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Art, History & Biography

Bill Evans: Jazz Impressionist

The passing of Bill Evans on September 15th, 1980 was felt by jazz enthusiasts, fans, and musicians around the world. This soft-spoken and humble jazz pianist, who was once quoted as saying "I don't have very much talent," moved and influenced so many, including a number of his contemporary performers and countless jazz artists who were to follow. In fact, "The Encylopedia of Popular Music" states that he is "one of the most important and influential of modern jazz pianists!"

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1929, he began piano lessons at age 6, and also studied violin and flute. He earned a degree from Southeastern Louisiana College in 1950 with a major in piano and a minor in flute. Drafted into the Army in 1951, he played flute during the day in the Fifth Army Band at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, near Chicago, and played jazz piano in the Chicago jazz scene at night. 

He is perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis on the seminal album "Kind of Blue," where he helped pioneer a jazz compositional technique known as "modal jazz." In this approach, scale modes are used as the basis for composition and improvisation rather than chord progressions. This approach also veered away from the traditional pentatonic or "blues" scales, taking jazz improvisation into new realms of tonal expression.

Another of his pioneering techniques, which is most evident in his trio work, is his "impressionistic" approach to chording, whereby he would often eliminate the bass note, leaving this to the upright bass. Today, this technique is referred to as "rootless voicing." He would also vary the emphasis of the other notes in the chord voicings of his left hand, creating a wide variety of tone-colors. His right hand was then free to play the melody and improvise. This subtle approach was picked up by countless performers after him, including such renowned artists as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Lyle Mays.

Over the course of his career, which spanned the 1950's, 60's, and 70's, Bill Evans performed with several big-name jazz artists including Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Freddie Hubbard, Toots Thielemans, (famous for his harmonica playing on the Sesame Street Theme), and Stan Getz. He left an impressive recording legacy with over 50 albums to his credit!

The Springfield-Greene County Library District has some of his CD's, and many others by artists who were influenced by him. Below are a few you might enjoy:

CD's Featuring Bill Evans:

To view a list of CD's and DVD's by artists whose style is influenced by Bill Evans, click on the name of the artist below:

For biographical information about Bill Evans or other popular musicians, the following resources are available:

For additional information about jazz music and jazz history, the following books may be of interest:

Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2000 by Whitney Balliett. Since its beginnings in New Orleans at the turn of the century, jazz has been restlessly and relentlessly evolving, improvising, experimenting, shapeshifting, a constant work in progress of sounds and tonal shades, from swing and dixieland, through boogie-woogie, bebop, and hard bop, to the new thing, free jazz, abstract jazz, and atonal jazz. Yet in all its forms, the music is sustained by what Balliett calls a "secret emotional center," an "aural elixir" that "reveals itself when an improvised phrase or an entire solo or even a complete number catches you by surprise." Whitney Balliett performs the miracle of capturing the essence of jazz-the "sound of surprise."

 Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz by John F. Szwed. Anyone interested in learning about a distinct music will welcome this newest addition to the popular 101 reference series. Noted anthropologist, critic, and musical scholar John F. Szwed takes readers on a tour of the music's tangled history and explores how it developed from an ethnic music to become North America's most popular music and then part of the avant garde in less than fifty years. "Jazz 101" presents the key figures, history, theory, and controversies that shaped its development, along with a discussion of some of its most important recordings.

 A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton. In this major update of the acclaimed and award-winning jazz history, Alyn Shipton challenges many of the assumptions that surround the birth and growth of jazz music. All the great names in jazz history are here, from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis and from Sidney Bechet to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. But unlike those historians who call a halt with the death of Coltrane in 1967, Shipton continues the story with the major trends in jazz over the last 40 years: free jazz, jazz rock, world music influences, and the re-emergence of the popular jazz singer.

 What Jazz is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz by Jonny King, foreword by Christian McBride. From the unique perspective of a professional jazz pianist, King explores the basic elements and language of jazz. He explains each instrument's role in locking in the tempo, establishing the harmony, and stating the melody, and he reveals the order and logic behind the seeming randomness of improvisation. Along the way, he celebrates the distinctive playing styles of such classic jazz artists as Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, as well as his contemporaries, such as Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Joshua Redman.

You can use the following subject headings to explore the Library District's collection of jazz-related items:

Here is an additional resource that may be of interest:

The Bill Evans Memorial Library - 

If you have difficulty finding a particular item in the Library District's collection, the friendly Reference Staff are always eager to assist you.

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