Bill Evans Composition “LAURIE”

 

For an extensive view of all things Bill Evans, please visit Rob Rijneke’s tribute site:
www.billevans.nl

Bill Evans, Memoir and the Nature of Art

Laurie Verchomin, Bill Evans, Francine Tomlin, The Big Love

“Laurie Verchomin” photo by Francine Tomlin

Insightful review of  “The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans”

This is from the blog ” the moderate contrarian”  by Mitch Hampton, a lay philosopher, jazz pianist and composer, essayist, cinephile and humanist and aesthete.

http://themoderatecontrarian.blogspot.ca/2011/07/bill-evans-memoir-and-nature-of-art.html

There is much truth to the ways we systematize and understand our lives. There is some truth to the labels in the latest DSM. I am perfectly willing even to concede all of the vogue words and jargon that we create to try and make sense of our lives. Having said that, I still think it is the role of art to get around, behind, and beyond such reductive forms of understanding. Nowhere is this problem made clearer than in the subject, content and potential reception of a valuable and well written memoir by jazz pianist Bill Evan’s last (literally to the deathbed) and younger lover Laurie Verchomin, The Big Love.

The problem stands in relief because in this tiny work of art in prose Verchomin takes material in her content loaded with traps to snare those who would approach it with preconceptions and stereotypical assumptions – Evans’ chronic cocaine abuse (evidently he was never not on drugs for decades), the fact that a much younger woman chose to be with him until his death and care and comfort him, the way the author negotiates the painful contradictions and joys of the 1970s sexual revolution – and makes all of this content a means by which she communicates not explanation or even understanding but experience in the sense that the better art communicates experience.
She is also working in a much maligned form. Memoirs are enormously popular (in part for the worst of reasons, say, an overt belief in “the truth” or an excessive interest in certain fashions) some feel that there are too many of them, it is associated with charges of self indulgence, celebrity culture, the evasion of artistic and literary seriousness and much worse besides.
Yet, as I have stated many times before, genre – in this case I suppose the label would be a “coming of age” genre – is not always the most useful way to understand literary or any other kind of art. A better way to understand art is to ask if we are changed somehow after expreriencing it, if it opens up newer forms of experience to us.
One of the reasons for the mistreatment or suspicion of memoir is that both audiences and critics make a whole host of assumptions about what consists an art object, what is the role, if any, of narration, point of view and other issues.
The other reason is pure sexism in the old fashioned Feminist sense. That is, many of the concerns of the memoir are concerns authored and experienced by women. Since historically such concerns are deemed of lesser importance than, say, a traditionally plotted novel, or an objective biography of a musician, this bias can only work against a memoir written by a woman.
Verchomin’s The Big Love is one of the most unusual experiences I have ever had in reading creative non-fiction. It is poetic, emotive, and compressed and distilled. Set in diary form, each sentence or paragraph is both austere and dense at one and the same time.
The great ballad “Laurie” as heard in the youtube selection was written by Bill Evans for her.
As a jazz pianist and lover of Bill Evans my perspective is surely biased: the content of the book is inherently interesting. But even more interesting is the complete lack of moralism (as distinct from true morality) and complete presence of compassion in her book. Every day that is covered reveals a very young woman coming of age and also reveals a Bill Evans slowly dying all the while performing, arguably the greatest music performances of his career. (I am often reminded of Edward Said’s book On Late Style). Evans’ late playing is exuberant and unafraid; it has the rawness of a scene from a Cassavetes movie yet the form of an old melodrama. Verchomin’s artistic and aesthetic strategy of using bits of poetry and the journal form as we stay with the experience of this young woman and this far older celebrity and greatest of jazz artists on a daily basis has a directness that would have otherwise been unavailable to us had she travelled a more worn path.
It is admittedly disturbing the passages that creep upon the reader. As we read we get deeper into the consciousness of the subjects. It is almost as if Verchomin is challenging us to think about ethics and human relationships in a deeper way. I will be reading her book and come upon a piece of information about public people, yet the innocence and tone of the delivery works against the severity of the information. For example:
“Bill’s other connection is Sam DiStephano who manages the Chicago Playboy Club. He sends over two former playmates (now a lesbian couple) to keep us company at the hotel. One is really tall and the other is short like me.

Bill asks them to find some cocaine. We went back to their apartment to wait while the tall one went out to score. I loved their apartment. They had this great writing-partner desk, where they worked on their careers as writers. And Tony Bennett had given them matching walkmens so they could think of him while they were having sex”.
The effect of the passage is startling because of the reporting style mixed with the point of view of a young woman from Canada.

There is no greater case to be made for the supremacy of style in how art makes meaning than in The Big Love. Verchomin’s “voice” and rhythm is everything. After many weeks of reading about the wildness of 1970s culture it is a nice to come upon purely musical examples such as Bill Evans’ understandable love for Earth Wind and Fire, or more personal passages where detail and rhythm are all important:
“I am Ellaine, because she is so much stronger. I am drawing on the strength of her tenure as Bill’s first wife. The woman who ate nothing but Haagen Dasz coffee ice cream for two years and then broke her fast with sushi. The woman who gave birth to twin Siamese cats, which they named Melody and Harmony. The woman who lay beside Bill for years and years, in candlelit apartments without electricity, yet keeping sacred the art of television with an extension cord strung out into the hallway”.

At other times she writes about Evans’ musical style:
“No one recognizes the melody; the discard has his head rearing up, an angry mane of thick grey hair framing his broad forehead,eyebrows raised in astonished agony.

Here is Bill, crucifying himself. Finally exploring his suffering in public, no longer able to control his passion, freely expressing the distortion he is directly experiencing.”

It is direct experience that is one of Verchomin’s themes, as well as a good phrase for the style in which she writes.

As the book keeps building the sense of repetition, by the book’s end we are not quite the same as we were when we started. We are in a place where the usual categories do not apply. In my view there is no better place for a piece of writing to take the reader. We are constantly having to readjust ourselves our sense of what music and the music making process is. We have to constantly readjust our preconceptions of drugs and sexuality.
The Big Love is a short book. It is concentrated, precise and sharp. But it is a creation of pure love. It builds to a powerful and inevitable end that seems far vaster than its surface size. It is unabashedly spiritual and mystical and never downplays such interests for the sake of a purely secular or scientific culture. The Big Love it is a must for anybody involved in jazz and certainly for anyone interested in the history of the 1970s, and, above all, anybody interested in the subject of female experience in the twentieth century.




Meeting Bill / April 1979

Suicide is Painless

Steve Price artist

original Oil painting by Steve Price

Edmonton

April 1979

Edmonton is brutally cold this April. Snow is piled high in sand, salt and prairie grit. It’s so cold I decide to take a cab instead of the bus to the Club tonight.  I arrive in an awkward layering of sweaters. I no longer own a winter coat. I left my coat in a dry-cleaning store in Manhattan last November

I am at the Mayflower Restaurant on 97th street, about to serve cocktails in a very tight black full length polyester gown I found in the $10.00 bin at the  “Bay” ( one of the straps was missing  so I converted it to halter style with a couple of stitches ~ this is the extent of my sewing talent).

I’m volunteering for the Railtown Jazz Society who have booked The Bill Evans Trio to play in this Church/Disco/Chinese Restaurant. This is my first time here and I am amazed by the conglomeration of oddities in the room.

The room has a choir loft on three of the sides ~ with benches and chairs. Down below are tables and chairs bordering a shiny silver disco floor where the pulpit must have been in the original church. Mounted at the back of this shiny floor , is a replica of an army plane which hangs ominously over the piano, bass and drums. This is a really weird set up.

The doors of the church are opened and people start streaming in wondering what to make of this place but anxious to get a good seat. The place is packed in no time.

I can barely squeeze by the people sitting up in the choir loft. I have no system for keeping track of the bills. Once the music starts an intensity takes over the room. I recognize many of the fans as they are old school chums of mine from the one year I spent at Grant McKuen Community College. These are the jazz students and their professors. Some are young nerdy with glasses and no girlfriend, some are old and nerdy with no girlfriend. None are big spenders. This is definitely the college crowd.

While I am serving I am struck by the intensity of the music and the spell it’s able to cast on the room. The fans are so preoccupied with the music, they ignore me when I approach the table. I am trying to be as quiet as possible. If I peak at all I am given dirty looks. I feel like I am disturbing their minds.

The first time I had heard Bill Evans play was a couple of weeks ago, when Steven Drake showed up with a couple of hits of acid while I was house sitting for Diane Ellert. Acid was Steven’s drug of preference. He had been turned onto it by his ultra cool Hollywood/Hippy parents as part of his home schooling regime in the Slocan Valley. I was bored and the sun had come out for the first time in days so I decided to join him on his trip.

Diane had an amazing record collection and Steven decided we should stay inside and listen to music. He put on a Miles Davis record called “Kind OF Blue” with Bill Evans playing these incredibly sparse piano parts. This was the first time I had heard him play, while I was on acid with Steven Drake.

Tonight I recognize one of the tunes the trio is playing. It isn’t anything like the quiet melodic forms on Kind Of Blue. It’s the theme song from the television series M*A*S*H* (Suicide is Painless) that I used to watch with my family. I’m extremely surprised to hear a jazz player covering something so widely recognized. Then I stop to listen and I am drawn in by the vision of this unassuming man in a tweed jacket and tinted glasses, leaning gently over the piano, cast in the eerie glow of a blue spotlight. Here he is holding court in the center of the disco floor beneath that vintage army plane. The bass player has his eyes closed in concentration and the drummer’s face is lifted into the light. I understand church in this moment. Everyone focusing on the one thing.

At the end of the night I cash out and the Chinese bartender/ club owner tells me I am $50.00 short. I have no idea how this has happened. I feel completely deflated. I want to cry. I don’t even have $50.00 to give him and I have worked my ass off for nothing.

What a mess.

After all of this I meet Bill Evans ~ he is seated with his back to me, at a table with Bob Stroup and the other members of the Railtown Jazz Society. I ask him if I can bring him anything. He hears my voice and turns to see me.

I am so young and firm in my dancers body ~ tight inside my dream of escape.

Escape from Edmonton ~ escape from the mundane ~ escape from the dulled down trap of my own boredom.

He responds that he has what he needs at the moment but would I be available later  ~ he has something he wants to talk to me about.

Hmmmmn, I wonder what he wants to talk to me about? Maybe he’s looking to score something. Most of my friends are musicians, they are always looking for something to score.

I leave the table and make my way over to the bar to finish up with the crazy Chinese bartender. After a heated discussion I give him the fifty dollars I’ve borrowed from a friend to even out the shortage he’s calculated.

The club is mostly deserted now and I notice Bill Evans waiting in the entry way, examining the promotional materials Warner Brothers sent over. It’s a poster of Crosscurrents a quintet album, which is his most recent release. I join him and he makes a comment to me about the cover ~ how it doesn’t represent the music in any way ~ how unintegrated the music and the music business are.

I’m staring into the swirling blue waves of the album cover wondering how anything could be unintegrated for  a man that commands the kind of presence he does.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the music” he says answering my thoughts.

“Oh” I don’t’ really get what he is saying . Then I explain to him about the crazy evening I had waiting tables at this kooky concert hall.

He is tall and solemn in a thick dark grey overcoat and a Persian wool hat ~ so Russian ~ so much like my father, only he is listening so carefully to my words.

Finally he says to me:

“ I’d really like to spend some time with you. We leave tomorrow for Calgary,   maybe you could join me for a few hours tonight at my hotel?”

Wow I’m thinking to myself, that would be so cool. I should invite Steven he would love to hang out with Bill Evans.

“That sounds great.  Can I bring my boyfriend too, he’s a really big fan of yours”.

He breaks into a thin laugh at my suggestion and says “ No, that’s not what I had in mind”.

I am so embarrassed by his suggestion and my response to it ~ I quickly change the subject and mention that I may have what he’s looking for at my place ( some cocaine).

The promoter drove us to my very sparse apartment (one chair a few teacups and a mattress on the floor) and a flurry of fans ( members of the jazz society including my sort of boyfriend Steven) followed us in. Bill asked for a Pepsi, which I didn’t have and I made him tea in a china cup. Soon fans were firing questions at him, and I was digging up my floorboards for a stash of cocaine that a dealer friend of mine usually kept at my place.

It wasn’t much, especially for him, but he was very appreciative and slipped me his agent’s card with his home number on the back, asking me to call him.

I responded by giving him a crazy picture of myself in a black satin Japanese robe with a Dragon embroidered down the back.

He made his exit as soon as possible, pausing at my doorway to thank me again and leaning down to kiss my cheek. I reached up and hugged him as hard as I could, which really surprised him.

A couple of days later I got my first letter from him with a $50 bill enclosed to make up for the cheap bastards I had waited on (his fans!), and inviting me to visit him in New York.

(excerpt from ” The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans ” by Laurie Verchomin)