Writing about the death of a lover in a letter, Edna St. Vincent Millay described his absence as “a hole in the world,” which she found herself “constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night”. Jazz pianist Bill Evans fell into an identical hole in 1961 following the death of his friend and fellow band mate, bassist, Scott LaFaro. The difference was Bill never returned from the abyss, not wholly and certainly not intact. His retreat into the introspective darkness is the subject of Owen Martell’s new book, which chronicles this largely isolated and deeply troubled period of the pianist’s life. The story of Intermission is told primarily by Bill’s family with Bill casting his eminent shadow over the narrative from afar. We are introduced to him by his older brother Harry at the start of his fame, with a handful of albums already behind him. The success of the Bill Evans’ Trio is, however, impeded when LaFaro dies, leaving Bill utterly devastated. “You wouldn’t have put them together, that was for sure,” Harry says thinking about the two musicians, “Scott was happy to assume all the authority of this youth. Bill, thirty-two in August but only a few years older, looked like the junior partner. You’d have said coming at them blind, that they were too different. Scott was astounding – he actually sounded as good as he looked. Bill, on the other hand, well, you heard him feeling his way. Or you felt him listening…Then you spoke to him after and he wanted to fade into the decor. As if the places he played weren’t already dim lit or unfussy enough. He didn’t want to talk about the set or listen to you tell him that you’d enjoyed it.” But people did enjoy it and the Trio were on their way up after recording two live albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. It was reportedly Bill and Scott’s rapport that made magic, their “opposite identicality” which bound the two together into what Bill thought would be an indefinitely “lasting partnership”.
But the partnership was cut short when Scott died unexpectedly in a car crash. Martell takes this particular period of Bill’s life and fashions it into an imaginative fictional account of a man’s plight to come to terms with loss. Already under the spell of heroin, Bill finds himself yielding more and more to the paregoric. Concerned about his brother, Harry takes Bill in to look after him. It is through his interaction with other people and their reactions to him that we learn of Bill’s fractured consciousness and the magnitude of his bereavement. Bill remains almost exclusively silent throughout the book, ever-present in the background but rendered mute by grief. He vanishes like a ghost from his brother’s apartment at night, disappearing into nocturnal drug-addled trysts around New York City. The only time he comes alive is in the company of his niece Debby, the “bounding, boundless” child who seems to dispel his demons. Martell juxtaposes Innocence and Experience, freedom and constrain, in a similar way William Blake did in the pointed prophesies of his eponymous Songs, where he contrasts good with bad, concluding that one preordains the other. Martell uses this method throughout the book, when Harry, for example, envious of his “odd” and troubled brother’s budding relationship with his daughter packs him off to their retired parents in Florida, under the pretext of safeguarding his own family. “He persuaded himself by Monday morning, sleeping on it hard, that, for Debby’s sake, they could no longer have Bill in the house,” writes Martell of Harry, “He was too erratic and might only become more so.” Bill’s mother feels a similar anxiety and copes with it the only way she knows how, by infantilising her son who to her mind is a little boy lost and needs protecting.
Here, again, Martell pits virtue against vice when conveying a mother’s love toward her addict son to show how one is connected to the other. Martell writes poignantly of familial ties, of mother and son sitting on the sofa in a soft embrace and later of Mary watching him sleep unable to bed down for the night herself. “She wanted to take Bill out of the world, she thought,” Martell says of Mary as she sits by her son’s bedside, “That was her goal all along. Out of localised hardships – Pennsylvania, New Jersey – and out of the greater patchwork too. Gifts and ingratitude, immodesty, all the capital crimes. To allow him access at least to a different world. One in which he wouldn’t be obliged to remake the imperfect cycle…Again Mary tried to see Bill through the dark and she reached out her hand now as though decided at last that she would touch him. She drew a long sustaining breath and held it. Bill had music.” It is in fact the music that the whole family is counting on to disperse Bill’s “sadness that won’t bear discussion, that won’t even bear recognition”. Even his father, who at first appears stoically taciturn, is terrified for his son’s future and hopeful that the music might came to the rescue. In a few very short chapters Martell manages to capture the whole history of the Evans’ family, their life prior to Florida, their early years in Plainfield, New Jersey, the brothers’ first band and the genius of Bill’s ensorcelled musical flourishes.
Intermission is a craftily formulated and written book, which traverses several genres – history, biography, fiction. It is also a haunting and maudlin work that dares to sideline and subordinate its subject – to achieve something quite novel – choosing to tell his story through the people around him. Bill looms over the narrative, but remains a spectre throughout; even in the last couple of chapters when Martell shifts his attention away from the family and on to the pianist. Back in New York, after two months away, Bill is suddenly struck by the realisation that he owes it to his “mother to not be unhappy…and to his father too” and to “the troubled look in his brother’s eyes and the togetherness of their youth”. Above all, however, he knows he owes it to himself and yet he continues to wish he could keep the “world at bay for as as long as possible”. Nevertheless, Bill gets up and out of bed and by the onset of winter begins touring again, now “more or less operational” and back in the realm of the living. Intermission is Martell’s first book in English, the rest of his work being in Welsh the language he grew up with in Pontneddfechan. Speaking about his decision to write in English, Martell said it had less to do with the pianist’s American origins and more with Evans himself. “I’ve wanted to write a book based in some way on Bill Evans’ story for a good many years now,” he explained in an interview recently, “The idea came from the music – a friend gave me a copy of Sunday at the Village Vanguard back in 2001. It was a thrilling thing to discover. As well as being improvisatory in large part there are structures there too. It’s a way of putting freedom and constraint to the test, playing one against the other, and figuring out, perhaps, that the distinction between the two is less meaningful than we imagine.”
This idea of duality, of being liberated and manacled, good and bad, and the line that falls in between is something that Martell ruminates on from the outset. Thinking about Scott and Bill in the first few chapters Harry chronicles their differences, which in the end was the thing that bound them. “Scotty handles his bass with implausible, almost arrogant ease,” Harry tells us, while for Bill playing was something that “troubled him – in the sense of movement inside, rather than affliction necessarily – the way he bent double over the piano, head almost touching the keys, fingers like willow stalks dragging along in the swell.” Intermission is by no means a comprehensive account of Evans’ life, work or his legacy. It is, however, a skilfully constructed interpretation of a very dark period in Bill’s history, which shaped him both as a person and a musician. “I don’t think the book I ended up writing is a jazz book – in the sense that its rhythms aren’t jazz rhythms,” Martell says, “But having to make phrases and think about form is common to jazz, music in general, writing, everything, pretty much, and I’m happy to engage with that”. And he certainly does, through his deft manipulation of language and the way it communicates a sense of melancholy and ruefulness almost by itself, almost miraculously. Intermission is a captivating and evocative book, which compounds the mystique of Bill Evans, adding to his inviolable elusiveness which reverberates with Martell’s very own brand of music.
The Independent | Owen Martell
Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication Date: January 2013
Paperback: 192 pages