Meeting Bill / April 1979

Suicide is Painless

Steve Price artist

original Oil painting by Steve Price


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)

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