Thursday, December 10, 2015

`It's Invisible or Unhearable'

I remember reading Whitney Balliett’s profile of Dick Wellstood in the Feb. 25, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, and being thrilled by this description of the pianist seated at the keyboard:

“He removed one hand, pushed his glasses up his nose, and clasped his hands again. He looked as if he were sitting in his East Side apartment, which is small and is lined with Smollett, Aldous Huxley, Robert Musil, Samuel Johnson, Nabokov, Meredith, Hazlitt, Gibbon, Chesterton, F.R. Leavis, and Thomas Love Peacock.” (“Easier than Working,” American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz, 1985).

Balliett is implying that Wellstood as a performer was comfortable and relaxed, as though he were at home, but he also suggests the pianist was a reader with unusually good and varied taste in writers, not one of whom was still alive by 1980 (Nabokov was the most recent, having died in 1977). An ambitious reader is never self-provincialized in the present. He is a temporal cosmopolitan. While not all jazz musicians are ambitious readers, as a group they are likely to be intelligent and funny (certainly more so than rock musicians), and often are gifted storytellers. I knew a baritone saxophone player who was forever reading and rereading Dickens. Between sets I once saw him sitting in the club’s storeroom, stacked with cases of beer and liquor, reading Little Dorritt. By snobbish standards he was no intellectual, and had never gone to college, but he made more amusing company than, say, Noam Chomsky. Here is Peter Pettinger in Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (Yale University Press, 1998):

“Evans loved to read, in particular humorous books, his beloved Thomas Hardy, and philosophy. His bookcases held works by Plato, Voltaire, Whitehead, and Santayana, as well as the worldly speculations of Freud, Margaret Mead, Sartre, and Thomas Merton. He had introduced John Coltrane to the works of the Southern Indian spiritual leader and philosopher Krishnamurti.”

Elsewhere in the biography, Pettinger notes the pianist’s interest in William Blake, and quotes from an interview Evans (1929-1980) gave Down Beat in 1960:

“He’s almost a folk poet, but he reaches heights of art because of his simplicity. The simple things, the essences, are the great things, but our way of expressing them can be incredibly complex. It’s the same thing with technique in music. You try to express a simple emotion—love, excitement, sadness—and often your technique gets in the way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through which your feelings and ideas are communicated. The great artist always gets right to the heart of the matter. His technique is so natural it’s invisible or unhearable. I’ve always had good facility, and that worries me. I hope it doesn’t get in the way.”

From the first passage quoted, we might deduce Evans was a hip young man of his time, reading the era’s approved figures (Freud, Mead, Sartre, Merton), though Hardy and Santayana were hardly authors du jour. Evans graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in 1950 with two degrees – bachelor of music with a piano major and bachelor of music education. But that hardly prepares us for his meditation on simplicity vs. complexity, emotion vs. technique, and his anxiety over perhaps having too much musical facility, though he needn’t have worried. Balliett once wrote of a performance by Evans: "Henry James would have relished such intricate footwork."

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