From time to time, I open JazzWax to guest posts in an
ongoing series called "Eyewitness," which features first-hand accounts of jazz artists or events as seen from a novel vantage point. Today, pianist Peter Boe [pictured in 1980] writes below of an unusual encounter 32 years ago and what it meant to him...
"Back in 1979, I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Oregon in Eugene. At the time, the jazz-club scene in town was active with many great players. The regulars included alto saxophonist Sonny King and his singer-wife Nancy, among dozens of others. There were plenty of gigs for up-and-coming artists as well as established players.
"The late Steve Wolfe, a tenor saxophonist, also lived in Eugene and was an accomplished player and composer/arranger. In 1979, he decided to put together a band, using me on piano along with a few other local players and Nancy singing. We gigged around town pretty steadily for some months.
"Then Steve managed to land a two-week stretch at Michael's Pub in New York—the club where Woody Allen's band eventually played weekly. I was elated but then blown away when I learned that the local bass player on the gig would be Reggie Workman—a hero of mine. [Photo of Woody Allen by David McGough]
"In New York, the gig got underway. We were well received and drew great crowds nightly. Straight-ahead jazz was enjoying something of resurgence then, and you could feel the energy that young people had for the music.
"Three days into the gig, I gained control over my jitters. It was an emotionally charged experience to play in New York, at Michael's Pub, with Reggie Workman. But I soon felt loose, the band was swinging, and Reggie was a dream. His playing was (and remains) like water flowing over smooth stones. [Photo of Reggie Workman by Brian McMillen]
"To top off the whole experience, we received a review in The New York Times by critic John S. Wilson—a very positive one, in fact. He even mentioned me by name! What a thrill. I felt confident, my playing was effortless, and we were in New York.
"On the third night, after a break, we returned to the stage for our final set. As the other musicians settled in before resuming, I shuffled some charts and glanced off to my right. And I froze. I slowly looked to my right again and tried to focus through the lights without staring.
"There, sitting five feet to my right in the second row was Bill Evans—the pianist whose recordings had done more to influence me than any other artist, the man I had listened to alone in my room late at night in the dark, the pianist who, in my youthful enthusiasm I had tried to emulate.
"My immediate reaction was throat-tightening, palm-sweating fear. How could I play with Bill Evans sitting so close, I remember thinking. He was going to hear every nuance, every clam [mistake] and all of my nerves. Not a good place to be emotionally when you're about to start playing.
"But I had to do it. What was I going to do? Walk away? Steve Wolfe counted off the first number, and we hit it. My memory of those first few tunes is dim. I played without thinking—at least not about what I was playing.
"I do remember that right after the second tune, I got up the nerve to glance over to my right again. I could see Bill smiling broadly and applauding. I couldn't believe it. His reaction gave me a great feeling, and I calmed down considerably.
"The rest of the set went off without a hitch, and I played reasonably well for the duration. Bill stayed through the entire set. Frankly, I don't know what I would have done if I had looked over and he had left. I'm sure I may have reconsidered my career.
"After the set, I went to the bar and ordered a drink. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed that someone tall was nearing me. When I looked up, it was Bill. He introduced himself. I told him I knew who he was and how much he meant to me. He was humble and, in a soft voice, said he was happy to hear that. He was totally affable, and there was a calmness and warmth about him that was reassuring.
"We spent the next hour talking about jazz in general and the New York scene specifically. Of course, I had many questions about specific records, and we even talked about some of his chord-voicing principles. I felt like the most important musician in New York during that hour.
"I asked him how he came to use his trademark rootless left-hand voicings to such a great extent. He told me he eventually realized that playing the root of a chord on the piano was generally superfluous, as the bass player typically had that covered. He said that even when the bass player wasn't playing the root, the listener's ear had a preternatural ability to fill it in. Instead, he said, he began to abandon the skeletal root-7 left hand approach of Bud Powell and concentrated on the upper color tones of the chord. All inside stuff that's the language of musicians.
"Eventually Bill said he had to take off. But before he left, he grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote down his phone number. He asked me to call him to hang out. I secretly hoped this also would include a lesson. Bill also said he was leaving the next day for a series of out-of-town dates and would not return for a couple of weeks. I realized I would be long gone by then, back to Eugene. But I promised to ring him up the next time I was in town. [Photo, from left, of Bill Evans, Francis Paudras and bassist Marc Johnson in Lyon, France, in 1980, courtesy of the Bill Evans tribute site in the Netherlands]
"Sadly, Bill died before I could make it back to New York for our hang [Evans died on Sept. 15, 1980]. When I heard of his passing, I was devastated, like so many other fans and musicians. I still miss him and his music terribly as well as my lost opportunity for a visit.
"I'll never know if I was really as good as Bill Evans told me I was that night at Michael’s Pub. Maybe he was just trying to be nice. Or maybe he saw in me a sensitive person who was trying to break through. What I will remember is Bill's kindness, the enormous feeling of confidence he gave me, and the extension of friendship that continues in my heart to this day. In a box in my room, I still have his phone number on that scrap of paper.
"In the years that followed, my career in music continued. In early '81, I had an offer from my good friend and blues guitarist-singer Robert Cray. He asked me to take the piano chair in his band. I jumped at the chance. This led to a 10-year stint with Robert. While it didn't require much of me musically, it turned out to be a good move. I won two Grammy Awards while with the band and toured the world a dozen or so times. [Photo, from left, of Grammy winners Dave Olsen, Peter Boe, Robert Cray and Richard Cousins by Chuck Pulin]
"After leaving the Robert Cray Band in '91, I moved to Portland, Ore., where I reside today. I play many local and regional gigs, and have started a series at Portland's top jazz club, Jimmy Mak's. It's called East Meets West Meets East, in which my New York City rhythm section (bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Sylvia Cuenca) and I invite a top artist to appear with us. So far, Eddie Henderson and Lew Tabackin have been guests.
"The series is going very well. All shows sell out, and my intention is to build the series into a regular local event. I also do a great deal of studio session work on a freelance basis, and teach privately. I feel quite fortunate—I've never had to work outside of the music field, which, in the music business must be counted as a blessing. [Pictured from left, earlier this year, drummer Mel Brown, Peter Boe and bassist Chuck Israels]
"I think Bill Evans would be happy with how things turned out."
Want more JazzWax Eyewitness? Go to JazzWax and scroll down the right-hand side to the "Eyewitness" heading. You can access others in this series by clicking on the links.
JazzWax clip: Here's Peter Boe earlier this summer playing Bill Evans Very Early...