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Blog // Creativity
April 2, 2012

The Universal Mind Of Bill Evans

Bill Evans was an extraordinary Jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Best known for working with Miles Davis, Evans changed the face of modern Jazz with his approach to harmony and chord composition.

In this beautifully put together documentary from 1966 we get some deep and revealing insights into Bill Evans’ approach to music. The film goes for a little under forty-five minutes and includes clips of Evans playing along with an introduction and passing comments from Steve Allen.

In the opening voice over Evans makes the claim for a “universal musical mind.” I love his flavour of philosophical idealism. We could spend a long time considering that alone.

But, I’d like to focus on the big implication of his ideas; all people really need, in order to “get” music, is exposure, time and education (what Evans calls conditioning). Anyone can have a deep appreciation of music. Perhaps the insights of the “lay” person may have as much, or even more merit, than those of the professional musician.

Bill Evans On Music, Mastery And Being Real

Once Evans starts to talk about the challenges of being a musician, it’s clear why he doesn’t necessarily think the professional is always going to have the best understanding of music. In Evans’ view, many musicians over-reach, playing things they don’t really understand.

Evans talks repeatedly about “the problem” which as I understand it, is the problem of how to be a Jazz musician and how to play Jazz in a real and masterful way. Jazz, for Evans, is not so much a style or genre, as a process, or a way of approaching composition and music-making more broadly. For him all spontaneously created music is Jazz, regardless of style or form.

Many musicians (and we could extend this to other creative fields) make the mistake of trying to approximate the output of somebody else’s creative process. Evans says that instead of copying someone’s output we should focus on mastering every small and discrete part of the process.

“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning in knowing that the problem is large and he has to take it a step at a time and has to enjoy the step by step learning procedure.”
– Bill Evans

Again and again Evans says it’s better to play honest, or simple music than trying to approximate a more complex sound you haven’t truly mastered. Without that mastery you won’t be able to build on the ideas you’re playing with.

On Loving The Process

It’s perhaps not surprising Evans has such a methodical approach since he came to improvisation relatively late. He struggled for years to play well without having sheet music in front of him. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he developed any “expressive ability.”

Still, it’s clear Evans learned to love the process of piecing together everything required to become a Jazz musician. This comprehensive approach to music allowed Evans to not only become a good pianist, but also one of the most important and innovative composers and arrangers in the history of music.

The Self-Taught Musician

Evans considers teaching Jazz (and perhaps music in general) as difficult. Many beginners do not want to immerse themselves in chords, theory or existing forms, for fear of being considered as an imitator or unoriginal. This naivety is, for Evans, an attempt to not address important musical principles.

In fact, Evans implies that most of those who fail to improve as musicians do sobecause they are either impatient, or simply don’t understand the immensity of “the problem.”

For Evans, every Jazz musician is, ultimately self-taught. Maybe they benefitted from formal education. But, in the end, they must make decisions at every stage of the process, about how they will address “the problem.”

“The thing that you as an artist are ultimately concerned with is how you are handling your materials. Are you able to handle them in any way you want?”
– Bill Evans

What Is Creative Freedom?

For Bill Evans the freedom found in Jazz is not about playing whatever you want, or playing something no-one has ever played before. Rather, freedom is the ability to honestly and in a real way, drawing everything you are and all the things you’ve mastered into the moment when you play. It’s freedom within the context of performance. Working with and against a form and as an honest response drawn from what you’ve taught yourself. Freedom is your answer to “the problem.”

This freedom does not come from a lack of constraints, but from the consistent and systematic process of learning to spontaneously create music within a context that is actually full of constraints – the music, the available notes, the limits of your ability and that of the other musicians you play with.

What Is Your Problem?

I wonder how many of us can really name our big creative “problem?” Evans had a clear sense of what “the problem” was for him and for other Jazz musicians. He struggled with it and with the uncomfortable insights it forced him to consider. It revealed his limitations to him and opened the path to greater creativity.

I’m inclined to think there is a big existential problem in every creative field. Each creative soul ultimately needs to face. What’s “the problem” in your field?

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