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Miles Davis and Bill Evans: Miles and Bill in Black & White

Miles Davis and Bill Evans
Miles Davis and Bill Evans
Miles Davis and Bill Evans in the studio

They were musical brothers separated by skin tone. The brief, nine-month partnership of Miles Davis and Bill Evans yielded some of the most sublime and enduring jazz ever recorded. Yet it could not survive the rigors that tested the creative union almost nightly: the road, their own career momentum and, most of all, the racial forces of the day.

Had either been more laid-back, thicker-skinned or same-skinned, who’s to say further modal excursions might not have followed their ultimate cooperative statement, Kind of Blue? Then again, without the unique blend of their sensitivities perhaps such a masterpiece would not have been possible in the first place. Perhaps the same heart-on-the-sleeve vulnerability that colored their respective musical signatures fated their association to such a short life.

Or perhaps Miles might have tempered his habit of hazing his new recruits.

Davis dubbed him “Moe,” a button-down name that fit Evans’ horn-rimmed, serious appearance. It was 1958: Davis had just hired the pianist for his on-fire sextet and the taunting began. But this time, there was an uncommon twist. After years on the short end of the American racial equation, the trumpeter found himself leading one of the world’s most popular black jazz bands with a lone white sideman.

Sure, Miles had rubbed shoulders with white jazzmen in other group situations, but most had been recording efforts or one-off gigs, and none were as high profile as the Miles Davis band of ’58. Even his legendary Birth of the Cool nonet—with a white majority—had spent more time in rehearsals than on stage. Gil Evans? That was a purely in-the-studio pairing, far from public view.

But in Davis’ powerful ’58 lineup—featuring John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb—Evans was in the spotlight night after night, a minority of one. And Miles was not about to let him forget it.

“Miles used to mess with him. Not about his music or anything—he just used to call him ‘whitey’,” Adderley reported. Cobb also witnessed Davis teasing Evans. “Bill would say something and Miles would tell him, ‘Man, cool it. We don’t want no white opinions.’ They were close but Miles would just fool with him. It was good-hearted.”

Davis and Evans were close, all teasing aside. Musically, Davis was more in tune with his new pianist than anyone else in the fabled sextet. Both were masters of minimal gesture, speaking so much with so little, manipulating their respective instruments to enhance their distinctive styles. The fragility with which one worked the Harmon mute paralleled the other’s delicate facility with the “soft” piano pedal.

Both were explorers, immersed in jazz tradition yet channeling classical and world music influences, seeking a greater freedom of expression and spontaneity in a music Miles described as “thick” with clichéd chord runs.

Independently, both had been been dabbling with more flexible improvisational paths, implying root structures rather than locking into long-established harmonic patterns.

Their partnership far exceeded the leader/sideman paradigm. Evans influenced Davis’ outlook and guided his taste, introducing him to a host of modern classical composers. He then played catalyst to—and co-composer of much of the material on—the modal-jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue. “I planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans,” Davis admitted in 1989.

The story of how they grew together and then apart is all the more poignant given the time and place they lived in. In the late ’50s, America was witnessing the civil rights movement in its early maturity, awakening to the complexities of race relations in modern times. Black leaders were finding their voice and testing strategies for self-empowerment, pushing for voter registration and integrated education. White America was figuring out its role in the struggle, finding a place to stand on the immediate events, while considering more far-reaching issues.

The few images that caught Miles and Bill side by side—looking so different in style and skin yet so familiar and at ease—seem to defy the tenor of the time. But outside the photo frame, in the jazz world of 1958, Davis’ decision to offer Evans the piano chair forced to the surface sentiments, beliefs and preconceptions that continue to generate debate today.

Jazz integration had once been a matter of revolutionary stance and major risk-taking—think of Benny Goodman performing and recording with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton in the ’30s. By the late ’50s, it had become a simpler matter of choice. Fewer social barriers hindered integrated jazz bands; hotels and performance venues were opening their doors, even their front doors, to blacks. Audiences, too, appeared more racially balanced. Though mixed-race couples were still seldom seen publicly (and might prove a risky venture in certain locales), most urban centers seemed comfortable with the idea of mixed crowds patronizing jazz clubs, whether downtown or up. A paying customer meant more money in the till: Drink up, brother!

But other, subtler forms of segregation remained. White musicians still held a lion’s share of the best-paying, union-protected gigs in TV orchestras, Broadway shows and recording studios. And as the locks of racism loosened and lowered, so a riptide of resentment swept in, expressing itself more openly than ever before. Restricted economic opportunities drew much of the newly vocalized ire.

Take cool jazz, for example. The spate of subdued sounds that blew in from the West Coast in the mid-’50s—elevating the careers of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers and Dave Brubeck—seemed to the black community one more instance of white musicians profiting from black cultural invention. “I guess it was supposed to be some kind of alternative to bebop, or black music…but it was the same old story,” Miles maintained in his autobiography, “black shit was being ripped off all over again.”

Gerry Mulligan—active in both East and West Coast scenes of the day—later came to acknowledge the black perspective on the situation. “I suppose it was later on that I realized that there was some reaction among the musicians themselves, some of whom resented the success of cool jazz in California, and that broke down into the white guys against the hard-blowing black guys in New York.”

It was a deep rift that became deeper as the decade wore on, a rift Bill Evans could never have known he would eventually be straddling. His approach to jazz had begun innocently enough in his hometown of Plainfield, N.J. Still a youngster in the ’40s, Evans fell under the spell of Nat Cole’s piano and later found he could actually improvise on the sheet music before him. Music took him through high school and, as it did for Miles, punched his ticket to college. But unlike Davis—who came to the big city ostensibly to study, and then dropped out—Evans traveled to the Deep South and diligently finished four years of music courses at Southeastern Louisiana College.

Davis had already been in town for 10 years when Evans first stepped into the New York jazz scene in 1955. Evans immediately discerned a stiffer, more formal code of cross-racial communication than he had experienced in Louisiana. Contrary to the general assumptions of Southern racism, Louisiana had been a pocket of racial ease.

“There was a kind of freedom down there, different from anything in the North. The intercourse between Negro and white was friendly, even intimate. There was no hypocrisy, and that’s important to me. I told this to Miles, and asked him if he understood what I meant. He said he did. Some very horrible things go on down there. But there are some good things too, and the feel of the country is one of them.”

New York City helped snap Evans back to a black/white reality. He immersed himself in jazz culture, taking a variety of sideman gigs. He dabbled in third-stream projects, recording with forward-looking groups led by George Russell and Charles Mingus. His lifestyle also took a turn away from the mainstream. His first long-term romance was with a black woman named Peri Cousins (for whom “Peri’s Scope” was named). He experimented with narcotics and by the late ’50s was hooked on heroin.

But no fanciful aspirations of achieving “white Negro” status (as Norman Mailer dubbed the cross-racial identification common to many wanna-Beats of the mid-’50s) had him hoodwinked. Evans was not looking for a “ghetto pass,” and felt disdain for those who romanticized the jazz life: “They live their full lives on the fringe of jazz and yet miss its essence entirely. They take the neuroses that are integral in every art and blow them up to where they’re the whole thing.”

In early ’58, George Russell, at Davis’ urging, drove Evans over to the Colony Club in the black, Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to sit in with the sextet. Evans knew it was an audition and that if he played his cards—and the piano—right, one of the most prestigious positions in the jazz world could be his. Davis and Adderley had already spoken of the pianist—the former had heard him at Birdland and the latter had witnessed him sitting in with his brother Nat—and had agreed he was well worth a listen.

By the end of the night, Miles told Bill that he’d be playing their next engagement in Philadelphia.

Evans was swept away in a flurry of gigs, the majority in black nightclubs like the Colony. Though Evans had begun to make a name for himself in New York circles, it was a tough and unwelcoming audience he encountered on the road. Red Garland was a tough act to replace. The dynamic pianist had been one of the popular (though often tardy) sparkplugs in Davis’ hard-charging rhythm section for almost three years. Jazz enthusiasts—many of whom followed band lineups as closely as sportswriters knew pro team rosters—were aghast: Who was this white guy, and where was Red?

“He looked like a Harvard professor on a Harlem street corner,” is how one witness of the day described Evans. His bookish looks, white skin and quiet demeanor exacerbated the problem of ushering him into the fold. Davis—never accused of being a gracious host—watched from the wings, tossing in barbed comments when it amused him.

Evans’ more subdued playing style did not help ingratiate the young pianist to Davis’ following any more than his appearance did. He lacked the drama Garland had delivered and had generously supplied behind the other soloists in the band. Davis adored Evans’ contrasting sense of space and subtlety, but a noisy, packed jazz joint was not the ideal location for “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall,” as the trumpeter later praised the pianist’s sound.

With mixed emotions, Evans persevered. He felt intimidated, though challenged and ecstatic: “I thought I was inadequate. I felt the group to be composed of superhumans.” But the band began to find a new, smoother groove, as Adderley noted. “When he started to use Bill, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach.”

By the end of May, on Miles’ 32nd birthday, the sextet recorded a number of sides that leaned heavily on ballads, and revealed a certain tension within the band.

“Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb were getting edgy having to hold back and wanted to cook on something,” Evans recalled. After recording rather hushed versions of “Stella by Starlight” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” Miles turned and said, “Love for Sale,” and kicked it off.

Summer ’58 found Evans increasingly comfortable in the group. He was no longer the youngest member—Jimmy Cobb had been called in to replace Philly Joe Jones a month after Evans joined—but he remained the only white musician. Miles continued to tease him, but he had stood the trumpeter’s skewering—certainly a rite of entry to the band—and earned Davis’ respect.

But the unease Evans faced in certain venues grew. “It was more of an issue with the fans. The guys in the band defended me staunchly. We were playing black clubs, and guys would come up and say, ‘What’s that white guy doing there?’ They said, ‘Miles wants him there—he’s supposed to be there’.”

Reverse or not, it was a form of racism, and Davis and Evans were of one mind about it.

Miles: “Crow Jim is what they call that. It’s [got] a lot of the Negro musicians mad because most of the best-paying jobs go to the white musicians playing what the Negroes created. But I don’t go for this, because I think prejudice one way is just as bad as the other way.”

Evans: “This is an age-old disproven theory—that white men cannot play jazz. What people who are talking that way might be saying is they want to get credit for developing the music as a tradition.”

Years later, Evans opened up a bit more, adding: “It makes me a bit angry. I want more responsibility among black people and black musicians to be accurate and to be spiritually intelligent … to say only black people can play jazz is as dangerous as saying only white people are intelligent.” But in ’58, the pianist held his tongue, while the pressures of touring—the constant travel, the long hours, the persistent questioning of Evans’ presence on the bandstand—mounted.

“Takes one to know one,” goes the old schoolyard retort. By the end of the summer, Davis knew Evans well enough to recognize, and identify with, certain personality traits. “Bill was a very sensitive person and it didn’t take much to set him off; a lot of people were saying he didn’t play fast enough and hard enough for them, that he was too delicate,” Davis recalled. Evans was fast approaching his professional limit; a decision to depart seemed imminent.

Davis sensed that there was another factor propelling Evans to leave the group. “On top of all this shit was the thing about wanting to form his own band and play his own music.” In an ironic twist, Evans’ personal resolve and musical vision had been steeled in the fire of derision he faced almost nightly. Though he “felt exhausted in every way—physically, mentally, spiritually—it did a lot of good,” he would say, “a great deal for my confidence.”

But it went deeper than mere self-assurance. Evans’ immersion in an integrated setting, surrounded by incredibly strong, creative individuals, forced a change that transcended questions of white or black. “Being with the band and the real honest personalities involved really helped confirm my own identity, made me realize that being myself was the only place to be.”

After a few festival and special appearances—recordings of which contradict Evans’ alleged inability to “play fast [or] hard enough”—and a few more weeks with the band, he departed in November.

To Miles, their joint destiny remained unfulfilled. A few months later, despite having hired Wynton Kelly to take over the piano spot (after considering another white pianist, Joe Zawinul), Davis called Evans and set up studio time at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio. In August 1959, the evidence of their final effort together, and one more compelling argument for a color-blind approach to jazz-making, was delivered: Kind of Blue.

Jimmy Cobb notes that Davis’ famous sextet was so talent-packed that it was fated from the outset to fracture into a series of powerful, genre-defining bands. Within a year of Evans’ exit, that’s exactly what happened, each splinter group led by a soloist initially hand-picked by Davis while still young and largely unknown: Coltrane, Adderley, Kelly (with Chambers and Cobb) and, establishing his own trio format and returning to chord-based explorations, Bill Evans.

History did, and continues to, look upon the nine-month Davis-Evans union through the lens of race. DownBeat, in a 1960 profile on Evans, reported of the “rumbles in some quarters that the color of Bill’s skin automatically depreciated his value to the [Davis] group.” And recently, in PBS’ 10-part opus Jazz, the voluminous Ken Burns compressed Evans’ significant contributions to a few moments focused on the white guy in Miles’ band.

Even Davis, writing on his former pianist’s choice of sidemen after their split, saw Evans’ famous Scott LaFaro/Paul Motian trio not in musical terms, but as a return to a less-than-progressive, all-white situation. “It’s a strange thing about a lot of white players—not all, just most—that after they make it in a black group they always go and play with all white guys. Bill did that, and I’m not saying he could have gotten any black guys better than Scott and Paul, I’m just telling what I’ve seen happen over and over again.”

Davis did not balance his comments with the fact that among many black jazz musicians whom Evans hired over the years, Philly Joe Jones—Miles’ own longtime drummer—consistently reappeared. Nor did he mention that Jack DeJohnette figured prominently in one of Evans’ most powerful lineups, alongside bassist Eddie Gomez, before joining Davis in 1969.

But then the issue of race—as Evans learned while onstage with Davis—is often fueled by what appears, and seldom by what is. And Miles, whose penchant for self-contradiction is legendary, often approached the truth in an oblique way.

“He is a very paradoxical, many-sided person,” Evans once commented, waving away not Davis’ veracity, but the tendency to hold him to the exact letter of his words.

“If you were to take any number of things he said out of context, you could be completely on the wrong track. Because he could say one thing today, and the opposite tomorrow for reasons that have to do with momentary response or defense mechanisms or who knows what.”

For one who never hesitated to be outrageous or outspoken (to the point of almost losing his voice following throat surgery), Davis must have been atypically talked out (but accurate) when he confided to Playboy in 1962: “This black-white business is ticklish to try to explain.”

As the ’60s played out and musical fashion rocked ‘n’ rolled, the pair kept in touch sporadically. Davis kept himself abreast of Evans’ music (and certainly his sidemen), while Evans noted how apart they were drifting musically. Davis’ new mid-’60s quintet—Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and young pianist Herbie Hancock, one of whose primary influences was Evans—increased its reliance on modal structures, unlocking and recreating the jazz vocabulary.

Meanwhile, Evans re-embraced “functional harmony” (as pianist Brad Mehldau calls it), retracing his steps to and then from bebop. Over the years, he created, and continued to explore, a nuanced, texture-rich sound that became his signature, most often within an acoustic trio.

Watching as Davis introduced amplified instruments and rock rhythms into his sound, and added more and more sidemen, the pianist shook his head. Evans missed his lyrical buddy, and blamed the change on considerations of commerce.

“I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master,” Evans commented in the late ’70s. “But I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. It’s tempting for the musician to prejudice his own views when recording opportunities are so infrequent, but I for one am determined to resist the temptation.

“It just doesn’t attract me. I’m of a certain period, a certain evolution. I hear music differently,” he confessed, adding: “I mean, for me, comparing electric bass to acoustic bass is sacrilege.”

Davis felt as strongly as Evans. But to the trumpeter, blasphemy was the idea of remaining static stylistically. He singled out the modal jazz he had pioneered with Evans.

“‘So What’ or Kind of Blue, they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over,” Davis told Ben Sidran in 1986. He further declared, “What I used to play with Bill Evans, all those different modes, and substitute chords, we had the energy then and we liked it. But I have no feel for it anymore—it’s more like warmed-over turkey.”

When Shirley Horn insisted in 1990 that Miles reconsider playing the gentle ballads and modal tunes of his Kind of Blue period, he demurred. “Nah, it hurts my lip,” was the excuse.

And yet, the Davis/Evans dialogue never ended. As saxophonist Dave Liebman recalls from his days with Davis at the height of Miles’ electric period: “He said Bill was really the guy who opened the doors for him musically—Bill was very special to him. He said to me, ‘I used to call Bill up and tell him to take the phone off the hook. Just leave it off and play for me because I loved the way he played.'”

As tempting as it is to sum up their joint efforts with Kind of Blue, Davis and Evans were not all about melancholy and moodiness. On Jazz at the Plaza, a simple four-song album Miles’ sextet recorded live on Aug. 9, 1958, there’s a 10-minute version of “My Funny Valentine” featuring Davis and Evans as the sole soloists; Trane and Cannonball both lay out. Muted trumpet and brightly stroked piano are alone to spar, at moments halting and punchy, then playful and flowing. It’s a lighthearted conversation between two masters totally familiar with one another, enjoying the composition and the company. It blasts apart any misperception that the two were only capable of creating sounds somber, serious and bittersweet.

Blasting misperceptions. Of the essential effects of the black/white, Miles/Bill brotherhood, that’s as accurate a definition as any. For Davis, the motivation to expose—and explode—stereotyped notions of race powered much of what he created. Having Bill Evans as his pianist only furthered his cause. As Davis once testified:

“If I hadn’t met that prejudice, I probably wouldn’t have had as much drive in my work. I have thought about that a lot. I have thought that prejudice and curiosity have been responsible for what I have done in music.”

In a less oppositional way, Evans drew strength from the same source; he certainly had ample opportunity once he hit the jazz front line in Davis’ group. No matter the racist salvos that were lofted in ’58 or later in his career, Evans, like Davis, had his eye on the prize: aspiring for those moments onstage or in the studio, when creative inspiration strikes and true and honest expression freely swings. For Miles and Moe, and for those who play and live the jazz life, it goes to the heart of why they do what they do. Evans summed it up well:

“Jazz is the most honest music I’ve come across. The really good jazz musicians only respect musicians they feel are worth respecting. There, there are no racial barriers.”

Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.