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Bill Evans
How My Heart
Sings
PETER

U

PETTINGER

niversally acknowledged as
one of the most influential of
all jazz pianists, Bill Evans

(192cr1980) brought an unequaled
finesse of touch to the keyboard.
Classically trained on flute, violin, and
piano, Evans chose jazz-specifically,
the jazz piano trio-as the medium
for his life's achievement. Peter
Pettinger's enthralling biography tells
Evans's story for the first time. Based on
extensive research and conversations
with many of Evans's friends and col­
leagues, as well as Pettinger's firsthand
memories of performances at the
V illage Vanguard in New York and
Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, it
describes the life, the musicmaking,
and the legacy of this major American
jazz artist.
Bill Evans took to the road early

Continued on

back flap

Continued from front flap

and traveled to clubs and concert halls
throughout his life. Though haunted by
tragedy and drug abuse, Evans created
successful trios, formed important asso­
ciations with such other jazz artists as
the composer George Russell and the
trumpeter Miles Davis, and enjoyed
long-standing commercial success, evi­
denced by a series of Grammy awards
and nominations. Pettinger assesses
Evans's recordings and analyzes his
expressive technique, tone production,
approach to group playing, and compo­
sitional methods. With a full discogra­
phy and dozens of photographs, the vol­
ume will be welcomed by jazz fans and
general readers alike.
Peter Pettinger has been an interna­

tional concert pianist for more than
twenty-five years. His many recordings
include the Bart6k sonatas with the vio­
linist Sandor Vegh, the Elgar Sonata
and a jazz album with the violinist
Nigel Kennedy, and Elgar's works for
solo piano. He teaches piano and
chamber music within Cambridge
University.

jacket illustration: front Evans in London, 1965
(David Redfern): back: Evans, April 1980 (The
Stanley and Helen Oakley Dance Archives, Yale
University Music Library. used with permission.)

Printed in the U.S.A.

Bill Evans: ; How My Heart Sings

Published with assistance from the foundation
established in memory of Philip Hamilton
McMillan of the Class of I 894,Yale College.
Copyright© I 998 by Yale University.

Library of Congress Catalogin�n-Publication Data
Pettinger, Peter, I 945Bill Evans : how my heart sings I Peter
Pettinger
Discography: p. ****

This book may not be reproduced, in whole or
in part, including illustrations, in any form
(beyond that copying permitted by Sections I 07

Includes bibliographical references
and index.

(p. ****)

ISBN 0-300-07 I 93-0 (alk. paper )

and I 08 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except

I . Evans, Bill, I 929--80. 2. Pianists-United

by reviewers for the public press), without writ­
ten permission from the publishers.

cm.

p.

All rights reserved.

States-Biography. 3.Jazz musicians-United
States--Biography. I.Title.

Designed by James J.Johnson and set in Gill Sans

Ml4 I 7.E9P53

I 998

78 I .65'092-dc2 I
[BJ

and Electra types by Ink, Inc., New Yor k, New

97-4999 I MN

Yor k. Printed in the United States of America by

Thomson-Shore, Inc., Dexter, Michigan.

A catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library.
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for
permanence and durability of the Committee
on Production Guidelines for Book longevity of
the Council on Library Resources.
10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

For Ros

Contents

Preface
Prologue

ix
1

Part I. Birth of the Sound, 1929-58
i.

The Kid from Plainfield

2.

Swing Pianist

3.

New Jazz Conceptions

+

Sideman

9

20
31

39

Part II. The First Trio, 1958-61
5 . A Call from Miles

51

6.

Everybody Digs Bill Evans

7.

Miles Calls Back

8.

Portrait in Jazz 86

9.

Explorations 97

10.

65

74

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

107

Part Ill. On the Road, 1961-77
11.

Moonbeams

119

12.

Conversations with Myself 131

13. An American in Europe

45

14.

A Simple Matter of Conviction

15.

Quiet Now

182

167

Contents

Vlll

16.

Living Time

198

17. You've Been a Fine Audience
18. You Must Believe in Spring

213
227

Part IV. The Last Trio, 1977-80
19.

Reflections in D

249

20. Twenty-One C ities in Twenty-Four Days
21.

Letter to Evan . 273

Notes

287

Discography
Index

337

295

260

Preface

... a rather simple person with a limited talent and perhaps a limited perspective.
-Bill Evans on himself

In 1958 I was thirteen years old, pursuing classical studies in piano and violin.
And, like many a British teenager of the time, I was listening to the latest rock
'n' roll hits dispensed from the heart of Europe by Radio Luxembourg. A
schoolfriend had enterprising taste in jazz, though, and we started to swap 45rpm singles and EPs, which were all we could afford. Our appreciation pro­
gressed through the traditional bands to the truly "with it" Dave Brubeck. For
that artist at least, a tiny audience in the east of England was running parallel
with student appreciation on the wide American campus. Our ears matured
quickly to the "cool" sophistication of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet- in partic­
ular, that magenta-sleeved Vogue EP with "Bernie's Tune" and "Walkin'
Shoes" - and when Miles Davis came our way (excerpts from Miles Ahead
and Milestones), our course was confirmed.
Then my friend brought along the trumpeter's latest - something called
Jazz Track. The piano on this stunning record was being played by an
unknown musician with an ordinary name: Bill Evans. But the way he was
shading his tone was anything but ordinary; he sounded like a classical
pianist, .and yet he was playing jazz. I was captured there and then - the
archetypal pivotal moment. The concept of the "Bill Evans sound" instantly
enshrined and distilled what I had always hoped to hear. It was the plaintive
harmony, the lyrical tone, and the fresh textures that captivated so; it was the
very idea that one style of music could be played with the skills and finesse
normally only brought to another; it was a timeless qual ity, a feeling that the
music had always been there; and above all, it was a yearning behind the
notes, a quiet passion that you could almost reach out and touch.
I began to collect the records. So, I later learned, had hundreds of other
people. But at the time I felt, strangely, that I was the only one who knew and
responded to this music. Many Evans connoisseurs have had this experience,
IX

x

Preface

and jealously guard what they regard as their exclusive found treasure. It
surely stems from this artist's ability to communicate at a very personal level,
a quality emanating from his character, which was quiet, introverted, and
modest. He was not a glamorous person, and he appeared to play not for the
masses but for himself. A listener felt like an eavesdropper, communing on a
privileged, one-to-one level . Through this quality - th is "presence" - Bill
Evans today gets through to listeners from all walks of life in a way that many
other musicians do not.
My desire to acquire more of this playing on disc soon became an obses­
sion. I pursued every secondhand outlet that I could think of, on the outside
chance of unearthing some undiscovered sideman recording - for I soon
realized that Evans could be every bit as rewarding in small print as he was in
large. It was all very hit and miss, the luxury of Peter H. Larsen's monumental
discography, Tum on the Stars, being still almost twenty years away. As a
fledgling classical pianist, I had the good fortune to begin traveling, and I dis­
covered that issues appeared on the Continent before they did in England.
Whenever I went to Paris, for example, I went straight to the Lido Musique
on the Champs Elysees, and my Riverside copy of Portrait in Jazz still carries
the stickers of "36 Francs" and "Declare a la S . D . R. M ." on the back. Later
the quest extended to New York basement emporiums.
Evans's artistic development was long, slow, and, as he put it, "through
the middle." It is fitting that h is recognition today progresses in a similar way.
Over the years since his death in 1980, his niche on the retail shelves has
grown slowly but steadily, so that now the big stores offer a generous selection
of his C Ds. Gradually, the message of this giant is being valued for its true
worth; one senses a slowly developing appreciation . He is especially "big" in
France - but then, he always was - and it was there rather than in England
or America that a portrait for television was made in 1996.
He was a supremely natural pianist. Indeed, he even looked like part of
his instrument - an extension of it, rather than someone sitting at it. Or
rather, it was an extension of him; he did not so much play upon it as coax it
into life. His diffident and slightly awkward appearance when walking onto
the bandstand was transformed when he began to play; then, somehow, he
was complete.
His influence is pervasive, extending generally throughout jazz and
specifically to countless instrumentalists. The interactive, chamber-music
concept of the Bill Evans Trios has even permeated an entire recording label
(one for which he never recorded) ; the whole aesthetic of Manfred Eicher's
ECM company has been defined by the Evans approach to economy and

Preface

XI

Maxine Evans, Bill's stepdaughter, receiving the pianist's Lifetime Achievement
Award for 1994 from Michael Greene, President ofN.A.R.A.S.
Zavatsky, courtesy estate of Bill Evans, copyright© Nenette Evans 1996

silence. Many of Evans's trio members, as well as other musicians he influ­
enced, went on to record for the label .
The story of his life is the story of a working musician on one long round
of clubs, concert halls, and studios. When not on the road, his musical home,
the bac�bone of his working life, was the Village Vanguard club in New York,
and his playing there over the years was captured by one particular fan, in
anguish over vanishing sounds: Mike Harris's clandestine recordings, released
by Fantasy in 1996 as The Secret Sessions, preserve the man on the job.
I never knew Evans the man, but I did hear him countless times at
Ronnie Scott's in London, the Village Vanguard, and elsewhere. I regularly
flouted Manhattan's reputation as the mugging capital of the world, tramping
home on foot between 3 :00 and 4:00 A.M. from Greenwich Village to some
midtown hotel . In London, too, I would stay out for every note, night after
night. Reticent, and holding Evans in awe, I could never pluck up the confi­
dence to speak to him (apart from a wild musical request one night, graciously

X II

Preface

fulfilled). Courage apart, though, part of me did not really want, or need, to
meet him. It may sound sentimental to say so, but the music was enough, and
I do not regret the anonymity.

In writing this book I have enjoyed the immense privilege of meeting in
person, and learning from, some of the musical icons of my youth. I refer in
particular to Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, and (a later hero) George Russell.
Other musicians who played or worked with Evans and who have helped me
with my inquiries are Jack DeJohnette, Chuck Israels, Mundell Lowe, Ron
Mathewson, Helen Merrill, Palle Mikkelborg, Michael Moore, Claus Oger­
man, Tony Oxley, and Eliot Zigmund. I thank all these artists for lending
authenticity to the pages that follow. To this list I would add the composer
Earl Zindars, whose works held a particular place in Evans's heart, and I offer
a special appreciation to Zindars's wife, Anne, for unwittingly supplying the
title of this book. When I asked Phil Woods about working with Evans,
though, he answered politely, with an artful glint in his eye, ''I'm not
divulging anything. It's all going in my book." Fair enough .
Pianists who knew Evans and have shared their memories include Gor­
don Beck, Michael Garrick, John Horler, Art Murphy, and Jack Reilly, and I
am especially grateful to one who knew him well: his good friend Warren
Bernhardt.
My thanks go to Judy Bell at the Richmond Organization, for supplying
detailed information of Evans's publications; Win Hinkle, for allowing me to
use numerous excerpts from the articles in his journal Letter from Evans,
most of them resulting from his indefatigable interviewing; Ron Nethercutt,
for supplying me with unique material from Evans's college days at South­
eastern, and Dr. Peter Titelman of Northampton, Massachusetts, for provid­
ing a personal memory of the First Trio at the Village Vanguard. Blank
spaces in the nooks and crannies of my research were variously filled out by
Robert Hogan, Jean-Michel Reisser, Alain Mehrenberger, Jan van Schellen,
and Gladyse Saul - to all these I give my thanks. Barry Kernfeld was an early
reader of the manuscript, and I appreciate his valuable suggestions.
At Fantasy Records I am grateful to Orrin Keepnews, for allowing me to
raid his chronicles of the years at Riverside, and to Terri Hinte for numerous
kindnesses. Thanks also to two English West Country enthusiasts, Colin Kel­
lam and Brian Hennessey, to whose private tape collections I have been
granted access. Hennessey, who holds the Bill Evans Memorial Library, and
sometimes looked after Bill when he was in England, has illuminated my

Preface

XIII

pages with his recollections. I have learned much also from the Oreos Col­
lection Jazz book,

Bill Evans: Sein Leben, Seine Musik, Seine Schallplatten,

by Hanns E. Petrik.
The distingu ished author and lyricist Gene Lees, another close friend of
Evans's, injected an early boost of confidence by reprinting an article of
mine in h is

Jazzletter. H is advice and encouragement set me on the right

road. Later, when the text became at least presentable, Evans's longtime
manager and producer, the late Helen Keane, gave generously of her dwin­
dling energy to answer my questions and to comment on the manuscript
chapter by chapter. Gene and Helen were indispensable pillars to my quest.
Last but not least, I wish to thank Dr. Earle Epps for generously sharing
the h istory of the Soroka family l i ne, and Nenette Evans, administrator for
the estate of Bill Evans, for her interest, support, and generosity in providing
unique family photographs.

Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

Prologue

I h<IYe always hoped to visit Russia, to feel at first hand the roots of this part of
myself

-Bill Evans

William John Evans, the younger of two brothers, was born on August 16,
1929, in Plainfield, New Jersey. Although little is known of the forebears of h is
father, Harry Leon Evans, born in Philadelphia in 1891, Harry instilled in h is
sons a strong sense of Welsh Protestant ancestry. In the renowned vocal tradi­
tion of Wales, he gave rein to his own musical talents by singing regularly in a
barbershop choir. The family of B ill's mother, Mary, came from Russia, a
country nurturing a rich choral heritage of its own, and one with a mighty
pianistic pedigree as well. Mary Soroka (the name means "magpie") savored
the music of her Orthodox church and amused herself as an amateur pianist.
Harry and Mary's sons - Harry Jr. and Bill - both went on to make music their
profession. For B ill the outcome was priceless; the jazz pianist Chick Corea,
for one, paid homage to his accomplishment: "Bill's value can't be measured
in any kind of terms. He's one of the great, great artists of this century."1

lq the early 1<)6os Brian Hennessey, a British fan of B ill Evans, visited

New York on business and went to meet the pianist at the Village Vanguard

jazz club, where he was playing. Hennessey was in a position to organize
some playing dates in England, an offer that Evans immediately accepted.
Besides the profess i onal opportunity, he saw a chance to visit his Celtic
fatherland. The first of many trips to England ensued, but he was never quite
able to include a westward pilgrimage to Wales.
Late in the sixties, as well as once again at the end of h is life, he was
equally intent upon visiting his other ancestral homeland, Russia. On the
first occasion there was a last-minute hitch at Kennedy airport. A second
opportunity arose in ufoo, and although he was hesitant about an extended
1

2

PROLOGUE

Baby "Billy," as they called him, 1929.
Courtesy estate of Bill Evans, copyright© Nenene Evans 1996

tour under spartan conditions on the Russian provincial road, he was eager to
include a handful of major concerts to satisfy h is large Russian following. But
in the wake of Soviet military intervention on behalf of a puppet regime in
Afghanistan, he found himself faced with an agonizing decision . In autumn
1980, not long before he died, he called off the trip. In a letter to the editors of
the American jazz magazine Down Beat and other prominent publications,
he made clear his stance on the politico-artistic regime in the Soviet Union,
a decade before glasnost:
I am a jazz pianist of international reputation. My name , Evans, is obviously

Welsh , but my mother's name (Soroka) and heritage is Russian . Memories of my
childhood are warmly crowded with the singing and spirit of this heritage of fre­
quent family gatherings - a priceless gift of enrichment to a growing child.

Prologue

3

Consequently, I have al ways hoped to visit Russ ia, to feel at first ha nd the roots
of this pa rt of myself. Reports for many years that I had many dedicated fans there
were confirmed recently, when my trio was invited for five concerts in Moscow, late
in September of this year.
Perhaps even without the catalyst of Afghanistan, I might have arrived at the fol­
lowing conclusion, for I had often lamented the tragedy of people living in a society
where one's opinion could bring about long suffering, imprisonment, and where an
artist's purest inspiration was expected to conform to outside criteria. The very denial
of the essence of art today! But the event of Afghanistan propelled my thinking.
I wrestled with the problem for a few days, and came to the fi rm decision that
I must cancel the concerts . I hoped that by the grapevine, perhaps those fans that
learned of my reasons for not appearing would be aroused philosophically, and
therefore energy might be created, opposed to the perpetuation of this oppressive
government.
The obvious counter argument to my conclusion would be that we should
bring them our cultural message . I think this is a bit too convenient. If all perform­
ing artists examined this issue and refused to perform wherever an environment of
oppression exists, perhaps great revolutionary energy could be created. To perform
there vol untarily, after all, is to walk passively in the atmosphere of the degradation
of the human spirit.
My gesture will have l ittle or no significance, but I follow my code and am at
peace with myself.2

Those final words read like an epitaph, and indeed Evans knew that he
was dying. He had suffered throughout his life from hepatitis. The condition
had been exacerbated by drug use over more than two decades, which led to
bleeding ulcers and malnutrition . As one close friend, the writer Gene Lees,
told me: "His was the longest suicide in history." In the final years the self­
destructive pianist was weak and was shooting cocaine; surely he suspected,
when he renounced the tour of Russia, that he might not survive the trip ­
whether because of ill health or drug trouble - even had his humanitarian
convictions allowed it.

Mary Soroka, Bill's mother, stopped her own mother from teaching him
Russian, afraid that he would not learn enough English . Evans later regret­
ted his mother's protectiveness on that count. Once, during the 1950s, he
received some letters from a Russian jazz pianist. Mary, who read and wrote
Russian with difficulty, managed to translate them and, at Bill's urging, wrote
repl ies. He once received a memorable letter from a group of fans in
Leningrad, written in perfect English . Later, the same group sent him a
large, exquisitely bound book by a historic Russian poet-philosopher, wh ich
he treasured, giving it pride of place in his home. In Russia, Evans's records

4

PROLO G U E

are issued on the Melodia label, and his fans there do not hesitate to claim
him as their own.
The Soroka line of descent can be traced to an area of Ukraine that was
once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mary, in a letter to a cousin,
described the lifestyle of her forebears around the 1870s: "They lived under
horrible conditions. Only the parents had beds. They had an oven for cook­
ing, but no chimney for the smoke to get out, and the children slept on top
of the oven . In winter, they had to bring the cattle indoors, so that they
wouldn't freeze."3
Many lived in turf huts with earthen floors. Bill's first cousin, Dr. Earle
Epps, has said: "They were dirt poor. And that was in an area where the
boundary lines j ust kept changing with every war. One time it was Russia,
another time Hungary and then it would be Germany. These poor people
didn't know whom they belonged to. They were Russians living in Austro­
Hungary, being ruled by Poles."4
On today's political map, Ukraine is cradled geographically by the bor­
ders of Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, and Russia,
and culturally by a deep artistic heritage, rich and various, with a particular
emphasis on music. From these lands in the nineteenth century came two of
the greatest pianist-composers of all time - the Hungarian Franz Liszt and
the Pole Frederic Chopin. It is fitting that Bill Evans, a poet of the piano ­
once dubbed the Chopin of jazz - traces one side of his ancestry to this part
of the world.
•

Bill's grandfather Ivan Soroka came from the town of Brunarya, in the
province of Galicia, near Lvov in present-day Ukraine. Ivan's wife-to-be,
Anna Matichak, was born in Charna, a village lying in the shadow of the
Carpath ian Mountains. In their teens, Ivan and Anna emigrated separately
_
to the United States. Only then did they meet and marry, settling in Old
Forge near Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The Sorokas were a part of one of the pockets of society that character­
ized the American immigrant's experience - a small, tightly knit community,
in this case a little piece of Russia. The community still thrives in the
Scranton area, and to this day there are people living there who hardly speak
English and for whom the Russian church is the focus of their lives. The his­
tory of the area is dominated by its abundance of anthracite coal; mine own­
ers welcomed all immigrants and the cheap labor they provided. The
Russian influx began as a trickle in 1865, but by the time that the Sorokas

Prologue

5

went over in the early 1890s, more than thirty thousand of their compatriots
were coming to the United States each year. Ivan and Anna had six children
who reached adulthood : Antoinette, Mary, Jul ia, Justine, Michael , and
Nicholas (a seventh died in infancy) . The second child, Mary, mother of Bill
Evans, was born in Old Forge on February 12, 1896.
A frequent cause of mortality among the miners was black lung disease,
but Evans's grandfather Ivan was accidentally killed when dynamiting coal
in 190+ No system of compensation had yet been adopted, and the Soroka
family was left destitute. For three or four years, two of the children, Mary
and Justine, were raised in a nearby orphanage run by Orthodox priests .
There they spoke only Russian, and only when they left a s adolescents did
they begin to learn English at the American school .
Epps, one of Justine's sons, recounts : "The Epps family, the Soroka
family, and others ended up in Manville, New Jersey, the home of the
Johns-Manville Asbestos Corporation, which manufactured shingles and
pipes. Apparently, all the workers that were coming over were Russian and
Pol ish, and nobody could speak English. But there were lots of laboring
j obs in Manville. My uncle M ichael became a personnel director there,
and I suppose he got j obs for everybody. Mary worked in the accounting
department."5
Many inhabitants of the small country town of Manville journeyed to
their places of work in lower Manhattan on the New Jersey Central and
Pennsylvania Railroads. A few stations nearer New York City, across open
fields, lay Dunellen, where Harry, Bill's father, worked. The next stop was
the workaday town of Plainfield, where he and Mary l ived and where Bill
and Harry Jr. were born and raised.
Harry Sr. entered the printing trade, producing magazines at Art Color
Printing in Dunellen. He was remembered by friends as gentle and easygo­
ing in.character - when sober, that is, for by all accounts he was a heavy
drinker. Mary, in contrast, was strong and determined . Earle Epps remem­
bers a tumultuous marriage: "Harry was always a playboy, and pleasure was
more important to him than his family, which he frequently neglected. After
his alcoholic abuses he would cry and say how sorry he was, but two days
later it would be the same old story all over again. He loved singing and bar­
bershop harmony, and he and his buddies would get together with a bottle
and start singing and drinking. Mary said that her life was hell for most of
their married years, until they retired ." 6
Mary's great love was the music of the Russian Orthodox Church,
music that she had heard every day while growing up at the orphanage with

6

P ROLO G UE

The brothers Harry and Bill with parents, Harry and Mary.
Courtesy estate of Bill Evans, copyright© Nenette Evans 1996

Justine. Another sister, Julia, had a sufficiently good singing voice to tour pro­
fessionally in musicals and light opera. Indeed, the whole Soroka family dis­
played musical feeling, and they would sing monastic chants a cappella,
inruitively switching parts at will. Their traditional singing on festive occa­
sions (following the Old Style calendar) , or after dinner at home, was some of
the first music that Bill Evans heard , and they passed along to the youngster
their reverence for fine music.

Part I
Birth of the Sound, 1929-58

CHAPTER

1

The Kid from
Plainfield

I've always preferred to play something simple than go all over the keyboard on
something I wasn't clear about.
-Bill Evans

Harry and Mary's firstborn, Harry Jr., inherited the solid, chunky features of
his father, but Bill, born two years later, took on the narrow bone structure
and sharper countenance of his mother. He became her favorite. When Harry
Sr.'s drinking bouts brought abuse and financial strain, Mary often took the
boys to stay in nearby Somerville with her sister Justine and the Epps family.
Here, too, there was music. In the evenings, Earle Epps's father, who
held a bachelor of music degree in piano and organ, would sit down at the
piano and play through the great classics, an indulgence that had a crucial
effect on the visiting Evans brothers. Earle Epps recalls the boys' earliest
attempts at music: "Somewhere between five and seven Harry started playing
the piano, but there was no thought of giving B ill piano lessons; he was too
young. In those days the piano teachers came to the home. B ill used to
crouch 9ver in the comer and listen. When they had finished and left the
room, he'd go over, sit down, and play what he had heard."1 The precocious
Bill was already challenging Harry when, at age six and a half, the younger
brother started his own lessons.
Evans always acknowledged the i nfluence of his brother, not only in
music but also i n sports: both were natural athletes, and with a dash of
hero worship Bill always tried to minimize the two-year gap. Soon they
succumbed to the family passion, golf, spending much of their early years
on the greens; indeed, either might have pursued a professional career on
the circuit. Other sports and recreation ran in the family, as well: for sev­
eral years i n the late 1920s, Harry S r. and his brother-in-law M ichael were
9

10

BIRTH OF THE SOUND

Age eight, soon after starting violin lessons.
Courtesy estate of Bill Evans copyright© Nenette Evans 1996

busi ness partners in a combined pool and bill iard hall and bowl ing alley
in Dunellen. Then, with a sure eye for business, they set up a summer-sea­
son golf driving range across the highway from the busy Hadley Airport
near New Brunswick. In the winter they ran a similar one on Route 1 at
Vero Beach, the Florida coastal resort to which Harry and Mary eventu­
ally retired.
The Evans brothers began to cycle from their white-boarded home on
Hunter Avenue in Plainfield to piano lessons in neighboring Dunellen.
Their teacher, Helen Leland, rated Harry the better pianist. Evans remem­
bered her with affection and gratitude for not insisting on a heavy technical
approach - which, with his temperament, might have turned him against
music. Instead, she encouraged him to explore the printed note at sight. He
soon found it easy to play what was put in front of him, an aptitude which

The Kid from Plainfield

11

later gained legendary status. There was a fair selection of sheet music at
home, and he would plow willy-nilly through marches, polkas, songs, and
classics, selecting favorites as he went.
The ability to sight-read is hard to explain, being in varying degrees
innate, acquired by osmosis, and begotten by healthy curiosity. The true
reader settles for imperfection en route, being impelled to attain the end of
the phrase at all costs. Thus the reader views the concept of "practice" - the
perfection of one's party piece - with deep suspicion . Evans exasperated his
college teachers with imperfect renditions of the set scales and arpeggios.
Practicing such items could never engage the youth's musical instincts. To
be sure, he played a lot - three hours or so a day in childhood - but he
focused the energy unconventionally. "Everything I've learned," he said ,
"I've learned with feeling being the generating force. I've never approached
the piano as a thing in itself, but as a gateway to music ."2
At the age of seven Evans embarked on violin studies, and although ulti­
mately the instrument gave him little satisfaction, the experience of holding,
even increasing, the sound on the string may well have contributed to his life­
long obsession with "singing" on the piano, the sensitive pianist's ultimate chal­
lenge, and one that he met supremely. Over the years he tackled several instru­
ments, studying the flute and piccolo, for example, under the guidance of
Joseph C . Schaedel, his high school music teacher. But the piano, on which he
could attack and sustain with crystal clarity, remained his one true love. Much
later he reflected on the cardinal position that the instrument had occupied in
his early life: ''The first time I realized that I really loved playing was when I was
about ten and I broke my wrist climbing a tree. And I realized I missed playing
the piano. It was a strange enlightenment. I'd taken it for granted."3

The.family moved to 490 Greenbrook Road, the brothers now attending
North Plainfield High School. At home Evans enjoyed some formative listen­
ing experiences, reflecting his enthusiasm for contemporary European reper­
toire: "I can remember, for instance, the 78 album of Petruschka which I got
early on in high school as a Christmas present - a requested Christmas pres­
ent. And just about wearing it out, learning it. That was the kind of music that
at that time I hadn't been exposed to, and it just was a tremendous experience
to get into that piece. I remember first hearing some of Milhaud's polytonality
and actually a piece that he may not think too much of- it was an early piece
called Suite Proven�ale - which opened me up to certain things."4
Like most music lovers of his generation, Evans grew up through the

12

B I RT H OF T HE SO UN D

1940s with network radio. His musical mind was open, and his absorption of
the radio's diverse fare was one reason for his later insistence that he had
learned from everybody. His own training and repertoire, though, were
strictly classical, and for six or seven years he played nothing but the notes on
the page. Moreover, although he was an accomplished player, he had no
understanding of how the music was constructed. In an educational video
made in the sixties he reminisced with his brother about their school days:
"From the age of six to thirteen, I acquired the ability to sight-read and to
play classical music, so that actually both of us (as you know) were perform­
ing Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert intelligently, musically. Yet I couldn't
play 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' without the notes."5
This kind of musical blockage, a common result of habit and condition­
ing, was soon released. Evans recalled first hearing jazz at the age of twelve or
so: the big band recordings of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, followed by
the great jazz instrumentalists. His brother, who was already absorbing the
idiom, was learning the trumpet and playing in the school rehearsal band.
When the piano player got the measles one day, Bill sat in, relishing his new­
found role: "When I joined that rehearsal band I read the stock arrangements
exactly as written, and once in a while I'd have a bell-tone in the third cho­
rus - ding! - and I'd wait for that, because I had a little something."6
Then came a singular occasion, marking precisely the beginning of his
jazz career: "One night we were playing 'Tuxedo Junction,' and for some rea­
son I got inspired and put in a little blues thing. 'Tuxedo Junction' is in B�,
and I put in a little D�, D, F thing in the right hand. It was such a thrill. It
sounded right and good, and it wasn't written, and I had done it. The idea of
doing something in music that somebody hadn't thought of opened a whole
new world to me ."7
He rapidly grasped the jazz idiom, and soon he made a cardboard disc,
playing the "fastest boogie-woogie in Central Jersey." This natural facility
awed his friends, whose letters began with salutations like "Dear Bill (drop
dead) 88 keys, Evans."
His sight-reading skills led to opportunities at the local theater. He
began playing his first professional jobs, at dances, weddings, and other
events from Elizabeth to New Brunswick, working several nights a week as
well as weekends. His schoolwork deteriorated somewhat as a result.
One mainstay local gig was at the Manville Polish Home, where there
was a good polka band . The drummer and bandleader sat high above the
bandstand on a riser of his own, playing with one hand and holding the
microphone in the other. Evans recalled that this impresario knew "thou-

The Kid from Plainfield

sands of polkas" in Pol ish . As if the Sorokas had not suffered enough in the
past at the hands of the Poles, Bill would take the train to Manville and
churn out these dances for a dollar an hour.
He formed a trio with his friends Connie Atkinson on bass and Frank
Robell on drums. During the summer, there was resort work around New
Jersey. On gigs with a local group of older musicians, he would return home
in the small hours, his first taste of the jazz life. The multi-instrumental ist
Don Elliott, who was two or three years Bill's senior, dropped by from neigh­
boring Somerville to sit in. Evans recorded with Elliott some fifteen years
later at the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as on a studio album called The

Mello Sound.
Evans wanted to find out how music was constructed, and he worked
away in private at things he had not been taught. He took his cue from
George Platt, the bass player in that local band. Evans recounted:
H e knew chord changes very well, and understood harmony and wrote arrange­
ments, and had the patience of Job, I guess, because he called chord changes to me
for a year and a half without ever saying, "Haven't you learned them yet?" Finally,
instead of th inking of them as isolated changes, I worked out the system on wh ich
traditional theory is based: I just used numbers -I, V, VI, and so on-and began to
understand how the music was put together.
Also the band was more of a jazz band than the h igh school band. I had to play
solos. On some of the jobs, the people expected to hear jazz, so I just dived in and
tried it. I have recordings from the very beginning that show I was very clear in what
I was doing. I've always preferred to play someth ing simple than go all over the key­
board on something I wasn't clear about. Back then, I would stay with in the triad.
I was buying all the records ...anybody from Coleman Hawkins to Bud Powell
and Dexter Gordon. That was when I first heard Bud, on those Dexter Gordon sides
on Savoy. I heard Earl Hines very early and , of course, the King Cole Trio. Nat, I
thought, was one of the greatest, and I still do. I th ink he is probably the most under­
rated jazz pianist in the h istory of jazz.
I'd play hookey from school and hear all the bands at the Paramount in New
York_or the Adams in Newark. Or we'd try to sneak in the clubs on 5 2nd St. with phony
draft cards, just to hear some jazz.I got a lot of experience with insight that way.8

Evans was still in high school when the new music of bebop began to
erupt in New York in the early 1940s. He was perhaps just too young, and not
yet enamored enough of jazz, to adopt the new language . Then, precisely
when he might have been ripe for conversion, he left the area to continue his
studies in Louisiana. The end of the decade was spent a thousand miles away
from the flourish ing art of bebop, a simple geographical fact that led him to
pursue other forms on his own.

B I RTH OF THE SOUN D

So it was, in September 1946, that Evans, along with several other stu­
dents from New Jersey, continued his musical studies on a scholarship to
Southeastern Louisiana College at Hammond, some fifty miles from New
Orleans. Just seventeen, he savored being on his own for the first time, and in
such a place. "It's an age when everything makes a big impression," he said.
"And Louisiana impressed me big. Maybe it's the way people live. The
tempo and pace is slow. I always felt very relaxed and peaceful. Nobody ever
pushed you to do this or say that. Perhaps it's due to a little looser feeling
about life down there. Things j ust lope along, and there's a certain inexplica­
ble indifference about the way people face their existence."9
The double life that he had established in high school - student and
night owl - continued to flourish in Hammond. From a base on Magnolia
Street, New Orleans, he went jamming almost nightly around the Crescent
City and the surrounding countryside with his regular group, the Casuals.
Later he described the sort of pocket-moneymaking gig the band undertook.
One, for example, was an outdoor affair for seventy-odd folk: "It was a church
in the middle of a field - a boxlike structure about forty by twenty with nonde­
script paint on the outside and none on the inside. It was more like a rough
clubhouse than a church. I think they built it themselves. You wondered
where the hell they came from because you couldn't see any houses around. It
was a dance job. We played three or four tunes for them, and then blew one for
ourselves. They didn't seem to mind. Everyone had a ball. The women cooked
the food - it was jambalaya - and served it from big boards. Everything was
free and relaxed. Experiences like these have got to affect your music."10
Back home, during summer vacation after his first year, he played in a
group that included Russ Le Candido on clarinet and saxophone, Connie
Atkinson on bass, and the singer Eleanor Aimes. A private recording made at
Point Pleasant on the New Jersey coast in August 1947 is a fascinating docu­
ment of the teenage pianist. Already he was able to sustain a string of block
chords underneath a newly created top line. Rhythmically, he began to
insert broad triplets into a solo, a very personal touch. Harmonically, he kept
things simple, departing from the triad to embrace sixths and thirteenths,
occasionally adding the slightly more adventurous sharp fourth. In introduc­
tions, vocal backings, and solos alike, each component was earnest. For
Evans, even at that age, there was no such thing as the glib, ready-made ges­
ture. In the clarity of the thinking, and the simplicity of the material and its
presentation, lay a shining promise for the future.
He assimilated "a thousand influences," from musicians at the clubs
where he played to nationally prominent figures - not j ust pianists like Dave

The Kid from Plainfield

The marching band (Connie Atkinson far left, Bill Evans far right).
Cou rtesy estate of Bill Evans

copyright © Nenette Evans

1996

Brubeck, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Al Haig, and Lou Levy, but
hornmen as well, like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Stan
Getz. He took something from each. "Bud Powell has it all," he said, "but
even from him I wouldn't take everything. I wouldn't listen to a recording by
Bud and try to play along with it, to imitate. Rather, I'd listen to the record
and try to absorb the essence of it and apply it to something else. Besides, it
wasn't only the pianists but also the saxophones, the trumpets, everybody. It's
more the· mind 'that thinks jazz' than the instrument 'that plays jazz' which
interests me."11
The biggest influence on Evans at this time, though, was the pianism of
Nat "King" Cole-in Bill's estimation "one of the tastiest and just swingin' est
and beautifully melodic improvisers and jazz pianists that jazz has ever
known, and he was one of the very first that really grabbed me hard."12 Evans
was particularly struck by the way Cole would expand just one idea through
a large span of chorus, citing his 1944 trio record of "Body and Soul" as an
example. It is easy to see the appeal: clarity and freshness of ideas, sparkling
fingers, flawless execution, pearly tone.

B IRT H OF T HE SO U N D

Evans frequently acknowledged his debt to Cole, but in one important
respect they differed: attractive as the Cole sound was, the imagination of the
young Evans sought something extra. Cole played delicately, "on the sur­
face" of the keys, an approach perhaps cultivated from playing behind his
own singing. That would not do for Evans, who, influenced in part by his
ongoing classical training but mostly by his own expressive soul, demanded a
deeper, more engaging tone, firmly extracted from the bed of the key.

Back at college, he was playing first flute in the concert band. If playing
the violin had fostered a depth to his midregister piano tone, the flute pro­
moted a pearly treble. His piano technique evolved, meanwhile, and he soon
became known as the "king of the fast-lock tens," a reference to his left-hand
"walking" tenths. In later life he reflected nostalgically on that formidable key­
board prowess. Such facility came naturally, for his attention was engaged by
things higher than etudes, scales, and "practice." His end-of-term reports indi­
cated as much, swinging between such comments as "fine talent," "unlimited
possibilities," and "wonderful potential" to "needs brushing up on arpeggios,"
"technique, as such, deficient but certainly no hindrance in performance."
Evans's studies in the classical repertoire, two weekly lessons of an hour
and a half each, took in sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and works by
Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin (the Piano Concerto in
F), Villa-Lobos, Khachaturian, Milhaud, and others. Performances of some of
these pieces were broadcast, and prizes came his way under the guidance of his
piano teachers, Louis M. Kohnop, John Venettozzi, and Ronald Stetzel.
For his senior recital on April 24, 1950, Evans began with Bach's Prelude
and Fugue in B� minor (from Book I of the "48") , Brahms's Capriccio, Opus
116, No. 7, and Chopin's B� minor Scherzo. Not surprisingly, a Russian com­
poser was represented, Evans choosing a group of Kabalevsky's recently pub­
lished Preludes. The program finished with the opening movement of
Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto; Evans's teacher, Ronald Stetzel, played
the orchestral part. Later, as honor graduate on Senior Class Day, he played
the whole concerto with the college orchestra.
The constructional knowledge of music that Evans later brought to jazz
was firmly rooted in this European tradition, as was his thoroughly trained and
exquisitely refined touch at the keyboard. In later years, when interviewers
observed that certain aspects of technique - his pedaling, for instance - were
unusually polished for a jazz musician, Evans was invariably baffled, for the
whole process had been quite unconscious for as long as he could remember.

The Kid from Plainfield

But even as he mastered the classics, jazz was conquering his heart. He
worked for hours on end at the grammar of jazz, refining his knowledge of
what he was doing when playing it. As colleagues from his student days who
had seemed more gifted - the ones with the "easier" talent - dropped out of
the profession, Evans kept working, and playing.
He studied theory and composition with Gretchen Magee and became
deeply appreciative of her gu idance. With a piece called "Very Little Su ite"
he appeared on the college platform as composer-performer.
In about h is th ird year he produced a small masterpiece in waltz time
that he called "Very Early." It is a highly discipl ined piece of writing, its
melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand
the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong
characteristic : the appl ication of logic to a creative musical process. That
approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans's art. And yet
when we l isten to his music, we are conscious not of the compositional
process but only of the resultant poetry. Played "straight" from the page "Very
Early" is a lyrical gem; but it also provided its composer with a fruitful
sequence for improvisation, the earl iest of many compositions that sustained
him around the globe for three decades.
He developed a love for the works of Thomas Hardy, becoming some­
thing of an expert on them. He also identified strongly with the visionary
eighteenth-century poet and painter Will iam Blake. Later, in discussing
Blake's art, he propounded an artistic ideal :
He's almost like a folk poet, but he reaches heights of art because of his simplicity. The
simple things, the essences, are the great thi ngs, but our way of expressing them can
be incredibly complex. It's the same thing with technique in music. You try to express
a simple emotion - love, excitement, sadness - and often your technique gets in the
way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through
which your feeli ngs and ideas are communicated . The great artist always gets right to
the heart of the matter. His technique is so natural it's invisible or unhearable . I've
always had good facility, and that worries me. I hope it doesn't get in the way. •3

Evans's talents were diverse - he was accomplished with pen and brush,
for example, and his understanding of musical theory expanded into the sci­
ences. His enthusiasm and skill in sports, notably football, came to the fore. He
played quarterback in the winning side at the school's intramural tournament,
his team representing the local chapter of the Phi Mu Alpha fraternity. On
January 4, 1950, he was triply honored, receiving certificates for becoming pres­
ident of that chapter, for his election to the Thirteen Club, and for earning an
entry in "Who's Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities."

BIRTH OF THE SOUND

With his music fraternity brothers on the steps of Southeastern Louisiana College,

1950.
Used with permission of Ron Nethercutt, Southeastern Louisiana University

Evans graduated from Southeastern in May 1950 with two degrees:
bachelor of music with a piano major and bachelor of music education. In
letters to his teachers years later, he expressed his deep appreciation of their
patience, perseverance, and personal attention. Thirty years after he gradu­
ated, when he returned to play with his last trio, he told the audience that his
last two years at the college had been the happiest of his life.
Ralph R. Pottle, head of the Department of Music, wrote several letters
of recommendation for Evans upon his graduation, including one to a band­
leader he knew in California named Freddy Martin:

The Kid from Plainfield

I should like to recommend that you audition a young man who grad uated
here last week on piano. We brought him here four years ago on scholarship on
piano primarily for dance work in our scholarship dance band. He became such a
superb pianist that he finally played the Th ird Piano Concerto by Beethoven....
He was an excellent improvisor with a clean technique when he came here
and had a fla ir for the smoothest modulations from key to key I had heard from one
no older than he was then, about seventeen. Being an honor student throughout his
four years of college, ma joring in music, and an intent student of the modern
idioms in piano playing, he developed to perhaps the finest all around dance pianist
I have heard in the profession. Th is has been confirmed by other professionals who
have visited our campus, among the name dance bands. When we made profes­
sional phonograph records recently (Vonna Records of Hollywood made them), the
recording engineer told me the boy played the smoothest piano he had ever heard.
Incidentally, h is playing is so completely effortless that you can hardly believe what
you hear. He covers the keyboard with a sense of rhythm and harmony and speed
and orchestral balance which is remarkable. He told me just before leaving, after
graduation, that he would endeavor to follow the profession of playing with dance
orchestras. Surely a spot can be found for one so superior. He is a nice looking boy,
always cooperative, good morale, clean morally - no drinking problem and so unas­
suming that he might be mistaken if one weren't on the lookout for h im.14-

One brief encounter early in his career at Southeastern augured well for
Evans's future. A young guitarist who was making a name for himself,
Mundell Lowe, had gone to school in Hammond and returned there straight
from military service in the South Pacific. He was due to go on tour with Ray
McKinley's enterprising swing band. With only a day or two to spare in
Hammond before leaving, he managed to hear Evans at the college. Deeply
impressed, he said, "When you come to New York, you find me and call me,
because after I spend a while with Ray, I want to form a group and I'd sure
like for you to play piano in it."15
Evans was elated, and he resolved to follow up on Lowe's offer should
he head in that direction. Meanwhile, he had his teach ing degree and was
equipped to follow in his brother's footsteps if he wished . Harry had married
and settled in nearby Baton Rouge, and eventually he became supervisor of
musical education in the public schools there. But Mundell Lowe had rec­
ognized something special in Bill's playing, and he could not imagine the
pianist as a teacher. Lowe's invitation to try his luck in the big city prompted
the boy to give rein to more creative aspirations.

CHAPTER

2

Swing Pianist

. . . when the moment came, bang ! I went out into jazz.
-Bill Evans

Evans took up Mundell Lowe's trio invitation and called him in New York.
The guitarist recalled : " So we met at the old Cafe Society downtown, Bill
Evans and a young kid from New Jersey he had known, a bass player by the
name of Red Mitchell . We put this trio together, and it was really a good
group. The only problem was it was so good we couldn't get booked. Val
Irving tried to book us for a while. He booked us in Dean Martin's home­
town, Calumet C ity, Illinois. We played there for two weeks in one of those
places where they literally had chicken wire around the bandstand so they
couldn't hit you with the beer bottles. We continued together for a while but
we had a rough time getting enough work."1
Thus for a brief period Evans joined in the line of piano, bass, and gui­
tar trios pioneered by Nat " King" Cole in 1939 and notably upheld by Art
Tatum, Ahmad Jamal, and Oscar Peterson . Lowe was an exploratory gui­
tarist, and Red Mitchell was revealing fresh ways of articulating lines with a
hornl ike individuality. When I asked Mundell Lowe what it was about
Evans's playing that struck him most in those early years, he answered in j ust
two words: " So fresh ." He remembered that Evans was already using block
chords, George Shearing-style; it must have been an intriguing group.

At the end of July 1950, Evans landed the piano chair with the clarinetist
and bandleader Herbie Fields, another colleague from New Jersey. This
band's music went commercial during the fifties, but not before Fields had
been voted New Star on alto by Esquire magazine. Evans maintained that he
20

Swing Pianist

21

learned how to accompany from Herbie Fields. The keyboard played a cru­
cial role in the band's arrangements, and piano solos were prominent.
Occasionally everybody would join the leader in a unison vocal , and th is was
when it sounded most like a jump band, rhythm-and-blues and boogie-woo­
gie being integral to its makeup. Later Bill recalled, "In some ways he had
been a forerunner of rock 'n' roll . He was wiggl ing, jerking."2 But the band
could embrace a gentler soph istication, too. When Evans joined he was a
master of all these styles.
That year the band undertook a typical itinerary, ranging from San
Francisco to Wash ington , taking in St. Paul and Detroit on the way. In New
York City they played the Paramount and Apollo Theaters and the 49th &
Broadway Club. A regular venue was the Silhouette Club in Chicago, and
from there, on October io, the twenty-one-year-old Evans wrote to Dr. Pottle
at Southeastern to say how happy he was in the band . He added, though, that
he needed to brush up on piccolo: his selective service physical examination
notice had just arrived, and he fervently hoped that he could discharge his
patriotic duty musically.
After many months with Herbie Fields, Evans knew one thing: it was
hard work. ''You know, I have often been condemned for not playing
strongly," he said. "But when I was with this band I would come off the stand
with split fingernails and sore arms. We worked hard trying to sound like the
full Lionel Hampton Orchestra."3
One other engagement stuck in his memory forever: he played in
Buddy Valentino's big band opposite Nat Cole in the Renaissance Ballroom
in Harlem. An awed Evans wrote to his brother, who was in the navy: "I sat at
the same piano and played the same keys as Nat King Cole," he said. "It was
reverential ."4

In i951, as the United States waged war in Korea, Evans was inducted
into the Special Services section . His recruitment in the army began, confus­
ingly, at the Navy School of Music in Washington , D.C . , where musicians
from all the armed forces were trained in military music before dispersal to
their various posts. Jack Reilly, a pianist in the navy at the time, has never for­
gotten hearing Evans practicing at the music school one day. "It sounded like
a mixture of Bud Powell, George Shearing, and Teddy Wilson ," Reilly told
me . "But more than that I was completely taken aback by the sheer joy and
above all the 'swing' element in his right-hand lines and his ability to coordi­
nate both hands as he improvised; that is, the left hand was never a mere

22

B IRT H OF T HE SO U N D

Bill Evans as a G . I .
Courtesy estate of Bill Evans copyright © Nenette Evans 1 996

accompaniment, but always rhythmically integrated in and around the right­
hand 'figures.' This was a new synthesis of what we mean by 'swing,' and the
uniqueness of Evans in embryo."
Also enlisted in the navy was a young percussionist and composer from
Chicago named Earl Zindars, with whose compositions Evans was to
become uniquely associated. Zindars recalls their first meeting: "I had this
arrangement of 'September in the Rain,' and I gave it to Bill, who gave it to
the guys in the Army band. The Army and Navy bands were in heavy compe­
tition with each other - a band fight. He wrote to me when I got back to
Chicago and said, 'We won the fight, and your arrangement was fantastic ! ' "5
Evans was posted to Fort Sheridan j ust north of Chicago, making
sergeant and playing flute and piccolo in the Fifth Army Band. He had been
relish ing his newfound freedom on the road with Herbie Fields, and the

Swing Pianist

army was a frustrating career interruption . He hated it, and it took him years
to get over the experience. Later he had nightmares about having to do three
extra years because his papers were lost.
He did make a friend for life in the army, though. Evans and the singer
and bass player Bill Scott grew so close that each eventually was best man at
the other's wedding. With a group of the other soldiers they ran a jazz show
on the camp radio. Days off were spent playing through "fake" books of jazz
sequences or going to the movies, where Evans first fell in love with some of
the Disney tunes that he treated so distinctively later. He somehow contin­
ued to matu re musically, listening and playing as a civilian around the clubs
in Chicago. At one of these, the Streaml iner, he got together for the first time
with yet another New Jerseyite, the clarinetist Tony Scott.

Evans was discharged from the army in January 195+ His confidence
had been undermined, and he felt the need for a period of review and musi­
cal consolidation. "I was very happy and secure until I went into the army,"
he said. "Then I started to feel there was something I should know that I did­
n't. . . . I was attacked by some guys for what I believed, and by musicians who
claimed I should play like this pianist or that. Pretty soon I lost the confi­
dence I had as a kid. I began to think that everything I did was wrong."6
But it was not only insecurity that delayed his plunge into the outside
world; it was also a clarity of vision about what it would take to succeed.
"After the army, I went home to my parents and took a year off. I set up a little
studio, acquired a grand piano and devoted a year to work on my playing. It
did not come easy. I did not have that natural fluidity, and was not the type of
person who just looks at the scene and through some intuitive process,
immediately produces a finished product. I had to build my music very con­
sciously, from the bottom up. My message to musicians who feel the same
way is that they should keep at it, building block by block. The ultimate
reward might be greater in the end, even if they have to work longer and
harder in the process."7
Th is deeply probing homework gave Evans the foundation needed to
sustain him through the toughest of professions, and it resulted in his always
knowing what he was doing musically. He had been advised at Southeastern
Louisiana that he had the makings of a concert pianist, and he was still suf­
fering an inner confl ict about wh ich direction to take . He felt sl ightly guilty
about favoring what he viewed as the easier option : jazz. It was scarcely easy:
he still spent all day "woodshedding" in the soundproofed studio, having to

B IRT H OF T HE SO U N D

be coaxed out simply to eat. H is sister-in-law Pat, who frequently came up
from Louisiana, recalls, "He often said to me that if he had anything to give,
he could only give it through his music. It was his way of expressing himself
as a person, his very being, through his music .'' 8 During this self-induced sab­
batical, Bill also went down to Baton Rouge to see Pat and Harry. The broth­
ers remained very close, and they maintained a mutual respect, Harry for
Bill's playing and Bill for Harry's skill as a teacher.
Bill also envied the family side of his brother's life, and one of his joys
on these family visits was spending time with his three-year-old niece, Debby.
He often took her to the beach, and his fondness for her inspired him to write
what became his most famous tune, "Waltz for Debby." His affinity for triple
meter, then still unusual in jazz, fostered the natural flow of this lovely, lilt­
ing melody, which carries the l istener effortlessly over its long lyrical span . Its
construction is impeccable, the modulatory scheme exemplary, and those
factors provided a strong basis for improvisation. But as with "Very Early,"
these techniques do not claim our attention. On the contrary, we are simply
captivated by the song's charm and beauty.

Evans's parents retired to Ormond Beach in Florida, to the sun, the
ocean, and golf; Harry Sr. had mellowed with maturity. For Bill it was time to
make or break in New York City, and in July 195 5 he rented a tiny apartment
on West 83d Street. He had the proverbial few dollars in his pocket and a
Knabe grand piano occupying most of the l iving room; its music stand held
pieces by Chopin, Ravel, and Scriabin, as well as "The Well-Tempered
Clavier" by Bach .
H is appetite for musical knowledge led him to enroll downtown at the
Mannes College of Music for three postgraduate semesters in composition.
He filled notebooks with twelve-tone rows in all their permutations, at one
point distilling from them an intense and frantic four-voice canon. He was
well pleased, too, with some songs he wrote to poems by William Blake.
These were to be his final studies in classical music, but he continued to play
it for pleasure. A few years later his girlfriend Peri Cousins witnessed his daily
fare: "He would usually play classical music. Of course, you know, he was a
romantic . He played Rachmaninoff, but he also played Beethoven and Bach.
He would play that and then just drift into jazz in a very fluid kind of way. It
was wonderful to hear this - that was my privilege."9
Whether he made it in jazz or not, Evans knew that he could get work
as a musician. He had decided to take stock after five years and make a

Swing Pianist

choice: risk all for a career in jazz, or settle into studio work. During th is first
chancy, out-on-a-l imb year he played some crazy jobs. There was the
Friendsh ip Club in Brooklyn th ree nights a week, and the Roseland
Ballroom on Wednesday afternoons. He chased a bewildering variety of
"Tuxedo gigs": society balls, Jewish weddings, intermission spots, and, most
depressing of all, the over-forty dances. He rode down to Rockaway on the
subway and played in some bar or other till five in the morning for a pittance .
These jobs paid his rent, but he found the occasional real jazz gig, too: a
week here, an odd concert date there, nights filling in - "depping" - a bonus
in his diary.
Having learned his trade with the swing bands, he was ripe for the piano
role in a small group. The bebop jazz combo, heralded by Oscar Pettiford
and Dizzy Gillespie at the Onyx, had arrived in New York j ust more than a
decade earlier, and the new music was in vogue. In the brownstone base­
ments of 52d Street, jazz clubs and strip joints vied for supremacy. It was a
heady time for jazz, with Art Tatum appearing at Basin Street, George
Shearing at the Embers, and Bud Powell in residence at Birdland .
Thelonious Monk played at the Cafe Bohemia. At places like the H ickory
House and the Composer, Evans sat in, like everyone else, absorbing the
scene and the songbook.
One engagement gave him a prophetic taste of the venue that was des­
tined to mean most to him: the Village Vanguard. He remembered the gig as
his first real break in New York City, working solo opposite the Modern Jazz
Quartet:
Nobody knew me, of course, and you could hear a pin drop during their sets, and
despite the fact that Milt Jackson gave me a really fine introduction every time, this
intimidated the audience into about five and a half seconds of silence , and from
then on it was thunderous din. But I just kept playing.. . . Now one gratifying thing:
one night I looked up, opened my eyes while I was playing, and Miles [ Davis ] 's
head was at the end of the piano listening.
But a more humorous part of it: the way the Vanguard is built, it's a triangular
club and the bandstand is in the apex of the triangle and there are a few seats that
are sort of behind the bandstand , just a bench against the wall and a thin table. And
while I was playing one night, the maitre d' brought a party of four up while I was
playing -I stopped, he said excuse me - and he led them between me

and the key­

board to that table . So that's about the way that first job was . 10

Evans's abilities were instantly recognized by his colleagues, who were
already predicting big th ings for him. There was a definition and a rel iability
about his playing that made him a ready choice for a gig. He found himself
playing again with Don Elliott, as well as with Tony Scott, who was to

B I RT H OF T H E SO U N D

become a guiding force over the next four years. As a result, he renewed con­
tact with Mundell Lowe, who was featured in Scott's group, and they played
clubs in Greenwich Village like the Dome and the Cafe Society. Harry
Evans sometimes dropped in. Scott, who was arranging and conducting for
Harry Belafonte, tried to persuade Evans to become the singer's accompa­
nist. He declined, lacking confidence and feeling that it would interfere with
his attendance at Mannes College.

One of Evans's regular jobs was with Jerry Wald, a popular clarinetist
and bandleader who fronted a succession of good ensembles through the
1940s and 1950s. The previous year his band had recorded a program of Al
Cohn arrangements for MGM's new Designed for Dancing series of ten­
inch LPs. In some discographies Evans has been listed as the probable
pianist, but he was surely incapable of such vapid tinkling.
He was instantly recognizable, though, on the twelve-inch Kapp LP
Listen to the Music of ferry Wald, which offered well-behaved arrangements
for an instrumental sextet plus strings. On the surface Evans's numerous
solos used conventional dotted rhythm and conformed to the swing-band
manner, but within that framework he planted a variety of rhythmic devices,
their timing always precise and, on a more jazz-driven "Love for Sale," decid­
edly snappy. He created fresh and clean-cut melodic lines, and on "Lucky to
Be Me," from Leonard Bernstein's musical On the Town, he sounded an
individual note . The key was F, and he ushered in the melody with a swiftly
rising scale before the beat. This was no ordinary flourish, however, for after
the introductory bell note, C, he used a minor scale on D�, a more colorful
solution than the conventional scale of F used later by the strings.
In the typical swing-band folio of the day it was a rare chart that did not
modulate at least once . Here, too, for its final phrase, the Bernstein score
moved up a minor third to finish out in the key of A�. Evans was very much at
home in these highways and byways, but that particular move was one lesson
in structure that he always remembered.
In view of the remarkable collaboration that was to come, it is odd to
register this as the pianist's first recorded session with the drummer Paul
Motian, playing here in singularly polite style.

In the course of his night-time forays from Chicago's Fifth Army bar­
racks, Evans had become friendly with a sensitive singer named Lucy Reed,

Swing Pianist

to him one of the warmest nightclub attractions in the Windy City. She sang
a regular spot at Chicago's Lei Aloha Club, in a threesome with the pianist
Dick Marx and the bassist John Frigo. Early in 19 5 5 th is group came to New
York to play the Cafe Society and the Club Chi Chi. Billed as Lucille Reed,
the singer started a run of several weeks at Max Gordon's Village Vanguard
club. She was being advised at the time by a young agent, Helen Keane, who
had recently moved from Music Corporation of America to CBS. She put
Reed into Gordon's other club, too: the Blue Angel . Evans met Keane, who
seven years later became his agent, wh ile hearing Reed at one of her gigs dur­
ing this visit to New York.
When Reed returned to New York later in the year to record The
Sing ing Reed for Fantasy, she used a group that included her friend Bill
Evans at the keyboard . Evans served as singer-accompanist and pianist­
arranger for a repertoire that was typical of Reed's Chicago shows. All those
nights on the dance-band podium had equipped Evans with a bagful of
piano licks, including a few personable, darting stabs of his own . The Johnny
Mercer-Harold Arlen classic "Out of This World" elicited from Evans a
striking Latin arrangement, his keyboard asides confirming the h int of men­
ace in the guitar ostinato. The lucidity that he brought to this treatment car­
ried over into his brief solo on Jimmy Van Heusen's "You May Not Love
Me," wh ich was del ivered with a distinctive lyrical touch, reveal ing a blos­
soming ability to create ahnosphere with beautiful sound. The double-track­
ing of the voice on Frank Loesser's "Inchworm" may be noted in passing, the
singer using the recording technique to convey the illusion of two vocal char­
acters. Evans became fascinated by this procedure, which would lead to
supreme musical results in his own work.
For a time, Tony Scott's quartet had included the New York-born elec­
tric guitarist Dick Garcia, who came from a pedigree line of Spanish gui­
tarists. He toured and recorded with the George Shearing quintet, playing on
the hit track "Lullaby of Birdland ." H is first recording under his own name,
as Richie Garcia, was A Message from Garcia on the Dawn label . Evans
made a brief appearance, his first on record as a small-group sideman . On
"Like Someone in Love" he again intimated a special sympathy with the
songs of Jimmy Van Heusen, complementing the reflective mood with sim­
ple ideas delivered in the gentlest of manners.

Evans's career began to take off in 1956, largely through the efforts of the
indefatigable clarinetist Tony Scott. Born Anthony Sciacca of Sicil ian stock

i.8

B I RT H O F T H E S O U N D

in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1921, Scott attended the Juilliard School of
Music before studying with the grandiose eclectic Stefan Wolpe, a composer
and teacher held in high esteem by the New York modernists in the 195os. A
mutual classical background helped to draw the budding jazzmen Scott and

Evans together.
With a voracious appetite for jamming, Scott blew h is way from joint to
joint through the 1940s, elbowing his way into sessions with engaging audac­
ity. All-night sessions on 52d Street and uptown at Minton's Playhouse were
his way of l ife. As a pianist himself, and arranger to Billie Holiday and Sarah

Vaughan, as well as Harry Belafonte, Scott was well attuned to the funda­
mental qualities in Evans's playing. He always claimed to have discovered
Evans - he made the same claim with regard to the pianist Dick Hyman ­
maintaining that he had been trying to "snap him up" since 1949.

Scott was enjoying considerable fame as a leader in his own right and

was able to offer Evans regular club work for several years. In the summer
his quartet (with Evans, Les Grinage on bass, and Lennie McBrowne on
drums) went on tour, taking in Chicago, Detroit, Trenton, Toronto, and
Washington, winding up at a new club in Greenwich Village called The
Pad. Evans was getting a feeling for the road, for a l ifestyle that eventually
ruled his career.
Meanwhile, Scott was being backed by RCA, and in July this quartet con­

tributed four tracks to his showcase album, The

Touch o{Tony Scott. The loca­

tion was one of New York's great recording venues, the neobaroque Webster

Hall on the Lower East Side. Evans also joined two starry big band lineups for

the rest of the album, which kicked off in great style with "Rock Me But Don't
Roll Me," Scott screaming high over the top of his 0\\11 tune and arrangement
Evans was no stranger to rock 'n' roll, having been exposed to all forms of pop
during a decade on the dance circuit, and he could just be heard slotting in
behind Mundell Lowe's raunchy guitar. Elsewhere, h is comping touch

was

readily identifiable and precisely weighted. Some chords were held down
longer than others, the timing of the cutoff as important as the attack.
It was on the quartet tracks, though, that Evans delivered his most fully
formed work to date, displaying several facets of his rapidly developing talent.
"'Round About Midnight" was notable for its reticence, Scott and Evans tak­
ing a refined ,;ew far removed from the rough-he\\11 original. Bill's classical
training helped him layer the tone, the opening melody warmly projected,
the accompanying chords touched in ever so l ightly underneath .
O n two other tracks h e employed that artful, double-handed technique
kno\\11 as "locked hands," which he had been pursuing since his college

Swing Pianist

Clarinetist Tony Scott provided Evans with much late-fifties club work in New York.

days, each note of the melody played and harmonized by the right hand
whilst simultaneously doubled at the octave below in the left. In this manner
all the harmony notes became sandwiched between two parallel lines an
octave apart. Derived from close saxophone-section voicings, the technique
was pioneered at the keyboard by Milt Buckner in the Lionel Hampton band
and popularized by George Shearing in his quintet recordings.
On "Aeolian Drinking Song," though, the aim was entirely different: to
create single lines, either solo or in counterpoint, in the Aeolian mode - a
scale from A to A o n the white notes of the piano - based i n this case on the
note F. There was hardly a chord to be heard in the piece. In the first of several
similar excursions in his early career, Evans met the challenge head-on. He
was stark, deadly, and intellectually daunting. This track belonged to a separate
strand in the pianist's makeup and will be better understood in the light of a
radical session that had taken place in the same venue some three months ear­
lier. On that occasion, the seminal figure in charge was the composer and
arranger George Russell .

B I RT H OF T HE SO U N D

RCA rapidly set up sessions for a follow-up, to be called The Complete
Tony Scott. The leader was to produce an entire big-band disc for the first
time in his career. He not only dedicated his new swinging, danceable
album to William Basie of Red Bank, New Jersey, but he secured the seivices
of more than half of the Basie Band itself, including Freddie Green on gui­
tar, as well as a couple of Duke Ellington's players.
Evans acquitted himself as the complete swing pianist with an unerring
instinct for context, but the enterprise also gave him an opportunity to dis­
play his big-band arranging talent. H is arresting score of "Walkin' " incorpo­
rated the traditionally played intro and tag perpetuated in the classic 1954
version by Miles Davis, which Evans would have known. Traits to emerge in
Evans's playing were present in the writing - such things as rhythmic dis­
placement and the temptation, ingrained from the swing charts, to change
key. Reed voicings were sensuous, wah-wah syncopations tripped one over
another, and imitations shadow-sparred.
In the middle of all this, Evans and the Scott group played the Preview's
Modern Jazz Room in Chicago from Christmas until mid-January 1957.
Then, after the final session for The Complete Tony Scott, there came a tem­
porary break in their association. The intrepid clarinetist was off on a lengthy
overseas tour, playing his way Pied Piperlike across Scandinavia, central
Europe, and South Africa. As a talisman for all that was new in music, he dis­
pensed a jazzed-up English language to the people: "Oop-bop-sh-bam, a­
kloog-a-mop, Charlie Parker, Bird."

C H A PT E R

3

N ew J azz
Conceptions

All I must do is take care of the music.
- Bill Evans

The whole idea beh ind "Aeolian Drinking Song" was revolutionary and lay
entirely outside the scope of the average swing musician. The one pianist on
the scene in the summer of 1956 who was most likely to assimilate the idea
and come through with flying colors in the execution was Bill Evans. His first
recorded leap into that particular void had already occurred at the end of
March, in a sextet led by the composer George Russell. Down Beat maga­
zine had announced that Russell, who had not been active in jazz since
1951 - when he had done "Ezz-thetic" and "Odjenar" for a cool Lee Konitz
sextet nominally led by Miles Davis - was now writing for several forthcom­
ing Victor jazz albums. Kenny Dorham was projected (prematurely, as it
turned out) as the trumpeter, and Bill Evans was advertised as the pianist.
One hot day the previous summer, while recording The Singing Reed,
Lucy Reed, who was an old friend of George Russell and his wife Juanita,
called to say that she would love to visit with a friend called Bill . George sug­
gested they all take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. His first impression of
Lucy's friend was not encouraging - "plain looking fella, very quiet, very
withdrawn" - and Russell felt that he was in for a tough time socially. This is
going to be like pulling teeth all day, he thought.
Eventually they returned to the Russells' place at the Beechwood Hotel ,
where the stove, bed, ironing board, and piano were crammed together into
one room . George was paying his dues working behind a lunch counter
wh ile working on his theoretical magnum opus, the Lydian Concept. As it
happened, some of his arrangements had already come Bill's way in a con­
cert with Lucy. The ironing board was moved onto the bed so that Evans
31

32

B I RT H OF T H E SO U N D

could play, while Russell, expecting the worst, hovered at the door ready to
make an excuse. Instead, "It was one of those magic moments in your l ife
when you expect a horror story," he now recalls, "and the doors of heaven
open up - I knew then and there he wasn't going to get away."1

George Allan Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923. He remembers
singing in the choir of his African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he grew
up to the sounds of Fate Marable's Kentucky riverboat music. Art Tatum spent
some time in the city, and Russell sometimes heard him practicing. As a
teenager he was impressed by Tatum's sounds, but he was equally struck by h is
first experience of modern symphonic music, a record of Debussy's "Fetes"
from the orchestral Nocturnes. He never let go of that sound, and the amalga­
mation of jazz with European forms was crucial to his musical philosophy.
Like Tony Scott, he came under the influence of Stefan Wolpe for a while.
In 1941, after failing the draft because of spots on the lung, Russell entered
the hospital for the first time with tuberculosis. It was during subsequent
extended spells in the hospital, and between drumming with Benny Carter's
band, that he formulated his theoretical work, fully entitled The Lydian

Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation (for all instru­
ments). The concept exposes an existing principle rather than inventing some­
thing new; Russell's revelation is based on the conviction that the Lydian scale
on, for instance, C ( C D E F# G A B) is more compatible with the tonality of C
major than is the familiar C major scale. The logic of this, as explained in the
book, is irrefutable, and Russell's thesis convinces not only theoretically but in
the compelling brilliance of his own creations. "George composes things
which sound improvised," Evans said. ''You have to be deeply involved in jazz
and understand all the elements to be able to do that."2
Evans became exposed to this world soon after he settled in New York in
19 5 5 , and he quickly absorbed its language. (Like the French genius, Olivier
Messiaen, George Russell stakes out his own vernacular. ) Evans's active par­
ticipation began the following year, soon after RCA began a new series of
recordings called Jazz Workshop. One of the recordings, led by the alto saxo­
phonist Hal McKusick, included a piece by Russell . Encouraged by
McKusick, Jack Lewis, the artists and repertory man for RCA Victor, offered
the composer his own record date in the series. Russell already wanted
Evans, and Hal McKusick recruited the other musicians, including trum­
peter Art Farmer, guitarist Barry Galbraith, and bass player M ilt Hinton .
Three recording dates were set u p and a series o f intensive Sunday

New Jazz Conceptions

33

rehearsals, usually at Hinton's house in Queens, took place before each ses­
sion . The bassist played his part as written, but Art Farmer told me that the
other musicians "took the parts home from the rehearsals and tried to come
to terms with them. All George Russell's music was taken very seriously by
the musicians. That Victor album took a year to do."
There was a calm and quiet confidence about George Russell that
inspired trust in his players. RCA Victor sessions did not come easily, but
Farmer remembers that the composer never panicked or raised his voice ­
and everyone knew there would be no overtime pay. Afterward M iles Davis
told Farmer, "Man , that was very nice work. It can't have been easy." Called
The Jazz Workshop, it was George Russell's first big-break album as leader,
and for the first time he could swap a penurious lifestyle for the relative com­
fort of a small apartment on Bank Street in the Village . Russell and Evans
became good friends, George and his wife nicknaming Bill "the minister,"
he looked so unlike a jazz musician.
The melodic and harmonic world created (or discovered) by Russell
was hauntingly original . Hal McKusick, who sounded thoroughly at home in
the sessions, nevertheless declared that it was like learning another language.
The album should be assessed in terms of music history, for though undoubt­
edly a jazz record, it is also a twentieth-century classic, to be considered
alongside the wind chamber works of Stravinsky or Varese.
At the first session at Webster Hall in March, Evans turned in some sol id
work, firm of tone and with a spring in the fingers. Russell's most-played
piece at the time was "Ezz-thetic," a tortuous bop line on the restructured
chords of "Love for Sale." Bill's solo on it here gleaned from Bud Powell and
Horace Silver but had a direction and purpose all its own .
Evans was not blessed with natural self-assurance, but by the time of the
second session in October he had j ust completed his first trio album, New
Jazz Conceptions, and his confidence was boosted as well by the presence of
Paul Motian on "Round Johnny Rondo," "Witch Hunt," and, most of all ,
"Concerto for Billy the Kid." The "Concerto" was his real opportunity,
designed especially by Russell "to supply a frame to match the vigor and
vital ity in the playing of pianist Bill Evans."3 At the start, in the two-handed
octave passage over bucking-bronco rhythm, Evans played from the written
score, but soon stretched out, fully exposed, on the chords of '' I'll Remember
April ." The precision of the fingerwork controlled the backing band, abetted
by the alert Russell on the podium. Th is was one of the pianist's early tours de
force, on a par with the more notorious "All About Rosie," composed by
Russell about a year later.

34

B I RT H OF T H E SO U N D

The mus1c1ans knew that they had a sensational performance of
"Concerto" in the can, but Art Farmer recalls that either Evans or Russell
was dissatisfied with some element, and it was decided to have another
crack at it during the final December session . On that take Evans incorpo­
rated a quote from Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't." He had come
under the wing of Monk, staying at his place once, j ust when he needed
friends and contacts in New York C ity. He had no doubts about the quality
of that eccentric genius's playing, and h is favorite recording was the Prestige
album from the early 19 50s, mostly Monk originals in definitive versions.
Evans particularly liked the humor in the playing. Later, in the sleeve note
to the 1964 Columbia album Monk, he wrote: "Monk approaches the piano
and . . . music as well, from an 'angle' that, although unprecedented, is just
the right 'angle' for him ."4
The /azz Workshop was the first of a handful of stunning collaborations
between Russell and Evans. The pieces were superbly structured, at once com­
positions and settings. Evans himself always stressed the importance of form and
structure in his own work, whether it be the overall framework of a number or
the shape of a solo. He was in his element participating, and one wonders what
other pianist working in this context could have accomplished what Evans did:
creating such assertive right-hand lines unaided by left-hand comping, integrat­
ing the invention stylistically, and reading the written parts with such skill. Art
Farmer said, "The more difficult the music was, the more he made of it. He
could deal with the weirdest chord changes and really respond to a challenge."

The work of the pianist Lennie Tristano, with his cool approach to a line,
permeated Evans's contribution to this music. Tristano came from Chicago,
but when he arrived in New York in 1946 his radical thinking attracted a cult
following, and in 1951 he set up his own studio from which to teach. His main
disciples - Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer, and Sal Mosca - assisted
in circulating his ideas, which were highly individual, not to say controversial .
Students came from all over the world, and it is worth reflecting that Evans
could have chosen to study with Tristano instead of enrolling for postgraduate
study at Mannes College. Evans's faith, though, lay in the work of the estab­
lished masters rather than the vision of one individual.
Tristano appeared infrequently in public, but in the latter half of 195 5 he
had been playing at his own Sing Song Room over the Confucius Restaurant in
New York, and it is likely that Evans heard him there. In any case, Tristano's
early quintet recordings had spoken to Bill directly as a student, their clear archi-

New Jazz Conceptions

35

tectural thinking and emotional intensity inspiring him to write out charts of his
own for alto and tenor saxophones. Evans cited tunes like "Tautology,"
"Marshmallow," and "Fish in' Around," saying, "I heard the fellows in his group
building their lines with a design and general structure that was different from
anything I'd ever heard in jazz. I think I was impressed by Lee and Warne more
than by Lennie, although he was probably the germinal influence."5
Tristano was dismissive of others, outspoken and irascible. He once got
up and left during a Bill Evans Trio performance, much to the embarrass­
ment of Lee Konitz, who was obliged to leave with him.
The influence of the older pianist on the younger is clearly audible:
Tristano, the sonic architect and ascetic, argued for soundness of construction
but shied away from romantic inflection . Evans, the passionate romantic, nev­
ertheless identified immediately with Tristano's logical approach . Thus a sat­
isfying amalgam was achieved as Evans pursued Tristano's long, snaking, but
rhythmically bland lines, injecting them with cross-rhythms and oblique
accents of his own, the execution controlled with tightness and panache.

Evans's studio dates in 1956 lined up in such a way that he was switching
back and forth, chameleonlike, from the language of George Russell's combo
to that of Tony Scott's big band. Regardless of style, a finished aspect shone
out consistently from his playing. Even at his most spontaneous, his choice of
notes was never casual , always precise . The effect was of a top copy, produced
after lengthy consideration, which impressed with its inner confidence.
In fact, though, the twenty-six-year-old Evans was far from confident, as
evidenced by his reluctant approach to the setting up of New Jazz Concep­
tions, his first recording as a leader - and his first in the trio format of piano,
bass, and drums, the lineup he was to make most significantly his own. The
bashful pianist had to be pressed into action by a kind of subterfuge.
With some variations, the story goes that Evans was playing a gig with
his old guitarist friend Mundell Lowe and the bassist Herman "Trigger"
Alpert, who taped some of the session with an Ampex portable recorder.
Lowe had been making some records for a newly emerging independent
label called Riverside, whose production partners were Bill Grauer, in
charge of business affairs, and producer Orrin Keepnews. Lowe knew that
Evans would resist making a traditional demo of his own , so he played
Alpert's tape to Grauer and Keepnews over the telephone.
Keepnews and Grauer were sufficiently struck by the low-fi sound com­
ing down the line that they resolved to catch Evans live. After hearing him in

B I RT H O F T H E S O U N D

Evans got his first recording contract (with Riverside) after guitarist Mundell Lowe
played a tape of him over the telephone to producer Orrin Keepnews.

the Village a few times, mostly with Tony Scott, they tendered him a con­
tract: although it was a no-fringe contract at scale wages, the offer displayed
an astuteness from a small company that the larger ones often lacked .
Keepnews had some trouble convincing Evans that he was ready to record
under his own name, and with a trio; usually, of course, it is the artist trying
to persuade the producer.
It was standard practice in those days for a small jazz company to econ­
omize by recording an album in a single day, but Keepnews made an excep­
tion for Evans, giving him two well-separated sessions for his first trio record­
ing. The pianist picked two of his erstwhile colleagues from the Tony Scott
quartet with whom he felt at home : Teddy Kotick on bass and Paul Motian
on drums. Evans chose the repertoire and had the idea for the three short
piano solos. It was a groundbreaking record not only for Evans himself but
for the prevail ing jazz scene, bursting with variety and energy and containing
four of Bill's own compositions.
The first of these was " Five," based on the chords of "I Got Rhythm."

New Jazz Conceptions

37

Under cold analysis, the clever tune takes on the nature of an arithmetical
puzzle. It is in four time, but quintuplets occupy each of the first sixteen bars.
Evans himself was undecided how to notate the more complex middle eight,
consisting of descending four-note scales (with an occasional rest in between ) ;
i t was, i n short, a s Evans's pupil and friend Warren Bernhardt says, " a bitch to
play." These four-note scale groups move down in thirds (a typical feature of
the pianist's right-hand style) and they go five times into each half of the mid­
dle eight. On paper the intellect is satisfied, and in sound, as befits the Evans
sense of humor, the piece emerges as a musical conundrum. In later years, he
drove it hard, frequently playing it as a signature tune at the end of sets. He
could be off the bandstand in half-a-minute flat with th is frantic Speedy
Gonzales play-out; it was his way of saying That's it for tonig ht, folks!
He was constantly preoccupied with the displacement of notes and
phrases against the meter, and on h is tune "Displacement," few notes
indeed are on the beat. Its cl ipped, disjointed nature kindles a matching
kind of improvisation in which brief, catchy ideas succeed one another, the
left hand staccato-prompting the right. A couple of years earlier, Horace
Silver was playing l ike this with M iles Davis - Evans and Silver were ardent
mutual fans .
"No Cover, No Minimum" was a blues, "written" by Evans for the date.
It has often been said that Evans was not at his best playing the blues, and he
admitted as much himself. The rawness and simplicity of the idiom was gen­
erally incompatible with his musical character, but there was some strong
playing here nonetheless.
The fourth original on the album, "Waltz for Debby," was one of three
solo tracks, beautifully executed miniatures recorded after the sidemen had
been dismissed . Written two years earl ier for his niece, it was headed for jazz­
classic status from the start, though Bill later expressed surprise at such an
early piece achieving such a rank. This prototypical rendering was classical
in another sense, being comparable to a piano vignette of, say, Robert
Schumann's. Some six years later, at the composer's request, his friend Gene
Lees added a touchingly perfect lyric.
Elsewhere, Paul Motian nudged and prodded, his extroverted character
a fine match for the pianist's vigor. Motian's contribution was important, for
in it were sown the seeds of the essential Bill Evans trio of the future, foster­
ing chamber music among equals. Teddy Kotick, on the other hand, laid a
firm walking foundation, fulfilling the traditional bass-playing role of the
time. Evans's tone was chunky and positive and as sensitive on ballads as the
instrument and acoustic would allow. There was accuracy and exuberance

B I RT H OF T H E SOUN D

in those wiry fingers, and the brain behind them "composed live" with both
i magination and intellect, adding "bop pianist" to his resume in the process.
Evans always stressed that he learned from everyone, especially horn
players, but there were specific influences at work, too. Nat Cole and Lennie
Tristano have already been cited in his pianistic lineage, and Tristano fre­
quently played opposite the great Bud Powell, freely acknowledging his
influence . Powell's own long and energetic l ines needled their way deeply
into the playing of the young Evans, too, and their far-reaching effect is
explosively evident on this album. If pushed into naming the influence of
one pianist over all others, Evans nominated Bud Powell. Structurally, a typi­
cal Powell performance was framed by what might be called bookends, or
precise settings for top and tail . Evans, formally disciplined from his dance­
band days, seized on this strategy to set up a number of his tracks.
His work was acknowledged now by discerning j azz ears, but it had yet

New Jazz Conceptions was released in
but despite good reviews from Down Beat and Metronome, it

to reach the jazz-listening public.
January 1957,

sold only about eight hundred copies during its first year. Evans had no
qualms about this. His only goal was to improve his own private standards.
He said later, "I can remember coming to New York to make or break in

Now how should I attack this practical problem of
becoming a jazz musician, as making a living and so on? And ultimately, I
j azz and saying to myself,

came to the conclusion that all I must do is take care of the music, even if I
do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody's going to come and open
the door of the closet and say, Hey,

we're looking for you."6

C H A PT E R

4

Sideman

. . . just a bunch of friends playing together, having a good time, who respected
one another as players.
- Milt Hinton

For a year and a half, Evans's life in New York had been hectic, including
much club work and appearances on some half-dozen styl istically varied
albums. Tony Scott, whose quartet had provided a regular booking in the
pianist's diary, was now overseas, and Evans retired somewhat from the live
scene. After New /azz Conceptions he spent endless hours sight-reading Bach
as an aid to developing tone control and technique.
Near the end of his life Evans told Jim Aikin : "Bach changed my hand
approach to playing the piano. I used to use a lot of finger technique when I
was younger, and I changed over to a weight technique. Actually, if you play
Bach and the voices sing at all , and sustain the way they should, you can't
really play it with the wrong approach . It's going to straighten you out in a
hurry if you have a concept of what it should sound like ."1
Evans needed good tone and independent fingers, among other quali­
ties, to meet the challenge of his next group of engagements. In i957
Brandeis University appointed the composer Gunther Schuller as artistic
director to its Festival of the Arts. While lecturing there, Schuller coined the
term "third-stream" for the fusion of the European musical tradition with
jazz. In this context the university commissioned one composition from each
of six composers, three from jazz (George Russell , Charles Mingus, and
Jimmy Giuffre) and three from the classical world ( Schuller, Harold
Shapero, and Milton Babbitt) . Bill Evans, as a well-rounded musician, was
engaged as pianist for the event.
George Russell's contribution, a suite in three movements called "All
39

B I RT H O F T H E S O U N D

About Rosie," was previewed on NBC-1V's Tonight Show a week before the
festival . For the core of his fourteen-piece lineup Russell drew on the talents
of four musicians who had been at the heart of The fazz Workshop LP: Evans,
Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, and Barry Galbraith. The piece went well , Evans
in particular rising to its considerable challenge; the power of television led
to hallowed references in jazz circles to a "legendary" performance by an
unknown pianist called Bill Evans.
All six works were played outdoors on the campus on June 6; Schuller
conducted, and Nat Hentoff introduced the composers and their pieces. It
was cold and damp, the audience was restless, and the performance of this
demanding music reflected the inhospitable conditions. Listening closely
was a twenty-year-old Brandeis student, Chuck Israels. Afterward he played
bass in a trio at a reception; his colleagues were an even younger pianist,
Steve Kuhn, and the drummer Arnold Wise . Evans liked what he heard from
the trio and chatted with the players, little suspecting that both bassist and
drummer would feature in his own group within the next few years.
The concert program was repeated more successfully indoors the fol­
lowing morning, and it was soon recorded as Brandeis fazz Festival for
Columbia. In the third movement of "All About Rosie," Russell spotlighted
the pianist as he had in "Concerto for B illy the Kid": in both pieces tempo
and feel were the same, "Rosie" taken perhaps a notch up from "Billy."
Again the band dropped out on cue to leave Evans's coruscating right hand
exposed in solo, his choice of notes uncanny, the rhythmic verve bracing,
his fingerwork relentlessly muscular. Aside from the brilliance of the play­
ing, the most notable element was the assured integration of improvised
and written material , credit due in equal parts to composer and performer.
This stimulating attribute also characterized Evans's role in Schuller's
piece, "Transformation," in which the composer made a gradual and bril­
l iant transition from a nonjazz passacaglia form into jazz proper; comple­
menting the composer's strategy, Evans moved smoothly from the written
part to his improvised solo. In preparing the first movement of "Revelations"
by Charles Mingus, Evans tasted the composer's working method, which was
to rely more on oral explanation than on the written score. As befitted music
arising out of a ritual event, Mingus's vocal exhortation, "O Yes, My Lord ! "
was followed by a rousing, "old church-style" piano solo. Later, Evans's
down-home piano set up the ensemble "preaching" session at the heart of
the movement. Undoubtedly Evans's classical training qualified him for invi­
tation onto these gruel ing sessions; few musicians could offer the ability to

Sideman

41

read the atonal score of Milton Babbitt's "All Set" on the one hand and to
provide free jazz improvisation on the other.

Wh ile working on the Brandeis proj ect, Evans was invited onto a small­
group session for Jubilee Records. The electric guitarist Joe Puma ­
Metronome magazine's New Star poll-winner - was making Joe Puma/Jazz.
He, too, had played in the Jerry Wald band, where he had met Paul Motian ,
also booked for th is recording.
Bill rode to the studio with his army friend Earl Zindars, who told me
this story:
One very late eveni ng, three musicians - B ill Evans, Bill Perry, and I - were sitting
around and talking for a long time, when I suddenly sa id, "Let's have a contest right
now for the best melody." We all agreed and after it had been very quiet for a wh ile
we took our tunes to the piano and played them back. Perry's melody was disqual i­
fied immediately because it didn't make any musical sense . Then Bill, who had
written a twelve-tone melody (different from his later recorded "T.T.T."), played h is,
but he didn't care for it. Bill took my tune, which turned out rather wel l , and kept
playing it over and over again until he said, 'Tm gonna take Earl 's tune to the Joe
Puma session tomorrow." Of course I was delighted . I t was at that session that Joe
Puma ch ristened it "Mother of Earl ."

On the record this tune inspired Evans to an oblique less-is-more
approach - much of the harmony was implied rather than explicit. This
added an intriguing dimension, as though a more telling comment might be
made by avoiding the obvious. Then, emerging imperceptibly on "I Got It
Bad (and That Ain't Good) ," Evans nudged a progression of graded, liquid­
dropped chords, sixteen bars of perfectly conj ured piano.
His potency of timing, which remains generally underrecognized, was
as vital as his choice of notes, an acknowledged strength . The two went hand
in hand, enhanced by a third element - tonal emphasis, so that the shape of
a line, the rhythmic surprise within it, and the varying intensity of sound
were intuitively created as one. These intimate tracks displayed Evans's most
relaxed and subtle playing to date.

Earlier in the year, Evans had been playing in a group led by Don
Elliott, his old friend from Somerville. Elliott had become the most versatile
of players, winning Down Beat's Miscellaneous Instrumental ist award five
years running ( 1953-57) . Besides singing, he was adept on at least vibes,

B I RT H OF T HE SO U N D

trumpet, bongos, and mellophone. The mellophone was his specialty, an
easier-to-play, jazz substitute for the French horn. With a nucleus of Elliott,
Evans, Bill Crow on bass, and Al Beldini at the drums, the combo toured the
colleges in the Northeast on weekends.
This group, but now with Ernie Furtado on bass, was booked for an
appearance at the Fourth Annual Newport Jazz Festival on Rhode Island in
July. George Wein, the entrepreneur who directed the festival, was later
responsible for including Evans on many "package" tours. The quartet
shared the Saturday afternoon billing with Cecil Taylor's quartet, Jimmy
Smith's trio, and the Horace Silver quintet. Don Elliott did a humorous set,
with vocal impersonatio