[Music] Bill Evans – The Quiet Genius

Bill Evans during rehearsal for BBC Television's _Jazz 625_ series, London, 1965. David Redfern.

Check out my Spotify playlist of (most of) Evans' music ordered chronologically (+1100 songs, 101 hours worth of music): The Quiet Genius – Bill Evans

“I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a 'universal musical mind'.” – Bill Evans

I've been reading “Bill Evans: How my heart sings”, by Peter Pettinger (Yale University Press) Considered one of the finest jazz pianists in history, Evans' story is breathtaking. From his humble origins in Plainfield, NJ to his career in New York at the Village Vanguard and his European concerts (Paris, London and Switzerland being very prolific for him).

Bill's story shows us a quiet genius, a white kid in a predominantly Black setting. The one who made it not because he was the best performers or the most charming with the audiences but because of his musical intelligence and particular style. In fact, his compositions have become standards (e.g. Waltz for Debby to name one and Blue in Green to name another) and his playing style has been immortalized in the most successful jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue.

Most of all, for me, Evans' career is a reminder that life isn't perfect. A souvenir that life takes, sometimes, sharp unexpected turns both for good and bad. His musical life was tainted by heroin addiction – something that he learnt while on Miles Davis' band and later shared with his favorite jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones – and sore losses, like the passing of bass player Scott LaFaro whom he adored. However, he counted with great partners that helped him throughout hardship: Orrin Keepnews, producer for Riverside Records, and Helen Keane his manager and producer during his later years. In fact, one can see that Evans was someone who appreciated people in his life for he wrote several tunes for them. For example, “Re: Person I Know” for Orrin Keepnews (an anagram of his name); “Waltz for Debby” (for his niece); “Peri's Scope” (for one of his girlfriends); “One for Helen” (for his manager).

He was a virtuoso. Anecdotes of him recall Evans playing entire sets without using one of his hands because of some heroin shot gone wrong. But most interestingly, he thought critically and was interested in a varied range of subjects, from humor to philosophy. In fact, Evans even compared jazz improvisation to Japanese visual art on his sleeve note for Kind of Blue. However, when he played, he was the opposite of cerebral: he really hunched over the piano (he said his head had a special position in which it connected better with the instrument) and let his whole body play his harmonically melodious lines.

Over his career Bill worked with some of the most famous names in jazz. George Russell, Chet Baker, Julian ' Cannonball' Adderley, Charles Mingus and Art Farmer. He was praised for having changed the way trios functioned and credited with consistently leaving out notes on the low end of chords to make space for a more melodic functioning (instead of mainly time-keeping) of bass.

Beyond all critical acclaim, Bill Evans has allowed me to get closer to one of my favorite styles of music: jazz. I've been an aficionado for a long while, first because of my mother (she's the one that got me into jazz as a kid) but then because of my incursion into playing the Saxophone. However, I was one of these people that felt didn't fit anywhere. I wasn't knowledgeable enough to keep up with hardcore jazz fanatics: they made me feel stupid for not knowing all the theory behind it. And I wasn't a proper jazz musician either because my Saxophone skills were never that good. It is only now, a couple of decades later that I found acceptance and peace in enjoying jazz from the perspective of feeling and intuition thanks to one of Bill's quotes:

“It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not. It's feeling.” – Bill Evans

His music made him the recipient of seven Grammy Awards and 31 nominations.

Bill, the quiet genius of jazz, I salute you.

See you in another adventure,