The Universal Mind of Bill Evans

One of my tragic flaws is that I’m always falling in love with people and/or things that cannot love me back. A lot of the time this is because they are dead. A couple of years ago, I had a very intense, one-sided fling with Guy de Maupassant; right now I’m pretty head over heels with the late jazz pianist, Bill Evans.  I bought the Village Vanguard Sessions on vinyl at a garage sale and thought it would be a fling, but it has turned into something more serious. As with any love affair in full bloom, I stay in evenings, neglecting my friends, happy to be in the company of my beloved. That my beloved is on Youtube is a minor thing, a 21st century predicament overcome by a couple of glasses of wine.

Last week I found this  interview (below) of Bill by his brother, Harry. It’s quite long, but if you have time, it’s worth watching. Though I am a fan of Evan’s music, I found what he had to say about creativity to be especially interesting to me as a writer, and I imagine that other kinds of artists would find it similarly appealing. Besides, Bill is just heartbreak handsome in that black suit with his Brylcreem hair. Even with his crazy-eyes and his terrible teeth, he embodies an unmistakable elegance. He’s erudite without being pompous; in other interviews I’ve seen, he shrugs away from the word “intellectual” like it were a smelly coat, careful to remind people that jazz is the “practice of making one minute’s music in one minute’s time.” In other words, it can’t be intellectuallized, because it happens too quickly.

One of the things he says in the interview that I found especially compelling was near the end, when Harry asks him about teaching, and whether jazz can be taught. Bill seems to be arguing against formal jazz instruction, but Harry makes the case that students need to be taught certain formal, stylistic things in order to gain their footing as musicians. Bill concedes: “You as an individual always make the decision on what you accept and what you reject . . . that’s the thing that you as an artist are really concerned with — how you are handling your materials, are you able to handle them in any way that you want.”

As a writer finishing up my MFA, I thought this was a particularly interesting quote, because what I think he’s talking about is creative confidence. Maybe talent can’t be taught, but it can be cultivated — and this is presumably what Harry was driving at.  Of course MFA programs are a relatively new thing, and countless masterpieces have been penned by people without writing degrees, but I think writing programs give people a solid chunk of time to think about writing and to think of themselves as writers, which is key. A few nights ago I was rooting around in my computer archives and found something I’d written before joining the program, and I was astonished that I still thought it was kind of good.  There was something a little wild about it, like a hedge in a mad scientist’s back yard — in the program, I’ve often been criticized for my use of “florid” prose. What can I say? I like words. But so did Ray Bradbury.

I’m never going to write like Hemingway, but I don’t want to. Still, I’ve learned when and where to cut back, depending on what I’m trying to accomplish, and I know that it’s okay — which isn’t something I understood before I began my MFA studies. Back then, I thought every sentence needed to be choking with adjectives. In this much shorter interview with Evans and his trio from 1970, he talks about his dislike for musical “embroidery.” “If you can say it easy,” he muses, “why say it hard?”

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