Bill Evans: Everything Happens to Me
by Keith Shadwick
Published by Backbeat Books
208 pages, 2002
The Trouble With Being A Jazz Messiah
Reviewed by Mark Gallo
Not a formal, full-spectrum biography, this exhaustive look at the musical career of Bill Evans succeeds, nonetheless. Opening with a brief overview of pre-Evans pianists that had an effect on his stylistic development, it offers 32-pages of beautiful photographs before launching into the subject at hand. In the introductory section Shadwick writes, "It is hardly Evans' fault if the fans and jazz critics who hailed him as a new jazz messiah later decided he'd been no such thing." This might serve as the book's theme, as it is one revisited throughout.
The strictly biographical material is scant. We're given birthdate -- August 16, 1929 -- and birthplace -- Plainfield, New Jersey. Evans, we learn, was a fast reader and proficient on the keyboard as a child, having earned medals for playing classics; though he would admit he couldn't play anything early on without the music in front of him. There is discussion, too, of Evans' lengthy heroin habit and final lethal experience with cocaine, though Shadwick seems ill at ease discussing this sometimes central aspect of Evans' life: This is a musical biography, after all.
Evans' first important jazz gigs were with guitarist Mundell Lowe and he played early on with R&B saxophonist Herbie Fields. Tony Scott and George Russell would figure prominently in his development and initial public exposure and there were brief associations with Charles Mingus and Oliver Nelson. The bulk of the lengthy book deals with the various trios, their recording sessions, live gigs, tours and Evans' impact on the direction of jazz in the 1960s and 1970s. Though much was made of bassist Scott LaFaro's short tenure with Evans, he employed Chuck Israels and Eddie Gomez for more than a decade each and Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian filled the drum chair at various times. There is mention, too, of Evans satisfaction, and the apparent like-mindedness of his audience, with his final trio of Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera.
Despite having won numerous Grammy awards and Down Beat magazine polls over the years, Evans is best known for his work in the Miles Davis group that recorded the classic, Kind of Blue in 1959. Surprisingly, there is relatively little space dedicated to this landmark recording. During the sessions, though, Shawdwick credits Evans both with turning Davis on to classical music and Coltrane to Krishnamurti, leading to John Coltrane's eventual fascination with Eastern philosophies and music.
Shadwick does a wonderful job of examining Evans' musical career in its entirety and in great detail. It reads a bit like a 200-plus page musical review at times and varies between fascinating and tedious. The impossibly small font makes the text that much more of a task to negotiate and fault clearly falls on the publisher for this oversight rather than the author. There is an extraordinary wealth of information to digest, however. Depending on one's level of interest in Bill Evans, it is either riveting or excessive. | October 2002
Mark Gallo is a long-time freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in over 30 publications in the past 25 years. He has also been a DJ, publicist and archivist/researcher. When not writing about music he is a social worker.