Evans in 1969
|William John Evans|
August 16, 1929|
Plainfield, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||September 15, 1980
New York City, New York
|Genres||Jazz, modal jazz, third stream, cool jazz, post-bop|
|Labels||Riverside, Verve, Fantasy|
|George Russell, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Philly Joe Jones, Scott LaFaro, Paul Motian, Eddie Gómez, Marty Morell, Tony Bennett, Jim Hall, Stan Getz, Monica Zetterlund, Chet Baker|
William John Evans ( , August 16, 1929 - September 15, 1980) was an American jazz pianist and composer who mostly worked in a trio setting. Evans' use of impressionist harmony, inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire, block chords, and trademark rhythmically independent, "singing" melodic lines continue to influence jazz pianists today.
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929, he was classically trained, and studied at Southeastern Louisiana University and the Mannes School of Music, where he majored in composition and received the Artist Diploma. In 1955, he moved to New York City, where he worked with bandleader and theorist George Russell. In 1958, Evans joined Miles Davis's sextet, where he was to have a profound influence. In 1959, the band, then immersed in modal jazz, recorded Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time. During that time, Evans was also playing with Chet Baker for the album Chet.
In late 1959, Evans left the Miles Davis band and began his career as a leader, with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, a group now regarded as a seminal modern jazz trio. In 1961, ten days after recording the highly acclaimed Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby albums, LaFaro died in a car accident. After months of seclusion, Evans re-emerged with a new trio, featuring bassist Chuck Israels.
In 1963, Evans recorded Conversations with Myself, an innovative solo album using the unconventional (in jazz solo recordings) technique of overdubbing over himself. In 1966, he met bassist Eddie Gómez, with whom he would work for eleven years. Many successful albums followed, in trio, duo, and solo settings, such as Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Alone, and The Bill Evans Album, among others.
Many of Evans's compositions, such as "Waltz for Debby", have become standards and have been played and recorded by many artists. Evans was honored with 31 Grammy nominations and seven awards and was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Bill Evans was born in North Plainfield, New Jersey, to Harry and Mary Evans (née Soroka). His father was of Welsh descent and ran a golf course; his mother was of Carpatho-Rusyn ancestry and descended from a family of coal miners. The marriage was stormy owing to his father's heavy drinking, gambling, and abuse. He had a brother, Harry (Harold), two years his senior, with whom he shared a very close relationship.
Given Harry Evans Sr.'s destructive character, Mary Evans would often leave home with her sons to nearby Somerville, to stay with her sister Justine and the Epps family. There, Harry began piano lessons somewhere between age 5 and 7 with local teacher Helen Leland. Even though Bill was thought to be too young to receive lessons, he soon began to play what he had heard during his brother's class. Soon both brothers were taking piano lessons. 
Evans remembered Leland with affection for not insisting on a heavy technical approach, with scales and arpeggios. He would soon develop a fluent sight-reading ability, though his teacher rated his brother as a better pianist. At age 7, Bill began violin lessons, and soon also flute and piccolo. Even though he soon dropped those instruments, it is believed they later influenced his keyboard style. He later cited Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as frequently played composers. During high school, Evans came in contact with 20th-century music like Stravinsky's Petrushka, which he deemed a "tremendous experience"; and Milhaud's Suite Provençale, whose bitonal language he believed "opened him to new things." Around the same time also came his first exposure to jazz, when at age 12 he heard Tommy Dorsey and Harry James's bands on the radio. At the age of 13, Bill stood in for a sick pianist in Buddy Valentino's rehearsal band, where Harry was already playing the trumpet. Soon, Bill began to perform for dances and weddings throughout New Jersey, playing music like boogie woogie and polkas for $1 per hour. Around this time he met multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott, with whom he would later record. Another important influence was bassist George Platt, who introduced Evans to the harmonic principles of music.
After high school, in September 1946, Evans attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a flute scholarship. He studied classical piano interpretation with Louis P. Kohnop, John Venettozzi, and Ronald Stetzel. A key part in Evans' development was Gretchen Magee, whose methods of teaching left an important print in his composition style. Soon, Bill would compose his first tune.
Around his third year in college, Evans composed his first known tune, "Very Early". Around that time he also composed a piece called "Peace Piece". Years later, when asked to play it - he said it was a spontaneous improvisation, thus he doesn't know it. He was a founding member of SLU's Delta Omega Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, played quarterback for the fraternity's football team, and was part of the college band. In 1950, he performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3 for his senior recital, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in piano, and Bachelor's in Music Education. Evans regarded the last three years in college as the happiest in his life.
During college, Evans met guitarist Mundell Lowe, and after graduating, they formed a trio with bassist Red Mitchell. The three relocated to New York City. However, their inability to attract bookings prompted them to leave for Calumet City, Illinois. In July 1950, Evans joined Herbie Fields's band, based in Chicago. During the summer, the band did a three-month tour backing Billie Holiday, including East Coast appearances at Harlem's Apollo Theater and shows in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. The band included trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, trombonist Frank Rosolino and bassist Jim Aton. Upon its return to Chicago, Evans and Aton worked as a duo in clubs, often backing singer Lurlean Hunter. Shortly thereafter, Evans received his draft notice and entered the U.S. Army.
During his three-year (1951-54) stay in the army, Evans played flute, piccolo, and piano in the Fifth U.S. Army Band at Fort Sheridan. He also hosted a jazz program on the camp radio station and occasionally performed in Chicago clubs, where he met singer Lucy Reed, with whom he became friends and would later record. He also met singer and bassist Bill Scott and Chicago jazz pianist Sam Distefano (his bunkmate in their platoon), both of whom became Evans' close friends. Evans' stay in the army was traumatic, and he had nightmares for years. As people criticized his musical conceptions and playing, he lost his confidence for the first time. Around 1953 Evans composed his most well known tune, "Waltz for Debby", for his young niece. During this period, in which Evans was met with universal acclaim, he began using recreational drugs, occasionally smoking marijuana.
Evans was discharged from the Army in January 1954, and entered a period of seclusion, triggered by the harsh criticism he had received. He took a sabbatical year and went to live with his parents, where he set up a studio, acquired a grand piano and worked on his technique. The self-critical Evans believed he lacked the natural fluidity of other musicians. He visited his brother Harry, now in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recently married and working as a conservatory teacher.
In July 1955, Evans returned to New York City and enrolled in the Mannes College of Music for a three-semester postgraduate course in musical composition. He also wrote classical settings of poems by William Blake. Along with his studies, Evans played in mostly low-profile "Tuxedo gigs" at the Friendship Club and the Roseland Ballroom, as well as Jewish weddings, intermission spots, and over-40 dances. However, better opportunities also arose, such as playing solo opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet at the Village Vanguard, where one day he saw Miles Davis listening to him. During this period, Evans also met Thelonious Monk.
Evans soon began to perform in Greenwich Village clubs with Don Elliott, Tony Scott, and Mundell Lowe; as well as with bandleader Jerry Wald. While Evans may have played on some of Wald's discs, his first proven Wald recording was Listen to the Music of Jerry Wald, which also featured his future drummer Paul Motian.
In early 1955, singer Lucy Reed moved to New York City to play at the Village Vanguard and The Blue Angel, and in August she recorded The Singing Reed with a group which included Evans. During this period, he met two of Reed's friends: manager Helen Keane, who, seven years later, would become his own agent; and George Russell, with whom he would soon work. That year, he also made his first recording, in a small ensemble, in Dick Garcia's A Message from Garcia. In parallel, Evans kept with his work with Scott, playing in Preview's Modern Jazz Club in Chicago during December-January 1956/7, and recording The Complete Tony Scott. After the Complete sessions, Scott left for a long overseas tour.
Evans had met George Russell during his tenure with Lucy Reed. Russell's first impression of Evans was negative ("this is going to be like pulling teeth all day"), but when he secretly heard Evans play, he completely changed his mind. Russell was then developing his magnum opus, the treatise Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, in which he espoused that the Lydian mode was more compatible with tonality than the major scale used in most music. This new concept was ground-breaking in jazz, and would soon influence musicians like Miles Davis. Evans, who had already been acquainted with these ideas before, began to work with him in 1956.
By this time, RCA Victor had begun a series of recordings called Jazz Workshop, and soon Russell, through the intervention of McKustic and Jack Lewis, was granted his own record date. Then, Russell assembled trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassist Milt Hinton and Evans for three recording dates, along with rehearsal sessions. In these, only the bassist was given a written part, while the rest were left, and, according to Farmer, "took the parts at home and tried to come to terms with them". The album took a year to do, and it was successful enough to enable Russell to escape his penurious lifestyle. Evans performed a notable solo in "Concerto for Billy the Kid".
In September 1956, producer Orrin Keepnews was convinced to record the reluctant Evans by a demo tape Mundell Lowe played to him over the phone. The result was his debut album, New Jazz Conceptions, featuring the original versions of "Waltz for Debby", and "Five". This album began Evans' relationship with Riverside Records. Although a critical success that gained positive reviews in Down Beat and Metronome magazines, New Jazz Conceptions was initially a financial failure, selling only 800 copies the first year. "Five" was for some time Evans' trio farewell tune during performances. After releasing the album, Evans spent much time studying Bach scores to improve his technique.
In 1957, Russell was one of six musicians (three jazz, three classical composers) commissioned by Brandeis University to write a piece for their Festival of the Creative Arts in the context of the first experiments in third stream jazz. Russell wrote a suite for orchestra, "All About Rosie", which featured Bill Evans among other soloists. "All About Rosie" has been cited as one of the few convincing examples of composed polyphony in jazz. A week before the festival, the piece was previewed on TV, and Evans' performance was deemed "legendary" in jazz circles. During the festival performance, in June 6, Evans became acquainted with Chuck Israels, who would become his bassist years later.  During the Brandeis Festival, guitarist Joe Puma invited Evans to play on the album Joe Puma/Jazz.
That year, he also met Scott LaFaro while auditioning him for a place in an ensemble led by trumpeter Chet Baker, and was impressed by the young bassist. Three years later, LaFaro would join his trio.
In February 1958, Russell, at Miles Davis's urging, drove Evans over to the Colony Club in Brooklyn, to play with Davis' sextet. By that time, the band consisted of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Evans knew it was an audition, and that he might replace the recently fired Red Garland. By the end of the night, Davis told Evans that he would be playing their next engagement in Philadelphia. While the band used to play a mixture of jazz standards and bebop originals, by that time Davis had begun his venture in modal jazz, having just released his album Milestones.
Evans joined the group in April 1958. The band appeared in radio broadcasts on Saturday nights and, on May 3, the new formation made its first broadcast from Café Bohemia (its usual locale). On May 17, the radio material would be recorded on the album Makin' Wax, the first documented evidence of Evans with Davis. By mid-May, Jimmy Cobb replaced Philly Joe Jones, with whom Evans had developed a close friendship. On May 26, Evans made his first studio recordings with Davis, which were first issued as part of Jazz Track, and later reissued on 1958 Miles.
A performance of the Ballets Africains from Guinea, in 1958, had originally sparked Davis' interest in modal music. This music stayed for long periods of time on a single chord, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. Another influence was George Russell's treatise. Both influences coalesced in Davis' conception of modal jazz offering an alternative to chord changes and major/minor key relationships, relying instead on a series of modal scales. He realized that Evans, who had worked with Russell, could follow him into modal music. At the same time, Evans introduced Davis to European classical music.
The band's mostly black followers did not react favourably to the replacement of the charismatic Garland with a white musician. Davis used to tease him and Evans' sensitivity perhaps let it get to him. However, the band began to find a new, smoother groove, as Adderley noted: "When he started to use Bill, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach."
In July 1958, Evans appeared as a sideman in Adderley's album Portrait of Cannonball, featuring the first performance of "Nardis", specially written by Davis for the session. While Davis was not very satisfied with the performance, he said that from then on, Evans was the only one to play it in the way he wanted. The piece came to be associated with Evans' future trios, which played it frequently.
By the end of the summer, Davis knew Evans was quickly approaching his full professional development; and that he would soon decide to leave Davis' group. This year, Evans won the Down Beat International Critics' Poll for his work with Davis and his album New Jazz Conceptions.
In September 1958, Evans recorded as a sideman in Art Farmer's album Modern Art, also featuring Benny Golson. All three had won the Down Beat poll.  Later, Evans deemed this record as one of his favorites. During this period, despite all the successes, Evans was visiting a psychiatrist, as he was unsure whether he wanted to continue as a pianist.
Evans left Davis' sextet in November 1958 and stayed with his parents in Florida and his brother in Louisiana. While he was burned out, one of the main reasons for leaving was his father's illness. During this sojourn, the always self-critical Evans suddenly felt his playing had improved. "While I was staying with my brother in Baton Rouge, I remember finding that somehow I had reached a new level of expression in my playing. It had come almost automatically, and I was very anxious about it, afraid I might lose it."
Shortly after, he moved back to New York, and in December Evans recorded the trio album Everybody Digs Bill Evans for Riverside Records with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Philly Joe Jones. This was Evans' second album as a leader, since New Jazz Conceptions, recorded two years earlier. While producer Orrin Keepnews had many times tried to persuade Evans to make a second trio recording, the pianist felt he had nothing new to say... until then. He had also been too busy traveling with Davis to make a record.
One of the pieces to appear on the album was Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time". Evans started to play an introduction using an ostinato figure. However, according to Keepnews, who was present, the pianist spontaneously started to improvise over that harmonic frame, creating the recording that would be named "Peace Piece". According to Evans: "What happened was that I started to play the introduction, and it started to get so much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I'll keep going." However, Gretchen Magee claims that the piece had been penned as an exercise during his college years, while Peri Cousins says that he would often play the piece at home.
As usual, during the sessions of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis called for almost no rehearsal and the musicians had little idea what they were to record. Davis had given the band only sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise. Once the musicians were assembled, Davis gave brief instructions for each piece and then set about taping the sextet in studio.
During the creative process of Kind of Blue, Davis handed Evans a piece of paper with two chords - G minor and A augmented - and asked "What would you do with that?" Evans spent the next night writing what would become "Blue in Green". However, when the album came out, the song was attributed exclusively to Davis. When Evans suggested he might deserve a share of the royalties, Davis offered him a check for $25. Evans also penned the liner notes for Kind of Blue, comparing jazz improvisation to Japanese visual art. By the fall of 1959, Evans had started his own trio with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis, but it was short-lived.
Sometime during the late 1950s, most probably before joining Miles Davis, Evans began using heroin. Philly Joe Jones has been cited as an especially bad influence in this aspect. Although Davis seems to have tried to help Evans kick his addiction, he did not succeed.
Evans' first long-term romance was with a black woman named Peri Cousins (for whom "Peri's Scope" was named), during the second half of the 1950s. The couple had problems booking in hotels during Evans' gigs, since most of them did not allow inter-racial couples. By the turn of the decade, Evans had met a waitress named Ellaine Schultz, who would become his partner for twelve years.
In mid-1959 Scott LaFaro, who was playing up the street from Evans, said he was interested in developing a trio. LaFaro suggested Paul Motian, who had already appeared in some of Evans' first solo albums, as the drummer for the new band. The trio with LaFaro and Motian became one of the most celebrated piano trios in jazz. With this group Evans' focus settled on traditional jazz standards and original compositions, with an added emphasis on interplay among band members. Evans and LaFaro would achieve a high level of musical empathy. In December 1959 the band recorded its first album, Portrait in Jazz for Riverside Records.
In early 1960, the trio began a tour that brought them to Boston, San Francisco (at Jazz Workshop club), and Chicago (at the Sutherland Lounge). After returning in February, the band performed at the New York City Hall, and then settled at Birdland, Count Basie's headquarters. While the trio did not produce any studio records in 1960, two bootleg recordings from radio broadcasts from April and May were illegally released, something that infuriated Evans. Later, they would be posthumously issued as The 1960 Birdland Sessions.
In parallel with his trio work, Evans kept his work as a sideman. In 1960, he performed on singer Frank Minion's album The Soft Land of Make Believe, featuring versions of some of the Kind of Blue tunes with lyrics, along with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. That year, he also recorded The Soul of Jazz Percussion, with Philly Joe Jones and Chambers.
In May 1960, the trio performed at one of the Jazz Profiles concerts, organized by Charles Schwartz. Around this time, Evans hired Monte Kay as his manager. During one of his concerts at the Jazz Gallery, Evans contracted hepatitis, and had to retreat to his parents' house in Florida. While recovering, Evans recorded, as sidesman, in The Great Kai & J. J., and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones for Impulse! Records. In May and August 1960, Evans appeared in Russell's album Jazz in the Space Age for Decca, while in late 1960, he performed on Jazz Abstractions, an album recorded under the leadership of Gunther Schuller and John Lewis.
In 1961, Evans produced four albums in rapid succession. The first, Explorations, was recorded in February 1961. According to Orrin Keepnews, the atmosphere during the recording sessions was tense, Evans and LaFaro having had an argument over extra-musical matters; in addition, Evans was complaining of headaches and LaFaro was playing with a loaned bass. The disc features the first trio version of "Nardis", since Evans had recorded it with Cannonball Adderley. Apart from "Nardis" and "Elsa", the album consisted of jazz standards. Ironically, after recording, Evans was utterly unwilling to release it, believing the trio had played badly. However, upon hearing the recording, he changed his mind, and later thought of it in very positive terms.
Finally, in late June 1961 the trio recorded two albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Waltz for Debby. These albums were live recordings from the same live date, and are often named among the best ever jazz recordings. Evans later showed special satisfaction with these recordings, seeing them as the culmination of the musical interplay of his trio.
LaFaro's death, at age 25, in a car accident, ten days after the Vanguard performances, devastated Evans. He did not record or perform in public again for several months.
In October 1961, persuaded by his producer Orrin Keepnews, Evans reappeared on the musical scene with an album with Mark Murphy. With new bassist Chuck Israels, they recorded in December Nirvana, with flautist Herbie Mann, soon followed by Undercurrent, with guitarist Jim Hall.
When he re-formed his trio in 1962, two albums, Moon Beams and How My Heart Sings! resulted. In 1963, after having switched from Riverside to the much more widely distributed Verve (for financial reasons related to his drug addiction), he recorded Conversations with Myself, an innovative album which featured overdubbing, layering up to three individual tracks of piano for each song. The album won him his first Grammy award.
Evans' heroin addiction began in the late 1950s, and increased following LaFaro's death. His girlfriend Ellaine was also an addict. Evans habitually had to borrow money from friends, and eventually, his electricity and telephone services were shut down. Evans said, "You don't understand. It's like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm."
Evans never allowed heroin to interfere with his musical discipline, according to a BBC record review article which contrasts Evans' addiction with that of Chet Baker. On one occasion while injecting heroin, he hit a nerve and temporarily disabled it, performing a full week's engagement at the Village Vanguard virtually one-handed. During this time, Helen Keane began having an important influence, as she significantly helped to maintain the progress of Evans' career in spite of his self-destructive lifestyle, and the two developed a strong relationship.
In summer 1963, Evans and his girlfriend Ellaine left their flat in New York and settled in his parents' home in Florida, where, it seems, they quit the habit for some time. Even though never legally married, Bill and Ellaine were in all respects man and wife. At that time, Ellaine meant everything to Bill, and was the only person with whom he felt genuine comfort.
Though he recorded many albums for Verve, their artistic quality was uneven. Despite Israels' fast development and the creativity of new drummer Larry Bunker, they were ill-represented by the perfunctory album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, featuring Gabriel Fauré's Pavane. Some recordings in unusual contexts were made, such as a big-band live album recorded at Town Hall, New York that was never issued owing to Evans' dissatisfaction with it (although the more successful jazz trio portion of the Pavane concert was released), and an album with a symphony orchestra that was not warmly received by critics. Live recordings and bootleg radio broadcasts from this time period represent some of the trio's better work.
In 1965, the trio with Israels and Bunker went on a well-received European tour and recorded a BBC special.
In 1966, Evans discovered the young Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gómez. In what turned out to be an eleven-year stay, Gómez sparked new developments in Evans' trio conception. One of the most significant releases during this period is Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1968), where he won his second Grammy award. It has remained a critical favorite, and is one of only two albums Evans made with drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Other highlights from this period include "Solo - In Memory of His Father" from Bill Evans at Town Hall (1966), which also introduced "Turn Out the Stars"; a second pairing with guitarist Jim Hall, Intermodulation (1966); and the solo album Alone (1968, featuring a 14-minute version of "Never Let Me Go"), that won his third Grammy award.
In 1968, drummer Marty Morell joined the trio and remained until 1975, when he retired to family life. This was Evans' most stable, longest-lasting group. Evans had overcome his heroin habit and was entering a period of personal stability.
Between 1969 and 1970 Evans recorded From Left to Right, featuring his first use of electric piano.
Between May and June 1971 Evans recorded The Bill Evans Album, which won two Grammy awards. This all-originals album (4 new), also featured alternation between acoustic and electric piano. One of these was "Comrade Conrad", a tune that had originated as a Crest toothpaste jingle and had later been reelaborated and dedicated to Conrad Mendenhall, a friend who had died in a car accident.
Other albums included The Tokyo Concert (1973); Since We Met (1974); and But Beautiful (1974), featuring the trio plus saxophonist Stan Getz in live performances from the Netherlands and Belgium. Morell was an energetic, straight-ahead drummer, unlike many of the trio's former percussionists, and many critics feel that this was a period of little growth for Evans. After Morell left, Evans and Gómez recorded two duo albums, Intuition and Montreux III.
In the early 1970s, Evans was caught at New York's JFK airport with a suitcase containing heroin. Although the police put him in jail for the night he was not charged. But both he and Ellaine had to begin methadone treatment.
In 1973, while working in Redondo Beach, California, Evans met and fell in love with Nenette Zazzara, despite his long-term relationship with Ellaine. When Evans broke the news to Ellaine, she pretended to understand, but then committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. Evans' relatives believe that Ellaine's infertility, coupled with Bill's desire to have a son, may have influenced those events. As a result, Evans went back on heroin for a while, then got into a methadone treatment program. In August 1973, Evans married Nenette, and, in 1975, they had a child, Evan. The new family, which also included Evans' stepdaughter Maxine, lived in a large house in Closter, New Jersey. Both remained very close until his death. Nenette and Bill remained married until Bill's death in 1980.
In 1974, Bill Evans recorded a multimovement jazz concerto written for him by Claus Ogerman entitled Symbiosis. The 1970s also saw Evans collaborate with the singer Tony Bennett on 1975s The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and 1977s Together Again.
In 1975, Morell was replaced by drummer Eliot Zigmund. Several collaborations followed, and it was not until 1977 that the trio was able to record an album together. Both I Will Say Goodbye (Evans' last album for Fantasy Records) and You Must Believe in Spring (for Warner Bros.) highlighted changes that would become significant in the last stage of Evans' life. A greater emphasis was placed on group improvisation and interaction, and new harmonic experiments were attempted.
Gómez and Zigmund left Evans in 1978. Evans then asked Philly Joe Jones, the drummer he considered his "all-time favorite drummer", to fill in. Several bassists were tried, with Michael Moore staying the longest. Evans finally settled on Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. This trio would be Evans' last.
In April 1979, Evans met Canadian waitress Laurie Verchomin, with whom he had a relationship until his death. Verchomin was 28 years younger.
At the beginning of a several-week tour of the trio through the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1979, Evans learned that his brother, Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had committed suicide at age 52. This news shocked him deeply, and some of the concerts had to be canceled. His friends and relatives believe that this event precipitated his own death the following year.
Marc Johnson recalled: "This fateful trip marks [...] the beginning of the end. Bill's willingness to play and work decreased noticeably after the death of Harry, actually it was just the music itself that held him upright. He fulfilled his obligations because he needed money, but these were the few moments in his life when he felt comfortable -- the times in between must have been depressing, and he barely showed a willingness to live."
In August 1979, Evans recorded his last studio album, We Will Meet Again, featuring a composition of the same name written for his brother. The album won a Grammy award posthumously in 1981, along with I Will Say Goodbye.
During the late 1970s, Evans became addicted to cocaine. He started with one gram per weekend, but later started taking several grams daily. His friends, Chicago pianists Sam Distefano and Larry Novak, repeatedly tried lecturing him in an effort to get him to quit, fearing for Bill's health. His brother Harry's suicide may have also influenced his emotional state after 1979. His sister-in-law Pat Evans has stated that she knew Bill wouldn't last long after Harry's death and she wondered if that's what prompted her to buy three plots in a Baton Rouge Cemetery, where Harry was interred. It has been documented that he voluntarily quit his treatment for chronic hepatitis. Laurie Verchomin has claimed that Evans was clear in mind that he would die in a short time.
On September 15, 1980, Evans, who had been in bed for several days with stomach pains at his home in Fort Lee, was accompanied by Joe LaBarbera and Verchomin to the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he died that afternoon. The cause of death was a combination of peptic ulcer, cirrhosis, bronchial pneumonia, and untreated hepatitis. Evans' friend Gene Lees described Evans' struggle with drugs as "the longest suicide in history." He was interred in Baton Rouge, next to his brother Harry. Services were held in Manhattan on Friday, September 19. A tribute, planned by producer Orrin Keepnews and Tom Bradshaw, was held on the following Monday, September 22, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Fellow musicians paid homage to the late pianist in the first days of the 1980 Monterey Jazz Festival, which had opened that very week: Dave Brubeck played his own "In Your Own Sweet Way" on the 19th, The Manhattan Transfer would follow on the 20th, while John Lewis dedicated "I'll Remember April".
Bill Evans is seen as the main reformer of the harmonic language of jazz piano. Evans' harmonic language was influenced by impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  His versions of jazz standards, as well as his own compositions, often featured thorough reharmonisations. Musical features included added tone chords, modal inflections, unconventional substitutions, and modulations.
One of Evans' distinctive harmonic traits is excluding the root in his chords, leaving this work to the bassist, played on another beat of the measure, or just left implied. "If I am going to be sitting here playing roots, fifths and full voicings, the bass is relegated to a time machine." This idea had already been explored by Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, and Red Garland. In Evans' system, the chord is expressed as a quality identity and a color. Most of Evans' harmonies feature added note chords or quartal voicings. Thus, Evans created a self-sufficient language for the left hand, a distinctive voicing, that allowed the transition from one chord to the next while hardly having to move the hand. With this technique, he created an effect of continuity in the central register of the piano. Laying around middle C, in this region the harmonic clusters sounded the clearest, and at the same time, left room for contrapuntal independence with the bass.
Evans' improvisations relied heavily in motivic development, either melodically or rhythmically. Motives may be broken and recombined to form melodies. Another characteristic of Evans' style is rhythmic displacement. His melodic contours often describe arches. Other characteristics include sequenciation of melodies and transforming one motive into another. He plays with one hand in the time signature of 4/4 and the other momentarily in 3/4.
At least during his late years, Evans' favorite keys to play in were A and E. Evans greatly valued Bach's music, which influenced his playing style and which helped him gain good touch and finger independence. "Bach changed my hand approach to playing the piano. I used to use a lot of finger technique when I was younger, and I changed over a weight technique. Actually, if you play Bach and the voices sing at all, and sustain the way they should, you really can't play it with the wrong approach." Evans valued Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and his "Two- and Three-Part Inventions" as excellent practice material.
Evans' career began just before the rock explosion in the 1960s. During this decade, jazz was swept in a corner, and most new talents had few opportunities to gain recognition, especially in America. However, Evans believed he had been lucky to gain some exposure before this profound change in the music world, and never had problems finding employers and recording opportunities.
Evans never embraced new music movements; he kept his style intact. For example, he lamented watching Davis shift his style towards jazz fusion, and blamed the change on considerations of commerce. Evans commented "I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master [Davis], but I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. The rock and pop thing certainly draws a wider audience. It happens more and more these days, that unqualified people with executive positions try to tell musicians what is good and what is bad music." However, Evans and Davis kept in touch throughout their lives.
While Evans considered himself an acoustic pianist, from the 1970 album From Left to Right on, he also released some material with Fender-Rhodes piano intermissions. However, unlike other jazz players (e.g. Herbie Hancock) he never fully embraced the new instrument, and invariably ended up returning to the acoustic sound. "I don't think too much about the electronic thing, except that it's kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. (...) [It's] merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound that's appropriate sometimes. I find that it's a refreshing auxiliary to the piano--but I don't need it (...) I don't enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano." He commented that electronic music: "just doesn't attract me. I'm of a certain period, a certain evolution. I hear music differently. For me, comparing electric bass to acoustic bass is sacrilege."
Bill Evans was an avid reader, in particular philosophy and humorous books. His shelves held works by Plato, Voltaire, Whitehead, Santayana, Freud, Margaret Mead, Sartre and Thomas Merton; and had a special fondness for Thomas Hardy's work. He was fascinated with eastern religions and philosophies including Islam, Zen, and Buddhism. It was also Evans who introduced John Coltrane to the Indian philosophy of Krishnamurti.
Evans liked to paint and draw. He was also a keen golfer, a hobby that began on his father's golf course. Evans had a fondness for horse racing and frequently gambled hundreds of dollars, often winning. During his last years he even owned a racehorse named "Annie Hall" with producer Jack Rollins.
Music critic Richard S. Ginell noted: "With the passage of time, Bill Evans has become an entire school unto himself for pianists and a singular mood unto himself for listeners. There is no more influential jazz-oriented pianist--only McCoy Tyner exerts nearly as much pull among younger players and journeymen."
Many of Evans' critics have commented on his detachment from the original black roots of jazz, believing that the European and classical traditions are of much lesser import.
During his tenure with Davis, Evans had problems with the mostly black audience. For example, Peter Pettinger has pointed out that in a recording, for his solo on a tune named "Walkin'", Evans received noticeably less applause than the other soloists, and for that on "All Of You", none at all.
Evans has left his mark on such players as Chick Corea, Ralph Towner, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, John Taylor, Steve Kuhn, Vince Guaraldi, Don Friedman, Marian McPartland, Denny Zeitlin, Paul Bley, Bobo Stenson, Warren Bernhardt, Michel Petrucciani, Lenny Breau, Keith Jarrett and Rick Wright of Pink Floyd, as well as many other musicians worldwide. The music of Bill Evans continues to inspire younger pianists including Fred Hersch, Bill Charlap, Lyle Mays, and Eliane Elias and arguably Brad Mehldau early in his career.
Evans is also frequently mentioned in the anime series Sakamichi no Apollon, and seems to be an inspiration for main character Kaoru.
Evans' repertoire consisted of both jazz standards and original compositions. Many of these were dedicated to people close to him. Some known examples are: "Waltz for Debby", for his niece; "For Nenette", for his wife; "Letter to Evan", for his son; "NYC's No Lark", in memory of friend pianist Sonny Clark; "Re: Person I Knew", an anagram of the name of his friend and producer Orrin Keepnews; "We Will Meet Again", for his brother; "Peri's Scope", for girlfriend Peri Cousins; "One for Helen" and "Song for Helen", for manager Helen Keane; "B minor Waltz (For Ellaine)", for girlfriend Ellaine Schultz; "Laurie", for girlfriend Laurie Verchomin; "Yet Ne'er Broken", an anagram of the name of cocaine dealer Robert Kenney; "Maxine", for his stepdaughter; "Tiffany", for Joe LaBarbera's daughter; "Knit For Mary F." for fan Mary Franksen from Omaha.