Re: Bill Evans Matters
Four years ago this summer, I was one of the speakers invited to the Lenox Public Library to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Bill Evans, of course, was the pianist on that groundbreaking recording, and the author of the album's liner note essay connecting the sponaneity of jazz improvisation with a form of Japanese painting. I used the occasion to decry the lack of respect shown Evans in the Ken Burns documentary on jazz, which mentioned him only in the context of the Davis masterpiece. Wynton Marsalis's view of Evans as a musician drawn more to classical music and the tragic sensibility than the bluesy affirmativeness of African American culture undoubtedly shaped Burns's perspective, and as Evans is inarguably one of the most influential jazz artists of the past half-century, his neglect by Burns stands as the most glaring of many omissions in the film.
In his autobiography, Davis said that "Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano...the sound he got was like crystal notes of sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall...I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill's style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that." How's that for contrast with what Marsalis's mentor and Evans detractor Stanley Crouch says are the hard-swinging, gutbucket essentials of jazz?
In a recently published article entitled My Bill Evans Problem, Philadelphia journalist Eugene Holley, Jr. offers a frank account of how self-conscious he felt as a black fan of Evans's music. Holley writes, “It was Bill Evans’s love of, and application of, European classical styles, approaches, and motifs into jazz that was so attractive to my ears…So it was in that hot-house atmosphere of well-meaning—but ultimately immature and xenophobic attitudes about music and race—that my Bill Evans problem existed. The problem manifested itself in many ways. I would often hide Bill Evans albums when talking about jazz musicians with fellow black jazz fans for fear of being “outed” as a sellout, given a look of disapproval, or asked, 'Why are you listening to that white boy?'
"Slowly but surely, my perceptions about jazz and race began to evolve and change. As my jazz historical studies deepened, I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon. Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century created jazz by combining elements of European classical instruments, harmonies, and song forms with African, Afro-Caribbean, and American rhythms and melodic structures. As Ralph Ellison noted, 'blood and skin don’t think.' Or to put it a different way: jazz didn’t come into existence because black people were simply black. Its creation was the result of history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value. To believe anything else plummets us into the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery that still plagues us on so many levels today.”
Evans had been a member of Davis's sextet in 1958, and by most accounts was a player who’d sparked the trumpeter's imagination and shared his interest in making use of modes as a harmonic framework in jazz. Miles allowed that Evans, “turned me on to some classical composers [who] influenced me,” and said that even though Wynton Kelly had succeeded Evans by March 1959, “I had already planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans." While it remains a matter of conjecture, Evans is widely thought to have played a major role in shaping the tunes on Kind of Blue, and he most likely composed “Blue in Green.” The ballad’s melancholy modality (Holley describes it as "azure Impressionism") squares with the overall mood of Evans’s music.
(Orrin Keepnews, Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard)
1959 was also the year in which Evans established his trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Orrin Keepnews, who produced the trio’s studio recordings and their fabled performance at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, told New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick in 2001 that “the trouble with Bill…was always persuading Bill to play at all. He had very low self-esteem. That’s what drew him to Scott…When they started working together what was clear from the first was that Bill had something very different in mind from the normal interplay of piano with bass…Bill was looking for something very different---a joined-together kind of thing.”
In a 1979 interview published by Wayne Enstice and Paul Rubin in Jazz Spoken Here, Evans reflected on LaFaro’s critical role in the trio. “When we got together I realized that Scott had the conceptual potential, he had the virtuosity, and he had the experience and the musical responsibility, to handle the problem of approaching the bass function in jazz, especially with a trio, which is a very pure kind of setup with more freedom.
“I thought I could depend on him to approach this, and we just really accepted a conceptual goal which was more conversational, more a thing where, including the drums, everybody could contribute. They didn’t have to play the roles that were more or less assigned by jazz tradition… but rather leave our minds wide open but with responsibility, so that we weren’t just going off into space, that we were using that tradition but allowing ourselves to be a little more open within it. In a space of about two years we tried to work toward that goal with responsibility.
“Musicians, you know, in various countries told us that those particular records seemed to have had an impact and that they represented this kind of --- wasn’t like a kind of a break, an iconoclastic thing you know, where we just rebelled against everything… it was more like an extension of what had been happening and perhaps more of a completion or something like that.”
From the same interview, Evans's answer to a question about his influence on other players reminds me of how the greatest artists discover their gifts as innovators through a deep engagement with tradition, that a harnessing of knowledge and technique precedes artistic breakthroughs.
"First of all, I never strived for identity. That’s something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting things together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually. I suppose I could see where I could be an influence, because I think what I’ve done is I’ve put something together which is not eccentric; it’s a nice kind of eclectic amalgamation of what has gone down before me or something like that. .. [others] can become influenced by it, and they could also just then move through it, because it’s not eccentric and it’s not so highly stylized [as Monk or Erroll Garner]...It’s really difficult for me to know or see those things. I believe it’s true, because it’s been said so much, you know, and for so long that I suppose there’s some truth in it…Once in a while I seem to catch an inkling of it, but of course, I’m not looking for it."