of his Riverside releases and counted Evans as a friend, says in the liner notes to a 2007 re-issue that it “might just possibly be my favorite Bill Evans album.”

After a brief spell in a quintet with saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, documented on Live At The Half Note (1994 Verve), Evans rejoined the Davis sextet in the studio for the classic album Kind Of Blue (1959 Columbia). Davis said that he “had already planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans,” and the pianist’s sense of space and mood were important ingredients in its success. In his famous liner notes for the album, a mediatation on “Improvisation In Jazz,” Evans wrote of “the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.” Although all of the songs were credited to Davis, Evans did tell British writer Brian Case in Melody Maker that a "Coupla tunes more or less mine, one totally mine." That would be "Blue in Green," now a jazz standard variously attributed to Evans, Davis, or both.

Evans’ stint in the Davis sextet made his reputation and brought him the credibility to move forward as a leader with the piano trio he envisioned. In late 1959, he found the personnel he wanted, bringing together Motian with bassist Scott LaFaro. Pioneers in spontaneous and collective improvisation, the trio made two studio albums Portrait In Jazz (1960 Riverside) and Explorations (1961 Riverside). Evans stayed busy in late 1960 and the first half of 1961, continuing to develop the trio and working as a sideman. Sessions with Schuller and the trombone team of  J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding in the fall of 1960 were followed by a reunion with Cannonball Adderley, when they co-led a quartet on Know What I Mean? (1961 Riverside). In Feburary, Evans was the pianist on Oliver Nelson’s critically-acclaimed The Blues and The Abstract Truth (1961 Impulse). Then in June, the trio played a now-famous live session in a New York club on a June Sunday that resulted in two albums, Live At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby (both 1961 Riverside). (The complete proceedings have been issued on the three disc set The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961.) Sadly, the gifted LaFaro was killed in a car accident just a few weeks later. The shock sent Evans into seculsion, and he stopped playing for several months.

When he returned to the jazz world at the end of 1961, Evans reformed his trio, with Motian and Chuck Israels on bass. While he would continue to record in various instrumental lineups, he always kept a working trio together, continuing  to explore the possibilites inherent in piano, bass, and drums. Notably, Eddie Gomez held the bass chair for eleven years (1966 to 1977), with Marty Morell on drums for much of that period, succeeded by Eliot Zigmund.

In early 1962, Evans recorded a well-received duet album with guitarist Jim Hall, Undercurrent (1962 United Artists). Leaving Riverside in 1963, Evans moved to Verve Records. The first of several experiments in over-dubbing, Conversations With Myself (1963 Verve) won Evans the first of his seven Grammy awards. He reprised his duet with Hall on Intermodulation (1966 Verve), and collaborated with orchestrator Claus Ogerman on a series of orchestal albums. Evans was briefly a Columbia artist in the early Seventies where he recorded again with George Russell on Living Time (1972 Columbia) before moving to Fantasy in 1973. For the California label, Evans recorded as a soloist and with the trio, in duet with bassist Gomez, with a couple of different quintets, and memorably, with singer Tony Bennett. The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975 Fantasy) was followed up a year later by Together Again (1976 Improv) for Bennett’s own label. In 1977, Evans changed labels again, this time to Warner Bros., where he teamed with harmonica man Toots Thielemans and saxophonist Larry Schnieder on Affinity (1980 Warner Bros.). The Evans trio continued to tour extensively, and six discs worth of performances at the Village Vanguard were issued in the boxed set Turn Out The Stars (1996 Warner Bros.)

Evans was extremely enthusiastic about his final trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, which debuted in January 1979. The generally more aggressive performances of the band can be attributed in part to the rejuvenating effects of new partners. Unfortunately, years of poor health and finances related to drugs (first heroin and later cocaine) were taking their toll. In early September, 1980, with his health in serious decline, he insisted on playing a nine-night engagement at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. Returning to New York to perform at Fat Tuesday’s, a weakened Evans was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital on September 15, 1980, where he died from a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia.

Evans has always had a devoted following, and numerous rehearsals, practice tapes, and performances have been issued since his death. His officially recorded legacy is well-served by a series of comprehensive boxed sets, including The Complete Riverside Recordings, The Complete Fantasy Recordings, and The Complete Bill Evans On Verve. The eight-CD The Secret Sessions (1996 Milestone) offers music recorded surreptiously by a fan at the Village Vanguard between 1966 and 1973. And the Evans’ trio’s final stand at Keystone Korner is documented on a pair of eight-CD sets, The Last Waltz (2000 Milestone) and Consecration (2002 Milestone). Evans has been the subject of a biography by Peter Pettinger (How My Heart Sings) as well as a musical biography by Keith Shadwick (Everything Happens To Me).

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