Tuesday, September 28, 2021

BILL EVANS: Suicide Was Painful

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


From time-to-time, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles enjoys adding new features to its stash of Bill Evans publications featured on these pages.

As a way of understanding and appreciating his music, it's always of interest to enter Bill’s world from different perspectives which brings me to the piece on Peter Pettinger’s biography BILL EVANS How My Heart Sings which was published by Yale University Press in 1998. A paperback copy remains in print.

Pettinger’s book is not a full blown, critical and discerning biography, rather it’s written more along the lines of Jerome Klinkowitz’s Listen Gerry Mulligan: An Aural Narrative in Jazz [1991] in which the recorded music forms the basis for observation and discussion.

Pettinger’s principal interest is in Bill’s music, more so than the man that made it.

Because the book is almost 25 years old, it’s not easy to track down full reviews of it even with the help of internet search engines.

However, we’ve managed to find a couple, as detailed below, along with a slew of short commendations which follow these lengthy assessments by Terry Teachout and Terry MacDonald.

As Doug Ramsey explains in the introduction to his review in the JazzTimes, it might be a good idea to have your Bill Evans recordings handy as you read Peter Pettinger’s BILL EVANS How My Heart Sings.

“Bill Evans, one of the greatest creative musicians of the century, lived only to the age of 51. In the last half of his life, in a triumph of will and the creative impulse, he maintained iron discipline as an artist while he let heroin and cocaine drag him to destruction. His friend Gene Lees called Evans’ death “the slowest suicide in history.” Pettinger’s book weaves together analysis of Evans’ music with facts of his life before and after he became a narcotics addict. An English concert pianist and university music teacher, Pettinger died before the book was published.

The serious listener with a complete Bill Evans collection should set aside a few weeks to read this book, making time for frequent trips to the CD player or turntable. It would require discipline almost as great as Evans’ to ignore the urge to hear the recordings that Pettinger discusses as he tracks Evans’ progress through his brilliant career. Pettinger’s strength as a listener and analyst makes this an essential book about Evans, but is not the ultimate Evans biography. Pettinger does not explore in depth the pianist’s complex personality and his relationships with family, friends and fellow musicians. Still, even his dry recitations of facts and occasional speculation about behavior motives stir anyone who admires Evans’ music and recoils from the pain of the junkie existence he chose in his mid-twenties.”


September 13, 1998

Terry Teachout

New York Times


How My Heart Sings.

By Peter Pettinger.

Illustrated. 346 pp. New Haven:

Yale University Press. $30.

MANY jazz musicians resemble their music. Who could have looked more worldly-wise than Duke Ellington, or wittier than Paul Desmond? But sometimes a musician embodies a contradiction, and then you can read it off his face, just as you can see a fault line snaking through a tranquil landscape. Such was the case with Bill Evans. His shining tone and cloudy pastel harmonies transformed such innocuous pop songs as ''Young and Foolish'' and ''The Boy Next Door'' into fleeting visions of infinite grace. Yet the bespectacled, cadaverous ruin who sat hunched over the keyboard like a broken gooseneck lamp seemed at first glance incapable of such Debussyan subtlety; something, one felt sure, must have gone terribly wrong for a man who played like that to have looked like that.

Appearances are seldom deceiving to the clear-eyed observer, and Peter Pettinger writes frankly in his fine new biography of what was no secret to Evans's appalled colleagues: The most influential jazz pianist of the past half-century was addicted to drugs -- first heroin, then cocaine -- for much of his adult life. He picked up the habit in 1958 as a member of Miles Davis's sextet, and despite occasional interludes of sobriety, it stayed with him, finally leading to his death in 1980. Pettinger, who died last month, was an English concert pianist who began listening to Evans as a teen-ager. He is as interested in his playing as his private life; his book is packed with so much shrewd critical commentary that it reads at times more like an annotated discography than a biography. But ''Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings'' is also the first full-length biography of Evans, and most readers will doubtless pay special attention to the grisly particulars of what the writer Gene Lees, who knew him well, tersely called ''the longest suicide in history.''

The second son of a hard-drinking New Jersey printer, Evans had a conventional and uneventful youth. One of his sidemen would later speculate that ''his involvement with drugs (early on, anyway) was to get away from the fact that he really was a very American kind of guy. I think the drugs for him made him more mysterious . . . got him out of his background.'' Compounding the problem was Evans's awkward relationship with Miles Davis, who set the gold standard for hipness throughout the 1950's and who delighted in baiting the painfully shy pianist; as the only white musician in Davis's group, he was also acutely aware that many jazz fans thought him unworthy of sharing a bandstand with celebrated sidemen like John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

One way for him to prove his authenticity was to do as Coltrane and Jones did (and as Davis himself had so famously done only a few years before). Though Pettinger skims over the details of Evans's plunge into the abyss of addiction, his biography contains more than enough horror stories to make the reader wonder how he managed to function at all, much less to forge a powerfully individual style that would leave its mark on virtually every jazz pianist to follow him. Perhaps most astonishingly, his playing became markedly more intense and probing in the last year of his life, not long after he switched from methadone to cocaine. It was as if he were racing himself to the grave. Late one night at a San Francisco club, Pettinger writes, Evans played Johnny Mandel's ''Theme From M*A*S*H,'' remarking that the song was also known as ''Suicide Is Painless.'' ''Debatable,'' he added dryly. Two weeks later, he was dead, leaving his friends to wonder what demons had driven him to so squalid an end.

Seacoast Jazz Society

Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

by Peter Pettinger

Biographer Peter Pettinger is a pianist himself. Not a jazz musician, but a concert pianist, one who admired Bill Evans greatly and brought to his writing a special ability to articulate the nuances of the man’s music. Some would say—and did—that the author’s considerable emphasis on the academic and technical aspects of Evans’s discography came at the expense of a deeper examination of the brilliant artist’s painful and tumultuous life. Fair enough. But for a jazz reader interested in knowing more about the music of one of the most influential jazz pianists in the history of the music, and how Bill Evans’s musical concepts were formed and developed, Pettinger presents a valuable volume.

Nor does he in any way gloss over the personal side of his subject’s life, at the center of which, of course, was his 20-year addiction to drugs.

Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929. He was classically trained in piano and studied at Southeastern Louisiana University. After moving to New York in 1955, he worked with bandleader and musical theorist George Russell. He joined the Miles Davis Sextet in 1958, awkward, a little uncomfortable, the only white guy in the band, a fact that made him the object of regular heavy ribbing by his bandmates. His time with Miles was profoundly influential on Evans, both musically and personally. While the band was experimenting with modal jazz, Evans began his own experimentation—with heroin. His use of it continued, along with that of methadone and cocaine, for the rest of his consequentially abbreviated life, which ended at the age of just 51 in 1980.

After leaving Miles, Evans’s preferred musical unit was the piano trio, in which he worked almost exclusively for the rest of his life, and which garners most of the author’s attention.

Pettinger, a Brit, never met Bill Evans so lacked the opportunity to draw out of him details of his life and times that might intrigue and even titillate us. Instead, he relied on the pianist’s recorded works and personal history, the result a rewardingly illuminating portrait of the man and his music. Even jazz listeners who consider themselves fans of Evans are likely to discover aspects of him and his life that offer a greater understanding of both. And the author’s personal knowledge of music and of piano playing enable him to share with the reader a greater appreciation of Evans’s pianistic, harmonic and melodic brilliance. To Pettinger’s credit, he does this in a perfectly accessible way.

How My Heart Sings is not the whole story of Bill Evans, nor likely has one yet been written. It is, though, a good start and a good part of his story and should probably be considered required reading for admiring listeners of his music.

—Terry MacDonald

Title: Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

Author: Peter Pettinger

Edition: Illustrated

Publisher: Yale University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0300071930, 9780300071931

Length: 346 pages

Bill Evans

How My Heart Sings

Peter Pettinger


List Price: 18.95*

* Individual store prices may vary.


This enthralling book is the first biography in English of Bill Evans, one of the most influential of all jazz pianists. Peter Pettinger, himself a concert pianist, describes Evans’s life (the personal tragedies and commercial successes), his music making (technique, compositional methods, and approach to group playing), and his legacy. The book also includes a full discography and dozens of photographs.

Praise For Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings…

"Pettinger understands what sets the pianist apart, and explains with a minimum of technical language and just enough musical transcriptions to get his key points across. . . This is an ideal companion for those who want to 'understand' Evans in the most important way, through listening."—Bob Blumenthal, Boston Globe

"Peter Pettinger writes frankly in his fine new biography of what was no secret to Evans's appalled colleagues: The most influential jazz pianist of the past half-century was addicted to drugs—first heroin, then cocaine—for much of his adult life."—Terry Teachout, New York Times Book Review

"[A] fine new biography . . . packed with . . . shrewd critical commentary."—Terry Teachout, New York Times Book Review

"Peter Pettinger sets out to catalog and explain Evans’ wide-ranging genius. . . . The making of every important Evans recording is discussed, and as he follows the extreme ups and downs of a career vexed by heroin addiction and other problems, Pettinger shows how the personal helped shape the artistic sensibility of this jazz innovator."—Tom Moon, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Pettinger . . . has thoroughly researched Evans’s life, reading the available literature and tracking down the pianist’s associates for commentary, and he has listened assiduously to the Evans catalog, which is no small feat given its enormousness."—Adam Bresnick, Wall Street Journal

"Pettinger provides a portrait of Evans that will serve as a foundation for further investigation of this quiet jazz giant. Recommended for jazz fans and music buffs."—Library Journal

"Pettinger is eminently qualified to assay Evan’s evolution as a pianist, and students of Evan’s music will no doubt enjoy the author’s references to Evan’s scores and academic excursions."—Publishers Weekly

"One of the most moving and informative jazz books of recent years. . . . For its sensitive sympathetic and insightful look at the artistry of Bill Evans, How My Heart Sings makes a valuable contribution."—Joel Roberts, All About Jazz

"This is the first biography of one of the most influential jazz artists ever to tickle the ivories. . . . [It] includes a full discography, dozens of photographs, and analyses of Evans’ expressive technique and compositional methods."—Paul Wilson, Bloomsbury Review

"The greatest strength of Pettinger's writing is that, analyzing Evans' recorded legacy, almost piece by piece, he tells how Evans did it—that is, what to listen for—in terms fully accessible to the lay listener. So this is not an exposé or analysis of a 'tortured' artist, but a fine music lover's reference about a nonpareil artist."—Booklist

"Reading How My Heart Sings, with Evans's eloquent, challenging music playing in the background, is a wonderful experience, there for the taking."—Larry Nai, Cadence

"Pettinger's approach is at once delightfully insightful and detailed in terms of musical analysis. . . . A much-needed addition to the growing list of respectable biographies of the greatest figures in the first century of jazz history. . . . An excellent choice for collections supporting studies of popular music at all levels."—Choice

"Peter Pettinger’s ambitious new volume is a concentrated work that aspires to fill a gap in jazz biography that has been left open too long. . . . A comprehensive endeavor and . . . a satisfying contribution. . . . Well-researched."—Michael Borshuk, Coda

"Indispensable. . . . The 40-page discography alone will be cherished as will the author's dogged research into the circumstances surrounding all important Evans recordings and trio personnel changes. . . . Through interviews with friends and colleagues, Evans own utterances and the author's insider knowledge of the piano, the book contains many insights into Evans' music."—Jeff Bradley. Denver Post

"[This book] is simply beautifully written and will probably become a model for future authors seeking to complete a classic biography."—Lee Bash, Jazz Educators Journal

"Accessible to non-musician and including a complete discography, Pettinger's book is highly recommended for Evans fans."—Jazz Insider

"Pettinger's strength as a listener and analyst makes this an essential book about Evans. . . . This fine book will be a part of the foundation for Evans scholars to come."—Doug Ramsey, Jazztimes

"[A] welcome full-scale biography."—Grover Sales, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Beautifully written and researched. . . . It should be required reading for all who dabble with the elementary jazz sounds to the serious jazz pianists of today and, as Bill Evans himself would have said, those of tomorrow."—Richard Michael, Music Teacher

"The sad, rich, influential life of jazz pianist Bill Evans as told by fellow pianist Peter Pettinger, who certainly knows the score. Evans died in 1980, a slow suicide caused by drugs, malnutrition and self-neglect. But what a body of work he left behind (among it, 164 albums, not counting reissues). Dig it."—Bill Bell, New York Daily News

"In this through and very readable biography, Evans emerges as something of a hero for sticking to his aesthetic values in the face of commercial pressures and changing fads. This may be one reason why Evans remains a figure of great interest to jazz fans and musicians nearly twenty years after his death. . . . This biography is highly recommended."—Allan Chase, Notes

"Pettinger chronicles in detail Evan's endless search for empathy and expression of emotion within his perennial context, the piano trio, and his famous successes within that context. . . . How My Heart Sings is told with a simplicity and calm momentum that are reminiscent of Evan's music itself; it shows facility supported by scholarship and research."—Jon Rodine, Rain Taxi

"A thoroughly researched, well-written biography of the soft-spoken but troubled jazz pianist."—San Francisco Examiner Magazine

"A stark—yet refreshingly lyrical—document of a jazz pianist who said more with his music than with his indulgences."—Chet Williamson, Worcester Weekly

Selected as a 1998 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review

Winner of the 1999 ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in the Pop Books Category

"Peter Pettinger’s book on pianist Bill Evans is one of the best jazz biographies I have ever read. It is beautifully and lovingly written, meticulously researched, and filled with deep insight into Evans’s personality and musicmaking."—Barry Kernfeld, author of What to Listen for in Jazz

"This book is likely to become a classic. There is nothing quite like it in the history of jazz. A concert pianist looks at the work of a jazz pianist whom many authorities consider one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. Pettinger hears all sorts of subtleties as only a fellow pianist can. He is also a felicitous and interesting writer. This is a brilliant piece of extended analysis."—Gene Lees

Yale University Press, 9780300097276, 366pp.

Publication Date: August 11, 2002

About The Author

Peter Pettinger was an international concert pianist for more than twenty-five years. His many recordings include the Bartók sonatas with the violinist Sándor Végh, the Elgar sonata and a jazz album with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, and Elgar’s works for solo piano.

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