The tragic life of jazz pianist Bill Evans

The tragic life of jazz pianist Bill Evans

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Sometimes, reality is too harsh.

So Bill Evans escaped by turning to addiction: first to heroin and, later, cocaine.

His life was one of perpetual heartbreak. A friend once said that Evans’ death in 1980 was the result of “the longest suicide in history.”

There’s something sweet and tender about many of Evans’ better-known compositions. Listen to his most endearing track, “Waltz with Debby,” and one gets the sense that life is grand, even if it is tinged with traces of melancholy.

But for Evans, there were growing shades of darkness and mounting burdens that couldn’t be overcome.

The virtuoso jazz pianist, who died at age 51 from complications of cirrhosis and untreated hepatitis, has influenced generations of musicians.

He was a towering figure who once toured with Billie Holiday, played on the best-selling jazz album of all time, backed up Tony Bennett and captivated Greenwich Village.

And Evans’ legacy isn’t fading away any time soon, either. A documentary, “Bill Evans, Time Remembered,” released on DVD late last year, chronicles the challenges of Evans’ career.

“I never heard him make a harmonic mistake,” one of Evans’ friends, pianist Warren Bernhardt, tells director Bruce Spiegel. “Never. Not one wrong note.”

The film also delves into Evans’ drug use and how it affected his music.

“You ought to be able to deal with the work, but not feel the pain,” one musician says. “Heroin is particularly well-suited to that.”

Evans’ debut album, “New Jazz Conceptions,” was released in 1957. It featured 11 tracks, including “Waltz for Debby,” which would go on to become his most enduring song. The next year, he met Miles Davis.

It was perhaps an unlikely duo. The trumpeter was the embodiment of cool, a powerful figure with a haunting glare, often hidden behind a pair of iconic shades.

Evans was thin and somewhat unassuming. With his clean-cut features and 1950s Browline glasses, he looked better suited for a career as one of the new, young intellectuals who would soon take over Washington, D.C. under President Kennedy than a jazz musician working in smoke-filled clubs.

But the relationship worked. With Davis’ sextet in tow, “Kind of Blue” was a game-changer in the jazz world, inasmuch as it ushered in a new age of improvisation. It is, arguably, the best jazz album of all time. Evans is all over it.

“I don’t think people realize his contribution to that record as much as they should,” Spiegel, the filmmaker, told NPR recently. “And I don’t think that record would have ever been the same without Bill Evans’ contribution.”

Evans recorded more than 50 albums in a 24-year period. Not all of them hit the mark, of course. In a literary sense, he was akin to Jack London, working feverishly to produce as much content as he could in a relatively short window of time.

He recorded two albums of note with Bennett that featured just piano and Bennett’s voice — a challenge for any singer.

In spite of the achievements, there was pain and sadness.

In 1961, Scott LaFaro, Evans’ bassist, was killed in a car crash at the age of 25. His death occurred just 10 days after The Bill Evans Trio completed recordings for their live album “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” LaFaro’s death plunged Evans into depression, and his heroin addiction worsened.

“I think heroin, for Bill Evans, helped him to cope with what was going on,” Spiegel said of Evans’ early career.

The addiction was cyclical. Evans would kick heroin. Then it was on to methadone and then, finally, to cocaine.

In 1973, his longtime girlfriend, Ellaine, committed suicide.

Then, in 1979, Evans’ brother, Harry, also committed suicide after suffering from a mental illness for years. For the pianist, it was the final blow. He fed the addiction while his own health rapidly deteriorated. Evans died the following year.

Some lives are troubled. Others are scarred. Few are carefree. Evans’ was a portrait in heartbreak. He was a genius who vanished from the scene too early.

But he gave us some beautiful and thought-provoking music along the way.

“It felt,” Bennett once said of those sessions alone with Evans, “like I was recording with a symphony.”

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