1969 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year

1969 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year

William J. Evans


William Evans playing pianoWilliam John Evans, known as Bill Evans, was an American jazz pianist. His use of
impressionist harmony, inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire, and
trademark rhythmically independent, “singing” melodic lines influenced a generation
of pianists. He is considered by some to be the most influential post-World War II
jazz pianist. Evans had a distinct playing posture in which his neck would often be
stooped very low, and his face parallel to the piano.

Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey.He received his first musical training
at his mother’s church. Evans’ mother was an amateur pianist with an interest in modern
classical composers, and Evans began classical piano lessons at age six. He also became
a proficient flautist by age 13 and could play the violin.

At age 12, Evans filled in for his older brother Harry in Buddy Valentino’s band.
At this age he was able to interpret classical music, but he couldn’t improvise. In
the beginning, he played exactly what was written in the sheet, but soon started trying
to improvise, while learning about harmonies in the songs and how to alter them. Meanwhile,
he was playing dance music and jazz in a recording studio he built in his family’s
basement. In the late 1940’s, Evans played boogie woogie in various New Jersey clubs.
He attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a music scholarship, and in 1950
performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto on his senior recital there, graduating
with a degree in piano performance and teaching. He was also among the founding members
of Southeastern’s Delta Omega Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and played quarterback
for the fraternity’s football team, helping them win the school’s 1949 intramural

In 1958, Evans was hired by Miles Davis, becoming the only white member of Davis’
famed sextet. Though his time with the band was brief (no more than eight months),
it was one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of jazz, as Evans’ introspective
approach to improvisation deeply influenced Davis’ style. Davis wrote in his autobiography,
“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound
he got, was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”
Additionally, Davis said, “I’ve sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano
the way it should be played.”

In 1974, Bill Evans recorded a multi-movement jazz concerto specifically written for
him by Claus Ogerman entitled Symbiosis, originally released on the MPS Records label.
The 1970s also saw Evans collaborate with  singer Tony Bennett on 1975’s “The Tony
Bennett/Bill Evans Album” and 1977’s “Together Again”.

Many of Evans’ tunes, such as “Waltz for Debby,” “Turn Out the Stars,” “Very Early,”
and “Funkallero,” have become often-recorded jazz standards. Many tribute recordings
featuring his compositions and favorite tunes have been released in the years following
his passing as well as tribute compositions. Pat Metheny’s “September 15th” is one
such recording.

During his lifetime, Evans was honored with 31 Grammy nominations and seven awards.
In 1994, he was posthumously honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In
addition to the Southeastern Music Hall of Fame and the Alumni Association’s Alumnus
of the Year, Evans is an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.