The Making of a Jazz Standard

It was while in college as a 20-year-old in 1949 that Bill Evans wrote his first composition. In his biography, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Yale University’s Peter Pettinger wrote, “...he produced a small masterpiece in waltz time that he called ‘Very Early.’ It is a highly disciplined piece of writing, its melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong characteristic: the application of logic to a creative musical process. That approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans's art. And yet when we listen to his music, we are conscious not of the compositional process but only of the resultant poetry. Played ‘straight’ from the page, ‘Very Early’ is a lyrical gem; but it also provided its composer with a fruitful sequence for improvisation, the earliest of many compositions that sustained him around the globe for three decades.”

One of the highest compliments that can bestowed on a jazz artist is to have his/her composition performed and recorded by other recognized industry leaders. The more frequently this happens – and the more widely the tune becomes known among listeners – the more likely it is to become judged as a jazz standard.

In his fascinating book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012), noted historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia offers up 253 such examples, denoting them as standards “...based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era.”

I don’t believe anyone can quibble with the final list of selections Gioia chose for his book, other than perhaps simply wanting to add a few more. In my estimation, “Very Early” is one of those pieces worthy of consideration of the title, jazz standard.

For someone of Bill Evans’ bonafides, it’s perfectly understandable why pianists, especially, would want to create their own take of this idyllic jazz waltz. Indeed, many of them already have. For starters, check out the myriad renditions available online by Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Werner, Doug McKenzie, Ariana Racicot, Stefano Battaglia and the 15-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander in performance with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see and hear what is becoming an ever-growing stable of guitarists who have embraced this delightfully challenging piece, with the much-heralded John McLaughlin leading the pack. Since his eloquent interpretation of “Very Early” from the 1981 tribute album, Time Remembered: John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans, a host of others have followed suit, including Howard Alden, Tom Quayle, Gary Willis, Matt Otten, Jack Wilkins, Simon Peter King, Rick Stone, Tim Lerch, Jake Reichbart, Danny Whalen and more.

Still other instrumentalists, including alto saxophonist Phil Woods and vibraphonist Joe Locke, have added their own special versions to the mix, but my personal favorite translations of “Very Early”– after Evans – were recorded by two of jazz’s most lyrical but expressly diverse tenor saxophonist stylists, Stan Getz and Charles Lloyd.

Fabulous artists taking a tune, reworking and reinventing it to call it their own. This is what makes jazz so great.


ALBUM                  

Moon Beams (Bill Evans Trio, Riverside Records, 1962)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early”

PERSONNEL         

Bill Evans, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Paul Motian, drums

 

ALBUM                  

Pure Getz (Stan Getz Quartet, Concord Records, 1992)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (solo begins at :20 second mark through 1:10)

PERSONNEL         

Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Jim McNeely, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Victor Lewis, drums

 
 

 

ALBUM                  

Charles Lloyd Quartet: Montreux, 1982 (Elektra/Musician label)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (Lloyd’s solo begins at 1:50 mark)

PERSONNEL         

Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Michel Petrucciani, piano;  Palle Danielsson, bass; Son Ship Theus, drums

That Innate Ability to Make the Leap

“One of the most thrilling things about jazz as a spontaneous creative process is in recording it, and later, hearing oneself and being so surprised at what has happened.”

– Bill Evans

Early on, it was the pianist and composer Bill Evans, who so deeply moved me. His choice of music and the way he played those most expressively sensitive lines elicited all sorts of emotions in me. He could sometimes fill you with sadness; he could bring you to a place of peace and tranquility; and on those especially gorgeous, heart-rending ballads, his calming delivery could bring tears to your eyes.

Because of all his unique qualities, I spent many hours becoming more familiar with Bill Evans. One of the more enlightening works I discovered of the great pianist was a brief documentary produced in 1966. It was kind of a step-by-step discussion involving creative problem-solving featuring Bill and his brother Harry, a music teacher who played both piano and trumpet (The documentary is still available online, including this additive version assembled by composer Jon Brantingham).

In it, they begin by discussing improvisation and the nature of jazz, which Evans describes as a “process” rather than a style. Then, moving to the piano, Bill demonstrates how to take the basics of the song “Star Eyes” as a simple framework and from there add succeeding layers of rhythm, harmonics and melodic variation.

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For Evans in 1966, then in his late ‘30s, what he formulated in those final three minutes of this demonstration was all so perfectly natural, so spontaneously creative and finished. And I’m guessing if Bill had listened to a playback of his ad-libbing on this tune – seemingly very simple, at least to him – he would still have heard something that was surprising.

Why? Because this is the nature of improvisation, creating in the moment. You can’t expect an artist to go back and play exactly what he/she has just conceived. There are no written notes. That’s what makes jazz so inspiring, so exciting. It’s always fresh. For both artist and listener, that’s the surprise.

The first time I heard that documentary, I was also surprised to learn that in one very small way, Bill Evans’ early music experience was similar to my own. He, too, got his start through classical training and over time, was able to perform complete masterpieces from the written scores. Yet, he was unable to play a simple tune without a music chart. “I couldn’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ without the notes,” he stated. Even after joining a dance band as a teenager, he would still play the stock arrangements exactly as written.

But then, “...one night, I got real adventurous on ‘Tuxedo Junction,’” he said, “and I put in a little ‘Bwang’...this was such an experience, to make music that wasn’t indicated.”

In Evans’ case, reaching the lofty pinnacle of perfection that he achieved was an ongoing process, taking him many years. It wasn’t until “...maybe something like 28 when I began to feel a degree of expressive ability,” he said.

The journey for every creative musician is different; for some, it appears to be much easier. Fortunately for those of us who are huge Bill Evans fanatics, he just kept at it. In his own way, something inside compelled him to stretch out, to go beyond the written notes, to reveal his innate creative personality.

Only a special, select few have this capability and enjoy this distinction.When we discover them, they should certainly be celebrated.


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ALBUM Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1961) Bill Evans Trio

COMPOSITION “My Foolish Heart”

PERSONNEL Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; Paul Motian, drums

 

Not Ready for Prime Time

When you’re young and green, chances are you have no clue what you’re going to pursue as a career. That was me in a nutshell, certainly as a teenager.

Whatever hopes my parents might have had that I would grow up to become a musician was permanently dashed the night I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solo on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House,” from the legendary 1953 album, Jazz at Massey Hall, in Toronto.

What is today dubbed as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever” may be a slightly over-hyped claim, but it was the last time that Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Gillespie ever performed together. Historically, there can be no denying it is one of the greatest recorded live shows in all of jazz.

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I was unaware at the time that this quintet personified the bebop movement. All I knew is that what I was hearing was spontaneous, highly-spirited musical joy. Dizzy’s phenomenal take caught me by complete surprise.

As a cornetist who had studied the instrument for seven years, I was technically very proficient. But I only played what was actually written, I couldn’t improvise. I wasn’t even able to comprehend what Gillespie had delivered...such free, expressive creativity, his fleeting runs, the clean articulation even in the higher registers. Afterwards, I just sat there in amazement.

It was just a short time later that I went off to college, never picking up my horn again.

Had I not been exposed to jazz music, or listened that evening to Dizzy Gillespie, my guess is that I may have continued to dabble with my horn from time to time, all the while foolishly believing I was actually pretty damn good.  

I can only imagine New York in the 1940s, and what it must have been like for those brash, but nervous, up-and-comers during the after-hours cutting contests at Minton’s Playhouse. Consider those amateurs believing so strongly in themselves...thinking they had the speed, stamina and technique, and could play the most bewilderingly complex phrases necessary to battle with the great beboppers, the likes of Dizzy Gillespie.


 

ALBUM  Jazz at Massey Hall (Debut Records)

COMPOSITION  “Hot House” (the best part begins around the 3:30 mark)

PERSONNEL  Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Bud Powell, piano; Charles Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums

 

Casting a Wide Net

Reflecting back on my flukish introduction to jazz, I have this seeming conundrum: How is it that my revelation of this “...only true indigenous American art form” (as Quincy Jones noted in the Foreword of my book) all came about because of a most passionate and knowledgeable Brit playing records on the radio?

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Wes Bowen (uncredited photo)

 

And how is it that Wes Bowen, an erudite transplant from South Wales who served as paratrooper in World War II and rose to the rank of major in the British military, would somehow become recognized as one of the world’s great authorities in jazz. After moving to the US following the war, he began what would become a 30-year career in broadcast journalism, along the way even holding the post of national president of the Broadcasting Editorial Association.

From my own exposure to this great music in the 1950s, what I eventually learned is that Bowen’s popular “All That Jazz” program on Salt Lake’s KSL Radio had regular followers spanning 38 states, even reaching ships at sea.

Like so many others from across the pond, Bowen (born in 1924) received his “baptism” – also through radio – by listening to the recordings of such early jazz masters as pianists Duke Ellington (with whom he became a  close friend), Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Earl (Fatha) Hines.

Interspersed with the great sides he spun, Bowen would share his personal accounts and interactions with various artists. Wes Bowen made you feel like you were part of his world...that you belonged, and were a member of this special family. His distinct accent, his cool, laid-back delivery during those early morning hours so perfectly fit with the captivating sounds I was hearing.

As a teenager, I guess I was too shy to even consider trying to get his phone number and letting him know how much of an impact he was having on me. Looking back now, I wish I had made the connection. I think we would have become fast friends.

 
  Earl (Fatha) Hines

Earl (Fatha) Hines

In 1955, about the same time that Wes Bowen was exposing me and my ears to this exciting new music, Willis Conover launched his wildly celebrated “Voice of America” jazz broadcasts, reaching millions of new listeners throughout Europe, as well as behind the Iron Curtain.

Bowen may not have had the same reach that Conover enjoyed, but each in his own way made a huge impact in furthering the spread of jazz around the world. It’s interesting – while it was a New Yorker in the mid-20th century who brought this amazing American art to the Old World, it took a Britisher to bring it back to America...and, more importantly in my case, to me.

  And of course, Duke

And of course, Duke

 

 

ALBUM  Fatha's Pianology 

COMPOSITION  “Pianology” 

PERSONNEL  Earl Hines

 

 

ALBUM  In a Sentimental Mood

COMPOSITION  “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” 

PERSONNEL  Duke Ellington

Blue Red

It doesn’t really matter wherever in the world you come from, your background, your upbringing, your level of education. The circumstances for how you were introduced to – and then became a lifelong devotee of – this fabulous art form we call jazz is as different for one fan as it is for the next.

It was an early morning, chance encounter on radio as a teenager when I got hooked. I had stayed up late listening to an extra-inning baseball game broadcast of the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX radio. Not ready to call it a day, I began turning the dial. From my midwestern home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about the only thing I could pick up at that hour was static. But all of a sudden, I landed on the 50,000-watt station, KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah, just in time to hear the opening theme of host Wes Bowen and his “All That Jazz” program.

What better exposure could there be for night owl novice who knew nothing about jazz than to hear the blues and those delicious block chords played by Red Garland? As it turned out, that opening theme song would serve just as a prelude to all the great jazz programming that would follow.

In our household, music at that time was a pretty big deal, primarily because my grandfather, a clarinetist, had the distinction of performing with John Philip Sousa’s Marching Band. It was when “The March King” toured throughout the midwest that he used C.W. Smith as one of his pick-up section players. On weekends, there was kind of standing invitation for fellow musicians from the neighborhood to bring their horns and sheet music to our home and join with my grandfather in hours-long sessions.

While in grade school, my parents bought me a King Silvertone cornet. Soon thereafter, I began studying classical music privately every week, and by my teenage years, was sufficiently adept to playing just about anything written on the scores in front of me. But then Wes Bowen and his “All That Jazz” program jolted me. By serving up the best of the swing stylists, big band leaders, plus bebop, cool and hard bop giants, his shows literally took control of my senses, instantly redirecting my musical outlook.

From then on, I took every opportunity to tune in. I began memorizing all the names – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Count Basie, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Ray Bryant, George Shearing, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk – and their tunes. And I began searching out, and buying their records.

As for Red Garland, it was many years later – well past his glory days with the original, most famous Miles Davis Quintet featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones – when I finally got the opportunity to visit with and photograph Red, who remains as one of my all-time favorites on the piano. He did nothing flashy, and used such a narrow range of the keyboard; but to me, Red Garland – with his overall feel and those husky two-handed chords – was simply without peer.

What an introduction to my life in jazz!

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ALBUM  A Garland of Red (Prestige)

COMPOSITION  “Blue Red” (Red's solo begins about 2:30 into the song)

PERSONNEL  Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums