When we think the music of jazz pianist Bill Evans, words like “introspection,” “quiet,” and “refinement” usually come to mind. If you know a little bit about his early career, we may add terms like “experimentation” and even “bebop.” But not many of us would listen to his classic album Sunday At The Village Vanguard and think “boogie woogie!”
But believe it or not, Evans grew up playing boogie woogie, the exciting, very “extroverted” precursor of blues-based rock and roll that was popular during the 1930s – early 40s.
First check out “Spring Is Here.” This is Evans’ mature style that he became famous for:
Now take a quick listen to some classic Boogie Woogie, courtesy of pianist Meade Lux Lewis, one of the style’s inventors:
On the surface, this is perhaps the style of jazz that seems the farthest away from Bill Evans! But Evans did indeed spend his teenage years playing Boogie Woogie. Not only that, but as he told fellow jazz pianist and interviewer Marian McPartland, “I used to be the fastest boogie woogie piano player in central (New) Jersey.”
It might be a little difficult to imaging Bill Evans playing like Meade Lux Lewis, but in a way it does make sense. Evans was born in 1929 which means that he was first getting into jazz during the height of boogie woogie’s popularity during the 1930s and early 40s. Not only that, but boogie is based on the blues, which Evans also acknowledged as being a wonderful way to get into jazz.
It also makes sense when we reconcile this with how Evans formed his style. He wasn’t one of those players who developed his style early, like Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell. Instead, Evans spent the early part of his career trying various approaches, from the experimental techniques of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic concept to straight-ahead bebop as a member of Miles Davis’ 1950s quintet. He gradually distilled all these approaches into what we now think of as his mature style.
But Boogie Woogie didn’t entirely disappear from Evan’s playing. Yes, it became buried in a way, but it was always there as an influence on how his music swung and it’s connection with the roots of jazz, even at its most elegant.
In fact, this is precisely what so many of Evan’s imitators lack: a deep sense of swing. It can only come from long periods of playing the blues and swing music, and it was an integral part of helping Bill Evans become the jazz giant he became.
So the next time you think of Bill Evans, don’t just think of “Spring Is Here” and “Waltz For Debby.” Think of Boogie Woogie!
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