If there could ever be a true marriage between the worlds of classical and jazz music, Bill Evans is the living example of it.
Your Teacher Was Right!
With a piano teacher who was extremely insistent on a very technical approach, with heavy emphasis on sight-reading, scales and arpeggios, perhaps there’s no wonder Bill’s piano capabilities were off the charts! (Yep, your teacher was right!)
Bill was completely classically trained, also learning the violin, flute and piccolo, and he always maintained that this strongly influenced his playing and composition in the jazz genre, as we’ll discover more throughout this blog. Evans often played works by all the classics - think Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. He believed that listening to the likes of Stravinsky and Milhaud opened his eyes to so many new musical possibilities! On the flip side, Evans was also a big fan of and influenced by artists like Nat King Cole. The musical pot was already stirring in his mind!
But like all budding stars, you’ve got to start somewhere, and Bill Evan’s start was at weddings and dances for a dollar an hour! (It’s somewhat reassuring to know this, right?!) However, just as he was getting things off the ground – he’d played some gigs backing huge stars like Billie Holiday – he was thrust into the U.S. Army. Making the most of it, Bill joined army bands and hosted jazz nights, and, believe it or not, composed one of his most famous tunes, “Waltz For Debby”, during these years too.
On coming out of the army, Bill found himself a traumatised and underconfident in his own playing for the first time ever. He subsequently moved back to his parents house, found a piano and shut himself away, practising furiously so his technique would get to the level he felt that other musicians were at. He even studied Bach during this time to improve his technique, massively valuing “The Well-Tempered Clavier” as excellent practise material!
Kind of Collaboration
After getting back out on the gigging scene with different trios of varying success, one night Evans noticed Miles Davis watching him from the crowd. This would be the beginning of a successful collaboration between the two musicians, including the birth of the best-selling jazz album in history, Kind of Blue.
Evans had worked a lot with a man called George Russell, who was developing the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation, that is the idea that the lydian mode was far more compatible with tonal music than the major scale that was being used in most music! This was an absolutely ground-breaking discovery, and one that would help to shape jazz music for generations. Being friends with Russell, Evans was extremely familiar with the concept, and Miles Davis was impressed by this.
Evans is truly a leader in the harmonic language of jazz piano. By taking influence from his classical heroes (hey there, Debussy!), and being diligent in his technical practise, Evans was able to craft a distinctive sound. He is known for his radical reharmonizations, added modal inflections, his somewhat unusual chord substitutions and random modulations! Evans can play with one hand in 3/4 and one hand in 4/4 - yep, that’s the truth!
So, because of his absolutely incredible playing, alongside hugely successful albums, both in collaboration with other huge names in jazz and solo works, we absolutely could not leave out Bill Evans from our RSL Classical Piano syllabus. You’ll find his “Blue in Green (Take 3)” sat proudly on the Grade 8 syllabus. Check it out! And yes, we’d recommend a bit of scales practice before attempting this one!
If you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about Bill Evans today, then you should check out the other fantastic composers on our syllabus, including the likes of Alexis Ffrench, Clara Schumann and Zenobia Powell Perry.