Many years ago I spoke of Bill Evans and his great appreciation of simplicity, and his capacity for tremendous amplification through honest simplification. Recently I stumbled upon a rare, 45-minute interview from the 1960s which Bill Evans did along with his brother—also a wonderful pianist—Harry Evans. If you can find time to sit down and watch the entire interview, it may be the best thing you see all week. But to give you a feel of the message, let me place the videos here and highlight the key points along with my comments.
Part 1 (on YouTube)
Above in the first clip Evans speaks of people’s tendency to approach a problem in its entirety in a vague, abstract way instead of just taking a small piece and focusing on that and really getting to know it and build from there. This, says, Evans is more honest. Here are just a few key quotes that stood out.
"It’s better to do something simple which is real. It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it."
"No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength."
"They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance."
The key, too, is learning to enjoy the struggle that comes from taking a part of the complicated whole and getting better at those little bits step by step.
"It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and knowing that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure."
This is not to say that you should not be adventurous and take risks and experiment. Playing it safe is not what Evans is suggesting. What Evans is saying is that you need to understand the frame work and the rules and principles so that you can know for yourself what works (through your experiments) and what does not.
Part 2 (on YouTube)
In the second clip above, Evans talks about the fact that it took him many years of playing before he really felt he was able to freely express himself. Evans could sight read from an early age but could not play even a very simple song he says without sheet music. He spent a good part of his teens and 20s learning on the job and working hard on deepening his understanding of music and developing techniques.
“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…"
Many people see only the end result, instead of the long path and all the richness the journey will provide them. You don’t learn anything meaningful or accomplish anything worth contributing if you approach it thinking in terms of how can I get to that style or approximate that result in the easiest, fastest way possible. No journey, no lessons. No struggle, no learning. (But one must practice well.)
Also, he touches on an idea you often here in the Zen arts where one only begins to be free after many years of studying the methods and forms to the point where one no longer thinks about technique at all. Technique is important but your style and self expression will come out in time when the principles and techniques are not held consciously in the moment. An athlete or a musician just does it. Don’t think—Do. But this ability comes only after a very long journey of study and practice.
Part 3 (on YouTube)
Here in clip three Bill Evans begins by recalling a time most of his students wanted to get right to creating their unique style and foregoing the hard work that others had done before them because they did not 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."
Don’t worry about style. Your style will arise naturally, unconsciously as a result of you being true to yourself and sharing your art — whatever your art is — in the most authentic, honest, passionate way possible. Of course, you can carefully study the masters, but better than copying them is allowing yourself to be inspired by them to find your own voice. Your own voice may have elements of the masters who came before, but those elements came about naturally after studying the principles and being influenced over time by those who came before.
The role of the teacher
There is an old proverb that says "Teachers open the doors, but you must enter by yourself." Here Harry Evans and Bill Evans touch on the idea of telling/showing a student an answer to a problem vs. the idea of letting the student discover an answer themselves.
Harry: “… the first question always is: well, I can’t stay in the F chord for four measures. What am I gonna do? You see? You can give them four avenues, eight avenues, twelve avenues…”
Bill: “Or you can say: find an avenue.”
Harry: “...But if you just say, find an avenue, you’ll be fired as a teacher.”
Harry: “I just can’t say "Find an avenue” because he’s gonna say “you’re not teaching me anything!”
Bill: “Well, maybe that’s the way to teach though. Maybe if you say "you must find an avenue. Next week, I’ll show you an avenue, but this week, find an avenue!”
Harry: “Oh, that way, yeah! You know, the essence of teaching is to get the student excited about the subject and explore on his own. This is the essence of teaching.”
In this classic interview from the 1960s Bill Evans is speaking about the art of jazz, but the principles can be applied to almost any endeavor where great learning, effort, and discovery are required. There are no quick formulas for excellence. Achieving excellence is a struggle and it's not always fun by a long shot, but one can and should enjoy the journey.
• The intro from the interview is excellent as well.
• Sample Bill Evans on Amazon.