Jazz musicians can teach composers a thing or two. Especially highly accomplished jazz musicians, such as Bill Evans. In this article, we take a deep dive into the universal mind of Bill Evans. We’ll learn how he thinks about creating, mastery, and teaching.
Bill Evans has always been one of my favorite jazz pianists. One of the CDs I bought back in my younger days was a CD called “This is Jazz 8: Miles Davis Acoustic”. This CD had a compilation of a bunch of Miles Davis tunes from all sorts of albums. But one of my favorites was Stella by Starlight. The reason, I would have to give it to Bill Evan’s solo. Something about it, so simple, so pure. Especially the last line he plays, leading out of his solo back to the head. Just take a moment to listen.
So, when I found out there is a small documentary called The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, I knew I had to watch it. I am always on the search for people that can give clarity to what I do – create music. Creation in all fields seems to have more similarities than differences. Whether a composer, a jazz musician, a painter, a military leader, a general contractor – the faculties you call upon are similar. I can say this with relative certainty as I am or have been each of those at some point in my life.
The Universal Musical Mind
The crux of Evan’s viewpoint is the Universal Musical Mind. It is something that is hard to pin down, but it seems to me, to be a pure, joyful act of creation and understanding. Making something that you know is good and true, and not attempting to create something that is “great” or groundbreaking.
The word kitsch comes to mind. You are not making something that is like something else on the surface – and calling it that other thing. Instead, you are getting inside the truth of the creative act, and creating something that you deeply feel and understand. It is this that unites the universal mind in both the listener and the composer.
This isn’t to say you can’t imitate for the purposes of learning. Bill Evans has something to say about this, which we’ll look at in a minute.
I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a Universal Musical Mind. Any true music speaks with this Universal mind, to the universal mind in all people.
The Creative Development of Bill Evans
It’s obvious now that jazz is the most central and important thing in my life, yet I never knew that. I was involved with Jazz, but you know I went to college – I got a teachers degree, because I thought I might teach. But when the moment came, bang I went out to jazz. … It revealed itself as the most important thing in my life.
Bill Evans’ development is interesting, and in the video, I found I related a lot to his story. In particular, how he gradually realized that jazz was the most important thing in his life. I had a similar kind of realization with composition while in the Army. It wasn’t until I reached certain, non-aligning goals (the equivalent of Bill getting his teaching degree), that I figured out the thing I really wanted to do was compose.
Bill started with classical lessons, and found that he could play written masterpieces, but was unable to play a simple tune without the notes. At some point, he joined a dance band, and would play the stock arrangements exactly as written.
Well one night, I got real adventurous on tuxedo junction, and I put in a little, "Bwang", you know, that was written, and this was such an experience, to make music that wasn’t indicated.
This got him excited, and more importantly, got him into learning about how the songs were made.
The take away: Try to approach with an adventurous naiveté. Put in a little “bwang” here or there, but know what you’re doing.
I have been into jazz ever since I had to play a few “jazzy” pieces in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Youth Wind Band. We would play “In the Mood”, “American Patrol”, some ragtime stuff… nothing crazy. But I got bit by the bug. I started with a Glenn Miller CD, and shortly moved onto Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and many more.
What I find interesting about jazz is not necessarily the freedom that you think it has. I think I actually like the constraints more. You see, jazz is “more of a revival of what went on in classical music before.” Yes you improvise, but you do it within a very strict set of criteria.
Jazz has resurrected the “Jazz Process.” Jazz is not so much a style as it is a process of making music. A very intense, active process. It’s about making 1 minute of music in 1 minute of time, versus 1 minute of music in 3 months time.
Chopin, Bach, Mozart, were in a sense, playing Jazz when they improvised. And highly informed their written compositions.
The art of music is the art of speaking with this spontaneous quality.
You cannot go back and erase in jazz.
Your Own Development as a Composer
Learning to master a craft, such as composition or improvisation takes a long time and a lot of hard work. But it also requires an honesty and humility. You must admit to yourself what you are actually capable of, and work from that point.
This is why I am not a fan of tackling major works, such as Symphonies or Concertos, before you have a lot of experience with shorter or simpler works.
Bill Evans has something to say for people who reach to far to early:
They tend to approximate the product, rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way, at any elementary level – regardless of how elementary – but it must be entirely true, and entirely real, and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem, than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it.
You must be satisfied to be very clear, and very real, and to be very analytical at any level. You can’t take the whole thing; and to approximate the whole thing in a vague way, gives one a feeling that they … more or less touched the thing, but in this way you lead yourself more or less toward confusion.
You have to realize “the problem is large,” and you have enjoy the step by step procedure.
No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, that it only is free in so far that 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 without being in reference to something.
When I’m playing – I’m playing everything I play against the strict squareness of the original form.
This falls right in line with what Hepokoski and Darcy, authors of “Sonata Theory” call dialogic form. When we compose in traditional forms, we are in dialogue with every other composer that used the same forms. This is the reason why I love traditional classical forms such as sonata form, concerto form, or minuet/trio.
Identifying the Creative Problems to Be Solved
Now the whole process of learning the facility to play jazz, is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense conscience concentration level, until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more, and so on, and so on.
Bill seems to have quite a bit of humility about his own development though. He started playing professionally at the age of 13, and played a lot after that, 4-5 nights a week. But he didn’t begin to feel a “degree of expressive ability, the ability to now let out my feelings, freely through some sort of a craft, and this was in the simple area of a popular idiom.”
You just learn to throw that switch, and as a matter of fact, there is plenty of times, that you just feel like, "I could possibly play", but as soon as you get up there, and the moment comes, you have that discipline. And there is a professional level of creativity that I can depend on and which is satisfactory for public performance. … But those other high levels, which happen just occasionally are really thrilling, you don’t know when heck they’re going to come.
He found his lack of natural talent an advantage. Because he didn’t have a great facility immediately, he had to be more analytical.
It forced me to build something.
The Problems of Composition
When you get down to it, composition is just like any other creative and practical endeavor. We must learn to identify what the problems are, and conquer those problems. The trick is identifying the problems. Conquering them is just work.
I still feel like, at this point in my development, I am still trying to identify the real problems. Certainly there are the typical categories of melody, harmony, form, counterpoint, orchestration, and so on. But I think in order to really attack a problem, it needs to be much more specific.
Almost mathematical in its clarity.
This may cause warning alarms to go off in many minds. Alert, Alert: He is talking about composition like its mechanical and mathematical!
Well, yes I am, because… it is. But the mathematical part is the problem, and we as composers should not just solve problems, but solve them with a beautiful equation.
We aren’t just looking for a chalkboard full of numbers and symbols, we are looking for our own E=mc2. A simple, beautiful equation, that sums up years of thinking and problem solving.
All I must do, is take care of the music, even if I do it in a closet, and if I really do that, somebody is gonna come and open the door of the closet and say, "Hey, we’re looking for you."
The Education of the Jazz Musician
Bill talks about teaching jazz students (wouldn’t you like to have been in his class). He says that he had a class of 11 piano students, and about 8 of them didn’t want to learn about what anyone had done before them because they didn’t want to be imitators.
This is pretty naive, and an attempt to circumvent the great problems in music. But never the less, it does bring to light, the fact that if you’re going to try to teach jazz, you must try to teach principles which are separate from style. You must abstract the principles of music which have nothing to do with style, and this is exceedingly difficult. It ends up that if the jazz player – if he is going to be a serious jazz player, teaches himself, but the thing is, a jazz player I think ultimately must select and discard according to his own self.
I can vouch, that trying to come up with principles that are abstract and separate from style is exceedingly difficult, but very rewarding.
Watch the Whole Series
I recommend taking the time to watch the whole video series on youtube. You won’t regret it.
Random Great Quote
I do not agree that the laymens opinion is less of a valid judgement of music than that of the professional musician. In fact I would often rely more on the judgement of a sensitive laymen, than that of a professional, since the professional because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music must fight to preserve the naivete that the laymen already possesses.
Bill Evans has a fascinating mind, and we can all learn some amazing things from him.
- The take away: Try to approach with an adventurous naiveté. Put in a little “bwang” here or there, but know what you’re doing.
- When deciding what to compose, don’t jump too far ahead of your current abilities. It may seem enticing to compose that 1st Symphony, but you need to really understand the compositional problems first, or you’ll end up just approximating a symphony – never touching the real thing.
- Identify compositional problems, and stay with them at very intense and conscience concentration levels, until the process of overcoming them becomes secondary and subconscious.
- The trick is identifying the problems. Conquering them is just work.
- A lack of natural talent can be an advantage. Bill Evans didn’t have great abilities early on, so he had to be more analytical.