Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger

This entry is part 23 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag. Quite a lag, as it’s 2024, but hey, that’s how it is. 

Here’s some listening for the post. It seems only appropriate, given the topic.

I haven’t actually finished this book, but I read the vast majority of it in 2023, so I’m counting it as one of my 2023 reads. So far, I’ve really enjoyed it, which surprised me since I’ve never really dug into Bill Evans’ work before (aside from on Kind of Blue). I was surprised, in fact, when I saw a review of the book that complained about how Pettigrew’s interest is primarily Evans’ music, and not so much on the depressing details of his life and addiction(s). Well, for me—as someone who is only now finally giving Evans a listen—Pettinger’s approach is definitely the more useful one, though of course there’s no substitute for really listening. The book traces Evans’ career and musical development, and it’s a cornucopia of information regarding the kinds of musicians Evans worked with aside from in his most famous collaborations, many of whom (especially early in his career) were people about whom I’d never heard before. Pettinger’s prone to including more about Evans’ interaction with other musicians than he did about Evans’ personal life, insofar as the two can be separated. 

One widely-repeated story that Pettinger recounts is how, when Evans joined Miles Davis’ band in time to record Kind of Blue, Miles messed with Evans by telling him that because all the guys in the band were “brothers,” in order to join them Evans would have to have sex with them. Evans thought this over seriously, leaving the room for a while before returning to apologetically explain that while he didn’t want to let Miles down, he didn’t think he could do it. Pettinger’s discussion of Kind of Blue and his claim that Evans played a crucial role as composer for it is especially important, and difficult to assess: on the one hand, Miles Davis was well-known for taking credit for others’s compositions (and was far from the only top-tier jazz musician to do so: Duke Ellington is another notorious example). Likewise, there’s reasonable evidence that, for “Blue in Green,” Miles really did hand Evans some chord changes and say, “What would you do with this?” only to take credit for the final piece Evans spent that entire sleepless night composing. On the other hand, a white writer arguing that a white musician was the “uncredited genius” behind the best-selling jazz album of all time is something I think a lot of people would side-eye, given the history of that kind of thing in the jazz world, but it’s not as if Davis wasn’t aware of what he’d done: he did, after all, snarkily offer Evans a check for $25 for his compositional royalties. Evans probably didn’t want to antagonize Davis about it too much, since he worshipped the man as much as anyone, but he was also probably aware that white record producers had done the same thing to Black musicians a million times, and protest has never worked for them, so… 

One telling detail is that Evans ended up on heroin around this time. A number of different stories have circulated about exactly when he started taking it, and Evans could be a little liberal with the truth, so it’s hard to know which tale to take seriously. One mentioned by Pettinger suggests he was already in Miles’ band, and that someone in the band suggested heroin as an antidote for rushing. Evans himself claimed that he had tried heroin with a friend a little while before he got the call from Davis to join the band, and that he’d first taken the drug with as little forethought as most of us would take a Tylenol for a headache. Evans was, of course, far from the only jazz musician to get into a cycle of addiction and dependency on drugs: I’ve come to think that maybe it’s less about hero-worship and people believing drugs could make them play better, and more about the fact that a lot of creative types are more sensitive and receptive than average, and thus end up being just kind of internally messy, broken people by the time they hit adulthood. For them, I get the sense, drugs are merely what Antonin Artaud claimed in his short manifesto “Opium Traffic”: a medication for those of us who are “born corrupted in body and spirit …congenitally fucked up” and doomed by their very existence to “pain that cannot be grasped, incurable pain hovering outside thought, pain of neither body nor soul, but a pain that resembles both.” Artaud’s thoughts seem to relate to Evans pretty well, though neither Pettinger nor any other source I know explains much about where the gaping hole in Evans’ heart came from.1 

Just as interesting is the racial politics of Evans’ time with Davis’ band: he was the one white musician, and both some of his bandmates and a significant portion of the band’s Black audiences questioned why a Black pianist wasn’t playing with the band instead. Evans apparently tried to take it in stride, but also ended up pretty emotionally battered by the experience. I wondered whether this explained the fact that most of his later collaborations were not with Black musicians, something that’s hard not to notice. But I won’t hold forth on the relevance of supposed racialized sensibilities in jazz music: “white” and “black” are common shorthands for characteristically different approaches jazz music often attributed to and shaped by musical backgrounds and experience. (To unpack that: all major jazz musicians are steeped in jazz, most of them regardless of race were aware of all kinds of other music including European classical music, but music is different in Black and in white communities and upbringings: a white kid might be likelier to be exposed to Rachmaninov, say, whereas a Black kid might learn about antiphony from the music in a Black church. These dominant patterns experiences are thought to push people toward one or another dominant sensibility.) Of course (obviously), these sensibilities don’t always reliably map onto the race of the musicians doing the playing: music is a cultural phenomenon, and there’s nothing stopping a Black player from developing a stereotypically “white” sensibility or vice versa. Still, whether Evans’ later collaborations were mostly not with Black musicians for reasons related to this kind of dominant sensibility in each group, or just was a response to the racial tensions he experienced in the Davis band, I don’t know, and Pettinger doesn’t exactly have much to say about that. It’s an interesting question, one that I’ve seen discussed in several places online such as in a discussion of the role that a “glass elevator” involved in Evans’ gaining a cult following—which I think is what made me hesitant about getting too into him, if I’m honest—and Eugene Holley Jr.’s thoughts on his onetime Bill Evans Problem

The dominance of white musicians in Evans’ collaborations is hard to miss if you see Bruce Spiegel’s 2015 documentary Bill Evans: Time Remembered, which features a lot more detail about the man’s childhood, his romantic relationships, and what other musicians he worked with have to say about him—some of whom, like Paul Motian, we’ve since lost:

For those who’re looking for more on Evans’ personal and family life, and his struggles with addictions, I’d suggest pairing this book with the film, which focuses a lot more (though of course not exclusively) on that aspect of his life.  

The documentary and Pettinger’s text seem to agree on the importance—objective, but also in Evans’ mind and career—of his quartet with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro, who tragically died at the age of 25 in 1961, and yet is still remembered sixty-odd years later in jazz circles. That, by Evans’ own account, was a band that listened and interacted more deeply than any other he’d played in, and it sent him for a loop when LaFaro passed away in a random, horrible car accident. By some accounts, Evans was shattered by the tragedy, both personally and in terms of how he felt about moving on musically after finally finding what seemed like it could be a kind of musical “home.”  

Anyway, maybe Pettinger will get into the personal stuff a little more later in the book: the suicide of Evans’ brother, Evans’ leaving a longtime partner (and fellow addict) for someone he felt he could have a kid with (triggering the suicide of the longtime partner), his effective abandonment of the family he’d just started, and his battles with heroin and cocaine and his all-but-eager embrace of his oncoming death all seem to have become dominant forces in his life later on. I’ll update this post if there are any surprises, but I can say with confidence that if you dig Bill Evans2, this book is definitely worth a read. 

Series Navigation<< <i>Fun Home</i> and <i>Are You My Mother?</i> by Alison Bechdel

  1. That said, his brother killed himself quite directly, so perhaps there was something about their childhood, or some unhappy predisposition in their family’s genetics.

  2. And as the album title says, “Everybody Digs Bill Evans,” right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *