“I’m sorry, but your friend didn’t make it.”
And with that, a small group of friends, loved ones, and co-workers knew the death of William John Evans, age 51, September 15, 1980, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital—less than 27 miles from the pianist’s birthplace in Plainfield, New Jersey. Evans had coughed blood and struggled to stay conscious as Joe La Barbera, Evans’ last drummer, steered to the emergency room. Everyone had hoped, and prayed, for good news that didn’t come.
Was that expected? Point of view. Yes, because despite Evans’ insistence that his private life remain that, those close knew what was wrong, and his addictions loomed all the more powerfully for staying shoved into the wings. No, because, as La Barbera articulates in his slim, heartfelt memoir of 20 months with Evans, the leader of the band put a bubble around himself onstage. The bubble said to La Barbera, bassist Marc Johnson, and the folks in the seats: I am in control. I do whatever I have to do. The bubble shone. And then an hour or so later the man walked offstage, and the bubble burst.
The book hardly follows a conventional pattern, but Evans was not a conventional subject. La Barbera goes through his own musical family background; his bad grades at Berklee; his mastering of late-night bandstand etiquette, and of respectable work habits; the résumé-building (Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Toots Thielemans); the audition for Evans; then the lock.
Twenty months. Enough time for the ecstasy of telepathy with the other two men, wonder beyond words. And enough time for the encroaching sadness.
La Barbera confronts that sadness as he walks us through a class he teaches on Evans. “For those of us who have never suffered from drug addiction, the idea seems totally foreign … we may feel that all one needs to do is face the facts and quit. In reality, it’s not so easy. Bill and I discussed this several times and on two occasions, the arguments got heated … His comment on the subject amounted to: ‘Please don’t do me any favors. You have no idea how strong the urge or craving is unless you have it yourself.’”
We have to be honest about the chilling. But as the drummer points out earlier in his singular text, we mustn’t consider it the only angle. The Bill Evans he knew “recorded dozens of albums as a leader, earning six Grammy awards; and won unwavering respect from fans and critics. But perhaps, more important, Bill reinvented the concept of a what a jazz piano trio sounded like by creating a new lexicon of harmony and rhythm that influenced peers and generations of musicians to follow.”