From May 1979 to September 1980, Laurie Verchomin was pianist Bill Evans' lover. After their meeting in Edmonton, Canada, in April 1979, Laurie and Bill struck up a letter-writing relationship that led rapidly to romance. Within a month and a half, Laurie, who was 22 years old at the time, visited Evans in New York. Over the 10 months that followed, she visited him in several different cities. Then in April 1980, Laurie moved to New York to be with him romantically and as a sober set of eyes. The drug-addicted pianist was ill and keenly aware he was dying. Laurie shared this final period with him—a period during which many believe Evans created some of his strongest and most introspective work. [Pictured: Laurie in 1979]
For the first time, Laurie talks openly about her relationship with Evans, what she witnessed, and the ups and downs of their relationship. Her candid insights shed new light on Evans and provide a greater understanding and empathy for his creative choices. They certainly made me think much differently about his late period, giving me a much greater understanding of Evans' motives and choices. As you'll see, Laurie's candid reflections on this jazz lion in winter are both touching and harrowing.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Laurie commemorating what would have been Evans' 80th birthday on August 16th, she talks about meeting Evans, her visit to New York, and her initial impressions of Evans physically and emotionally:
JazzWax: When and where did you and Bill Evans meet?
Laurie Verchomin: We met on April 13, 1979, in Edmonton, Alberta. It was Friday the 13th. We met in a Ukrainian church [pictured] on 97th Ave. that had been converted into a Chinese restaurant. I was the cocktail waitress for the whole room. I also was a member of the local jazz society that had invited Bill to perform at the restaurant. Ironically, the church space now is a soup kitchen.
JW: Did you have eyes for Evans?
LV: Actually, Bill chose me. I had just turned 22 years old. He pursued me when we met and that night asked me to go up to his room. I didn’t really understand that at the time. He was 50 years old—older than my father, and I had a boyfriend. But I thought it was sweet. So I invited him to my place with a bunch of his fans and served him tea. He gave me his business card. The night before he left Edmonton, he wrote me a letter from his hotel. His letter was immediately full of love.
JW: What kind of love?
LV: He was very upfront with how he felt about me, and he felt it was important that we get together. I wrote back about the effect of his music on me and sent him one of my favorite quotes from Sartre: “When you tear your neighbor to pieces, all your neighbors will laugh. But if you beat on your own soul, all souls cry out."
JW: Did Evans indicate that it was a painful time for him?
LV: Yes. Bill wrote me in his second letter that he had received my letter just days after his brother Harry [pictured] had committed suicide. Harry was a schizophrenic. In the letter, Bill described his relationship with his brother and how his brother was a hero to him. Bill saw his brother as his equal, not as an inferior musician or anything like that. In fact, if anything, he put Harry a little above himself. He had such deep respect for him.
JW: What do you think Evans saw in you initially?
LV: I’m a really creative person and a really good person. I think he saw someone he could be himself with and possibly draw some energy from. He was quite ill when I met him, and I could tell that he didn’t have long to live. It was obvious to both of us that he was near the end of his life. He didn’t hide that. I think he was looking for someone with energy to sustain him for the last 18 months. I also didn’t have many responsibilities in Edmonton, and he knew that, too.
JW: Whose idea was it for you to visit Evans in New York?
LV: After I received Bill’s letter about his brother’s suicide, I was quite moved. In that letter, Bill urged me to come visit him in New York. That’s when I started to consider having a relationship with him. I felt his need, that he was in trouble and needed someone to talk to.
JW: When did you leave for New York?
LV: I left Edmonton at the end of May 1979. Bill met me at the airport in New York and couldn’t have been sweeter and more caring. I felt a connection right away. I had wanted to return to New York anyway. I had been there the year before studying acting at the HB Studios in Greenwich Village.
JW: How would you describe your relationship with Evans in New York from the outset?
LV: At first I didn’t think Bill was going to be my lover. I was just going to see how things went when I got to New York. We made a sexual connection immediately. It was really beautiful. I began to imagine a future for us. I thought at first that I could restore him to health.
JW: Was that a challenge?
LV: It was pretty shocking. Bill lived in Fort Lee, N.J., at the time, on Center Ave. in a high rise called the Whiteman House [pictured]. He lived on the 9th Floor. His place was absolutely serene, very orderly. But his physical state was disastrous. After all of those years of heroin abuse, he barely had a body left. His spirit was moving his body around. I realized that restoring him to health would be a seemingly impossible task.
JW: What was so shocking?
LV: Bill’s body.
LV: When I met him, Bill was an intravenous cocaine user. This created a chronic level of infection, which was adding to the general stress of his health. Tracks from his earlier heroin addiction had healed over, and his skin was in a kind of petrified state. He apparently only had an eighth of a liver.
JW: What did you think?
LV: You have to remember, I was 22 years old. All the people I knew were young and had firm, youthful bodies. Bill’s body took me aback. He looked like he’d come out of a war. He was really scarred up. He had vigor though. He was incredibly lively. It was amazing and shocking that he could survive what he had put his body through.
JW: How did Evans view himself physically?
LV: He was accepting about his condition, which also was kind of shocking. I just went with that. He wasn’t in pain. His physical body had been like that for years, and he wasn’t embarrassed about it. When you’re young, you’re self-conscious about everything. You’re new and beautiful. I was self-conscious about my hair—stupid stuff. But people who aren’t in that youthful state of perfection lose some of that vanity. Their consciousness takes on a different focus.
JW: How did Evans treat you?
LV: He was deeply respectful. He treated me as his equal. I had never met a man who treated me that way. I had
grown up in a very redneck town with cowboys everywhere. Bill was the opposite of the guys I had known. He was the kindest and most generous man I had ever met. He offered me everything he had. He was a fully present human being from the moment I stepped off the escalator at the airport. He paid attention to me, and there were no pretenses. I could be myself.
JW: How did Evans view you?
LV: He was in love with me. He saw me as a source of inspiration. He also didn’t want to be alone while he was dying.
JW: Did that scare you?
LV: I had to go to that level to be there. Bill had invited me to share his space while he was in his final creative process. I was ready to have that experience. I really wanted someone to see me as a whole person. He saw me that way and allowed me to share his experience.
Tomorrow, Laurie talks about how Evans' composition Laurie was created, the meaning behind the song's structure, the origins of Evans' brooding sensitivity, the only time Laurie and Evans fought, and dealing with Evans' cocaine addiction.
Photos of Laurie in 1979 (top) and the Ukrainian church where they met are courtesy of Laurie Verchomin. Laurie is working on a book about her relationship and experiences with Bill Evans. For more, visit Laurie's site here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Evans, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera in early 1979 playing In Your Own Sweet Way...