I must admit that I’m drawn to reading obituaries.
The people who write them, especially those who write for the New York Times, are gifted beyond my dreams. I read them mostly for a window into worlds that I do not know. In my humble opinion, these writers have the best of assignments.
Said a hunted fox followed by twenty horsemen and a pack of twenty hounds, “Of course they will kill me. But how poor and how stupid they must be. Surely it would not be worthwhile for twenty foxes riding on twenty asses and accompanied by twenty wolves to chase and kill one man.”–Khalil Gibran, mystic, poet, and artist (1883-1931)
Although I should have known more about Bill Evans, (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980), the American jazz pianist, whose impressionistic harmony, “colorful” chords, and inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire influenced and inspired a generation of younger pianists, I confess to not knowing much about him ‘til recently. And now we’re about to celebrate both his birthday and his death, a span of just over 50 years.
When I watched the Youtube “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans” over the weekend, I was mesmerized. And the icing on the cake was that Steve Allen introduced the program. What a delight.
The video is a marathon of nearly three quarters of an hour, much longer than the usual attention span of most people today who measure out their lives in sound bites. But these 44 minutes are a university degree in understanding what it is to be a musician, not simply a teacher of music.
When I told my friend and saxophone teacher Keith about the video, he told me about how he got a C on a college paper he wrote as an adult returning to university to get his undergraduate degree a bit belatedly. Seems as though he took the bait of the assignment about the importance of being able to read music to say it ain’t necessarily so. He then proceeded to illustrate his point by illuminating the lives of so many musicians, especially jazz performers, who grew up in the Great Depression, poor and “educationally challenged,” who learned to play, enjoy themselves, and entertain others based on little else than great skill and their well-attuned ears.
As I’ve been taught, formal training is more than reading and writing when it comes to music. Practical application, particularly listening to other players, is a great part of any musician’s studies. Those “educationally challenged” players got their well-attuned ears by listening to everything and subsequently developed their great skills by practicing what they had heard.
And any great teacher always has the sense to acknowledge that they learn from as well as teach their students. Keith’s professor ultimately conceded the point that “formal training by itself a great musician does not necessarily make.”
But more about Evans and what he brought into our lives. Watching the 1966 interview conducted by his brother, a professor of music himself, was particularly sad, since I knew how both would die, the brother a schizophrenic who took his own life in 1979 and Bill a victim of heroin and cocaine shortly thereafter.
From a press release by Laurie Verchomin I learned that she was Evans’ lover from May 1979 to his death in September 1980. “After their meeting in Edmonton, Canada, in April 1979, Laurie and Bill struck up a letter-writing relationship that led to romance. Within a short time, Laurie, who was 22 years old, at the time, visited Evans in New York. Over the 10 months that followed, she visited him in several different cities. Then in April 1980, Laurie moved to New York to be with him romantically and as a sober set of eyes. The drug-addicted pianist was ill and keenly aware he was dying. Laurie shared this final period with him–a period during which many believe Evans created some of his strongest and most introspective work.”
When asked what kind of love they had found, Verchomin said, “He was very upfront with how he felt about me, and he felt it was important that we get together. I wrote back about the effect of his music on me and sent him one of my favorite quotes from Sartre: ‘When you tear your neighbor to pieces, all your neighbors will laugh. But if you beat on your own soul, all souls cry out.’”
So as I try to learn more about making music, I am drawn to the likes of Bill Evans. He was a fox who knew what his work was all about. And sad as the end of his life was, he did not live a life of folly.
As one source described his legacy, “his music displayed a creative mastery of harmony, rhythm, and interpretive jazz conception, fusing elements from jazz, classical, and ethnic music. In his duos and trios, Evans developed in unprecedented ways a unique conception of ensemble performance and a classical sense of form and conceptual scale.”
In a farewell tribute to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison said that he had given her “the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges.” I think this same sentiment could be said of Evans.
When I told my wife Jody of some of my conversations today with musicians I am blessed to know, she smiled and went to our our record collection and produced three vinyls of Bill Evans.
I was near speechless. Just imagine what it would have been like to have heard him live.