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The Final Days of Bill Evans
I only saw Bill Evans in the flesh on one occasion—and it was just ten days before he died.
I had already missed a chance to hear him in concert, when he came to Palo Alto in late 1975 to play at the New Varsity Theater. But I was 17 years old, and had just moved into my freshman dormitory—and was so ignorant that I didn’t know the layout of downtown, or where this venue was located. I was struggling with all the confusion of the first few days of college and living away from home, and didn’t really grasp that Bill Evans was performing less than two miles from my dorm room.
I later heard through the grapevine that the Palo Alto gig was a financial disaster. A friend claimed that fewer than twenty people had showed up to hear Bill Evans. Maybe that was an exaggeration—as I said, I wasn’t there myself. But those were lean years for mainstream jazz, and even legends were struggling to get record deals and good-paying gigs at that juncture.
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But when Bill Evans came to the Keystone Korner for his final San Francisco engagement a few years later, I was determined to seize the opportunity. Little did I know that this would be my last and only chance.
By this time, I was an experienced veteran of the Keystone Korner, and knew I needed to show up early, if I wanted to get my preferred seat right behind the treble end of the piano. This gave me a prime viewing angle of the pianist’s hands from very close range—I could almost stand up and lean over to touch the keys myself from this position. I had seen other legends, from McCoy Tyner to Tommy Flanagan, from this same vantage point, and had picked up things no recording could capture. I now was in the perfect position to enjoy a fully immersive experience of Bill Evans at the piano.
But I probably focused too much on his hands, because I was surprised when my companion that evening leaned over and whispered: “Bill looks terrible—is he in bad health?” I responded by saying something glib, along the lines of: “Well, they never look the same in person as on the album covers, do they? He’s just older than what we’ve seen in photos.”
As it turned out, I was clueless. Evans was in very poor health. But the music, despite an occasional jittery, unsettled quality, was still impressive that night. The tempos sometimes felt a little too fast—certainly when compared with his recordings, which I had studied carefully, especially the 1961 Village Vanguard tracks, which had profoundly impacted my conception of phrasing and rhythmic structure. But my conclusion, at least at the time, was that Evans wanted to modify his style, and was consciously moving away from the more introspective approach of his early career.
Evans had entered his 50s not long before, and in the jazz scene of that era many leading players were reinventing themselves in mid-career, even his former boss Miles Davis—so why not Bill Evans? Even if I admired his moody impressionism, I knew that most opinion-makers in the jazz world celebrated tougher, edgier styles, and it made a kind of brutal sense that Bill Evans would move in that direction. By any measure, a gritty determination stood out in his approach that night at the Keystone Korner.
I now believe that this intensity was part of Evans’s survival mechanism in this last stage of his life. Of course, there were other signs of self-destruction—but mostly those you would only notice in hindsight. For example, Bill Evans played the “Theme from M.A.S.H.” that night—as he did on almost every gig in his final months. It’s a song also known as “Suicide is Painless.”
At one of the Keystone Korner performances, Evans introduced that song, making sure to inform the audience of it’s alternate title. “Suicide is Painless,” he said—then, after a pause, added “Debatable.” The audience laughed at the dark humor.
Knowing what I know now, I believe Evans was pursing a kind of slow-motion suicide at that point, pushing his drug use to a level even he knew was potentially fatal. And when friends and loved ones encouraged him to seek out medical treatment, he resisted. It was like tempting fate, and letting the consequences come, whatever they might be.
A little over a week later, I read it in the newspapers. As the New York Times reported:
“Bill Evans, a jazz pianist celebrated for his lyricism and probing harmonic structures, died Monday afternoon at Mount Sinai Hospital. His age was 51.”
I was shook up when I read that. I’m still a little shaken by it. I’m certainly aware of the self-destructive habits of many jazz musicians—if only because you inevitably read or hear about them all the time if you’re involved in the art form. But on those occasions when I’ve watched the ravages of addiction from close range, I’ve been deeply unsettled by the experience. I want to believe that the vocation of music brings you into the center of something transcendent and uplifting—and when I see the opposite happen in front of my eyes, it makes me question so many things about the inner essence of the improviser’s life.
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A new book by drummer Joe La Barbera casts additional light on this dark, concluding stage of Bill Evan’s life. It’s entitled Time Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio. I wanted to read it because I admire Evans greatly, but also because I’m still trying to process what happened so many years ago.
In January 1979, Bill Evans hired La Barbera, who would serve as the last drummer for his trio—completing a lineage that previously had included Paul Motian, Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette and other illustrious percussionists. A new member of the band couldn’t help being reminded of this formidable history at every step—for example, when this new trio made its first studio recording, they did it at the same place where Evans had recorded Kind of Blue twenty years earlier. If you had this gig, you got used to celebrities showing up in the audience or backstage—because Bill Evans might not have had a huge crossover following, but the leading musicians definitely knew who he was and what he had done.
But it was also a melancholy time to work with Evans, who was in the thick of the substance abuse problem that would lead to his death 20 months later. Evans had battled with addiction throughout his career, but it was now worse than ever, although few were aware how out-of-control it had become. “When I joined the band,” La Barbera writes, “his prior addiction was common knowledge, but it was also known he was in a methadone treatment program at Rockefeller Hospital. Sometime before I’d joined, Bill had begun using again.”
Despite the pressures of playing with a jazz legend, La Barbera enjoyed tremendous freedom in this gig. There were no drum parts. There weren’t even rehearsals, unless the trio was doing a rare gig with a guest artist. And even if Bill had been more interventionist, this wasn’t a time in his life when he could micromanage anything.
Just a few weeks later, during an April engagement at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., Bill learned that his brother Harry had committed suicide. Bill had been close to his older brother, and that night La Barbera noticed tears in Evans’s eyes while performing “Re: Person I Knew.” Bassist Marc Johnson later commented: “That was a horrible time. That was the beginning of the end for Bill.”
Even though he was in poor health, Evans bristled at suggestions that he was incapacitated in any way. He would make pronouncements about the gap between his physical condition and his pure inner spirit—a psychological fortitude that would help him rise above any obstacles. It’s tempting to dismiss such declarations as mere posturing, but I’m now convinced that Evans needed an attitude of this sort to operate at the level required by his vocation, even as his organism was in a state of near collapse.
La Barbera elaborates:
“Bill spoke of training yourself to focus all your attention when needed. He used the phrase flicking a switch to describe how he initiated the process. And in the two years I worked with him, he never seemed less than 100 percent immersed in the music whenever we played.”
Yet, at a certain juncture, even flicking the switch no longer solved all the problems at hand. During his early months with the trio, La Barbera hadn’t noticed Evans’s drug use impacting the music, but things started to change after Harry Evans’s suicide. “Bill’s tempos began to rush, sometimes badly.” When he raised this issue with pianist, Evans got angry. “He went ballistic and said, ‘Just deal with it.’” La Barbera later concluded that Evans himself was frustrated, because he understood the impact his spiraling drug use was having, and didn’t have a solution for handling the consequences, musical or otherwise. But La Barbera adds: “I make this observation with 20/20 hindsight.”
Work for the trio started slowing down later that year—which probably surprises many readers who only know Bill Evans as a jazz legend. But recall my story above about the poor crowd he drew in Palo Alto in the 1970s. Because he never embraced the jazz-rock fusion movement—then at its peak—Evans didn’t attract the crossover audience that flocked to hear Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Weather Report. Even the second-tier fusion bands would draw a larger crowd than Bill Evans in those days. There’s a lesson there about the fickleness of music industry bandwagons.
But even I was surprised to learn that Joe La Barbera, esteemed member of the Bill Evans trio, had to supplement his income by taking regular wedding gigs with an accordionist. In the final months of Evans’s life, the drummer was often playing polkas in upstate New York. Of course, Bill’s deteriorating health also was a factor—making it more likely for him to turn down a gig unless it presented a big payday or some other compelling reason to go on the road.
But even Bill Evans needed to pay his bills, and in late 1979 the trio started traveling again. If you looked at him closely—as did my companion at the Keystone Korner—you could see the physical deterioration. But La Barbera admits that he missed many of the telltale signs. “If I had really been watching him more than listening to his playing, I’d have noticed how much he’d withered away physically.” He had clearly lost weight, but it’s less obvious when someone is seated behind a piano, and avoiding situations that might demand physical exertion.
There were other ominous signs. At a hotel in France, Evans phoned La Barbera late at night, worried that someone was spying on him through the window—an impossible claim given the location at the top of a high-rise building in a room without a balcony. But in a panic, Evans flushed around $500 worth of cocaine down the toilet. At another point, he offered an ominous piece of advice to his drummer: “I’d give you my lecture on the evils of drugs, but it’s late and you just have to look at me as an example.”
Then, at a concert in Italy, Evans had a total “cognitive breakdown”—losing track of the form and playing in an incorrect key. Even Bill seemed shaken by this, La Barbera recalls. Returning to the US in late summer of 1980, the pianist continued working high profile gigs—on TV with Merv Griffin, playing on the same bill as Brubeck and Shearing at Hollywood Bowl, and then up to San Francisco for the engagement at Keystone Korner where I saw him.
Evans was now spending almost the whole day in bed until the gig, but would still show up late. One evening at the Korner, pianist Denny Zeitlin filled in, playing for a half hour until Evans appeared. The trio now took a red eye flight to get to New York for a booking at Fat Tuesday’s. Friends were urging him to check into a hospital, but Evans refused.
Just getting up to the bandstand and behind the piano was an ordeal, yet he still played at a remarkable level. “He gave them what they came for,” La Barbera recalls. “He played his ass off.” Richie Beirach, who was in attendance on the final night of the gig comments: “It was some of the best, most creative, brilliant, lose, swinging, and sensitive playing I ever heard from him.”
Composer Michel Legrand, who was working at the time on an extended piece for piano and orchestra that Evans had hoped to perform, showed up at the Fat Tuesday’s gig, full of enthusiasm to discuss this promising collaboration. Legrand later described their unsettling discussion in his autobiography (in a passage translated here by Brian Mann):
“Our conversation turned inevitably to our common project. Suddenly he looked straight at me and said, “You see my hands? Please don’t write anything too hard for me!” Indeed, his hands were puffy from cortisone. I calmed him down: “You’re exaggerating. What matters is not playing millions of notes, but playing the right ones!” [He replied:] “No, you know, I’m having problems. The score has got to be easy for me to pull it off.” . . . . Without knowing it, I had been present at Bill’s final outpourings, and at the last hour, the final minutes at the keyboard.”
Legrand adds: “A few months later, Warner put out his last album, posthumously. Once again, he took up my “You Must Believe in Spring,” the American title of a song from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.” Listening to this track now, I’m struck by how much it sounds like a melanchology elegy—with even the song title taking on unintended irony in the harsh light of hindsight.
After that final gig, Evans literally had to be carried to the car. He really had no choice now—he was in no condition to perform, and had to cancel the rest of the trio’s engagement at Fat Tuesday’s. Finally, on September 15, the last day of his life, Bill Evans called on a doctor at Rockefeller University Hospital, but didn’t check into the facility. Soon afterwards, he experienced the fatal hemorrhage in the backseat of the car.
Bill told La Barbera to drive him to Mt. Sinai Hospital. The pianist’s will to live seemed to have finally kicked in at this final juncture. He even gave driving directions on this last trip in an attempt to avoid traffic. And he made it to the emergency room, and was ushered in for treatment. Meanwhile, La Barbera phoned bassist Marc Johnson and manager Helen Keane, who soon arrived to join him and Laurie Verchomin in the waiting room.
In less than a hour a doctor came out to tell them: “I’m sorry, but your friend didn’t make it.” Bill Evans was dead at age 51.
After his rise to acclaim in the late 1950s, culminating in his appearance on the famous Kind of Blue album, Bill Evans enjoyed a tremendous 20-year run as a bandleader. I believe you can even make a strong case that he was the most influential pianist during this period—after all, even many of those considered his greatest rivals (Corea, Hancock, Jarrett, etc.) learned a tremendous amount from his example.
In 1985, critic Gene Lees shared the results of a survey of jazz musicians—who voted on (1) the best jazz pianist, (2) the most influential, and (3) their personal favorite. Voters included Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Billy Taylor, and other jazz luminaries. Here are the results.
Just consider those rankings. These three lists are filled with legends. But, in the opinion of his peers, Bill Evans was battling head-to-head with Art Tatum for the top position in his craft.
And there hasn’t been a pianist since that time who surpasses, or even matches his impact. I don’t even think that’s a controversial statement, merely an obvious conclusion drawn from my listening to lots of jazz performances since September 15, 1980. I find it revealing that when a major jazz pianist such as Brad Mehldau wants to assert his independence, he specifically complains about getting described as a follower of Bill Evans. I’ve heard other pianists make a similar gripe.
Yet to some extent, anyone who tries to play the jazz repertoire behind a keyboard can hardly avoid drawing on his legacy. I once saw a jazz textbook that included an exhibit of the pianists influenced by Bill Evans—the kind of things textbooks do nowadays—and it was a huge list. Yet even that list just scratched the surface.
Evans not only influenced people indirectly, but was a gracious and generous mentor to the young musicians who came up to him at gigs or in other settings. Even in those final months, he was obliging in this way. And I can’t even begin to gauge how much he gave to listeners like me, who merely watched from the audience or listened to his recordings—a gift Bill Evans continues to offer more than four decades after his untimely death. That makes it all the sadder, that a quiet, introspective man who did so much for the art form and its aspirants and fans, took so little care of himself.