Interview: Chuck Israels


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Bassist Chuck Israels is probably best known for his work in the Bill Evans Trio between 1961 and 1966—a golden, delicate period for Evans. But Chuck also played with Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Hampton, Hawes, Dave Pike, Gerry Mulligan and many other jazz greats. Chuck also has had a vast playing and recording career as a leader of his own groups.

On March 6, Chuck will be in New York for a rare performance at Dizzy's Coca-Cola (go here). The Chuck Israels Sextet features Chuck on bass with pianist Aaron Diehl, trumpeter Charlie Porter, tenor saxophonist Tim Wilcox, trombonist John Moak and drummer Jimmy Madison. They will be joined by the great operatic singer Joyce DiDonato.

Recently, I interviewed Chuck at length on his early years and his work in the Bill Evans Trio...

JazzWax: You were born in New York in 1936. Where did your family live?

Chuck Israels: We lived for a time on 79th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. Then my parents divorced when I was 4. For a time, I lived with my mother, Irma Commanday, in Mount Vernon and Yonkers, N.Y. When she remarried in 1946, we moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

JW: Why did you move?

CI: My stepfather, Mordecai Bauman, got a job running the opera workshop at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Cleveland Heights was a good place to live in the late 1940s. The same kids who knew all the baseball players on the Cleveland Indians also knew the first-chair players in the Cleveland Orchestra. 

JW: Were you aware of the early rock ‘n’ roll scene growing in Cleveland in the early 1950s.

CI: Not at all. I was immersed in classical and folk growing up. R&B and rock ‘n’ roll weren’t in my consciousness.

JW: When did you move back to New York?

CI: In 1952. I'm not sure why we moved back. Perhaps Mordy lost is job. I lived with my grandmother, Betty Commanday, in Yonkers and commuted back and forth by train to Manhattan. I was attending the High School of the Performing Arts on 46th Street. It was kind of painful. Yonkers and the commute separated me from my social life with kids in school.

JW: Your parents started a summer camp for music in the Berkshires of Massachusettes, yes?

CI. In 1952, they started Indian Hill Music Camp in Stockbridge, Mass. They wanted to provide a special atmosphere for teeenagers interested in the arts. 

JW: How did you become a bassist?

CI: Originally, I studied the cello and guitar. I was moderately OK on the cello. I wasn’t a high-level kid player but I could hold my own. After I was accepted at MIT in 1954, I walked into an orchestra rehearsal for the first time and saw a dozen cellists but no bassists. Clearly I wasn’t going to have a satisfying and somewhat independent role. So I walked into the instrument room where I saw a row of about six basses. Two or three of them sounded pretty good. I picked up one and brought it into the rehearsal. I took to it easily. From then on, I was a bassist.

JW: Did you study privately?

CI: I did. When I had spent summers at Indian Hill, I met a young guy named Bill Rhein, who would later become an associate principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was a year or two younger than me and already was a virtuoso bassist. Bill worked with me and helped me adapt my cello technique to the bass.

JW: How did you like MIT?

CI: I didn’t. After a year and a half there, I decided to transfer to Brandeis University, just outside of Boston. In high school, I was smart, and everything had come to me easily. But at MIT, the workload was over my head, and I was ill-prepared to handle it.

JW: How did you wind up playing with Billie Holiday at 22 in the summer of 1958?

CI: Since my parents ran Indian Hill, I was friendly with Phil and Stephanie Barber, who ran the Music Inn in nearby Lenox, Mass. Billie was scheduled to perform there but said she was coming up with just pianist Mal Waldron. Steph called and asked if I’d play bass and if I could please find a drummer. I found Jimmy Zitano in Boston.

JW: What happened when Holiday and Waldron arrived?

CI: Mal went over things with Jimmy and me. All I can remember is concentrating on the job we needed to do for an hour and a half. Billie never said anything to me directly, but at the end, she said something complimentary to the audience, that it went better than she had expected.

JW: That fall, in October, you’re still in college. How did you wind up recording with John Coltrane and Kenny Dorham?

CI: While at Brandeis, I met Tom Wilson, a really interesting guy. He was a Harvard graduate and had a jazz radio show on Harvard’s radio station. I often played at jam sessions he held there. I admired him greatly and he felt the same about me. He was a black record producer, which was rare then. He was sophisticated, good looking and sharp. He would wind up producing Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in 1965. He also was responsible for overdubbing a rock rhythm section to Simon and Garfukel's The Sound of Silence without their knowledge and turning it into a No. 1 hit. In 1955, Tom started Transition Records in Cambridge, Mass. I had been hanging out with him while I was at Brandeis, helping him with his record company and playing in Boston with Herb Pomeroy, Varty Haroutunian, Steve Kuhn and Arnie Wise at the Stables. I spent as much time as I could with Tom. One day in 1958, he asked if I’d come down to New York to make an album.

JW: The album was called Hard-Driving Jazz, yes?

CI: That’s right. It turned out to be a session led by pianist Cecil Taylor, with Kenny Dorham on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Cecil, me, and Louis Hayes on drums. Cecil wanted Buell Neidlinger but Tom insisted I'd be better. So everything was cool.

JW: What did you think when you heard who was going to be on the date?

CI: I thought my life was going to change, that I was going to be a star and have all the girls I wanted. Of course, not much changed (laughs). We recorded at a studio on Broadway. What I noticed immediately was that the guys were artists with whom I could have a musical relationship. The only person who was tough was Cecil. His harmonic language on the keyboard was strange and his rhythmic language was choppy. We couldn’t find a common groove. Over the years, people have said that fights broke out during that session. None of that is true. Everyone was professional. Kenny was very kind and Coltrane was quiet and hard-working. I was just focused on doing my own work.

JW: Were you nervous?

CI: Oh sure. Who wouldn’t be. I was still in college. To keep anxiety from dominating such situations, I came to realize that you have to acknowledge that the anxiety is there. And then you have to perform like a professional. But remember, by then I had played with Coleman Hawkins and other major jazz figures who had come up to play at Brandeis.

JW: Did you learn anything about yourself on the session?

CI: I did. On the playback of one of the songs, I heard that I was rushing a solo. I realized I had to re-adjust my emotions. I immediately understood what was going on, that I had to keep a part of myself half playing and half listening to be sure my playing was coming out the way I intended. We did a retake, and I corrected what I was doing. I also said to myself that I never wanted to hear myself play like that again.

JW: One of the songs on the date was yours, yes?

CI: Yes, Double Clutching. It actually was one of my counterpoint exercises that I had on my music stand. Kenny saw the music, looked at it and played it down. Then he took it over to John. The next thing I know we’re recording it.

JW: A short time later you headed off to Paris. Did you take your bass?

CI: I did. After I graduated from Brandeis, in the spring of 1959, I went off to Europe. Everyone then spent time in Europe after college. It was a rite of passage. Bill Rhein had sold me my first bass for $300, but I found a better one in Boston before I left. It was a Tyrolean bass I bought for $800 at John A. Gould & Sons violin shop. It had a deeper, more sustained sound.

JW: How did you get the bass over there?

CI: I sailed over on the S.S. Ryndam to Le Harve, France. My roommate from college drove from Paris to pick me up. His name was Paolo. He was an intercontinental sort of guy. His father was Leo Lionni, who was Fortune magazine’s art director. Paolo drove a Citroën DS. It was terrifically comfortable. We stopped in Rouen and went to the cathedral. There, I heard the organist playing. I teared up, it was so powerful.

JW: What did you do in Paris?

CI: The day after my arrival in Paris, I ended up at a party at director Roger Vadim’s apartment. Paolo somehow had wrangled an invite and an opportunity for me to play with pianist Bud Powell and drummer Kenny Clarke. Kenny was a wonderful, friendly guy. Bud was an emotional and psychological wreck. I guess he was like that from the police beating he took in Philadelphia years earlier and from being hit in the head with a bottle at a Harlem bar. At the party, the three of us played blues and standards that everyone knew. That was what was going on in Paris then. There was a kind of a universal repertoire.

JW: How were your musical interactions with them?

CI: It felt so good. Kenny made playing with him easy. He was propulsive, which let me align myself with his sense of pulse. It’s an intimate thing that happens between bassists and drummers. It’s almost sensual. It either works or it doesn’t. I remember on one or two songs, Kenny and Bud set it up so I’d play four-bar exchanges with Kenny.

JW: Powell was detached?

CI: Very much so. He didn’t look at anybody except if he wanted to buy a cognac for five francs that he wasn’t supposed to have. There’s no real easy way to relate to someone suffering from that kind of mental illness. He was emotionless. I’m assuming it was some form of depression. After that night I worked with him for several months at clubs in Paris. But I never felt he recognized me or was connecting with what I was playing. Buttercup, his wife, asked if I would do the gigs and then lined them up.

JW: Looking back, did you fully appreciate Powell then?

CI: I was kind of jerk. I thought, “This is Bud Powell? This guy is a zombie and on auto pilot. Whatever used to be there wasn’t there any longer. He seems to be playing from memory.” In retrospect, I judged him too harshly.

JW: Why do you think that was the case?

CI: I had all of his early albums and was blown away by them. There, in Paris, in 1959, the French all seemed to be worshiping a guy who was no longer the same artist he once was. I thought, well, he’s done. But I was young. In my mind, I underestimated him and didn’t respect the legacy of what he already accomplished. I suppose I was disappointed that he wasn’t the same guy on my albums. I took him for granted.

JW: So, if you could go back in time…

CI: I would pay more attention to what he was doing and use the experience as a learning opportunity. Playing with Bud exposed me to many French jazz musicians who hired me. I suppose I was disappointed there wasn’t even a human response. Like most people then, I had no idea how depression and other forms of mental illness affected people. Now we know more about people in that condition. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been listening to him differently instead of holding him up to a standard he couldn’t possibly duplicate.

JW: When did you first hear Bill Evans play?

CI: I first heard him play live around 1955 at a New York club called The Composer. Teddy Kotik was his bassist. I don't remember the drummer. When I heard Bill play that night, it fulfilled my not yet fully formed idea of how music ought to go. I thought, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been looking for. He’s Bud Powell and Chopin mixed.” Meaning both styles flowed together.

JW: When did you first meet Bill?

CI: In June 1957. There was a jazz festival held at Brandeis University that Gunther Schuler put together to showcase his jazz-classical Third Stream approach. The words works of six composers were featured—George Russell, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, Milton Babbitt, Gunther and Harold Shapero, with whom I was studying. For a week or so, a large number of major jazz musicians were on campus rehearsing. They included Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Jimmy Knepper, Barry Galbraith, Bill Evans and others.

JW: Why were they hanging out?

CI: The Brandeis campus was situated in a residential area of Waltham, Mass., just outside of Boston. There were no restaurants nearby, just the university cafeterias. When the guys had breaks from rehearsals, they came into the student union to eat. I had been hanging out listening to the rehearsals. At the time, I was playing in a college trio with Steve Kuhn and Arnie Wise. When the festival's musicians took their break, I made sure we were playing in the student union. We had already accompanied Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz and other jazz musicians when they came to campus to perform.

JW: So the musicians sat down to eat. What happened?

CI: Bill Evans, Art Farmer, George Russell, Joe Benjamin and others applauded after each song and began paying close attention. I don’t know if they thought we were great, but we certainly impressed them. There was immediate friendliness and communication and interest. I can't recall if I struck up a conversation with Bill.

JW: Did you hear Evans play with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian?

CI: I heard them play in New York at the Open Door on West 3rd Street. Listening to them that night, I knew that as long as Scotty was there, I wasn’t going to get near that trio. Then Scotty and I became friends in June 1961, when I was recording with drummer Joe Hunt on pianist Don Friedman’s A Day in the City for Riverside. Scotty was in the control booth to lend support to Don, and we hit it off. [Photo above, from left, Scott Lafaro, Bill Evans and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard in June 1961]

JW: How did you hear about Scott LaFaro’s fatal auto accident on July 6 of that year? CI: In early 1961, Paula Robison, a friend of our family, wrote to tell me she had been accepted at New York’s Julliard School of Music. I had just landed a job with Ballet: U.S.A., Jerome Robbins’s ballet company. I was heading off to Europe that July for three months with the company. I told Paula she could stay at my apartment on 88th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.

JW: Did she take you up on your offer?

CI: She did. After I left, Paula moved in and got a job over the summer before Juilliard started. She played flute with a repertory company at Jones Beach Marine Theatre. Gloria Gabriel, Scotty’s long-time girlfriend, was a dancer in the productions. Paula, Scotty and Gloria all became friends through knowing me, but I wasn’t there. One day, while I was in Spoleto, Italy, a letter arrived from Paula. I picked it up on my way to rehearsal and put it in my pocket. Later that day, I was sitting in the sun at an outdoor trattoria and remembered the letter.

JW: What did it say?

CI: “Dear Chuck, Terrible news. Scotty died.” As I slowly re-folded the letter, I recall having a strange two-pronged emotional reaction. One was that I had lost a dear friend and gifted bassist. He was only 25, so I couldn’t help but think that something like that could happen to me or anyone our age. The other emotion was that with Scotty’s horrible accident, Bill was without a bassist and that I might have a shot at joining his trio. Both of these thoughts were intermingled.

JW: When did you return to New York?

CI: In October. When I returned to my apartment, one of the first things Paula said to me was, “Call Bill.” She had jotted down his number. When I called Bill, he asked me to come up to his apartment. He asked me to bring my bass. Bill was living on 106th Street then between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.

JW: What did you do when you arrived there?

CI: Bill and I made small talk but avoided talking about Scotty. He was obviously still shaken. We soon began playing together. It was a combination audition-rehearsal. I remembered that some of Bill’s music had rubato elements in it—meaning a quickening or slowing of the tempo to set the scene. Bill used them on song introductions and endings. These rubatos were tricky, in that they weren’t in strict steady tempo. Instead, they were carefully worked out in his playing. The tempo changes weren’t normal for jazz musicians. For example, the particularly quick-moving ending of Come Rain or Come Shine.

JW: What did you do?

CI: I knew how ruboto worked but I wasn’t sure when they would begin. I said to Bill, “Just nod your head and I’ll be right there with you.” Bill said, “Just listen and you’ll get it.” He was absolutely right. I did.

JW: Did you talk with Evans at all during that visit?

CI: My relationship with Bill was largely non-verbal. Honestly, I was afraid of him. I was in awe of his musical ability and, later, frightened by his drug use.

JW: What happened next at his apartment?

CI: After Bill and I played for about an hour, he just clicked off the trio’s gig itinerary, which was Bill’s way of telling me I had the job. It felt satisfying and a little intimidating, but not because it was an obstacle. As john Lewis made a point of telling me: “No one does you any favors." Meaning, Bill needed a solid bassist. That's why I was there.

JW: You didn’t have to play as a member of the trio first? What did Paul Motian think when you started?

CI: There was no trio audition, just that time at Bill’s apartment. Our first gig together was at a club in Syracuse, N.Y. with a painted upright piano. It was a gig that Bill must have taken to break me in before we had a run several weeks later at the Hickory House. Apparently, Paul didn’t like my playing much. He said so in some interview years later.

JW: Did you like Paul’s drumming? CI: He was OK. A little vertical and rough for me. His drumming didn’t compare to the elegance and swing of Larry Bunker or Pete LaRoca. Paul's playing wasn’t nuanced, but we made it work. As for me, Bill could have hired Steve Swallow or Albert Stinson from the West Coast. Both had that same LaFarro conversational approach. But I think after hearing me at Brandeis, Bill was comfortable with me.

JW: Was Evans’s heroin use during this period a hindrance to his playing or just a shocker? CI: A shocker. The first time I walked in on him shooting up was in Syracuse, before the first night of our first gig. He was in a little fleabag hotel above a Greyhound bus station. He had a strap around his arm and a spoon heating up. Then he injected the heroin concoction.

JW: What did you say?

CI: When he finished, I told him I’d rather not see that. My reaction ended some of our social warmth. Bill shooting up was a gesture of intimacy—that he'd let me see him do that and that he didn’t have to hide it. Once I expressed revulsion, that side of things shut down.

JW: On stage, how did it feel playing with Bill and Paul?

CI: It felt integrative and supportive and solid. We each were feeding into one thing made by the three of us. It was triangular.

JW: What was most interesting about Bill’s playing?

CI: The rhythmic power and invention. Elements of everything else can be found in other jazz or classical music—the harmony, the lovely touch and so on. But his rhythmic language was singular and his own.

JW: Did you discover facets about Evans's playing that you didn't realize existed by listening to his albums?

CI: Bill’s playing was so strong that if you made a mistake, it never affected his playing. But if you did something interesting that was intentional, it affected his playing positively. When you screwed up, he could hear that you had stumbled. He was so strong as a musician and so powerfully prepared that negative things don’t affect the music. He just kept going. But when you did something creatively intentional, he could hear your art and confidence, and he’d feed into it with his playing. Mistakes didn't disturb his musical intention. It was fascinating that he could hear the difference between a mistake and a new idea.

JW: When Evans was high, could you tell? How did it shade his playing?

CI: What was baffling about the drugs is that after he took them, he functioned close to normal. I never really knew if he was high or not. I’d get in his car and he’d drive down the highway. All I could think is, “Here is a heroin addict driving better than I do."

JW: Did Evans push drugs on you?

CI: No. He never offered me any. And I never saw him take them again. He shut me out of that part of his life. Heroin never seemed to affect his playing. The only time his habit affected him was when he tried to kick his habit or he was sick from not being able to score. When he was sick, he played more aggressively.

JW: Was he always responsible from a business perspective?

CI: Most of the time, since he needed money to buy more drugs. But sometimes, and it was rare, he didn’t show up. He was obviously too sick. When that happened, other pianists filled in. I recall two instances—at the Trident in Sausalito, Calif., and at The Golden Circle in Stockholm. At the Trident in 1964, Jimmy Rowles came in for two nights. He got terribly drunk.

JW: And in Stockholm?

CI: Swedish pianist Jan Johansson (above) subbed. His attitude was, “I get a chance to play with Israels and Bunker. I’m going to have a good time.” What a mensch and a very interesting musician. Jan died when he was 37 in an auto accident on his way to a concert in 1968. I really admired him for the way he came in to play when the audience was expecting Bill.

JW: When you played with Evans, what were you listening to for cues?

CI: Everything. We were three guys listening to the same totality.

JW: What most surprised you about Evans’s approach?

CI: That all of the songs were highly arranged by Bill before we played them. When he decided to play a song, he rehearsed it first alone and came up with an arrangement—a particular intro, who would solo first and the outro. He had to put his stamp on a song, and that took a little time. Every so often a song’s arrangement would change spontaneously. For example, where Bill normally took the first solo, there would be a moment of silence on Bill’s end, which told me I had the first solo. I just wanted to find my place within Bill’s arrangement to enhance the music. Bill rarely called for a song we didn’t play often and that he hadn’t spent time arranging.

JW: Why did Paul Motian leave the trio?

CI: I don't know. Maybe dissatisfaction with me or Bill's drug use. I have no idea. I brought in Larry Bunker (above) to replace him. I knew Larry mostly form a recording I knew with Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer. I thought his playing was extraordinary.

JW: When did you three first play together?

CI: When I joined Bill at Shelly's Manne Hole. Bill was looking for a replacement for Paul, and I suggested Larry. 

JW: What surprised you most about Bunker’s playing?

CI: His counter-rhythms. He was an amazingly inventive drummer. Donald Bailey was another inventive drummer. Larry fit appropriate, propulsive things in the music's breathing spaces.

JW: Why didn’t Evans cover more lyrical pop or Broadway tunes of the day? Did you ever recommend one?

CI: It never occurred to me to ask why he chose one song over another. At some point in 1961, I heard João Gilberto’s first album recorded in 1959. There were a couple of songs on there by Carlos Lyra and Antonio Carlos Jobim that I thought we could try. I suggested Desafinado to Bill and a couple of others. He rejected them. Then Stan Getz had a huge hit with Desafinado on Jazz Samba with Charlie Byrd later in ’62.

JW: What did Evans say?

CI: Bill said, “Next time you have one of those ideas again, tell me and I’ll listen.” He was impressed that I had picked up on music that became popular and missed having been able to take advantage of that first.

JW: What made him pick one song over another?

CI: He just found things he was attracted to, and when he had worked them sufficiently to personalize them with an arrangement, they became part of our repertoire. Once I heard a bootleg tape of the Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin sitting in with Bill. They played Body and Soul and a couple of other standards. As I listened, I realized Bill didn’t sound like Bill Evans. That’s because he wasn’t able to arrange the music.

JW: I’m curious to know what you recall from albums you played on. For example, Nirvana in 1961 with Herbie Mann.

CI: It was OK. Some things are professional obligations. Bill and the trio were hired by Atlantic to accompany Herbie. It was Herbie’s record date. Bill and Herbie stopped a few times to figure out some things. 

JW: Moon Beams and How My Heart Sings in 1962?

CI: Between May and June 1962, we recorded two albums over three sessions—the two you mentioned. The reason they were done this way is so that Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews didn’t wind up with ballads with the same sedentary feel. By mixing up the songs on the recording sessions, Orrin was able to segregate all the ballads for Moon Beams and a wider variety of material for How My Heart Sings. Orrin told me the two-album sessions weren’t about Bill needing cash, as many people later thought, but to get two albums out of Bill with two different moods.

JW: At Shelly’s Manne Hole in 1963?

CI: A good date. Bill brought in a few new songs he had arranged. He wrote them down on slips of paper and handed them to me. They were Isn’t It Romantic, Wonder Why and Swedish Pastry. We also played my Blues in F. Bill rarely played the blues. I had been noodling around with it weeks earlier, and Bill figured out a way to play it with me.

JW: Were you ticked when Evans used bassist Gary Peacock on Trio ’64?

CI: For some gigs, Bill didn’t hire me and hired Gary instead. I’m sure I wasn’t happy at the time, but there was plenty of work. After Bill recorded with Stan Getz in April 1964 for Verve, the material didn’t come out great and Creed Taylor held the material instead of releasing it. This was a bunch of months after Bill used Gary for Trio ’64 in December 1963. So Stan asked if I wanted to join his group. This was right after the release of Getz/Gilberto and The Girl From Ipanema. Stan was huge, so I joined his group. Our first recording together was Getz Au Go Go in May 1964.

JW: Stan seemed blasé about the bossa nova even though he had stumbled into a gold mine.

CI: Stan always had bands where he wasn’t really the musical leader. He didn’t have any idea what songs to choose unless someone told him what to play. He wasn’t a composer-arranger, but he was a brilliant musician. So in early ’64, he went looking for a pianist. No one came to mind. I suggested vibraphonist Gary Burton. Stan was skeptical at first. Gary, drummer Joe Hunt and I went up to Stan’s house in Tarrytown. Gary was totally prepared to be the music director and took over the group. In July of that year, Bill was going out on tour and wanted me back with Larry Bunker. I said yes and Stan got upset. He felt betrayed. “Aren’t we a family?” he asked.

JW: Trio 65 in 1965?

CI: On Our Love Is Here to Stay, pay attention to Larry’s drums, particularly in the non-improvised part. He has drum figures in there that no one else would play.

JW: Was there anything unusual going on during your appearance on the BBC's Jazz 625 in 1965? The music is so incredibly beautiful.

CI: That's how the music sounds when you have an opportunity to play a defined repertoire for months until the performances become ultra-confident and refined. When you think you might be bored, that's when you dig deep into discovering refreshing ideas.

JW: Bill Evans With Symphony Orchestra in 1965, arranged by Claus Ogerman?

CI: I now find the album more tolerable than I did at the time it came out. Claus is my idea of a moderately more sophisticated Hollywood film writer. I didn’t think there was much depth on there. It’s workman-like and overblown.

JW: Bill Evans at Town Hall Vol 1. In 1966. What happened to Volume 2?

CI: The second part of that concert was a big band performance featuring Bill. I was the contractor for the band. I think I did a reasonably good job: Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, Bill Berry on trumpets, Bob Brookmeyer, Quentin Jackson and Bill Watrous on trombones, Bob Northern on French horn, Jerry Dodgion, George Marge, Eddie Daniels, Frank Perowsky and Marvin Halliday on reeds, Bill, me and Grady Tate on drums.

JW: So what was the problem?

CI: Al Cohn was more than a competent arranger who turned out to be inappropriate for Bill. The other big problem is that the band was unrehearsed, so the they sounded clumsy. Also, the music chosen didn’t suit Bill. When the concert was finished and Bill and Helen Keane, his manager, listened to the tape, they decided it wasn’t good enough to release. It’s hard to imagine how a band with musicians like that and Cohn as arranger wouldn’t have have played well enough to merit a recording. But a few years ago, Chris Rudolph, Helen’s son, brought me the tapes. We sat and listened to them. Bill and Helen were right . The result was disastrous. The arrangements were all wrong and the band sounded terrible.

JW: And yet the trio portion of Bill Evans at Town Hall remains one of his finest live albums.

CI: I agree. After we finished the trio performance, ending with One for Helen, I put down my bass and walked off the stage. Engineer Rudy van Gelder, who you know was super reserved and never thought of as friendly, did something out of character. As I walked off, he  was in the wings waiting for me. Rudy opened his arms and embraced me.

JW: Did Bill like the trio performance?

CI: He never talked about it. When a gig or concert was over, Bill disappeared into his apartment or hotel to shoot up.

JW: Why did you leave the trio? And how did Bill take i?

CI: We had a contretemps at one point in Sweden. We were at the Golden Circle in Stockholm. One night, I was approached to see if the trio would do a half-hour set at a club just outside of the city for $1,000. Back then, that was good money for a half hour. I took the pitch to Bill and he was up for it. After, the gig, Bill and I were walking across the main plaza in Stockholm when he paid me $40 for my share. Out of $1,000. I was stunned and confronted him about it. He said something a hard-nose bandleader would say: “Chuck, you have no idea what my expenses are. People come to see me perform. If you want to earn more, get your own trio.”

JW: What did you think?

CI: I was shocked about the $40. The gig had come through me, even though that was because people were afraid to approach Bill directly. Remember, $40 was 4% of the take. I was upset and hurt. I thought he liked my playing and wasn’t prepared to be treated that way. I didn’t feel prepared to have my own trio then, but there was plenty of sideman work. So I pulled the plug shortly after we got back to New York. I decided I wouldn’t be dependent on Bill anymore. There was no loyalty. I loved Bill’s music but I wanted to make music that deep on my own. I was 29, and for the first time in my life, I learned that I had the capacity to improve my ability over time.

JW: How did Evans take you giving notice?

CI: He wasn’t unfriendly, but he didn’t’ try to keep me. He didn’t feel dependent on me.

JW: After leaving, did you ever fill in at any point when Bill needed you?

CI: Yes. In the early 1970s, I filled in at a concert in Rochester, N.Y., when bassist Eddie Gomez couldn’t make it and Eliot Zigmund was the drummer. I was glad to play with Bill again. But his music had changed. It lost some of its earlier poetry. It had become more mechanical and less interesting to me. There also was less emotional contact while playing. To someone who knew Bill, the music sounded as if he was saying: “This is how I get my drugs.” When I left the trio in 1966, I sensed it was all going downhill from where it had been. If Bill had been more like John Lewis in his fair business dealings with his colleagues in the MJQ, I would have overlooked the $40 and stayed. But the humanity of the artist was already fading.

JW: How would you sum up your time with Evans?

CI: Bill's music and my relationship to it remains essential to my musical development and the expression of my musical personality. My contact with the things I value in his music covers nearly my whole musically conscious life. My experience with Bill took place over six years. I've been making music that aims at being as good and has achieved a lot of my artistic goals ever since. It has been an upstream endeavor in a radically changed cultural environment. Wallowing in the past, no matter how great it was, is no help. It adds to the difficulties of finding attention for my own efforts.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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