Guest Column: Meeting Bill Evans
We haven’t had a guest column in a while, but here’s one that came in recently. I will let it speak for itself:
How I met Bill Evans…
First let me introduce myself… I am Mervyn de Gannes from Trinidad & Tobago. Born in the 1920’s, I am the third child in a family of seven kids and the first born boy. In those days, there was a piano in most homes and the girls always took lessons to learn to play. Even at the age of ten when the tutor came to our home, I would be listening in, and whenever my sisters were practicing and played anything incorrectly, I would let them know what they were ‘playing wrong’. Obviously this didn’t go over well with them as I never took lessons. By my late teenage years, by just listening to records and playing by ear, I was performing at friends’ parties until I got married at 26. My idols then were Bill Evans along with Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson.
I was well entrenched in the jazz scene in Trinidad and when Dave Brubeck and his group came to town in 1959, I met Dave, Joe Morello, Paul Desmond, and a couple others whose names escape me now, when I was engaged to carry them to different venues, etc. Joe Morello inspired me to learn to play the drums, so I bought a Ludwig drum set. A few years later I joined Arthur Winter’s big band ‘The Big Sound’ (a local band) as the drummer.
In late 1959, thanks to my lovely wife’s creativity, we won a trip to Denmark for two weeks. It was described as “A millionaire for 2 weeks”. The competition was held by Jaka, a manufacturer of processed meats based in Denmark. Back then, we did not have direct flights for trips like that, so from Trinidad, we flew to Caracas, then had to overnight in New York, then another overnighter in London and then on to Copenhagen for the rest of the 2 weeks. When we arrived in New York, we were booked at the Waldorf Astoria for the night and the Jaka representatives met us and took us to dinner at Basin Street East. We arrived to a packed house and a trio was just coming on stage. One of them looked vaguely familiar and I asked who he was …… Bill Evans! My heart thundering, I told the Jaka reps that I ‘HAD’ to get a seat near the stage. As fate would have it, the table right near Bill’s seat was vacated so I got my wish. My chair was practically ‘under the piano’, it was that close. My wife tells me I only ate one mouthful of food that night. I was excited, nervous and completely star-struck that night. When Bill asked for requests, I shouted “Waltz for Debby”, he looked at me and smiled. After his session, I got the opportunity to speak to him and he seemed impressed that I was from somewhere so far away and still knew who he was. Our hosts then took us to Birdland and who should come in while we were there? Bill Evans of course! He looked at me and said “You again huh?”
That night would forever stay with me. So much so, that in July 1962 my wife and I made another trip to New York, this time under our own steam. We stayed at the Henry Hudson Hotel and on our first evening, we visited to Birdland and Village Vanguard. And there was Bill Evans playing, or trying to play. The dinner audience was so loud, he could hardly be heard. I was incensed at this! Afterward, an Irish band came on singing some $#&% and everyone applauded and cheered. Damn idiots! Anyway, Bill remembered me as the guy from Trinidad.
The next night, I went to the Village Vanguard again. And just as I was entering, Bill’s band was also coming in, and he told the guy at the door “He’s with us.” So I got in for free. I was even invited to sit with him on the piano stool and just soaked in the music. That was a time I will never forget. In the 1970’s, I had heard about him becoming addicted to drugs, etc. so I wrote to him (I must have gotten his address at some point) and invited him to visit Trinidad for a vacation. He very generously replied in a lovely letter dated 14th July 1974. Here is his letter to me. It reads:
Thanks for your warm note and the invitation! It sounds like a bit of heaven, but I’m afraid it is impossible for me to come now. First I am booked solid from end July to Sept and secondly I have a wife and daughter (7) to consider now. However, it is most generous of you to extend such an attractive invitation.
We did a tour of S. Amer last year and if it happens again, a visit or a concert or both might be arranged. I’ll contact you in that event.
Meanwhile – thanks again.
The address on the envelope is 2265 Edsall Ave., Bronx, NY 10463
I still have the letter and envelope in a picture album and will always treasure it! That said, my daughter read in one of your blogs that a letter from Bill to Coltrane sold for $18,000! Wow! I can’t imagine that my letter would cost anything as close but I would be curious to know what you think.
Keep up the love of jazz and keep spreading it around.
Mervyn de Gannes.