September 15th, 1980 marked the end of one of the world’s finest jazz pianists. William John Evans was dead in the hospital after suffering what friend Gene Lees called, “the longest suicide in history”.
Born to a heavy-drinking Welsh father and to a musical Russian mother in Plainfield New Jersey, Bill Evans was the younger of two brothers. He was raised a classical pianist and practiced for hours. In high school he played the flute in his concert band, and at the same time he first grasped the jazz idiom when playing the tune Tuxedo Junction on the piano. He had played something not written on the paper and the thought of playing something that wasn’t there thrilled him.
In college, he played 1st flute, majored in piano, and played quarterback for the winning intramural football. When studying jazz, he looked not only to jazz pianists, but also saxophonists, trumpeters, etc. One of his biggest influences, as well as one of mine, is singer and pianist Nat “King” Cole. By the end of his college experience, he was invited to play jazz in New York, where his career took off, eventually playing with Miles Davis and becoming the Grammy-winning musician he is known for.
At this time, his older brother Harry married and had a daughter named Debbie. Bill was incredibly fond of his niece, and wrote his most famous piece for her, “Waltz for Debbie”. However, his happiness wouldn’t last. One of his first trio members, bassist Scott LaFaro, died in a car crash at the age of 25. This event devastated Evans, rendering him unable to play for several months. This was the start of his heroin addiction. It worsened after the death of long-time girlfriend Elaine. What put him over the edge was the death of his brother at the age of 52. A year later, Bill followed his brothers footsteps and met him in death.
Bill Evan’s eminence in the field of jazz is immense. He has inspired many jazz pianists, singers, and instrumentalists from both contemporary times and times just after him. Jazz giants he influenced include Herbie Hancock, Vince Guaraldi (composer of Charlie Brown music), Michel Petrucciani, Keith Jarret, among many others.
His playing was and still is influential in the jazz world. His voicings and improvisation style rocked jazz to its core. The way he played inspired and influenced not only the musicians above, but nearly every other jazz musician after him. Cornerstone albums such as his collaboration with Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and his trio albums at The Village Vanguard revolutionized the way jazz combos soloed and preformed.
The music of Bill Evans has surrounded me as far as I can remember. I have always known him as a musician, but I also want to learn more about him as a person. I want to know why. As in, why is he so enjoyable to listen to? What about his playing makes him better or at least different from everyone else? And what about him, just as a person in general? In short, my goal would be the fact I want to know how and why he became the Bill Evans. Another goal would be to accomplish this project in better time than many of my other ones, and making it something I would be proud of. This project, I believe, will be something I will now only enjoy doing, but something I will benefit from out of school. I enjoy playing piano for fun, especially jazz. So studying such a huge figure in jazz will help my understanding of jazz, as well as help my playing by researching the ways he played. He is an influence on great musicians, so he is an inspiration for me.
Is there a place that is all willing?
Is there a heart that is all beauty?
Is there a love that’s every answer?
A truth most dear lies within this song if you can hear it
Thought is the place that is all willing
You have the heart that is all beauty
You are the love that’s every answer
Just listen- mnn – there is but this one music
Evan you will need no other star
– Letter to Evan (words and music by Bill Evans for son, Evan)