William John Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on 16 August 1929. He learned to play the piano as a child and later studied classical music at Southeastern Louisiana University before moving to New York City in the mid-1950s to work with bandleader George Russell, although his first ever recording session had been with Jerry Wald’s Orchestra in 1953, while Evans was still in the army In September 1956, he made his first recording with his own band and an album for Riverside named New Jazz Conceptions (1956), featuring the original version of perhaps his most famous composition, ‘Waltz For Debby’. Evans joined Miles Davis’ sextet in April 1958 and in May made his first studio album with the trumpeter, Jazz Track(1958), then the following year they recorded Kind Of Blue (1959) – a masterpiece. Both trumpet player and pianist had a deep love of model jazz, and Evans exerted a strong influence on Davis through his knowledge of European classical music.
In 1958, Evans recorded with Canonball Adderley, cutting the first version of ‘Nardis’; specially written by Miles Davis for the Portrait of Canonball album it would be associated with Evans for much of the rest of his career. Despite having so much success, or perhaps because of it, Evans was seeing a psychiatrist, unsure whether to continue with his career. After a period at his parents’ home in Florida, he returned to New York to record once again.
In December, shortly after Evans moved back to New York, he released Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958) with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones. After a relatively slow start to his own recording career, Bill made close to a dozen records over the next four years, including Empathy, his first as a leader for Verve. He had recorded for the label as a member of a number of different groups that included Don Elliott’s Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, Leo Konitz Live At The Half Note in 1959 and again with Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre the same year. Empathy (1962) was his Verve debut in a trio with bass player Monty Bugwig and drummer Shelly Manne.
In June 1961, Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motion on drums recorded two albums, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby, both for Riverside Records and now available as part of the Original Jazz Classics series. These two live recordings from the same date are among the greatest jazz recordings of all time. Tragically LaFaro was killed, aged twenty-five, in a car accident, ten days after the Vanguard sessions, Evans was devastated and withdrew from public life; already a heroin user it was a terrible blow for the pianist.
Persuaded to return to playing by his producer Orrin Keepnews, Evans threw himself into work and the remainder of the decade was a prolific period – particularly with Verve. His first record with vibes player Gary McFarland is a musical exploration of an urban playground; it’s a much-underrated album and shows Evans’ deft skill as an accompanist. He followed this with one of his best albums, 1963’s Conversations With Myself, which features Evans playing not one, but three pianos. This Grammy award-winning record was revolutionary at the time, in that Evans recorded it by overdubbing three different yet beautifully interwoven piano pieces for each track.
Among the other highlights of his Verve recordings are Trio 64 (1963), and Further Conversations With Myself (1967), along with two live albums, Bill Evans At The Town Hall (1966) and Bill Evans At The Montreux Jazz Festival (1968), for which he also won a Grammy, one of the seven that he won from thirty-one nominations. Evans, while never embracing fusion or the avant-garde in any way, was always keen to explore something different, as his 1965 album, Bill Evans Trio With Symphony Orchestra (1965) with Claus Ogerman conducting so beautifully demonstrates.
In 1966, Evans first worked with a young Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez, recording A Simple Matter of Conviction for Verve. It proved an inspirational partnership, and Gomez can also be heard on Bill Evans At The Montreux Jazz Festival (1968), which was the only album Evans made with drummer Jack DeJohnette.
In 1969, Evans began experimenting with an electric piano – The Bill Evans Album (1971) featured both acoustic and electric piano. Ten years after he had recorded Stan Getz & Bill Evans for Verve, the pair reunited to record But Beautiful in 1974 – it was a live recording from concerts in Holland and Belgium.
In 1973, while working at the Lighthouse Café in Redondo Beach, California, Evans met and fell in love with a woman, despite having been in a twelve-year relationship. He told his girlfriend about his new love, and she committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. He married Nenette, the woman he had met in California, and in 1975 they had a child, Evan; sadly the marriage did not last long, heroin possibly the reason behind the break up.
In 1979 while on tour, Evans learned that his brother Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had also committed suicide, aged fifty-two. Many of Evans’ friends and relatives believe that this event precipitated his own death the following year. In August 1979, We Will Meet Again became Bill Evans last studio recording. It was posthumously awarded a Grammy, but in truth the award was more out of respect for a career that has had few equals in the art of jazz piano than the album itself.
In the middle of September 1980, Evans had been in bed with severe stomach pains at his home in Fort Lee, for several days. He was taken by his girlfriend and drummer Joe LaBarbera to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he died from a combination of a peptic ulcer, cirrhosis, bronchial pneumonia and untreated hepatitis on 15 September 1980. Gene Lees who co-wrote ‘Waltz For Debby’ described his friend’s drug addiction as ‘the longest suicide in history’.
Words: Richard Havers