Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Evans, Bill (William John)

Pianist, composer and arranger Bill Evans’s impressionistic harmonies built the sound of trumpeter Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue sessions in 1959. But the less-familiar work of this prolific artist, as a soloist and in small groups, holds many rewards for the curious.

William John Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on August 16, 1929. His family was Welsh on his father’s side and Russian on his mother's. His father, Harry Evans Sr., was a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Philadelphia.

                     Bill Evans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

During Bill’s youth, his father owned and ran a golf driving range. Bill frequently helped his father retrieve balls, riding along with him on a golf cart. His father struggled with depression and alcoholism, and eventually committed suicide in his early seventies. After his death, Mrs. Evans moved to Ormond Beach, Florida where she remained until her death in 1974.

Bill’s earliest exposure to music was in the Russian Orthodox church, where his mother took him to services. He first played he violin, while his brother, Harry Jr., took piano lessons. The family bought a piano so Harry could practice and take lessons at home.

Each time Harry finished a lesson, Bill sat down to play the piano. Before long, he taught himself by ear to play back the classical music he heard being taught to Harry, and also imitated popular songs of the day. This penchant for self-study contributed to his mastery of many styles, and his ability to incorporate influences that ran from Debussy to Bud Powell.

Evans played the flute in the Plainfield High School band. After high school, he joined the United States Army, where he was stationed outside of Chicago. Evans played flute and piano in the Fifth U.S. Army band.

Following his discharge from the military, Evans attended Southeastern Louisiana State University. In the mid 1950s, He performed with guitarist Mundell Lowe in the mid 1950s who introduced him to the people at Riverside Records who released Evans's first album entitled New Jazz Conceptions, which featured Evans' song "Waltz For Debby."

It would be another two years until Riverside would release Evans's album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. This album included several arrangements of older Broadway songs, including "Young and Foolish” and the song "Peace Piece,”which featured Evans improvising over a two-chord vamp.

In between playing around New York and gaining substantial notice from the jazz community, Miles Davis asked Evans to join his first 'classic' quintet, which featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Evans toured and recorded with the group for little under a year in 1958.

This group produced the classic album Kind of Blue which contained the Evans' penned song "Blue In Green." The album also contained the songs "Flamenco Sketches” and "All Blues.”

Kind of Blue was one of the first jazz albums to be certified platinum, and this success put all of the band’s members in the public eye. Evans left the quintet not long after Kind of Blue and formed his own trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian.

The work recorded by the Bill Evans trio went on to set a new standard for trio interaction. They were praised for their subtleness and their collective ability to interpret songs in new ways. In particular, LaFaro created the perfect complement to Evans's playing, while Motian set it all in place with steady timekeeping.

The trio's first album was Portraits In Jazz, which was then followed by Explorations. These two albums represent the only studio albums with LaFaro as the bassist. Their other two releases, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Explorations, were both released in 1961.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard features an unforgettable live version of "Waltz For Debby,” Unfortunately, the liveliness and beauty of this trio would be short lived as bassist Scott LaFaro was fatally killed in a car crash ten days after the Village Vanguard performances.

The pianist went into seclusion following LaFaro's death, accenting the struggle with heroine addiction he had waged for a decade. It would be almost a full year before Evans reemerged and performed.

Evans reformed his trio, keeping Paul Motian on drums and replacing the deceased LaFaro with Chuck Israels. In 1963, Evans released Conversations With Myself on Verve Records. The pianist won a Grammy for his performance and it was one of the first piano albums to consist only of overdubbed piano tracks played on top of each other.

Evans eventually replaced Israels on bass with Puerto Rican Eddie Gomez. Gomez worked with Evans for the next eleven years, producing many classic recordings, including the 1968 release Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which also featured drummer Jack DeJohnette.

From 1969 to the early 1970s Evans entered the most stable period of his life, having broken his heroin addiction, and adding drummer Marty Morell to the trio with Gomez. This revamped trio would produce many quality recordings, including performances with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. The trio also released the album From Left to Right and 1971's The Bill Evans Album, which won two Grammy awards for the trio. From Left to Right also marked the first time Evans had recorded with an electric piano.

Other notable collaborations during the 1970s included several albums with vocalist Tony Bennett. They released two albums: Tony Bennett/Bill Evans was released in 1975, and Together Again was released in 1977. Unfortunately, while Evans had kicked his heroin habit, he had become addicted to cocaine. Coupled with heavy drinking, these addictions had left his body in bad shape. Other events, such as his brother Harry's suicide in the early 1970s did not do much to help his chances of remaining sober.

Evans died on September 15, 1980 in Manhattan from bronchitis though he had battled hepatitis most of his life as well. Evans left behind a son, Evan, and an unforgettable body of work.

Select Discography

as Bill Evans

New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside, 1956)

Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside, 1958)

Portrait In Jazz (Riverside, 1959)

Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside, 1961)

Moonbeams (Riverside, 1962)

Conversations With Myself (Verve, 1963)

New Conversations (Warner Brothers, 1978)

You Must Believe In Spring (Warner Brothers, 1980)

with Jim Hall

Intermodulation (Verve, 1966)

with Miles Davis

Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

with Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett/Bill Evans (Fantasy, 1975)

Together Again (Fantasy, 1977)

Contributor: Jared Pauley

Related Links

Remembering Bill Evans by Ted Gioia