Bill Evans and Self-Confidence

Musicians must find their own style regardless of the prevailing musical flavor of the day.

by Marshall Bowden

I’ve been listening to the Bill Evans Complete Riverside Recordings box set and thinking about jazz musicians and self-confidence. The environment of jazz has always been competitive and therefore required a lot of belief in oneself and what one was doing in order to just continue to play and develop.

Take Miles Davis, a supremely confident musician if ever there was one. But when Miles first climbed on the bandstand, was first recording with Charlie Parker, he couldn’t really cut it. It doesn’t take more than a cursory listen to those early sides to realize that Miles was not a gifted bop player. Davis had a couple of choices: he could woodshed until he became a consummate bop improviser, he could pursue his own style and sound, or he could pack up and go home. I think there’s little doubt about the path he chose.

Classic Album: Bill Evans/Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Bill Evans chose a similar route. Evans doubted his own abilities, particularly early in his career. Growing up with an alcoholic father cannot have done much to give Evans a secure sense of self. An avid reader and one of jazz’s most articulate musicians, Evans admitted to an early lack of confidence in his playing and his vision. Believing that he lacked the talent of other musicians he listened to, Evans felt he could make up for the perceived lack of talent by working extremely hard. He didn’t satisfy his professors at Southeastern Louisiana College, though: they faulted him for not practicing exercises and scales, even though he was able to master the required pieces with ease.

Classic Album: Bill Evans/Everybody Digs Bill Evans

Nonetheless, Evans worked to develop his playing over a number of years, arriving at his unique sound and style as the result of learning to channel his feelings directly into the music. For him, exercises or scales could not be an acceptable form of development because he would then lose the emotional immediacy that fed his playing. Indeed, listening to Evans’ playing is much like meditation. You tune in to your own thoughts very deeply while listening because the music seems to speak directly to them, at times even seeming to reveal them to you.

Of course, Bill Evans was completely correct in his thought that by pursuing his own path and arriving at his own conception of jazz piano he was behaving in the most honest and authentic way that a musician can behave. Certainly, other jazz artists have done the same thing—Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk spring immediately to mind. Mingus and Monk, in particular, suffered some of the same difficulties as Evans—self-doubt in the face of commercial indifference to the path they were pursuing, periods of reclusiveness and depression, and widespread influence on other musicians who apparently missed the point of what they were attempting to accomplish.

This is not to say that all the followers of Mingus, Monk, and Bill Evans were uniformly attempting to imitate their idols rather than taking to heart their examples of the power of fiercely independent development, but there were many who chose that far simpler path. Interestingly, I doubt any of these musicians sat down with the idea that they would develop an “individual” style—somehow it was just a given.

This is what Evans had to say about the topic:

“First of all, I never strive for identity. That’s something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually…”

Enstice, Wayne and Paul Rubin. Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-two Musicians. Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1992.)

Thelonius Monk was often called egocentric, living in his own universe in which the world revolved around him. Denzil Best, who worked with Monk when they were both teenagers, recalls “People would call his changes wrong to his face. If he hadn’t been so strong in his mind, he might easily have become discouraged, but he always went his own way and wouldn’t change for anything.” It’s doubtful that Monk saw his chord progressions as anything but logical and probably wondered what all the fuss they generated was about. They were the vocabulary that enabled him to communicate what he wanted to communicate.

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The same can be said about Davis’ tone, Ellington’s insistence on writing more “serious” pieces, and Mingus’ use of humor and unorthodox voicings in his compositions. All were “wrong” in the eyes of those around them. All held firmly to the path they were on. Some resorted to chemical succor or retreated into their own private universe. There is little doubt that all these artists suffered a period or periods when there was a severe crisis of self-confidence. Bill Evans, as befitted his temperament, was more articulate about his. But the demon is there for all.

Some musicians don’t handle pressures of self-expression and the music business well, and some of them do fold up their tents and head home. One such musician was John Hardee. Hardee was a multi-instrumentalist who played piano, mellophone, C-melody saxophone, alto, and tenor sax. He worked with Don Albert as a tenor player before returning to college. After graduation, he worked as a band director in Texas and also played the clarinet in the military band.

Hardee went to New York to pursue his musical career and worked with Tiny Grimes from 1946 to 1948. Most of the work he recorded was done on 78 rpm records at the precise time that the LP format was killing off 78s as the recorded medium of choice. His work wasn’t released on LP and was lost and forgotten for some time, even though his playing put him on a par with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. So what happened? Basically a crisis of self-confidence. The jazz scene in New York was extremely competitive at the time, and Hardee simply didn’t have the stomach for it. He felt that he could have filled the chair vacated by Ben Webster in the Duke Ellington orchestra, and the recorded evidence, now available on CD, supports that assertion.

I strongly recommend either the Chronological Jazz Series release John Hardee: 1946-1948 or the EMI import John Hardee Swingtettes: Tired. We’re very lucky to have these performances saved and available for our pleasure. Had Hardee continued to be part of the New York scene he would undoubtedly have become a major tenor player whose contribution and influence would still be widely discussed. Hardee returned to Texas, teaching in Dallas for most of the rest of his life. No doubt he passed on a lot of wisdom to the kids who learned music from him.

What is the point of this discussion? I guess it comes down to the belief that although it’s important to listen to a lot of music and absorb what’s been done in the past, it doesn’t really matter what the prevailing flavor of the day is if the music that arises from a musician’s deepest emotions is at odds with that flavor. When swing was the thing, there were musicians who just didn’t play that style because they didn’t feel it. Same with bebop, cool jazz, and every other style to come down the pike.

The other point here is that once a musician has connected deeply with what he or she is feeling and found the vocabulary and technique necessary to express those feelings, they should not allow anything to change what they’re doing or dissuade them. That’s not to say musicians should do one thing for their entire life or career. One must continue to develop or there’s not much point in expressing oneself. That impetus for a change of direction needs to come from inside, to grow organically and be allowed to take the artist where it will; it can’t be dictated by fashion or marketing concerns.

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