Commentary Magazine


Does Bill Evans Swing?

No jazz pianist of the postwar era is more widely admired than Bill Evans (1929-80). The cover of Everybody Digs Bill Evans, the 1958 album that first brought him to the attention of the general public, bore testimonials by Miles Davis (“He plays the piano the way it should be played”), George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and Cannonball Adderley. Younger jazz artists who readily admit to having been influenced by him comprise a long list that includes Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny.

But if it is rare to find a musician who has anything unflattering to say about Evans, there have always been certain critics who disliked him. “The more I hear of Evans, the more I become convinced that the propagation of the Evans mystique must be one of the major con jobs of recent years,” John S. Wilson wrote in 1965. More recently, Tom Piazza complained in The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz (1995) that “I have trouble sitting still for [Evans’s] work for very long. He doesn’t swing enough, he can’t play the blues, and I don’t feel close to his soul.”

Perhaps the most notorious example of Evans-bashing is reported by Eric Nisenson in his new book, Blue: The Murder of Jazz.1 According to Nisenson:

I once overheard [the jazz critic] Stanley Crouch giving a diatribe against Evans. It was just before a kind of symposium of jazz critics. . . . Evans, according to Crouch, was a “punk” whose playing could scarcely be considered jazz. He could not swing, according to Crouch, and there was no blues in his playing.

Many of the early criticisms of Evans can be explained by his extreme originality. As a sideman with Miles Davis’s group (1958-59), and then as leader of his own trios, Evans rewrote the language of modern jazz piano, incorporating harmonic devices derived from the music of the French impressionists and forging an ensemble style noted for its complex yet fluid rhythmic interplay. Such innovators typically meet with stubborn opposition from conservative critics, and Evans was no exception to the rule.

But now that Evans’s music has become so familiar a part of the landscape, it is strange indeed to hear it attacked categorically as the work of a “punk” or (to use another of Stanley Crouch’s epithets for Evans) a “jazz pretender.” Wherever the key to this mystery is to be found, it is emphatically not in Bill Evans’s playing.

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Evans’s first solo album, New Jazz Conceptions (1956), showed him to be an adept imitator of Bud Powell—a contemporary of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who first translated the bebop idiom into pianistic terms—and of Horace Silver, a younger player whose “funky,” blues-drenched playing was popular in the 50’s.2 Though New Jazz Conceptions was favorably reviewed in the jazz press, it sold only 800 copies in the year following its release, no doubt because Evans’s playing was so obviously derivative.

Yet Evans was already in the process of forging the highly individual style heard on the recordings he made with Miles Davis and by himself in 1958 and 1959. His right-hand melodic lines soon grew longer and more supple, while his harmonic vocabulary, enriched by extensive familiarity with the piano music of Debussy, Ravel, and the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, acquired a range of color and subtlety all but unprecedented in jazz.

With the release of Everybody Digs Bill Evans, it became clear that, though completely at ease with the brisk tempos of bebop, Evans was above all a lyricist who was at his most characteristic in such spare-textured yet emotionally intense ballad performances as “Young and Foolish” (from Everybody Digs Bill Evans) and “Blue in Green” (from Davis’s Kind of Blue, 1959), in which his fresh chordal voicings and luminous, singing touch could be savored to the fullest. It was these performances that the normally acerbic Davis had in mind when, years later, he said admiringly: “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

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But Evans was tragically uncomfortable with his own gifts. A slender, bespectacled introvert who played with his face held inches from the keyboard, he looked more like a college professor than a jazz pianist, and his shyness was exacerbated by the fact that he was the only white musician in Davis’s sextet. Then as now, racial mixing was comparatively uncommon in working jazz groups, and some listeners regarded Evans (who had replaced the black pianist Red Garland) as an alien presence in the Davis band. As Davis would recall in his autobiography:

Many blacks felt that since I had the top small group in jazz and was paying the most money that I should have a black piano player. . . . I know this stuff got up under Bill’s skin and made him feel bad. Bill was a very sensitive person, and it didn’t take much to set him off.

No less intimidating was the fact that the little-known Evans was appearing each night with a group that, to his mind, consisted of “superhumans.” Miles Davis was then regarded as the leading jazz trumpeter, and his sidemen—the saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, the bassist Paul Chambers, and the drummers Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb—were hardly less formidable. Evans’s native self-consciousness grew even more pronounced in the presence of these colleagues, and he seems to have found it difficult to accept that he was increasingly regarded by listeners as their peer.

“If people wouldn’t believe I was a bum,” Evans later told a friend, “I was determined to prove it.” He did so by becoming involved with narcotics. Coltrane, Chambers, and Jones were all heroin addicts, as Davis had been only a few years earlier, and at some point in the late 50’s—perhaps in a desperate attempt to prove his authenticity as a jazz musician—Evans acquired the habit. Except for a brief period in the 70’s, he used drugs (first heroin, then cocaine) for the rest of his life.

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Though Evans’s addiction promptly cast him into the drug underworld, it had no immediate effect on his ability to make music or on his growing reputation as a major creative force in jazz. By the late 1950’s he had left Davis’s group and started his own trio, collaborating with the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro and the drummer Paul Motian to develop a new method of ensemble playing that would become almost as influential as his harmonic techniques.

Prior to 1959, bassists and drummers had played a straightforward and largely subordinate role in jazz rhythm sections, laying down a steady “walking” beat over which soloists improvised. Evans, by contrast, encouraged his sidemen to abandon the regular timekeeping patterns of bebop, preferring a conversational approach in which the underlying meter was not so much stated as implied. As he put it to an interviewer:

If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a 4/4 background? . . . I don’t really understand why the basic 4/4 meter has to be pounded out year after year when other things that are more subtle can be projected, as long as it is within you.

At first, many listeners found Evans’s method of “simultaneous improvisation” to be disorienting, and their confusion became the source of the persistent canard that Evans “couldn’t swing.” In fact, he was, when he chose to be, one of the hardest-swinging players in jazz. But unlike the “hard boppers” of the 50’s and 60’s, who favored an aggressive, anti-lyrical idiom, Evans sought deliberately to widen the expressive spectrum, and his playing, though never sentimental, was often unabashedly romantic. “I believe all music is romantic,” he told an interviewer, going on to say that “romanticism handled with discipline is the most beautiful kind of beauty.”

Though Evans was devastated by the death in 1961 of LaFaro, his closest artistic partner, his own work remained at a consistently high level of inspiration well into the 60’s. The albums he made during that period, especially Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby (both recorded shortly before La-Faro’s death) and Conversations With Myself (a 1963 solo album in which he used multitrack-tape technology to overdub two additional piano parts), are widely regarded as his best recorded performances.

But the debilitating effects of long-term drug addiction finally took their toll, and by the 70’s the probing, introspective style of Evans’s youth was hidden under a glassy shell of mannerism. Though he was still capable of giving first-rate performances and making memorable recordings (usually outside the context of his regular working trio), it seemed as though, in the words of the pianist Warren Bernhardt, “he was painting himself into some kind of corner. . . . He was rushing a lot and going through the motions.”

Evans himself knew that something was missing. “There really wasn’t a chance for the music to be alive and growing as much,” he later said of this period. “I had arrived at a refinement of what we were doing, to the point where it wasn’t as natural.” But it was not until 1979 that he began a final period of renewal, joining forces with the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Joe LaBarbera, two younger musicians whose extroverted playing spurred him to new heights of creativity. A Village Vanguard engagement recorded in June 1980 reveals that he had completely shaken off his mid-70’s lethargy, and was playing with the dynamism and imagination of a far younger man.

It was, alas, too late: Evans died just three months later, his body ravaged by two decades’ worth of chemical self-abuse. “Maybe he found what he was looking for,” said the pianist Oscar Peterson, one of his greatest admirers, on hearing the news.

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In the wake of Evans’s death, musicians and critics hastened to pay heartfelt tribute to his artistry, and to this day the prevailing view of his achievement remains overwhelmingly positive. Why, then, do some dissent so strongly?

Tom Piazza’s two-pronged “critique” of Evans—that he “doesn’t swing enough” and that he “can’t play the blues”—is unconvincing on its face, the first point being untrue and the second irrelevant. Like many famous jazz musicians of the past, Evans was simply uninterested in the blues, both as a form and as part of his musical vocabulary. But at no time in the history of jazz has such a lack of interest been regarded by musicians as a disability. Such jazz icons as Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum, for instance, devoted no more time or energy to playing the blues than did Evans.

Piazza’s remarks about Evans are of interest solely because they are so blatantly derived from the race-conscious critical theories of the black novelist and literary scholar Albert Murray. As I have explained in detail before,3 Murray and his acolyte Stanley Crouch believe, contrary to all historical evidence, that the ability to play the blues is the defining trait of “authentic” jazz musicians, and that white musicians cannot play the blues (save by imitating blacks). The self-evident purpose of this line of argument is to redefine jazz as an exclusively black idiom to which white musicians (including not only Evans but the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and other noted players) have made only peripheral contributions. Hence Crouch’s contemptuous description of Evans as a “punk.”

The last word on this brand of pseudo-criticism has been pronounced by Eric Nisenson:

Does Evans “sound white”? What if he does? He is white, after all, and if his music is authentic it has to be expressive of his own life and truth. The beauty and power and—yes—authenticity of Bill Evans’s music is vouched for by the fact that some of the greatest African-American musicians of this century . . . respected him enough to have Evans play in their bands and/or record with him.

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In the end, no amount of racial rhetoric can obscure the permanent value of Bill Evans’s musical achievement. No pianist of the last 40 years contributed more to the jazz tradition, and none played more beautifully. Moreover, while the dissemination of Murray’s and Crouch’s line has already had unfortunate consequences—it will surely be a long time before Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose programs are vetted by Crouch, deigns to devote an evening to Evans’s music—it has not affected the high regard in which Evans continues to be held by his peers or by the wider audience.

In 1984, a group of 47 distinguished jazz pianists, asked to name the “best” and “most influential” pianists of all time, ranked Evans second only to Art Tatum in both categories; when the members of the same group were asked to name a “personal favorite,” Evans came in first. Today, Evans’s records still sell in large quantities, and young pianists, black and white, continue to learn from his work. Long after the reverse-racist theories of his detractors have been relegated to the dust-heap, his recordings will be delighting listeners yet unborn.

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Bill Evans on CD: A Select Discography

Three digitally remastered box sets—Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside RCD-018-2, twelve CD’s), The Complete Bill Evans on Verve (Verve 314 527 953-2, eighteen CD’s), and Bill Evans: The Complete Fantasy Recordings (Fantasy FCD-1012-2, nine CD’s)—contain most of Evans’s commercially recorded legacy. Like all such collections, these sets include much unreleased material and previously unissued alternate takes, the quality of which varies considerably. Those unfamiliar with Evans’s work will be better served by listening to the individual CD’s listed below.

1958: Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside OJCCD-068-2). Accompanied by the bassist Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones, Miles Davis’s favorite drummer, Evans here emerges decisively as the most original piano stylist of his generation.

1959: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia CK 64935). In this album, by far the most influential of the postwar era, Evans (who alternates with pianist Wynton Kelly) is prominently featured in his own composition, “Blue in Green.”

1961: The Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard (Riverside FCD-60-017). Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian never played with more refinement: or grace than in this live performance, recorded ten days before LaFaro’s death. The performance of “My Foolish Heart” included here is an ideal introduction to Evans’s ballad style.

1963: Conversations With Myself (Verve 314 521 409-2), a Grammy-winning “solo” album in which Evans overdubs a second and third piano part. The performance of “Love Theme from Spartacus” is thought by many (myself included) to be Evans’s greatest recorded performance.

1968: At the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve 827 844-2). This is Evans’s most successful recorded collaboration with Eddie Gomez, the bassist who played with him longer than any other musician. Of special interest is an exquisite unaccompanied solo version of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy.”

1971: The Bill Evans Album (Columbia CK 64963). Accompanied by Gomez and drummer Marty Morell, his regular rhythm section from 1968 to 1974, Evans plays a program of his original compositions, alternating between acoustic piano and the electric Fender Rhodes instrument he played occasionally in later years.

1975: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (Fantasy OJCCD-439-2). One of Evans’s rare recorded collaborations with a singer, this CD features a vocal version of “Waltz for Debby,” his best-known composition (the lyric is by Gene Lees, who is currently at work on a biography of Evans), plus several ballads closely identified with the pianist, including “My Foolish Heart,” “Some Other Time,” “Young and Foolish,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Evans’s accompaniments are masterful, and Bennett is in excellent voice throughout.

1980: The Artist’s Choice: Highlights from “Turn Out the Stars” (Warner Brothers 9 46425-2). A boxed set titled Turn Out the Stars (Warner Brothers 9 45925-2, six CD’s), released in 1996, was devoted to the live recordings Evans made with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera at the Village Vanguard in the summer of 1980. The Artist’s Choice is a single-CD compilation of material from these extraordinary performances, selected by Evans prior to his death.

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Footnotes

1 St. Martin’s, 262 pp., $22.95.

2 Virtually all of Bill Evans’s recordings have been reissued on CD, both individually and in box sets. A cross-section is listed in the discography at the end of this article.

3 “The Color of Jazz,” COMMENTARY, September 1995.

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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