Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: William John Evans

Bill Evans performing at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, just days before his death on September 15, 1980
Bill Evans (1929-1980), performing at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, just days before his death on September 15, 1980

We mark the birth on August 16, 1929 – 92 years ago today – of the jazz pianist and composer William John “Bill” Evans, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He died, tragically and all-too-young on September 15, 1980 in New York City at the age of 51. Just a week before his death, Evans had completed a nine-day run (from August 31 to September 8, 1980) at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. That run was recorded and issued on an 8-cd set entitled The Last Waltz, which will be among therecommended recordings in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Apropos of that appearance at the Keystone Korner, Jesse Hamlin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

“Evans played with such fervor during that nine-day stint that his enraptured audiences would’ve found it hard to believe that his body was wasting away and that he’d be dead a week later.”

All early, unnecessary deaths are tragic. Bill Evans’ death holds a special poignancy in that it was not only self-inflicted, but he had, in the end, lost his will to live. In the end, he was only able to ignore his disintegrating body while he was playing the piano. But not even the piano could save him from himself, and when he died at the age of 51, he looked like a man of 70.

Evans’ friend, the Canadian music journalist, lyricist, singer, and composer Gene Lees (1928-2010) – who for many years was the editor of Down Beat magazine, famously and succinctly called Evans’ death:

“the longest suicide in history.”

That it was, and Evans knew it. During his final run at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, he introduced a performance of Johnny Mandel’s Theme From M*A*S*H by observing that the song was also known as “Suicide Is Painless.” To which Evans then added, “debatable”. 

The image of the lonely, tortured genius is a clichéd one, but it fits the life of Bill Evans like a snug pair of Hush Puppies. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will focus on his personality and music: on the good stuff. Today’s Music History Monday will focus on his life and, at the end, his existential pain.…

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