Bob Menzimer on Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby
My dad did two separate stints as a DJ at California’s premiere jazz FM, KJAZ, in the 1970s. As a kid, I loved to hear him talk about it; as I get older, I increasingly appreciate the humor and humanity in his firing from the station: he was let go for trying to unionize its tiny staff.
The music that played in my childhood home was mostly top 40 of the “golden oldies” era, a favorite genre of my dad’s, or else the folk and pop rock of the 1960s that my parents tended to agree on. We never listened to much jazz, nor did my dad talk about it at length, though he did make occasional reference to his favorite players, and every so often I’d hear big band drifting out of his home office.
I’m increasingly interested in the time my dad spent at KJAZ, a unique period in a colorful broadcast career that spanned multiple states and many formats. He agreed to chat with me about one of his favorite jazz records, helping me piece together his relationship to a genre that marries two of his very favorite things: swinging tempos and American pop culture of the 1930s–60s.
In the following interview we discuss Waltz for Debby, one of two records cut from Bill Evans’s legendary 1961 engagement at the Village Vanguard. Enjoy this (cleaned up) transcript of our chat!
Parker Menzimer: I love that you’ve chosen this Bill Evans record. I admire his playing so much. What made you pick Waltz for Debby?
Bob Menzimer: Bill Evans is my favorite jazz pianist and always has been. If you ask me who I really like to listen to, I automatically think of him. And it’s impossible to talk about this album and not talk about the context of it.
This album and at least one other came from some dates at the Village Vanguard in New York, in June of 1961. And that date was significant for a number of reasons. One was that the remarkable young bass player, Scott Lafaro, was killed in a car crash a week or so after these dates were recorded. And so these turned out to be the last dates for that remarkable trio. They were starting to get a lot of notice. Bill Evans had graduated with a music degree in Louisiana, I think. When he moved to New York, he hooked up with Scott on the bass and Paul Motian on the drums.
The other part of the context here is that, you know, a piano trio is just a rhythm section. It’s just a piece of a band. But this trio always seemed like way more than that to me. It wasn’t just piano, bass, and drums. I think they were able to transcend what you might think of as the built-in limitations of a rhythm section. There was no brass at all, and no reeds, yet it’s as full an experience to listen to them as it is to listen to a larger ensemble.
When Scott LaFaro died, they had these recordings from the Village Vanguard and they needed to decide what to do with them. So Bill Evans and his producer, I think it was Orrin Keepnews, decided, for the first album, to choose a bunch of [cuts] that really spotlighted Scott LaFaro’s work [his solos]. On the second album, Waltz for Debby, they spotlighted his bass work more in the context of the whole trio. Bill Evans was really impacted by LaFarro’s death. He had a lot of trouble handling it. He really wanted the spotlight to be on Scott’s playing.
The real question for me is why pick Bill Evans. I always thought his playing reflected the complexity of his ideas and the complexity of his life. He had a lot of trouble in his life. His older brother committed suicide. His first wife committed suicide when he left her to take up with somebody else. He was a heroin addict. And after a really long struggle, he kicked that. But he also had an alcohol problem. And toward the end of his life, he had a coke problem. And so he kicked heroin, but he wasn’t able to kick the other things. He was beset by, I think, a lot of demons. But I mean, he’s a real romantic player [and composer of work like “Peace Piece.”] And he’s in contrast to the jazz that was developing in the 50s, from bebop. The stuff that he was doing was very different.
PM: Evans was in Miles Davis’s sextet for a relatively short time, but I think his compositional style had a huge influence on the sextet. I mean, you know, he’s this pioneering modal player, and Miles was interested in modal playing. They sort of synced up on that. I have to imagine that pieces like Milestones, which is on Waltz for Debby—it’s a Davis composition that’s got Evans all over it. It’s like Davis was speaking Evans’s language and vice versa.
BM: His playing reminds me of a speedboat speeding over the water, barely touching the water. There’s, you know, the water, or the music, spraying out. But [Evans] hardly seems to be touching the water at all. He’s just skimming right over the top. And he’s creating very specific moods. When I listen to Bill Evans I tend to stop, when I can, and just listen in. The way he plays reminds me of an impressionist painting. That playing sounds like an impressionist painting looks. And, it turns out, he was hugely influenced by the French impressionist composers, Satie, and Ravel, and Scriabin. They had a huge influence.
PM: You mentioned “Peace Piece.” To me, that sounds like a Satie composition. I mean, you know, maybe it swings a little, but it’s so classical.
BM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The magic of this trio is that [Evans] had two other players who were really tuned in. They could just read each other’s minds. And not everybody was going to be able to interact with Bill Evans that way, because he has such a distinct way of playing. That’s why there’s not many things that he wrote that anybody else plays. He didn’t write any standards.
And he and Paul Motian together are really remarkable. You know, they’ll do eight-bar trades, and that’ll go on for five minutes before they actually cycle into rest of the piece that they’re gonna play. They’re starting out trading eights with little eight-bar solos, which usually doesn’t happen till you’re halfway through a number, you know, you establish the melody and then you start going off into your improvisations. But they would just jump into that stuff right away.
Paul Motian was perfect for them because he’s a really subtle player. “My Foolish Heart,” which starts Waltz for Debby, is one of my favorite recordings of theirs. If you listen to Paul Motian’s brushwork in that recording, that’s the epitome of how he was able to work within the context of the trio. I always thought the three of them together were like three equal partners. You have the feeling it was three equal partners all working together on “My Foolish Heart.” Bill Evans loved to play American show tunes.
PM: Yeah, there are a couple on this record.
BM: Compare the opening on “Milestones” with the Miles Davis version. That’s Red Garland on piano [on the Davis version], who’s another one of my favorite piano players. It’s interesting to compare the openings on those two recordings.
PM: Can you talk a little bit about the differences?
BM: It’s more like the similarities, but you can hear the differences in the touch on the piano, I think. Red Garland was fast and quick and fluid the way that Bill Evans was, but he’s a little less light on the keyboard. That’s how I’ve always listened to it; he’s a little bit more pronounced. Bill Evans was always able to be noticeable and effective and emotive without a heavy touch on the keyboard. Even when he was doing block chords, he had what seemed to be a lighter touch than a lot of people.
PM: It’s interesting, because you said Paul Motian is a subtle player, but he’s not necessarily known for having a light touch. I mean, he’s an idiosyncratic player. I like his work with Keith Jarrett a lot. But from what I understand, around ’63, Evans asked Motian to pull back a bit. And then they split. He’s got a really distinctive style. He’s got a great, articulate kick drum. He’s got an interesting ride. But I mean, is he subtle? He’s very present.
BM: Yeah, that’s why I always felt that he was an equal partner in [the Bill Evans] trio. He just knew how to play with those guys. He knew when to back off, he knew when to come to the fore a little bit. They all did.
You mentioned Keith Jarrett. There are lots of piano players that were heavily influenced by Bill Evans. Chick Corea was certainly one of them and, and Keith Jarrett as well.
PM: Jarrett took the classical influence even further, right?
BM: Oh, absolutely. There were a lot of people who spun off what Bill Evans was doing. Took it further out. And maybe went in the direction that Bill Evans himself would have gone if he had lived that whole idea of spiritual jazz. A lot of people were going in that direction. And a lot of those people were influenced by Bill Evans. You mentioned Bud Powell. He was a big influence on Bill Evans. So was Lennie Tristano, and I think Horace Silver as well.
The emotion that his playing evokes is just so powerful, but he wasn’t very showy, you know. He had a self-esteem problem. And he was really self-critical all the time.
PM: One of my favorite jazz pianists is Mal Waldron. Talk about anguished playing. The polar opposite of Evans in some ways. He was also classically trained, but by contrast his playing is practically Gothic. Like, these pounding block chords. Just a very different kind of modal player. Pain is expressed differently in the music.
Do you remember the first time you heard Waltz for Debby?
BM: Well, I wasn’t listening to that much jazz in college. I was working at stations that were playing all this other stuff, classical at one station, pop at another, and adult contemporary at another.
When I hit the Bay Area for the first time, and I was working in radio, I thought, “Oh my God, KJAZ is here.” Everybody knew about KJAZ. I was listening to it all the time. I don’t remember when I first heard Bill Evans, but I loved his playing as soon as I heard it.
PM: When you moved to the Bay Area in the early ‘70s, what was KJAZ playing? That’s kind of an interesting time for jazz. Because bop and post bop had happened, and we’re almost in spiritual jazz and fusion territory by the mid ‘70s, right?
BM: It was primarily bop. It was hard bop depending on the time of the day or night. This was all dictated by the owner, by Pat Henry. This was not a station for fusion. When David Braun took over as general manager, he encouraged us to play more fusion because we needed the ratings. Pat hated that shit.
The base just loved West Coast jazz. But there was no smooth jazz. West Coast jazz was fine because Miles was doing it. Cool jazz was a thing, and everybody was embracing it because the bop players were doing it. But fusion, no.
PM: So much had happened in jazz since bop. Did you feel like it was a dated genre in some ways?
BM: You know, even when there were other genres that were coming out, and other styles of jazz, there was still plenty of bop being produced. The bop pioneers were still alive and still recording. So there were new albums coming out all the time by all these mainstays in bop. Coltrane was recording. Miles was recording. Dizzy was recording. They were all recording. There was plenty of that product coming in. So no, at KJAZ bop was not dated at all. It was still a mainstay. It always was.
You walked into the record library in that place, and there were twenty-five thousand albums. Every album you’d ever heard of was there. You could play any of it you wanted any time. And so—that library was the treasure. We were playing stuff that nobody had access to. The station capitalized on that library.
PM: Amazing. I think we’d better wrap this up—it’ll be plenty to transcribe. Thanks dad!