Bill Evans: Time Remembered



In 1965, Bill Evans toured Europe with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker. I was then Editor-in-Chief of the French monthly "Jazz Magazine," and had started an intensive policy of musician interviews in a Q&A form a few years earlier. At the time, this format was very unusual but very revealing, and when Bill Evans was scheduled to play Paris, I made arrangements to interview him. He was staying at the Hôtel de la Trémouille, situated in a street of the same name near Place de l'Alma on the right bank. When I arrived in his room, I was surprised by the darkness of the place: It was daytime but the curtains were closed, creating a murky, claustrophobic environment. Bill introduced me to Elaine, his wife, a lean brunette with a sad smile and piercing eyes. The interview lasted more than an hour, an hour in which Bill, soft-spoken and ensconced in a large armchair, answered my questions candidly and articulately, without seeming bored or preoccupied. Most probably understanding my feeling ill-at-ease during the first few minutes of my visit, he made a concerted effort to be extremely charming.

More than 30 years after the interview (which was published, translated, in "Jazz Magazine" in 1965, but never published in its original language), I still vividly remember the moment when Bill Evans spoke about death. He looked at me through the darkness, his eyes blurred by the thickness of his glasses, and, in that wake-like atmosphere, I felt a chill go through my body.
--Jean-Louis Ginibre

Jean-Louis Ginibre: Have you ever read sensible magazine articles about you?

Bill Evans: Yes, as a matter of fact, a couple of times I read some critics that got to me. I thought they were justified, and I modified certain sides of my playing accordingly. As far as I'm concerned, everybody's right. It's only a matter of viewpoint. Almost everything that's been written about me has been bright and sensible. The press has been good to me. Except a couple of articles out of two hundred, all of them have been very favorable. I've been very lucky.

Some critics say your music is impressionistic. What do you think?

I love impressionists. I love Debussy. He's one of my favorite composers. I'm not crazy about painting, but if I was, I would prefer the Impressionists. Sometimes, I feel like I'm living two hundred years behind, back in the eighteenth century, not in the twentieth. So I don't know if I'm an impressionist or not. I have the desire to change, but I feel I can't as long as I'm not able to replace what I'm doing by something better. I haven't found anything better yet, so I'm satisfied with what I have.

Are you searching deliberately or do you let yourself go?

I let myself go. I find as I go along. I feel like I've learned from many people, and yet I'm told I've influenced other musicians. I hardly believe I'm as talented as some others. Someone with talent possesses a kind of facility and plays well as early as 16 or 17, much better than I could play myself at that age. I had to practice a lot and spend a lot of time searching and digging before I got anywhere. And because of that, I later became more aware of what I was doing. I wasn't an imitation. I found myself with a synthesis of the playing of many musicians. From this something came out and I think it's really mine.

Are you surprised by your success?

Yes, I am worked hard to get it and I had put all my hopes in it. But I see so many talented people who are not successful.

When you started, what piano players did you admire?

I think first Nat King Cole. A great pianist. And then Earl Hines, Bud Powell. Bud had been my greater influence because he's got a sense of the form. Also Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Al Haig, Lou Levy.

Why Dave Brubeck?

You see, you learn from everyone. From Nat King Cole I'd take rhythm and sparsity; from Dave Brubeck a particular voicing; from George Shearing also a voicing, but of another kind; from Oscar Peterson a powerful swing; from Earl Hines a sense of structure. Bud Powell has it all, but even from him I wouldn't take everything. I wouldn't listen to a recording by Bud and try to play along with it, to imitate. Rather, I'd listen to the record and try to absorb the essence of it and apply it to something else. Besides, it wasn't only the pianists but also the saxophones, the trumpets, everybody. It's more the mind "that thinks jazz" than the instrument "that plays jazz" which interests me.

What about Thelonious Monk?

Not too much. I like him a lot. What comes from Monk, some others absorbed it, too. He's such a strong and beautiful individual that imitating him is insulting him, and it's a mistake to do so. You give up your own personality when you imitate him--or anybody else for that matter.

Can you talk about your experiments in the field of rhythm?

Not really. It's only a feeling. I started professionally at 12 1/2. Everybody wants to play jazz after school, and out of hundreds of thousands, only a few people emerge. So it's not like if you decide what you're gonna do and shut yourself in a closet to practice. I think jazz is the folk music of our country, and I believe it's gonna spread and develop more. I don't like what has no tradition. Everything must stem from tradition. But I do not especially experiment in the field of rhythm.

When you were 16, you put a band together with your brother?

It was in college. I had already played with older musicians in dance bands, so I had a good background. With my brother we put together that band made exclusively of students. I started to play piano at six. I used to play classical music and only what was written. If they'd asked to play the "Star Spangled Banner," I couldn't have done it without the part. At 12, I was starting to play in bands. I was playing what was written until the day I did something that wasn't. It was wonderful to find something that wasn't written and yet sounded good! That's what really led me to jazz.

Among these students playing with you, is there one who became a professional jazz player?

No. But, my God, America's so big! Each college had one or two bands. Everybody wants to play and plays a little. In New York, it's pathetic to see so many superb musicians who are starving! Maybe somewhere else they would be kings, but in New York, they're nobody. I had to fight myself for a long time. When I arrived in New York, I had to wait three years before I made it. But it's very hard. If you succeed easily, you run the risk of falling back down as easily. But if you take the time and your talent is real, it will last.

You were still in college when you played with Mundell Lowe?

Yes. I was in college in Louisiana. Mundell came to town and somebody from the college asked him to listen to me. At that time, I was a junior. Later on, I received a cable: "Do you want to work with me this summer?" Of course I accepted and worked with him and Red Mitchell. I wanted to quit college, but he advised me to complete my studies. Later on, thanks to Mundell, I met Tony Scott. When I came out of college, Tony found some work for me with Herbie Fields. I stayed ten months with Herbie, then I was drafted. After three years in the army, I went back home to New Jersey and stayed there one year and a half. Then I went to New York where I sweated it out for two or three years. And it started to happen. In fact, it's been only two years since I've been able to breathe. I can get what I want, and I don't want much.

Herbie Fields committed suicide.

Yes, two years ago. In some ways he had been a forerunner of rock `n' roll. He was wiggling, jerking. Rock n' roll came, brought millions of dollars, but nothing for Herbie Fields. Then his wife left him, taking away the kids. He was drinking, he had nothing left. So he killed himself. It's better for him. I'd rather see him dead than living and going through all that suffering.

You played with Eddie Costa

We were very good friends. We recorded once together, but we didn't play often together. We both like sports. One hour before he got killed, I was with him.

How did Miles Davis hire you?

He called me on the phone. I'd simply met him once, at "The Composers." Someone had introduced me. Six months later, he called me to ask if I wanted to work with him for the weekend. He probably liked me because he hired me.

Did you rehearse a lot with Miles' group?

No, never. And I never rehearse with my trio either. We understand each other very well. If you know a tune, we must be able to play it. Each musician has enough musicianship for that. Since the beginning, we've never rehearsed with the trio, and with Miles we didn't rehearse either.

Why did you leave Miles Davis?

I was very unhappy when I was with him. I don't know exactly why, but I felt at one point it was time for me to go. I told Miles about it and he agreed. We've remained good friends.

Did Miles ask you to play in a particular spirit?

He started to ask me that, but I didn't let him. Miles can push you around if you let him do it. But if you resist, he'll like you even better.

What do you think of your experience with Scott LaFaro?

It's been marvelous. It wasn't only a musical experience. Scott was one of the most lively persons I've ever known. He's always been a source of inspiration to me. I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't died. He has gone so far so fast! I don't think he would have gone much farther.

Did you believe you could ever replace him in the trio?

I don't think he can be replaced. I'll never find someone like him, but I found someone with other qualities. Chuck Israels plays superbly and offers things Scott didn't have. But I'll never be able to find someone like Scott or like Chuck or like Gary Peacock.

Why didn't it work with Gary Peacock?

Gary is in the middle of a personal crisis, and I don't want to impose my ideas and my style on anyone. I've too much respect for Gary's talent to impose on him in any way, and I wanted to give him a chance to find himself. The more he played with me, the more he liked what we were doing, the more he believed in it. However, I felt he wanted to do something else and I didn't want to force him. So we split.

How did you break up with Paul Motian?

It's him who left us! In Los Angeles. He left because he was suffering from the separation from his wife and also because of small disagreements in the group, disagreements I won't try to explain. I like Paul very much. He stayed with us a long time.

Do you listen to classical music?

Yes, and I play some for my own pleasure.

Who is your favorite composer?

All the great masters: Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky. I feel I don't quite understand what's happening today in classical music. I try to understand, but it doesn't move me.

You have recorded with Gunther Schuller and George Russell. What are your feelings about it?

I admire them both, but I don't agree with a great many parts of Schuller's opinion and with some of George Russell's. Still, I consider Russell as being one of the few--if not the only--good jazz composers. Schuller has a lot of knowledge, he is a wonderful musician. But I'm still waiting for someone. I don't know who, but I'm still waiting.

You played in the "Odds Against Tomorrow" movie soundtrack. What do you think of that experience?

I've been a little disappointed. In the movie, there's a seduction scene between Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. I improvised on it. I was looking at the picture while improvising and I'd coordinated my improvisation with what was going on on the screen. When I saw the movie, I realized the music had been edited with a four second time lag. It didn't mean anything anymore.

What does the word "freedom" represent to you in music?

For me, "freedom" is to make room where there isn't any to start with. You take a music part. It seems there's no freedom in there, but if you take the time, and if you understand what's in the part, you'll find as much freedom as you want. You can also throw the part away, sit down on the piano, play with your elbows and say: `This is freedom.' Not for me. The most valuable freedom is the one which has strength, because it is won against something solid, something rigid.

Do you listen to Ornette Coleman?

We were on the same bill in New York for two weeks before coming to Paris. I can't deny some people seem to like it, but it's not at all my musical approach. I'm not Ornette Coleman and it would be useless for me to try to make that kind of music. I'd have to live my life again and be someone different, that's all I can say.

During this engagement, did he also play violin?

Yes, violin, but you could call it violation!

People often say that you are the best pianist to have come along in ten years. How do you feel about that?

I don't know. Deep inside I'm the same. I play the same standards the same way, and I was as good as before no matter what they say. So, it doesn't make any difference to me, except that if there were enough people to say that, maybe I'd make more money. But in fact, what people say has no importance. I know who I am, somebody very simple and very basic. I feel I've been lucky.

Do you like people?

Yes, but I don't seem to communicate well with them.

Is it important to communicate with people?

I dedicate my life to it.

But sometimes in concerts or in clubs, you fail to.

Of course. Like in any other profession, there are good and bad moments.

Does that disturb you?

Of course. I feel responsible.

Is there another artform you consider superior to music?

No, not by a long shot.

Are you a tolerant man?

I try to be, but maybe inside I'm not at all. In other words, I don't want to hurt anybody, but I have to be very strict to contain myself. When you asked me about Ornette Coleman, you know what I answered. But deep inside it could very well be I'm strongly against his music.

Chuck Israels seems to be more affirmative in what he likes or doesn't like.

I don't know Chuck very well. I think it's hard to know him, but I like him a lot. Musically, we understand each other very well.

Your first personal recordings were made for Riverside, a company run by Bill Grauer. Were you close to him?

Not really. Bill Grauer handled the administrative side of Riverside and Orrin Keepnews the artistic side. So I had very little to do with Bill Grauer and as little as I had to deal with him, it wasn't very gratifying. He was very rough. I was very sorry to hear about his death, but I didn't have any good things to say about him when he was alive.

Do you think his death caused or speeded up Riverside's bankruptcy?

No. Rather, Riverside's upcoming bankruptcy precipitated Grauer's death. He probably had put Riverside so much into the red, they couldn't get out of it. They were working with very small capital and they borrowed from the banks to try to expand. They went too far and ended up bankrupt.

Do you like your album Conversation With Myself?

Partly. Four cuts have been published without my consent: "Hey There," "Blue Monk" and two others. I had decided not to include them in the album. But I like "Spartacus," "Round About Midnight," "Stella by Starlight" and "How About You." This album has won many awards, among them a Grammy. It was a good concept, I think.

Are you totally satisfied with your present group?

Very satisfied. Chuck Israels plays beautifully. Larry Bunker, of course, is a well-rounded musician and a great drummer. Both of them are very sensitive, understanding, and I think at many times we were able to experiment with something new. The potential is there.

During interviews, what questions are you asked most often?

"How do you call what you are playing?" And I have no answer to this question.

What are you interested in besides music?

I'm interested in sports. I'm not in shape right now, but I always practiced and I love it.

What sports?

Baseball, football. Of course, you can't play anymore as you get older. But I love golf, bowling.

Are you interested in politics?

Not at all.

So, you have no ambition to become a congressman or a senator?

No. The funniest thing is, in college I was always elected for that kind of office. But I think I often accepted because it appealed to my pride. I wanted to be accepted. It wasn't for the position. If the world depended on people like me, we would all live in caves.

What has been your most unpleasant experience?

It's hard to tell. In my life what affected me most was the army. I was so unhappy that I still haven't gotten over it. Besides, I often have the same nightmares: I dream they lost my papers, and I've got to do three more years!

Do you believe in a kind of superior power?

The only superior thing I've experienced is music.

When you think of the future, how do you envision your career?

I never think beyond the day after tomorrow. And not even that far! But if I was fantasizing, I would think of composing. But it's only a dream. In fact, I don't see beyond tomorrow.

Are you afraid of getting old?

No, the only thing I'm afraid of is death. When I was eighteen or nineteen I could have died. I was ready for death. Today, I'm not ready anymore. I've lost too much time as it is.

Jean-Louis Ginibre, who moved to the States 25 years ago, is currently Editorial Director of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines in New York City.