Courting death in the world of jazz
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, November 21, 1998)

"He collapsed on the bandstand and was rushed to hospital in critical condition." Readers of jazz biographies are so familiar with that sentence we can almost sing along with it. "Collapsed on the bandstand" is a favourite blues theme, firmly established on the all-time hit parade. Jazz history is a necrological art, death never far away. "Cause of death"--usually premature, normally due to self-destruction--figures as a central element in the literature.

The man collapsing on the bandstand in that sentence is a great clarinettist, the subject of Robert Hilbert's 1993 biography, Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman. He could as easily be the pianist Peter Pettinger writes about in Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (Yale University Press, 346 pages, $43.95). They were the products of different generations (Russell born in 1906, Evans in 1929) and their music differs in everything except its quality: where Russell's is anguished and urgent, the playing of Evans conveys a sense of delicate mastery. And yet both of them rushed toward death, as if it were the only place they wanted to be.

The issue of Life magazine for February 12, 1951 carried a headline, "No Sad Songs for Pee Wee," beneath a photograph showing a man who looked as emaciated as a death-camp survivor, his weight down to 73 pounds. I remember staring at the picture in sorrow: this was a player whose work I had only recently learned to love. Now he had acute pancreatitis, due to chronic alcoholism, but (this explains the heading) he didn't want us to feel sorry for him. The article was written in the past tense, because no one expected him to work again.

But he got through that crisis. Louis Armstrong raised $1,500 with a benefit concert, so Pee Wee could move from the charity ward to a private room. He cheered up a little. He survived a major operation, swore off liquor, put on weight, reconciled with the wife who had given up on him a couple of years before, moved into a freshly creative period in his career, made some excellent records--and soon began drinking again. In 1967 his wife's death from cancer finished him emotionally, and he chose death-by-vodka. He died in 1969, at 62. Causes: chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.

Peter Pettinger (who himself died before his book appeared) writes that Bill Evans "died at approximately 3:30 p.m. September 15, 1980, officially from a haemorrhaging ulcer and bronchial pneumonia....The most critical [cause] was the damage to his liver, affected from youth by hepatitis, its injury fearfully compounded by protracted drug use." And then there was malnutrition, which he suffered from in his last months as he had so often before.

His friend Gene Lees, the Canadian writer, said, "His was the longest suicide in history." Pettinger, like all authors in this genre, collects the memories of those who saw Evans in the final days. In this case it's the guitarist Mundell Lowe who speaks the words that someone always says, as if they were part of a mourning ritual: "I had a feeling that I might not see him again."

A classical pianist and teacher as well as a writer, Pettinger takes us through Evans's apprenticeship in jazz, his creative but unhappy time as the pianist-employee of Miles Davis, and his emergence in the 1960s and 1970s as one of the great figures of the day. The title How My Heart Sings was apparently chosen because it's the name of a waltz Evans loved and often recorded, written by a musician he played with in a U.S. army band in the early 1950s--and because it promises what no story about Bill Evans can possibly deliver, a mood of joy and fulfilment.

Those who listen to his records, which continue to attract new admirers, find the story of his life hard to accept. When you hear him gracefully turning some American anthem like "But Not For Me" or "There'll Never Be Another You" into his own intricate sonata, stepping inside the tune, occupying it, making it his own home--when that happens, it seems clear you are listening to someone who lived a life of serenity and intelligence. In fact, he was frequently sick and desperate, like most addicts. For more than two decades he was driven by a raw physical need for heroin or cocaine. He failed himself again and again, perhaps despised himself. Yet somehow he went onto the bandstand or into the studio and made the sounds of genius. At the core of jazz there is some sort of perverse miracle.

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