In the days of the LP – and in particularly during the 1970’s – reissue or compilation releases were a great way to be introduced to artists, or to expand a personal collection. These compilations were generally two LP sets, which not only meant there was a lot of music, but also that the gatefold package allowed for extensive liner notes. When you bought an album like this, you knew that the writer had space to write meaningful biographical sketches, tell personal stories, and wax philosophically about the artist’s overall contribution to the music.
This weekend I spent some time with several of these compilations, and the one that caught my interest was the 1975 Milestone Records Bill Evans compilation titled Peace Piece and Other Pieces. The package features the music originally released on Everybody Digs Bill Evans, as well as at the time unreleased recordings that came out of an impromptu session following a Chet Baker gig, featuring Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
In a fascinating and entertaining read, Orrin Keepnews, co-founder of Riverside Records, uses the occasion of this reissue to tell stories about his discovery of Evans, the pianist’s self-doubt and sense of humor, and the circumstances of this post Chet Baker session.
The first time I ever heard Bill Evans was on a homemade tape played over the telephone. This was very nearly 20 years ago, but even then I was bright enough to know that’s no proper way to audition new talent. Actually, the man who insisted on playing the tape also knew better, but he just couldn’t resist the urge to have us hear this young pianist right away. Bill Grauer and I listened, although we really didn’t want to; and we were mightily impressed.
I begin these notes with this rather corny scene simply because, when you examine the several facts involved and what lay beneath their surface, you come up with some key insights into Bill Evans (and also into Riverside Records in its early days).
First and more important fact: even under ridiculously unfavorable conditions, there was something in his playing that literally forced us to pay attention. Secondly, the man who persuaded us to listen in such an unprofessional way was himself a thoroughly professional musician, a better-than-most guitarist named Mundell Lowe. He was the first musician I came across (but only the first in a long line) to go out of his way to make a lot of noise about Evans to anyone who could be made to listen. Thirdly, Mundell knew Bill pretty well – they had met in New Orleans when Evans was still in his teens and a student at Southeastern Louisiana College, and Bill’s very first jazz jobs were summertime gigs with Lowe and bassist Red Mitchell. So he knew Bill well enough to realize that you were never going to get that shy and self-deprecating young man to audition for a record company, or sit down and make a formal demo tape, or take part in any other normal scheme to promote himself into a record date. Finally, Grauer and Keepnews happened to be management, and just about the entire staff, of a very young, eager, and struggling record company. Riverside in 1956 was still best known to the more fanatical fans of traditional jazz, for our major activity was the reissuing of rare 1920s items by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, and such. We had already done some wading into the waters of contemporary jazz, but our only “name” artist was Thelonious Monk.
We signed Evans to a very nominal contract (which was certainly standard procedure for an agreement between an underfinanced young company and an unknown artist) and spent some time convincing him that he was ready to record (which was quite nonstandard procedure). Then as now, most young performers were only too willing to display their talents to the world as quickly as possible – some are right, and some are premature, but hardly any are bashful. Bill, I must emphasize, was not being coy. He was a schooled musician, had had dance band experience with Herbie Fields and Jerry wald, and was working with a quartet led by Tony Scott, a clarinetist who has since disappeared from the scene, but in the mid-Fifties was a highly regarded New York jazz figure. Bill simply didn’t assume that the public was sitting out there holding its breath and waiting for him. And when he did put together his first album – mostly trip, with some solo-piano tracks, including the debut of his now-celebrated composition “Waltz for Debby” – it looked for quite a while as if he had been right to be hesitant. There were good reviews from critics like Nat Hentoff, and some reaction from musicians, but the combination of a brand-new lyrical white pianist and an almost brand-new, embarrassingly promotionally unhip company made no mark at all on the public consciousness. It is my recollection that in 1957, its first year, we sold something like 800 copies of that first Evans LP.
We found this neither particularly surprising nor disheartening. It was simply the way the world was. I have often commented on the fact that most of the independent jazz labels of that era were owned and operated by fans – no sane businessman would have gone into the field; if one had found himself there by accident, he certainly wouldn’t have stayed. Eventually, all of us did have our share of hits and stars and actually did turn into businesses, although not necessarily all soundly or efficiently run organizations. But way back then I know that I found it not at all unrewarding just to have launched what I considered a vastly promising career and to have gotten to know a very talented a warm and, unexpectedly, witty human being.
Somebody really ought to write a piece sometime about the relationships between jazz and humor – although, come to think of it, there have been few jazz writers over the years with enough sense of humor to tackle the subject. There are several angles to it: the feeling of kinship to the music and to musicians that was an important part of the personality of Lenny Bruce; the truly funny playing of some great performers, whether it be overtly (as with a Fats Waller or Dizzy Gillespie) or more subtly (Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins); or the fact that some jazz musicians are among the finest nonprofessional verbal wits you’ll ever find. Those who have experienced any of the devastating commentaries of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams will know what I mean. And, to make this paragraph fully relevant, there is Bill Evans. When I first sat down to interview him in real straight fashion, not knowing any better, to pick up biographical data for liner notes, I asked him about his second instrument. “Is there any particular reason you also studied the flute?” “I don’t know,” I was told, “unless maybe because it’s a phallic symbol.” Sometime later, I saw fit to title an album (it’s now the first two sides of this reissue) Everybody Digs Bill Evans and filled the cover with laudatory statements from Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Ahmad Jamal, and George Shearing. It was obviously not the sort of thing that suited Bill’s non-extroverted approach to himself, but his only comment on the subject was to ask me, deadpan, “Why didn’t you get a quote from my mother?” And as a final, very tough example, one of the sharpest lines of so-called “sick humor” I’ve ever heard. Late in 1963, when financial affairs at Riverside were, to put it bluntly, in one hell of a mess, Bill Grauer, who was in charge of money matters, suddenly had a heart attack and died. Sometime thereafter Evans said to me (and the remark was not at all lacking in real affection and sympathy): “I figure he must have died in self-defense.”
I have never heard anything outright “funny” – either in a Gillespie-broad or a Rollins-sardonic way – in Bill’s playing. But it still seems to me quite important, in evaluating and appreciating his music, to be made aware of the existence of his swift, quiet way. Just as it is of value to know that this has always been a perfectionist, quick to find fault with his own performances. Certainly such things help as much as being told in scholarly fashion about how he phrases in long lines more like a horn player than a pianist, or to which Western European composers he seems most indebted. I have never found myself either much pleased or much helped by that kind of “serious” music criticism. Maybe it has something to do with my own deeply personal involvement with jazz – but I really think that even an “ordinary” listener (but can anyone who really pays attention to jazz be called ordinary?) is better off giving more consideration to whom the player is than to the material he is playing or the technique he brings to bear on it. Or at least equal consideration.
Certainly it was human-being changes more than musical ones, that separated the shy, interesting 1956 Evans from the much more self-possessed and influential 1958-59 Evans who is heard on almost all the selections in the present reissue collection. As far as I’m concerned, the man heard right here did more than anyone else to shape the form and direction of the past 15 years of jazz piano playing. I also believe that the greatest jazz musicians do a lot to shape themselves, so I won’t say that without Bill there would be no Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, or Keith Jarrett (to name a few). But I will say that without Bill none of those (plus many others) would have been able to follow precisely the path that he has followed.
The Everybody Digs… album was recorded almost 27 months after the first Evans album. I don’t want to make it seem as if that time was spent in constant efforts to get him back into a studio, but I did try very frequently. Bill’s most usual excuse was that he had “nothing new” to say; then, during most of 1958 he was busy traveling with a regular group. For a most interesting change had taken place in bill’s professional life – Miles Davis had heard him and had hired him, making Evans part of that incredibly talented and pacemaking sextet that also included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. It was a move that made many differences: for one thing, it’s obviously not bad experience to spend all your working nights in such company; for another, it’s hard to keep on being quite so self-deprecating when such men accept you as a peer; for a third, to be employed by Miles quickly broke down the color barrier and helped greatly in making this white pianist fully acceptable to the upcoming generation of black musicians.
Then, very shortly after leaving the Davis group, Bill announced his readiness to record. In a sense the album was a direct result of his period with Miles; and that was also the only extensive period in Evans’s career to date spent working with horns. I have always thought of the album as presenting the most aggressive playing he has ever recorded, by which I mean in his attitude, not just tempo – the set included some very memorable ballad playing. In a 1975 conversation while I was putting together this reissue set, Bill agreed but also expanded on the point.
“One of the reasons I left Miles,” he noted, “was because my father was ill. I spent some time visiting my folks and went through a rather reflective period. While I was staying with my brother in Baton Rouge – he had a piano – I remember finding that somehow I had reached a new inner level of expression in my playing. It had come almost automatically, and I was very anxious about it, afraid I might lose it – I thought maybe I’d wake up tomorrow and it wouldn’t be there. But when I got back to New York and the piano in my own apartment, it was consistently there, and it was this new feeling that fortunately carried over into the date.
“So I’ve always felt pretty good about that record, because I know there was a strong feeling to it and that’s the hardest thing about recording to begin with. You know, you go in at a certain time on a certain day and you hope you’re going to have that kind of peak. No matter what happens, you play, you do a job and to most listeners it probably doesn’t make that much difference. However, when you do have that special day, it penetrates – I mean this album has gotten a certain kind of reaction from people through the years; it seems to have a lot to do with that very special felling I had then.”
His accompanists on the session also reflect Bill’s thinking at the time: Philly Joe had been part of Miles’s band during much of Bill’s stay there, and Sam Jones, with whom he had worked and recorded before, was there because Evans “really wanted that strong walking conception.” But of course the single most celebrated segment of the date was the remarkable solo improvisation he titled “Peace Piece.” It was quite unplanned. Bill had intended to include “Some Other Time,” from the Forties Broadway musical On the Town, and while working out his own introduction found that he had gotten into something he liked much better than the Leonard Bernstein melody itself. Such stories always sound a little like show biz clichés (the star broke her leg on opening night and the understudy went on to stardom; there were a few minutes left over at the record date, so they whipped up this tune that became a million-copy seller; and so on), so I am pleased to attest to the truth of this account.
All of Sides 3 and 4 except for the final selections were recorded only a month later. Considering the previous 27-month time lag, it’s fairly obvious that there was something unusual about this. The actual occasion was an evening Chet Baker session for which Bill, Philly, and the late Paul Chambers were the rhythm section. After the date, for reasons now unclear to me, I asked the three to stick around and play some more. I can’t recall ever having done such a thing before or after; usually, one job at a time in the studio is enough ti tire everyone out. Perhaps we hadn’t accomplished that much and still had energy to burn; perhaps I was afraid of possibly another two-year time lag between albums (actually it was to be only one full year, until December of 1959, before the next formal Evans session).
Although this recording activity was totally unexpected, the three men of course had spent a good deal of time together as Miles’s rhythm section during ’58. They played some material from the Davis repertoire (“Woody’n You,” “Green Dolphin Street”) and some mutually familiar standards and then stopped, with Bill relying on my promise to do nothing with the tapes if he didn’t approve them on later listening. And that’s what happened; as I recall it, he felt they were rhythmically very successful but that not enough was happening on other levels, and so the tapes just stayed on a shelf in the Riverside tape vault. Miraculously, that’s where they remained for about a decade and a half, somehow neither getting lost nor being discovered and issued by those who took over after the company folded in 1964.
Finally, when the long arm of coincidence brought Bill and the Riverside tapes and me together under the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone roof in the early Seventies, I asked him to listen again. He still had some misgivings (“If we had just taken a little more time to set up the frameworks, possibly some endings and what-not, it could have been a much more finished thing”), but he agreed with my feeling that it really wasn’t a bad session at all. Listening for the first time in many years, it struck me that the passage of time had also added certain value to the tapes as representative of a particular period. To Bill, there was still another virtue:
“I’ts very interesting to hear simply because of the great musicians involved with me. I think Philly Joe and Paul were pretty much at their peak at that time, and as far as I’m concerned these are two of the most underrated musicians in the history of jazz, much greater influences than they’re given credit for. You really don’t hear Paul Chambers mentioned that much in the history of bass playing, but I know personally that he was an influence on Scott LaFaro and Eddie Gomez – and I’ll bet just about any bassist who play well will mention Paul.”
The recordings here represent to me essentially the culmination of a specific formative period, when Bill was for the first time really getting his remarkable personal form of expression fully under control. When I made this point to him, his response was an intriguing combination of an artist’s pride in work he knows to be valid and of a continuing search for something more:
“I think there’s always an identity in your playing, but to make it more broad requires a different kind of maturity. I could play you a tape I made when I was in the army in about 1953 that has the seeds of the way I build lines and all that, but what you’re talking about is that deeper level I suddenly just found around the time I left Miles. It’s something that’s very elusive and doesn’t happen very often, but all you can do is to strive for it every time you play. At that period it seemed to be there all the time. I don’t know when it was that I found I couldn’t depend on it always being there – or maybe I just got used to it and created a new goal or something…”
[The final number here, “Loose Bloose,” is from a few years later, but has the presence of Philly Joe and the fact that it also is previously unissued as connective links to make its inclusion here logical. This, I’m afraid, is from a truly lost session, originally planned as a sort of companion piece to Bill’s only more-than-trio Riverside album, Interplay, which had featured Freddie Hubbard and Jim Hall. But things just didn’t go too smoothly at this Evans/Hall/Zoot Sims date, and it too was put on the shelf. Later, Bill and engineer Ray Fowler began to do editing work; they put this selection into shape that Evans approved and got started on a second before stopping. They hever did resume the project, and now I find that the rest of the tapes have totally vanished – leaving only “Loose Bloose” and a frustrating partial item that ends abruptly in the middle of a piano solo. My gut reaction was to get this one salvaged tune out into the world quickly, before It also disappeared.]
– Orrin Keepnews 1975
Milestone Records M-47024