Bill Evans: his last days (1980)
After an appearance in Portland, Oregon, the trio went on to Los Angeles to share a Hollywood Bowl concert with the George Shearing Duo and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The contrasting styles of the three pianists attracted a large crowd, and they were congenially introduced by Shelly
Manne. That was on August 27, just before a week’s run for the trio at the Keystone Komer Jazz Club in San Francisco. There Herb Wong, a longtime friend of the pianist, found him in the worst shape he had ever seen him.
Evans had demanded drugs as soon as he arrived in town, no longer caring what happened to him physically. Haggard, he was eating little more than candy. More than one doctor advised that he should withdraw from playing and enter hospital, but Evans was dismissive, being interested in only one thing: to play with his trio. Wong sat with him in the basement of the club, looked at his watch and said, ”You know, you’re going to have to get a little more rest before you get on stage.”
“Let me tell you,” Evans rejoined. “I can’t wait to get on stage because of Joe LaBarbera and Marc Johnson . I have no words for it. Just to tell you that I admire these two young guys, and I’m just a very lucky person . I can’t wait to play with them.”
The pianist’s mood deepened. He spoke softly to his friend , drawing him in: “I don’t want you to leave yet. I want to tell you something.” Herb Wong waited.
“I want to thank you for all the conversations we’ve had all these years.”
”You’re thanking me?”, said Herb. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m the one that’s so grateful to have the chances to chat with you about anything and everything.”
Bill nodded. “Thanks a lot. I appreciate it, but I’ve got to go.”
Bill’s friend was close to tears, and could only tell him to rest in order to play what he needed to play. Wong went upstairs and sat alone at the side waiting for the group to come on, aware that this might well be the last Bill Evans gig he would witness.
The trio played Keystone Korner for eight nights, starting on Sunday, August 31. All eight performances were recorded by the club owner, Todd Barkan, and issued in 1989, without authorization from the surviving artists, on an eight-C D set by Alfa Records of Tokyo called Consecration:
The Last Complete Collection. Helen Keane told me specifically: “Bill was not happy with his playing while he was there, didn’t know he was being recorded, and would never have approved the release of the material.”
On the first night, a rendering of “My Foolish Heart” was conjured to compare with the classic 1961 performance from the Vanguard. Now, with continuity of feeling (and key, A major) over the intervening years, a more adventurous statement was being made, farther flung on the keyboard and freer rhythmically. The original conception had developed in complexity but not deepened in spirit: simply, its essence had remained intact, affirming the initial worth.
After “Knit for Mary F. ,” Bill ran down the set so far: “I know how curious people are about what’s being played all the time . . . ” His observation that the theme from M *A * S * H was also known as “Suicide Is Painless” extracted a wry chuckle from a few understanding souls.
“Debatable,” he proffered, with reason. At the end of the set, he confided in his audience as though embracing them for the week: “You’ve been a superb audience; I got a good piano; should have a good time.” On the third night, he was late, and Denny Zeitlin sat in for a while. At the end of his own set, Bill paid tribute to his colleague: ‘Tm sorry I was late, though when I got here I was glad, because we all had the opportunity to hear a truly exceptional, marvelous creative talent and pianist, Denny Zeitlin.”
On this run, the desperation, almost anger, exhibited at Ronnie’s had dissipated, the tone now soberly controlled and unforced, the defiance more knowingly resigned. Paul Simon’s song “I Do It for Your Love” continued to inspire the pianist’s most complex thoughts, and the performance given on September 2 has been transcribed by Art Tofanelli Jr. for Win Hinkle’s publication Letter from Evans (example attached).
Its appearance on the printed page is remarkable, an amalgam of elements from the music of Chopin, Liszt, and Bartok, but above all the Romanian Georges Enescu. Evans’s interpretation of this song defied categorization. The percussive, repeated note was much in evidence, better suited to vibraphone than piano technique, though one might rather cite the cimbalom, for this music represented, with its tremolos and swirling decoration, an uncanny return to those Eastern European roots that
were so close to his ancestral Ukraine; more than a little of the gypsy within had surfaced.
Of scores of residences in clubs worldwide, this was the last one he completed. The Alfa boxed set (which won Japan’s Gold Disc Award) documents virtually the whole run, revealing in the process a gradual winding down of inspiration. By the final Sunday the spark seemed to be largely gone, but the playing never fell below the pianist’s root professional level, and it was in any case honorably carried by his colleagues. These two musicians, a generation younger, worshiped Bill and lent their support and youthful spirit to his own artistic energy. They both knew that any night could be his last.
Evans had been looking at transcriptions made by Peter Dreyfuss for a forthcoming music publication, to be called Bill Evans 4. (Bill Evans 3 had appeared in 1975). Judy Bell at TRO also prepared a volume called The Last Compositions, transcribed by Bob Bauer. In addition, Evans was working on an extended piece, emanating from the heart of his harmonic thinking.
“There was for him this sense of something being j ust out of reach,” explained his wife, Nenette. “Bill spoke of a large work, a work he always wanted to do. He would get enthused about it. . . . To quote his journals:
‘Lately, I’ve been discovering something wonderfully basic . . . right in the middle of modem harmony.’
He was always so tired, though, and his playing diary was so full that he could never secure a long enough oasis of time during which to gather his thoughts. He felt obliged to satisfy his fans by continually playing. A Russian trip was planned to follow on the next Japanese tour; and then there were ideas for future projects, albums with Phil Woods, Oscar Peterson . . .
Example: The beginning of Paul Simon’s “I Do It for Your Love” from Consecration: The Last Complete Collection . This particular outpouring is from the performance given September 2, 1980, at Keystone Komer, San Francisco.
On September 9, back in New York, he recorded a live appearance on the Merv Griffen Show as one of three featured jazz artists, the others being Cal Tjader and George Shearing. On the studio’s white Yamaha, wearing a suit to match, he played “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Your Story.”
He justified his choice of ”Your Story” on air to the audience: “You know, directors always panic about what you’re going to play – don’t play anything slow. I don’t get a chance to play on shows like this too often, where I reach this many people, and I’ve been writing songs – they’ve been coming out lately like laying eggs. Once in a while, I just go, prrk! prrk! prrk! – a new tune. So I would l ike to do this, which I think is a little more serious maybe for your audience.”
“Play anything you want! ” yelled someone from the floor. Mundell Lowe, one of his very first friends in the business, was musical director for the show and was sitting in the house band. “I went backstage to see him,” he recalls. “And I realized he was awfully ill -awfully ill. And, of course, Bill left the show and I gave him a big hug. I had a feeling that I might not see him again.”
The trio was booked into Fat Tuesday’s for a week, starting that night, Tuesday, September 9th, 1980. Marc Johnson recalls that Bill felt a little guilty for deserting the Vanguard. The television recording made it a long day for the weak and stricken musician. The following night he went in again and fulfilled his professional obligation at the club, but it was to be his last performance.
On the Thursday he admitted defeat and declared himself unable to perform, a decision that he had never taken lightly throughout his life; all his colleagues knew that if Bill Evans could not play, something was seriously wrong.
He hauled himself into the club by taxi to apologize to his waiting friends, in particular Marc Johnson, Joe LaBarbera, and Helen Keane. The club was run by Steve Getz, son of Stan, who called on Andy LaVeme to stand in for that night and the rest of the week if necessary. And so it proved, Evans languishing in his Fort Lee apartment for the next three days, attended by those closest to him.
On the Sunday, Laurie Verchomin and Joe LaBarbera persuaded Bill to go to Mount Sinai Hospital. On the way, although he was coughing up blood and complaining of a feeling of drowning, he was alert enough to give directions to LaBarbera, who was driving. Then he lost consciousness before Joe carried his frail body into the building.
Bill Evans died at approximately 3 : 30 P. M. the following day, Monday, September 15, 1980, officially from a hemorrhaging ulcer and bronchial pneumonia. His final condition arose as the culmination of many factors.
The most critical of these was the damage to his liver, affected from youth by hepatitis, its injury fearfully compounded by protracted drug use. In the final months he suffered, as so often before, from malnutrition. But there is a conviction among those who knew him well that it was the death of his dear brother that had undermined his will to live and led to the final decline.
Nenette said, “Bill actively plotted an escape from pain.” His slow suicide carried its own pain, but the agony was defied to the end by his artistic ecstasy.
Bill Evans rests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Bill Evans – Portrait in Jazz (Full Album)
Portrait in Jazz is an album by American jazz pianist Bill Evans, released in 1960. It is the first of only two studio albums to be recorded with his famous trio featuring bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian.
Eight months after his successful collaboration with Miles Davis on the album Kind of Blue, Evans recorded Portrait in Jazz with a new group (the Bill Evans Trio) that helped change the direction of modern jazz.
Most noticeably, LaFaro’s bass is promoted from a mere accompanying instrument to one of almost equal status to the piano (though not to the extent that it would be on later albums such as Sunday at the Village Vanguard). It is one of Evans’ more up-tempo and swinging albums (the presence of several ballads notwithstanding).
"Come Rain or Come Shine" (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer) – 3:24
"Autumn Leaves" (Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Johnny Mercer) – 6:00
"Witchcraft" (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh) – 4:37
"When I Fall in Love" (Victor Young, Edward Heyman) – 4:57
"Peri's Scope" (Bill Evans) – 3:15
"What Is This Thing Called Love?" (Cole Porter) – 4:36
"Spring Is Here" (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart) – 5:09
"Someday My Prince Will Come" (Frank Churchill, Larry Morey) – 4:57
"Blue in Green" (Miles Davis, Bill Evans) – 5:25
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