Did Bill Evans have perfect pitch?

In his very interesting book À chacun sa créativité (Éd. Odile Jacob, Paris, 2010), Jean Cottraux, a French psychiatrist, claims that Bill Evans did not possess perfect pitch.

“One can be a great musician without perfect pitch. This was the case of Wagner, Schumann and Bill Evans […]”

Intrigued by his remark, I sent him a letter through his publishing house. Here’s an excerpt:

I am a teacher in the Bill Evans Piano Academy and former disciple of the pianist Bernard Maury, who was a close friend of Bill Evans in the 70’s. Fifteen years ago, during a class, a student asked Bernard if, to his knowledge, Bill Evans had perfect pitch; his only answer was, “I think.” We understood that he had never actually asked him.

Thus, I’d be particularly keen to know the text or testimony that allows you to say that Evans had “only” relative pitch. This information seems interesting to me.”

In other words, what are your sources? […]

A Courteous and rather warm response from Jean Cottraux few weeks later (which I transcribe partially):

Indeed this is an important issue because absolute pitch is not a guarantee of musical talent. As far as Bill Evans is concerned, my source is Alain Gerber. I enclose the pages that show how Bill Evans compensated for the lack of perfect pitch by sight reading and deep understanding of harmony.

Here are the excerpts, taken from Bill Evans (Alain Gerber, Fayard, Paris, 2001).

“[Bill Evans] has often repeated that even when he became a professional musician, he suffered from a specific disability due to his difficulty to emulate other pianists.”

He would have liked that imitation was in his nature […] [Thereafter, Bill Evans speaks] “Unlike many people, the ability to listen to something and transcribe it on my keyboard was not natural.”

The rest of the book is just as good (we learn how Bill worked like a madman to successfully emerge with what became his signature style), but that is not the subject of this post.

First, I must confess that I had read the book by Gerber before that of Cottraux and these passages had not struck me. This correspondence was interesting for two reasons. First, because any information or “revelation” about Bill’s life is always interesting (when you are a fan…); and second, because it highlighted one of the major diseases of this century: the sclerosis of critical and independent thinking.

Regarding the absence of perfect pitch (that is to say the faculty to identify a note without any tonal reference), let’s keep in mind that the deductions of Cottraux, as he recognizes himself, are perfectly independent of Bill Evans’s revolutionary language. It’s more of a detail in his creative process. Is that interesting in this case? Yes and no. The perfect pitch remains an object of fantasy, a “superpower” that many musicians would dream to possess. Although very impressive, we must remember that such ear is by no means a promise of artistic success. I had the opportunity to meet all kinds of musicians, for thirty years: some have perfect pitch and are brilliant performers; others hang serious rhythmic deficiencies or suffer a crippling stage fright; others are embarrassed by their ear (!) — but this is rare.

Among those with relative pitch — the vast majority — the categories are as varied: reading specialist (like Pascal Wetzel); amazing sight readers (as was Bill Evans); genius improviser; etc.

The subject has already been much written about, and we can pretty much summarize the different positions by recalling that perfect pitch is just a tool (wonderful, enviable) among others. It is very useful in some contexts, but is not enough to turn a novice into an accomplished instrumentalist … or to “do the job.”

However — and this is where it gets really interesting — many musicians continue to think that, at some level, perfect pitch is inseparable from genius. But if the analysis of Cottraux were true, it would be clear that this unconscious association would lose merit.

Can we consider, in the light of his testimony that Bill Evans was “only” a relative pitcher? Since we do not have any document stating otherwise, clearly and unambiguously, we are reduced to deduction and interpretation.

Here’s my reasoning: all young pianists/perfect pitchers I knew when I was at the conservatory (or later in jazz schools), showed themselves capable, at some stage of their instrumental practice, to reproduce quite easily music they heard. Not all notes, not all the time. But this was a general trend. Based on my experience, the fact that Bill’s ability to listen to something and transcribe it on the keyboard “was not natural,” as he emphasizes, suggests that he had relative pitch.

But the quote could just as well allude to the style of the artist he listened to, the touch, the swing! Moreover, on page 82 of the biography of Gerber, Bill adds: “I was not an imitator: I was not talented enough for that […].” Again, what should we understand? That he was unable to reproduce particular voicings or just to get his inspiration from other pianists? Here, the assumption of a failing inspiration stuck because Bill Evans’s first records are clearly influenced by Lenny Tristano and Bud Powell. So the reference to “imitation” was certainly not of that nature — unless Bill had sinned through an excess of modesty (which no biographer has ever reported).

So our little investigation patiently leads us to the conclusions of Cottraux (augmented by our specific knowledge). Without being definitive, it is quite likely that Bill Evans had relative pitch. (Nonetheless, saying that it is precisely because he was not a perfect pitcher that he developed legendary reading skills seems specious: Many musicians are excellent readers and have perfect pitch.)

For a variety of artists and students, this information will do the effect of a small bomb. Yes, the biggest harmonist 20th century — alongside Clare Fischer — was a person “like the others,” a genius who has created from scratch a unique language by the force of perseverance, self-denial and work. For beginners who still think that, despite their efforts, they do not have sufficient technical and physiological potential, it is excellent news!

www.pianojazzconcept.com

Pianiste, auteur de méthodes d'harmonie (Éd. Outre Mesure, Hal Leonard) et de romans (Éd. Denoël). Professeur à la Bill Evans Piano Academy.