Today Laurie Verchomin resides in a small coastal village in British Columbia with her daughter Tara (12) and partner Brad. She also has two sons, Evan (22) and Niko (25). But back in 1979 and 1980, Laurie was pianist Bill Evans' lover. During their short 18 months together, Laurie learned about herself and the gritty underside of the jazz world—artists' obsession with music, the stress of marathon road trips, the nagging fatigue, the daily wait for nighttime, the self-absorption, multiple club sets, adoring fans who won't stop talking, and musicians with well-concealed drug and alcohol addictions. [Pictured top: Laurie Verchomin in front of a painting by Motoko; above: photo taken from Laurie's terrace in July]
Bill Evans' death on September 15, 1980 came as a shock to me, as it did to everyone who enjoyed his music. I remember attending Evans' memorial service later that month in New York at St. Peter's Church [pictured] in the base of the Citicorp Center. What I remember most was Bill Zavatsky reading his poem To the Pianist Bill Evans. Nothing that I heard on the radio that day or heard performed at the memorial sounded very good. It was as if my audio taste buds had gone numb.
In Part 5, Laurie talks about the events that occurred on the day Evans died and recalls a story that sheds light on the pianist's view of himself:
JazzWax: Tell me what happened the day Bill died.
Laurie Verchomin: It was September 15, 1980, a Monday. Joe LaBarbera, Bill’s drummer, was staying at our place in Fort Lee, N.J. Joe lived in Woodstock, N.Y., but he often stayed over when the trio had a gig. At around 10:30 a.m., we got into Bill’s maroon 1976 four-door Monte Carlo. Bill was too weak to drive. He had been in bed for quite a few days. He barely could rise out of bed to get into the car. [Photo of Joe LaBarbera by Tom Marcello]
JW: Where were you going?
LV: We were going to a new methadone clinic on the Upper East Side. Fort Lee, where we lived, is right across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, so the drive was to last about 20 minutes. Bill had been on methadone since he was 42 years old—in addition to the cocaine he had been consuming.
JW: How did his methadone use begin?
LV: He started methadone treatment after he was busted in the early 1970s at the airport in New York.
JW: What happened?
LV: He was heading out on a tour to Russia with a suitcase filled with heroin. He was arrested going through security at Kennedy Airport. The police put him in jail, but he was there for only one night. His first wife Ellaine, who also was a junkie, had some connections with politicians and got him off the hook. In exchange, they put both Bill and Ellaine on the methadone program.
JW: So you and Joe LaBarbera were taking him to a new clinic?
LV: Yes. The old one was cutting back his dosage for some reason. Joe was driving, I was in the passenger seat and Bill was in the back.
LV: We were near Central Park when Bill started to expurgate [cough up] blood. The sight of the blood was a shock to him and to us. But he coolly started to direct Joe on how to get to Mount Sinai Hospital’s emergency room in the 90s on Fifth Ave. It was so strange. Bill was bleeding but calmly directing us through traffic, telling Joe how to go.
JW: When you arrived, what condition was Evans in?
LV: When we pulled up at the hospital, Bill was slumped in the rear seat, almost lying down. We got him up and walked him into the emergency room. When they saw his condition, they let us bring him into one of the patient rooms in the back.
JW: Did he say anything to you?
LV: As he lay down, his last words to me were, “I think I’m going to drown.” He had a burst vein in his body, and it was filling his lungs with blood.
JW: This was around noon?
LV: Yes. As I sat in the waiting room, I wondered whether Bill was doing the rope trick again. I thought, “Can someone lose that much blood and come back?" I was in there for about a half hour, wondering whether he was dead or alive. Then a doctor came out to tell me Bill was dead.
JW: How did you feel?
LV: I felt that finally he had been released and that his suffering was over. It was the end of his journey. He had finally made it to the place he was trying to reach for so long.
JW: That day must have been horrible for you.
LV: It was a very shocking experience to have Bill leave. Once he was gone, I realized, “Now I have to live my life again and recreate it, and reintegrate this experience.” The biggest gift was to witness his death and see it at a young age. It was a positive experience for me on a spiritual level.
JW: That sounds terrible.
LV: You’re looking at it from a physical level. If you consider it spiritually, it was the end of a journey I chose to take with him. When we met, it was as though it was the beginning of a song. When Bill died, it was like a big orchestral crescendo. I remember the clouds in the sky that day, the bright red color of his blood—the entire day was like a Michelangelo painting.
JW: What happened afterward?
LV: The reality of Bill's death set in. It was very shocking for everyone. I wanted to have a celebration, with music. No one was getting that. But then nobody was as inside of the experience as I was.
JW: When you look back, how does your experience with Evans seem?
LV: Bill is with me every day. He’s helping me finish my book, like he said he would. He’s encouraging me to take my time with it and make it the way I want to do it. Once I’ve finished the book and my dialogue with him, that will be another shift in my consciousness. When this project is finished, I may have a different relationship with him.
JW: How do you think you’re different as a result of your experience with Evans?
LV: He did penetrate me with his philosophy and his consciousness. He altered my life in a way that allowed me to grow as a person and discover a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have discovered.
JW: Was he always lost in his own world—or was he conscious of others?
LV: He always was fully present. He wasn’t a chit-chatter. He was fine if he was having a discussion with some weight. But he didn’t have to say anything for people to be with him. When a person is fully present, conversation is superficial. Bill was a very private person but open to those who had the ability to listen to him. I was one of those people. [Photo by Jaap van de Klomp]
LV: People always think that Bill was really humble. And he was. But he also knew exactly how extraordinary he was.
JW: Give me an example.
LV: One time we were on 14th Street in New York waiting for a cab. I was dressed up, wearing a ¾-length pleated skirt and suit jacket. We were on the curb when a group of kids drove by in a car and threw eggs at us. It wasn’t even Halloween. It was just New York in the late 1970s [laughs]. Well, the eggs bounced off of him onto the street but the ones that hit me broke and splattered all over my jacket. I was so dismayed. Bill noted the irony and quietly said in jest, “Just goes to show our places in the universe.”
Photo of Laurie (top of page) and the view from Laurie's home 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.
For a more detailed description by Laurie of the day Evans died, visit Jan Stevens' Bill Evans Web Pages here.
JazzWax tracks: What are Laurie's favorite Bill Evans albums?
"I am very fond of Symbiosis. But it's hard to say. You Must Believe in Spring came out during my first winter alone without Bill. He sent me home from that first visit to New York with a stack of albums to listen to. They are all love letters."
JazzWax clip: A little over a month prior to Evans' death, he was in Norway with his trio. This is remarkable footage on many levels, especially for the brilliance of Marc Johnson's bass solo. Also note the bloated condition of Evans' hands...