A New Documentary Explores The Troubled, Brilliant Life Of Pianist Bill Evans

Feb 25, 2017
Originally published on March 13, 2017 6:14 pm

Bill Evans was a genius: The jazz world, which can be roiled by factions and jealousies, usually agrees on that. He was a composer and pianist with a light, lyrical touch that was once described as what you might hear at the gates of heaven. But like many geniuses, Evans died too young — in 1980, at the age of just 51, after years of cocaine and heroin addiction.

A new documentary by filmmaker Bruce Spiegel helps capture that genius with interviews of musicians, family members, and archival footage of Bill Evans himself.

"When you listen to some of the songs that he plays, some of the intros that he plays, some of the long compositions, they're emotionally wrought. They just take you to a different place than most normal piano players would go," Spiegel says. "I got a couple kids; they aren't really into jazz. But in the course of making the movie I played [Evans] for them, and they say, 'Jesus, that's pretty good.' So I think it's interesting that people are rediscovering Bill, and part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want people to rediscover Bill. I think he's a great American artist, and I think more people should listen to him and respect the beauty that he was able to create."

Spiegel spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the eight-year process behind Bill Evans: Time Remembered. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bill Evans was a genius. The jazz world, which can be roiled by factions and jealousies, usually agrees on that. Bill Evans was a genius. He was a composer and pianist with a light, lyrical touch that was once described as what you might hear at the gates of heaven. But like many geniuses, Bill Evans died too young in 1980 at the age of just 51 after years of heavy drinking, cocaine and heroin addiction. A new documentary helps capture that genius with interviews with musicians, family members and Bill Evans himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BILL EVANS: TIME REMEMBERED, THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILL EVANS")

BILL EVANS: I was in my little apartment on 83rd Street, just big enough for my piano and bed. You know, just woodshedding in that apartment, I think those were the most productive three or four years of my life.

SIMON: Bruce Spiegel made the film "Bill Evans: Time Remembered." And Bruce Spiegel joins us from the studios of WABE in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRUCE SPIEGEL: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

SIMON: What was it like to hear Bill Evans play?

SPIEGEL: Well, I got to Bill Evans very late in my life. And when he hit me, it really hit me hard - the beauty of his playing, the magnificence of it. It was - it was tremendous. And I guess it was later in my life I started to listen to "Waltz For Debby." And I also listened to "Polka Dots And Moonbeams," and I thought, geez, nobody plays the melody, the first eight bars, like he played the melody. And the music just caught up with me and enraptured me, the emotional content in the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS")

SIMON: Bill Evans was a Jersey guy by birth. He classically trained in piano at an early age, moved to New York. How did he go from playing wedding gigs to working with Miles Davis?

SPIEGEL: Well, (laughter) that's a big journey, man. He started out just working on his chops, working on his harmonics, working on his tunes till he thought he was ready. Then he came to New York and he started just gigging around. He would take any gigs that came around. But people obviously knew he was good.

And like everything else through the grapevine, Miles heard about him and heard his playing and then says, you know what? I like the way this guy plays. So he said, come down to Pep's in Philadelphia. You'll hang out with me. You'll play with me. And he heard Bill and he said, you know what? This is my man. And that's how Bill got in the groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BLUE IN GREEN")

SIMON: Bill Evans and Miles Davis recorded "Kind Of Blue" in 1959, best-selling jazz album of all time. What did it mean?

SPIEGEL: Well, his contribution was big, a lot bigger than people realize. If you look at two of the tracks on the album, "Flamenco Sketches" and "Blue In Green," "Blue In Green" was a song that actually was attributed to Miles Davis that actually was written by Bill Evans, OK? The other composition was "Flamenco Sketches," which was basically based on Bill's song "Peace Piece" from "Everybody Digs Bill Evans."

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "PEACE PIECE")

SPIEGEL: And Miles heard that. This was when they were kind of off and on between when he recorded with Bill and he did the album. He says, I like what you did with "Flamenco Sketches." I want to take the first part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "FLAMENCO SKETCHES")

SPIEGEL: And I don't think people realize his contribution to that record as much as they should. And I don't think that record would have never been the same without Bill Evans' participation in that music.

SIMON: Bill Evans knew a lot of sadness in his life. Arguably, he created a lot of sadness for himself in his own life. But let me ask you about a specific thread. A lot of people around him committed suicide. There was his longtime girlfriend Ellaine, his brother Harry, who suffered from emotional problems, probably schizophrenia. Was Bill Evans - was his addiction to drugs a kind of long-term suicide?

SPIEGEL: Well, that's a question for somebody that's maybe not me. I think heroin for Bill Evans helped him to cope with what was going on. He - this was early in his career. I think it shielded him. I think it helped him. He left heroin, and then he was on methadone for a while. But then even after a short period, he went back and got addicted to cocaine. And that's what he used the rest of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "WALTZ FOR DEBBY")

SIMON: I think the most affecting Bill Evans composition of which I know is "Waltz for Debby."

SPIEGEL: Debby was his - was his brother Harry's daughter. Wrote it when she was 3 years old. It's a beautiful composition. What can I say? It's his - Bill Evans' most famous composition. And, you know, if you don't hear any of Bill Evans' compositions, you can listen to that and listen to him play that and say, oh, well, this guy's great. All you have to do is listen to "Waltz For Debby" to realize how important it is for Debby.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BILL EVANS: TIME REMEMBERED, THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILL EVANS")

DEBBY EVANS: Being at the beach with him, going swimming, those were, like, happy, happy times. He always played it. You know, it was like, you're here in my heart. You're here in my heart.

SPIEGEL: She talked about how Bill was. And Bill really wanted to have kids. And that's the inspiration, I think.

SIMON: I heard from someone who's very big in the music business that Bill Evans sells more records now than he ever did when he was alive. What do you think his legacy is for people who love music today?

SPIEGEL: Well, I've got a couple of kids. They're great kids. They know I'm really into jazz. But I - you know, in the course of the - making the movie, I played this song for them. And they say, Jesus, that's pretty good. So I think it's interesting that people are rediscovering Bill. And part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want people to rediscover Bill. I think he's a great American artist. And I think more people should listen to and respect the beauty that he was able to create. So I feel good that I did this film. That's for sure.

SIMON: Bruce Spiegel. He's the director of "Bill Evans: Time Remembered." Thanks so much for being with us.

SPIEGEL: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say Bill Evans died after years of heavy drinking, cocaine and heroin addiction. In fact, while he did use drugs, he was not a heavy drinker. Also, an earlier version of this transcript misspelled the first name of Evans’ girlfriend. She was Ellaine Schultz, not Elaine.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.