Viewing photos of pianist Bill Evans in the 1970s is like watching a mighty oak turn color in the autumn. Little by little the bursts of yellow, red and orange start to fade, and the majestic tree's leaves drop off, leaving bare branches bracing for winter. In this image of Bill Evans from May 1980, photographer Brian McMillen captured the pianist just four months before his death.
Brian shares the story behnd the photo:
"When Bill played the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, a jazz club in Half Moon Bay, Ca., in May 1980, I was the house photographer. I was documenting the jazz artists who appeared there during the club's Sunday afternoon performances and at the Keystone Korner club in North Beach.
"I often shuttled musicians appearing at the Keystone to radio station KJAZ for interviews. Many times the same musician would play the Bach's Sunday afternoon gig as well.
"The Bach was and is a small, two-story wooden beach house. Bill was a Baldwin artist, and his contract stipulated that a nine-foot Baldwin grand had to be provided for all gigs, including this one. The Bach's concert space was on the second floor, and there was no elevator.
"When the rented Baldwin arrived a day or so before my photo was taken, I helped the movers and Pete Douglas, the club's owner, carry the beast up the 16 or so steps. We also had to put it up on the stage, which, thankfully, was only six inches high.
"It has been written, and so it seemed, that Bill knew he was in the last months of his life. His face was gaunt, and his frame was thin and frail. But he was blessed with a ready sense of humor, which I am sure kept him going.
"Bill’s trio consisted of Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. He loved playing with them, as he would often remark in conversations. I remember one time Bill was talking about Marc as we left radio station KJAZ. He inadvertently referred to him as “Scott.” He stopped himself and said, 'Wow, I have never done that before.'
"The best perk of being house photographer was that I picked my seat. I also had access to the musicians offstage and during sound checks. This photo looks as though Bill was right in front of me because he was. This is the kind of photo I like to get if I can.
"On September 15, 1980, a week after Bill had played at the Keystone Korner, I was listening to disc jockey Dick Conte [pictured] on the radio when he gently broke the news of Bill's death to listeners. He followed the announcement with a recording of Bill playing Peace Piece.
"For me, it was like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Everything stopped. The world as we knew it had changed. I realized there are no immortals. I matured. I still think about Bill all the time and his music is never far away."
Photo of Bill Evans at top by Brian McMillen. ©Brian McMillen/all rights reserved. Photo used here with the artist's permission.
For more jazz images by Brian McMillen, go here. To contact Brian, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org