Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bill Evans - Intellect, Emotion, Communication - By Don Nelsen

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At the time of its publication in the December 8, 1960 edition of Down Beat, Don Nelsen was a 34-year-old feature writer for the New York News, for which newspaper he also wrote well informed jazz reviews. In 1959, he received his M.A., specializing in medieval literature and was at work on his Ph.D. He "studied trumpet privately for two years, and I still practice safely out of earshot of professional musicians." This article on Bill Evans was his first for Down Beat.

It reflects a tranquil Bill Evans, one who had not as yet been besieged by The Time of Troubles which was to be the recurring theme in his life from 1960 until his death in 1980.

The photographs that accompany the essay show a big, broad-shouldered Bill; a man who appears to be healthy and happy with his lot in life.

Bill had recently left the Miles Davis Sextet and formed his trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

About seven months later, in July, 1961, Scott LaFaro was killed in an automobile accident.

By December, 1961, one year after this piece was published, Bill would be a shell of his former self. Ravaged by an addiction to heroin and an inconsolable depression brought on by Scotty’s death.

As Mr. Nelsen notes in his opening sentence, Bill may not have had a “miserable childhood,” but Life certainly brought him some heavy burdens to bear after that such that he was dead at the age of 51.

December 8, 1960

“It may distress believers in the jazzman legend, but the truth is that Bill Evans has become one of the most creative modern jazz musicians without benefit of a miserable childhood. With candor, he said:

"I was very happy and secure until I went into the army. Then I started to feel there was something I should know that I didn't know."

If the 31-year-old pianist upsets a few cherished illusions about the origins of jazz musicians, he demolishes another held by many jazzman themselves and fondly nurtured by the hippy fringe: that a jazzman must be interested only in jazz.

Evans is no such intellectual provincial. For one thing, he does not believe that jazz—or even music as a whole— necessarily holds the key to the "something" he began searching for in the army. His basic attitude is that music is not the end most jazzmen make it. It is only a means.

A glance into Evans' library provides an indication of what his mind is up to. The diversity of titles shows how many avenues he has explored to reach his "something"— Freud, Whitehead, Voltaire, Margaret Meade, Santayana, and Mohammed are here, and, of course, Zen. With Zen, is Evans guilty of intellectual fadism, since everyone knows that Kerouac, Ginsberg & Co. holds the American franchise on Oriental philosophy? Evans waved a hand in resignation and said:

"I was interested in Zen long before the big boom. I found out about it just after I got out of the army in 1954. A friend of mine had met Aldous Huxley while crossing from England, and Huxley told him that Zen was worth investigating. I'd been looking into philosophy generally so I decided to see what Zen had to say. But literature on it was almost impossible to find. Finally, I was able to locate some material at the Philosophical library in Manhattan. Now you can get the stuff in any drugstore.

"Actually, I'm not interested in Zen that much, as a philosophy, nor in joining any movements. I don't pretend to understand it. I just find it comforting. And very similar to jazz. Like jazz, you can't explain it to anyone without losing the experience. It's got to be experienced, because it's feeling, not words. Words are the children of reason and, therefore, can't explain it. They really can't translate feeling because they're not part of it. That's why it bugs me when
people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not. It's feeling."

Such a manifesto may pain the academicians of jazz, but Evans is no pedant with a B-plus critical faculty. He is an intellectual in the true spirit of the word: an intelligent inquirer. His flights into philosophy and letters spring not from the joy of scholarly exercise but from the fierce need to comprehend himself. It is this need, whipped by surging inner tensions, that has driven him to Plato, Freud, Thomas Merton, and Sartre. It is responsible for his artistry on the one hand and his erudition on the other. The former has enabled him to catheterize his emotions; the latter has given him the opportunity to understand them. Hence his great emphasis on feeling as the basis of art.

Undoubtedly, the four years he lived in New Orleans and attending Southeastern Louisiana college had much to do with shaping this emphasis. It certainly exerted a powerful influence on his personality and playing. He himself admits it was the happiest period of his life.

"It was the happiest," he said, "because I had just turned 17, and it was the first time I was on my own. It's an age when everything makes a big impression, and Louisiana impressed me big. Maybe it's the way people live. The tempo and pace is slow, 1 always felt very relaxed and peaceful. Nobody ever pushed you to do this or say that.

"Perhaps it's due to a little looser feeling about life down there. Things just lope along, and there's a certain inexplicable indifference about the way people face their existence. I remember one time I was working in a little town right near the Mississippi border. Actually, it wasn't a town. It was a roadhouse with a few tourist cabins out back and another roadhouse about a half-mile up the highway. There didn't seem to be much law there. Gambling was open and thriving. I worked at the first place for months, and I never saw any police. Well, the night after I had left to take a job in the saloon up the road, a man walked in and pointed a .45 at another fellow. As I heard it from a friend, all he said was, 'Buddy, I hear you're foolin' aroun' with my wife,' and Bang! That was all. The second guy fell dead. As far as I know, nobody ever gave it another thought, and nothing was ever done.

"Still, there was a kind of freedom there, different from anything in the north. The intercourse between Negro and white was friendly, even intimate. There was no hypocrisy, and that's important to me. I told this to Miles (Davis) when I was working with him and asked him if he understood what I meant. He said he did. I don't mean that the official attitude is sympathetic or anything like that. Some very horrible things go on down there. But there are some good things, too, and the feel of the country is one of them."

Bill absorbed this feel not only by living there but also by gigging around New Orleans and the rural areas almost nightly. One job took him and his fellow Casuals (the name of the band suited these collegiate artistes to a man) far into the country. After turning off the main highway, they headed up a road, which appeared to have been paved with the contents of vacuum cleaner bags. Small tornadoes of choking grit swirled around them as they pushed along. Each time another car passed, the windows were closed tight to fend off suffocation. They were beginning to taste the Grapes of Wrath in their dust-parched throats when they sighted their target after about an hour.

"It was a church in the middle of a field," Evans recalled. "A boxlike structure about 40 x 20 with nondescript paint on the outside and none on the inside. It was more like a rough clubhouse than a church. I think they built it themselves."

"Themselves" were the 70-odd folk who had hired the Casuals to play for their outdoor do. "You wondered where the hell they came from because you couldn't see any houses around," Evans said.

The bandstand where they were to play was one of those little round summer pavilions you see in films like Meet Me in St. Louis when the town band plays concerts in the park. This one was fenced around with chicken wire.

"It was a dance job," the pianist said. "We played three or four tunes for them, and then blew one for ourselves. They didn't seem to mind. Everyone had a ball. The women cooked the food — it was jambalaya — and served it from big boards. Everything was free and relaxed. Experiences like these have got to affect your music."

Apparently they have affected Bill's, and all to the good, because his playing has caused much nodding of heads among musicians, critics, and fans for the last couple of years. Yet he scoffs at people who claim to hear two or three specific influences in a musician's playing.

"A guy is influenced by hundreds of people and things," he said, "and all show up in his work. To fasten on any one or two is ridiculous. I will say one thing, though. Lennie Tristano's early records impressed me tremendously. Tunes like Tautology, Marshmallow, and Fishin' Around. I heard the fellows in his group building their lines with a design and general structure that was different from anything I'd ever heard in jazz. I think I was impressed by Lee (Konitz) and Warne (Marsh) more than by Lennie, although he was probably the germinal influence. I guess it was the way Lee and Warne put things together that impressed me."

It was the way Evans put things together that brought him to the attention of his fellow craftsmen. In New York less than five years, he has worked with such as Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, who pick their bandstand associates with care and discrimination. Obviously,

Evans has the touch. But he is still not satisfied with his playing and, because he is an artist, it is doubtful that he ever will be.

"I once heard this trumpet player in New Orleans who used to put down his horn and comp at the piano," he said. "When he did, he got that deep, moving feeling I've always wanted, and it dragged me because I couldn't reach it. I think I've progressed toward it, but I'm always looking to reflect something that's deeper than what I've been doing."

What he is seeking to reflect came out in a conversation about William Blake, the 18th century poet, painter, and mystic. Evans had found that Blake's poetry was a sort of intellectual orgasm. Bill, in describing Blake's art, defined what he was looking for in his own:

"He's almost like a folk poet, but he reaches heights of art because of his simplicity. The simple things, the essences, are the great things, but our way of expressing them can be incredibly complex. It's the same thing with technique in music. You try to express a simple emotion — love, excitement, sadness — and often your technique gets in the way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through which your feelings and ideas are communicated. The great artist gets right to the heart of the matter. His technique is so natural it's invisible or unbearable. I've always had good facility, and that worries me. I hope it doesn't get in the way."

Even a cursory hearing will indicate that the Evans struggle for simple beauty is not without its triumphs. When he plays, it is like Hemingway telling a story.
Extraneous phrases are rare. The tale is told with the strictest economy, and when it is over, you are tempted to say, "Of course. It's so simple. Why didn't I think of that?" He is, in essence, a synecdochist, an artist who implies as much as he plays. And moving all his music, coloring every note, is that deep, rhythmic, almost religious feeling that is the seminal force of jazz.

It was perhaps these qualities that recommended Evans to Miles Davis after the trumpeter lost the services of Red Garland. The move was somewhat of a departure for Miles. Indeed, there were rumbles in some quarters that the color of Bill's skin automatically depreciated his value to the group. But Davis knew what he was doing. The association was a successful one for both.

Bill worked with Miles for about eight months and quit. Just why has mystified a good many persons in the jazz arena. He was playing with one of the most respected musicians in jazz and getting a $200 a week salary. The job meant not only inestimable prestige but a rare opportunity to improve artistically. Bill's explanation of the parting is, like his music, a simple statement of how he felt:

"At the time I thought I was inadequate. I wanted to play more so that I could see where I was going. I felt exhausted in every way — physically, mentally, and spiritually. I don't know why. Maybe it was the road. But I think the time I worked with Miles was probably the most beneficial I've spent in years, not only musically but personally. It did me a lot of good."

Upon leaving the Davis group, he flew to Ormond Beach, Fla., to see his parents. "And think," he said. He stayed there three weeks, mostly relaxing and playing golf, which he had learned as a boy in Plainfield, N. J., where he was born and schooled.

His father, now retired, owned a driving range, and Bill and his brother, Harry, were frequent customers and ball shaggers. According to Bill, Harry was good enough to be a pro — he played in the 70s — but music pulled him as strongly as it did his brother. Harry still lives in Baton Rouge, not too far from where he and Bill went to college together, teaching music in public school and playing three or four gigs a week.

Florida retreat was a productive one. By the time Bill was ready to return to New York in November of 1958, he had cleared some of the fog from his brain and shot a 41 on his last nine holes. Both accomplishments brought him a certain measure of satisfaction, and he came back to grapple with his music problems.

His method of doing this is a familiar one to artists whether they are musicians, writers, painters, or mathematicians. He concentrates on his stone wall intensely and when he breaks through, he explores the new terrain beyond for about six months. Then he gets bored and, as new problems are born, he abandons it to go through the same process.

"I wish it were easier," he said.

For the man who wishes to create, however, there can be no other way. He may hate the time he spends at it and fear that he may not be able to succeed; he may give up in disgust a hundred times, but he goes through with it anyway, because, in the summing up, nothing slakes the artistic thirst except the satisfaction of its own work well done. Yet Evans has some reservations concerning the sustained intensity with which an art should be pursued.

"Sometimes it can happen that you see everything in terms of music," he said. "It's like a fixation. You can't help it. I get that way every time I'm trying to work something out. But it's bad if you can't pull out of it. Nothing should be that dominating. If it is, it is perverted."

Because he respects his craft so deeply, he abhors those who would degrade it through a distorted loyalty. He looks with fascinated horror upon the hippies who try to live something they aren't.

"They live their full lives on the fringe of jazz and yet miss its essence entirely," he said. "They take the neuroses that are integral in every art and blow them up to where they're the whole thing. Do you remember the Platonic dialog in which Socrates argues the definition of wisdom with Hippocrates? As far as I'm concerned, Hippocrates was the first hippy, a guy who was smug because he thought he knew something. Socrates was wise because he realized how little he knew."

Bill's way of life is consonant with his anti-hipster philosophy. Jazz jargon constitutes a small factor in his lexicon. "Dig" and "man" he uses frequently, but overindulgence in hip talk, to him, is an "excuse for thinking." His clothes are just about what's in fashion, he shaves every morning, and his Manhattan apartment is a three-room piece of ordinary.

A bed, a few chairs, and a kitchen table is the furniture complement, all of it thoroughly bourgeois. A piano takes up half the living room. There is a hi-fi set and a television set, the latter of which he sits before almost every afternoon to apprise himself of the sports scene. He has some 50 books in two bookcases, but only two paintings decorate his walls. One, by Gwyneth Motian, wife of his drummer, Paul Motian, is a small but extremely effective abstraction. The other, by himself, is an attempt at design. It's terrible, but this has not stopped him. He continues to paint with this as his credo: "I can be as good as Klee at least."

His view of his piano playing is more in accord with reality. He is no longer the confused youngster whose feelings about music were badly shaken by the military psychology of the army.

"I took everything personally, because I thought I was wrong," he said. "I was attacked by some guys for what I believed and by musicians who claimed I should play like this pianist or that. Pretty soon I lost the confidence I had as a kid. I began to think that everything I did was wrong. Now I'm back to where I was before I went in the army. I don't give much of a damn now what anybody thinks. I'll do what I think should be done."

He is doing it with his own trio, featuring Motian and bassist Scott LeFaro. So far, he is fairly happy with the results and said, "If there is any dissatisfaction with the group, it's only with myself."

The question of whether a group of musicians who play together continually tend to become stale and/or rigid in their attitudes is one of individual capacity, Bill said.

"As a leader, it's my role to give direction to the group," he said, "and Paul and Scott have indicated that they are more comfortable in the trio than anywhere else.

Does a group get stale? It all depends on whether there is continuing stimulation, whether all the musicians concerned want to share each other's progress. As for myself, I want to grow, but I don't want to force it. I want to play as good as I can, not necessarily as different. I am not interested in consciously changing the essence of my music. I would rather have it reveal itself progressively as I play. Ultimately, what counts is its essential quality, anyway, and differences vanish in a short time.

"What is most important is not the style itself but how you are developing that style and how well you can play within it. You can definitely be more creative exploring specific things within a style. Sometimes Paul, Scott, and I play the same tune over and over again. Occasionally, everything falls in right, and we think it's sensational. Of course, it may not mean much to a listener at the time, but, then, most people in clubs don't listen closely anyway."

Up until now, the trio has been a unit for many months and acceptance is, in general, high. The fellows are not playing as many gigs as they might wish, but they are not starving. Evans himself puts no restrictions on the type of club they'll work.

"We'll play anywhere that people will listen," he said.

That should be just about everywhere."                 

1 comment:

  1. Don was working on a book about Bill in 1996. I'm sorry it was never published. He had some great insights and actually knew Bill.


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