Jazz Birthday Calendar, August 16: Bill Evans

Jazz is famously an art form “in conversation”- members of a combo are responding to one another, a given improvised solo is often a set of licks and patterns responding to one another as well as the underlying melody and harmony of the tune, and any given composition is often a remix of earlier standards, like how Thelonius Monk’s Evidence is more-or-less a cubist rendition of the Tin Pan Alley song “Just You, Just Me,” with the title its own pun on this connection (Just You, Just Me-> Just Us-> Justice-> Evidence).

But Jazz is also in conversation between earlier and later forms of black popular and folk music and European classical music. This conversation isn’t just one way: Antonin Dvorak learned dozens of  spirituals from his black assistant and choir members during his years in the states, and incorporated them into the New Work Symphony and American Quartet, Scott Joplin was taken seriously as a composer in part because of Dvorak’s enjoinment to Americans to develop their own musical language rooted in the nation’s own traditions, Stravinsky  listened to Joplin’s ragtime and tried to write his own, Charlie Parker obsessively practiced lines from Stravinsky and even played the beginning of the “Firebird” suite for Stravinsky himself in a solo when Igor visited Birdland, and so on. And when Dexter Gordon remarks to his French host in the semi-fictional movie Round Midnight that he mostly listens to Debussy and Ravel- he’s probably not lying.

The tracks on the most famous of all jazz albums, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, often begin with just this kind of conversation- a piano passage that Debussy could have written, the bass and piano outlining a few sparse chords threaded together by an ambiguous impressionist melody, before the beat enters back in, and we’re in America in 1959, not France in 1899, after all.

The pianist on that album, Bill Evans, was a dedicated student of both European classical music and all forms of jazz.

Evans wrote that collective improvisation was like a Japanese watercolor– easy to screw up if you didn’t go with the flow.

Same might be said for America, and America’s music, which grows and diminishes depending on who is ready to listen to who.

3 thoughts on “Jazz Birthday Calendar, August 16: Bill Evans

  1. He obviously had an affinity for the French impressionists — Debussy and maybe others — but the classical album he made with his trio and a symphony playing Chopin, Faure, et al. is not highly regarded.

    I’m a bit surprised by the quote from Dexter. When I hear him, the music of Debussy and Ravel are certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. Who knew?


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