Today we are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Bill Evans, born 89 years ago today.
William John Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on August 16, 1929. He began playing the piano at a very young age when his older brother, Harry, began piano lessons around the age of five and Bill would sit at the piano and play everything he heard his brother play. Soon, both brothers were taking piano lessons. In those early years, he became a prodigious pianist and developed an excellent ability for sight-reading. He also took up the violin, flute, and piccolo as a youth, but dropped them to concentrate on piano.
Evans was first exposed to jazz around the age of 12 and listened to Harry James and Tommy Dorsey on the radio while developing as a classical pianist. Soon, he was playing with local bands and extending his jazz technique. He followed his brother Harry to Southeastern Louisiana University on a flute scholarship and continued his piano studies. He graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Music Education. After college, he formed a jazz trio but was unable to get the booking the group needed. He even did a three-month tour backing Billie Holiday. Soon, however, he was drafted and served in the Army from 1951 to 1954, playing in the Fifth U.S. Army Band. He also hosted a jazz program on the camp’s radio station.
After leaving the Army, Evans went to New York City and enrolled in post-graduate musical composition studies at the Mannes College of Music. He also performed throughout the metropolitan area. It was during that period that he met Helen Keane, who later became his agent and was with him for many years. In the later fifties, he met bassist Scott LaFaro, who joined his trio. Evans stayed busy doing studio work for albums let by artists including Charles Mingus, Tony Scott, Eddie Costa and Art Farmer.
In April 1958, Evans joined the Miles Davis Sextet, with a schedule of many live performances as well as recordings with Davis. However, there was some tension in the group, with a white performer replacing an African-American pianist. He also continued session work. Late in the year, though, Evans suffered serious burnout, left the Davis sextet and sought psychiatric help, even wondering if he wanted to continue to be a pianist. He went to stay with his brother Harry, who was still living in Louisiana and recovered from his period of doubt.
Miles Davis asked him to rejoin the sextet in 1959 for the recording of Kind Of Blue, which was then and still is one of the best-selling jazz albums. During those later years, Evans became addicted to heroin. Davis tried to help Evans with his addiction but was unable to help.
After Kind of Blue, Evans formed one of the finest of his trios, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The work of this trio was a high point in Evan’s early career, and performed live and made several albums as well. In 1961, the trio recorded their legendary live album, Sunday at The Village Vanguard.
Ten days after the completion of the Village Vanguard sessions, Scott LaFaro died in an automobile accident. He was only 25 years old. Evans was devastated by LaFaro’s death and did not record or appear in public for several months. He gradually returned to work, though his dependence on heroin became more pronounced. In spite of his busy schedule and income from recordings, he was always in debt and borrowing money to feed his habit.
It took Evans until 1966 to find a bassist that could begin to take LaFaro’s place, Eddie Gomez, who played with Evans for 11 years. A new drummer, Marty Morell, joined the trio and remained until 1975, bring a long period of stability; in fact, Evans had even kicked the heroin, at least for a while. He continued to be very successful, with a long series of highly regarded (and Grammy-winning) albums, though his drug use became more of a personal problem for him.
During that period, he made his two albums with Tony Bennett: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again.
In 1979, Evans’ brother Harry committed suicide. The brothers were very close and Bill was devastated by the news. In August 1979, he recorded his last studio album, We Will Meet Again, featuring a composition by his brother Harry. This album won a posthumous Grammy award for Evans.
In addition to his heroin addiction, Evans became addicted to cocaine and progressed to injecting himself with that drug. On September 15, 1980, he developed severe stomach pains and was taken to the hospital, where he died that afternoon. The cause of the death was a combination of a peptic ulcer, cirrhosis, pneumonia and untreated hepatitis. His friend, lyricist Gene Lees, described Evans’ struggle with drugs as “the longest suicide in history.”
He left behind an extraordinary body of work and still influences jazz, especially jazz piano, to this day.
During the recording sessions for Together Again, Evans kept playing his own arrangement of the theme from The Bad and The Beautiful the 1952 film starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. Tony Bennett liked it so much, he insisted on putting in on their album. We leave you with that recording.