The Universal Mind of Bill Evans: Advice on Learning to Play Jazz & The Creative Process

Bill Evans was one of the great­est jazz pianists of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. His play­ing on Miles Davis’s land­mark 1959 record, Kind of Blue, and as leader of the Bill Evans Trio was a major influ­ence on play­ers like Her­bie Han­cock, Kei­th Jar­rett and Chick Corea. “Bil­l’s val­ue can’t be mea­sured in any kind of terms,” Corea once said. “He’s one of the great, great artists of this cen­tu­ry.”

Evan­s’s approach to music was a process of analy­sis fol­lowed by intu­ition. He would study a prob­lem delib­er­ate­ly, work­ing on it over and over until the solu­tion became sec­ond nature. “You use your intel­lect to take apart the mate­ri­als,” Evans said in 1969.

“But, actu­al­ly, it takes years and years of play­ing to devel­op the facil­i­ty so that you can for­get all of that and just relax, and just play.” In the book Jazz Styles: His­to­ry and Analy­sis, music writer Mark C. Gri­d­ley describes his play­ing:

Evans craft­ed his impro­vi­sa­tions with exact­ing delib­er­a­tion. Often he would take a phrase, or just a ker­nel of its char­ac­ter, then devel­op and extend its rhythms, melod­ic ideas, and accom­pa­ny­ing har­monies. Then with­in the same solo he would often return to that ker­nel, trans­form­ing it each time. And while all this was hap­pen­ing, he would pon­der ways of resolv­ing the ten­sion that was build­ing. He would be con­sid­er­ing rhyth­mic ways, melod­ic ways, and har­monies all at the same time, long before the opti­mal moment for resolv­ing the idea.

Evans dis­cuss­es his cre­ative process in a fas­ci­nat­ing 1966 doc­u­men­tary, The Uni­ver­sal Mind of Bill Evans. (You can watch it above, or find it in mul­ti­ple parts on Youtube: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.) The film is intro­duced by Tonight Show host Steve Allen and fea­tures a reveal­ing talk between Evans and his old­er broth­er Har­ry, a music teacher. They begin with a dis­cus­sion of impro­vi­sa­tion and the nature of jazz, which Evans sees as a process rather than a style. He then moves to the piano to show how he builds up a jazz impro­vi­sa­tion, start­ing with a sim­ple frame­work and then adding lay­ers of rhyth­mic, har­mon­ic and melod­ic vari­a­tion.

“It’s very impor­tant to remem­ber,” Evans says, “that no mat­ter how far I might diverge or find free­dom in this for­mat, it only is free inso­far as it has ref­er­ence to the strict­ness of the orig­i­nal form. And that’s what gives it its strength. In oth­er words, there is no free­dom except in ref­er­ence to some­thing.”

The struc­ture of this process of improvisation–the mas­ter­ing of a thing explic­it­ly pre­scribed in order to burn it into the sub­con­scious for use lat­er in cre­at­ing some­thing new–echoes the pro­gres­sion of Evan­s’s devel­op­ment as a musi­cian. He says it took him 15 years of work from the time he first start­ed impro­vis­ing, at age 13, until he was ready to cre­ate some­thing tru­ly valu­able. The thing is not to get dis­cour­aged, but to enjoy the step-by-step process of learn­ing to make music.

“Most peo­ple just don’t real­ize the immen­si­ty of the prob­lem,” Evans says, “and either because they can’t con­quer imme­di­ate­ly they think they haven’t got the abil­i­ty, or they’re so impa­tient to con­quer it that they nev­er do see it through. But if you do under­stand the prob­lem, then I think you can enjoy your whole trip through.”

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Relat­ed con­tent:

1959: The Year that Changed Jazz

Clas­sic Jazz Album Cov­ers Ani­mat­ed, or the Re-Birth of Cool

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

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Comments (4)
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  • Lee Gee says:

    Once again, you have post­ed price­less footage u2014 many, many thanks.

  • system8o says: parts 2 3 and 4 also avail­able on you tube

  • Bill is a supreme­ly sub­lime mas­ter of con­scious­ness. He infused all his work with the pow­er of the wit­ness. All is Love.

  • Carolyn Horn says:

    I am a clas­si­cal musi­cian and piano teacher. I had no idea what jazz musi­cians were doing to make it all hap­pen in a cohe­sive way. So I enrolled in a local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege jazz course. The Gri­d­ley book was the cur­ricu­lum. It con­tains a per­fect descrip­tion of how “Kind of Blue” func­tions. I use it to teach my piano stu­dents how to play along with these great jazz leg­ends. The idea of using the greek modes in addi­tion to chordal pro­gres­sions was so bril­liant and expan­sive.

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