brief biography of Bill Evans
(by Jan Stevens)
Born August 16, 1929, in Plainfield, NJ
Died September 15, 1980, in New York, NY
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on August 16, 1929 and began his music studies at age 6. Classically trained on piano; he also studied flute and violin as a child. He graduated with a degree in piano performance and teaching from Southeastern Louisiana College (now University) in 1950, and studied composition at Mannes College of Music in New York. After a stint in the Army, he worked in local dance bands, and with clarenetist Tony Scott, Chicago-area singer Lucy Reed and guitarist Mundell Lowe, who brought the young pianist to the attention of producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records.
Evans' first album was New Jazz Conceptions in 1956, which featured the first recording of his most loved composition, "Waltz for Debby". It's follow-up, Everybody Digs Bill Evans was not recorded for another two years; the always shy and self- deprecating pianist claiming he "had nothing new to say." He gradually got noticed in the NYC jazz scene, for his original piano sound and fluid ideas, when in 1958, Miles Davis asked him to join his group (which also featured John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley) He stayed for nearly a year, touring and recording, and subsequently playing on the all-time classic Kind of Blue album -- as well as composing "Blue in Green", now a jazz standard. His work with Miles helped solidify Bill's reputation, and in 1959, Evans founded his most innovative trio with the now-legendary bassist Scott LaFaro and with Paul Motian on drums. The trio concept of equal interplay among the musicians was virtually pioneered by Evans, and these albums remain the most popular in his extensive catalog. They did two studio albums together in addition to the famous 'live" sessions at NYC's Village Vanguard in 1961. LaFaro's tragic death in a car accident a few weeks after the Vanguard engagement -- an event which personally devastated Bill -- sent the pianist into seclusion for a time, after which he returned to the trio format later in 1962, with Motian again, and Chuck Israels on bass.
His 1963 Conversations With Myself album , in which he double and triple-tracked his piano, won him the first of many Grammy® awards and the following year he first toured overseas, playing to packed houses from Paris to Tokyo, now solidifying a worldwide reputation. The great bassist Eddie Gomez began a fruitful eleven year tenure with Bill in 1966, in various trios with drummers Marty Morell, Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette and others -- contributing to some of the most acclaimed club appearances and albums in Evans's career. His recorded output was considerable -- (for Riverside, Verve, Columbia, Fantasy and Warner Bros) over the years, and he also did sessions (especially early on) with some of the top names in jazz. Musicians like Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, Oliver Nelson, Jim Hall, George Russell, Shelley Manne, Toots Theielmans, Kai Winding /J.J. Johnson, Hal McKusick and others all featured Evans. In the seventies, he recorded extensively-- primarily trio and solo piano now and then, but also including several quintet albums under his own name as well two memorable dates with singer Tony Bennett.
His last trio was formed in 1978, featuring the incomparably sensitive Marc Johnson on bass and drummer Joe LaBarbera, which rejuvenated the often-ailing pianist, who was elated with his new line-up, calling it "the most closely related" to his first trio (with LaFaro and Motian). He suffered yet more family problems and upheavals in his personal life, (often due to bouts with narcotics addiction) and yet brought a new dynamic musical vitality, a surer confidence, fresh energy and even more aggressive interplay to the trio's repertoire. Evans' health was deteriorating, however, though he insisted on working until he finally had to cancel midweek during an engagement at Fat Tuesday's in New York. A few days later, he had to be taken to Mount Sinai Hospital on September 15, 1980, where he died from a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia . He is buried next to his beloved brother Harry, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
While Evans was open to new musical approaches that would not compromise his musical and artistic vision -- such as his occasional use of electric piano, and his brief associations with avant-garde composer George Russell -- he always insisted on the purity of the song structure and the noble history of the jazz tradition. It was a point the highly articulate Evans was quite forthcoming about in the various interviews he gave throughout his career. Consistently true to his own pianistic standards, he continued to enhance his own singular vision of music until the very end.
In his short life, Bill Evans was a prolific and profoundly creative artist and a genuinely compassionate and gentle man, often in the face of his recurring health problems and his restless nature. His rich legacy remains undiminished, and his compositions have enjoyed rediscovery by jazz players and even some classical musicians. Even twenty-five years after his passing, Bill Evans' music continues to influence musicians and composers everywhere and all those who have been deeply touched by his expressive genius and sensitive, lyrical artistry.
There is much more comprehensive info on all of Bill Evans' recordings on our Recording Catalog page here.
©Jan Stevens 2000. Revised 2005, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article can only be reprinted electronically (or otherwise) by permission of the author.
A revised version of this bio appeared in the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Music of Bill Evans concert program, May 14-15, 2010. © Jan Stevens 2010
Photographs courtesy The Bill Evans Estate.
Check out the excellent Bill Evans biography by Peter Pettinger: "How My Heart Sings"
(Yale University Press, 2002)
Find out more about it at amazon.com
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