'First Comes Bach. After that, Bill Evans.'
John Robert Brown

I'm standing in a restaurant queue in California. My companion nods towards the guy in front of us and enquires: "Do you know Chuck Israels?" For all of five seconds I can't believe that this is the Chuck Israels, legendary bass player, excellent columnist, and arranger for the National Jazz Ensemble.

The man to whom I'm being introduced looks to be in his early fifties, far too young to have played bass with Bill Evans more than forty years ago. And, like many people that we only know from photographs, he doesn't look as tall as I'd expected.

Then I remember the context. Haven't I just passed Eddie Daniels and Steve Turre in the hotel lobby? Isn't that Loren Schoenberg over there? And Bob Mintzer? I'm surrounded by eminent jazz musicians. This is the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) convention in Long Beach. My neighbour in the line really is Chuck Israels. He's with his wife, the elegant soprano Margot Hanson. I'm thrilled to be invited to join them at their table for lunch. Chuck enquires about British musicians he has worked with in the past: Ray Premru, Alfie Reese, Victor Lewis.

Later, he agrees to share his thoughts on tape. What are you doing at the moment?
'I come to the IAJE because things happen like this. I meet interesting people, with or without a job to do here, or an official role. A large percentage of the value of this kind of a convention is the casual conversations and meetings.

Margot and I have come for many, many years. I wish that some of the planned events were more interesting, and run by people who knew more. I went to one the other day about the music of Bud Powell. The guy made Bud Powell's music boring! That was some trick. It wasn't that he didn't love the music, or wasn't serious about it. It was just that he was not a good presenter of the information that he had. You need not only to be a scholar but you need to be a communicator.'

Some of the teaching is more demonstration than insight?
'The people who rise to prominence in organisations like the IAJE are most often those people who went to school, studied something, because they were interested and passionate about it, and then because they were not the most imaginative and most confident people, instead of going from school out into the world, put themselves back into school and studied some more. That's the graduate school.
Those that didn't then jump out in to the world to do something, went further on, to get doctorates. These are some of the least imaginative folks. Not necessarily bad people, certainly not uneducated people, but people who have not been at the highest level of ability, or they didn't have great ambition or self-confidence. And these are, by and large, the people who go from school back into school. They become administrators and find their way up in the world through bureaucratic positions in education, or in institutions that are associated with education, as this one is. You get to know some of them, and you say, 'Well, that's not a bad fellow after all.'
Really, they're not bad people. But the overall effect, of having people of this ilk designing the organisation, is that it becomes a club for self-aggrandisement of those folk. And as an ancillary thing, other good things happen besides that. It's not the only thing.'

What are you doing now?
'Since the National Jazz Ensemble, which became a passionate activity of mine for nine or ten years, from about 1972 until 1980/81, we've lived on the West Coast and I've been geographically disconnected from my roots and from what used to be my daily activities and connections with people. But I haven't stopped being interested in music. I've just become more of an organiser of music, or an organiser of the instructions for music, putting them on the page in such a way that I get to be the control freak that people appreciate. I've become more and more interested in how music is put together. When I left Bill Evans in 1966, my intention was to become musically powerful enough to control my own musical world, to remove my dependence on him for that kind of music. I could make a certain kind of good music with other people and by myself. But the kind of music we were making together depended on his knowledge, his musical development, which was extraordinarily sophisticated, perhaps even more sophisticated than he knew. I knew it was sophisticated. I knew that I only really knew how to do one part of it. But I knew how to fit my musical personality and my part into that in an integral way that was enormously satisfying to me.'

How did the Bill Evans Trio come about? How did you meet?
'When I was at Brandeis University in 1957, there was a concert that was organised by Gunther Schuller that had a small jazz orchestra of guys who could play jazz and read music very well. They had three classical composers and three jazz composers, who wrote music for this. They came to Brandeis [Brandeis is located 10 miles from Boston],stayed for two weeks, rehearsing, and finally put on this concert. I was a student there, part of a trio with a wonderful pianist, Steve Kuhn, and a great drummer who later worked with me and Bill Evans, named Arnie Wise - an Englishman, actually, from Golders Green. Arnie was a student at Massachusetts School of Art, Steve was at Harvard. I conspired to put ourselves in a position where those musicians who were there rehearsing and working would accidentally stumble upon us, and hear us play.
In 1957 I was 21. Steve was a year or two younger, Arnie maybe a year older. We were already at professional level, a thoroughly professional jazz trio. There was no jazz in colleges, so this was a thoroughly unexpected event for these visitors - to come into the area where they would get food in between rehearsals and hear three kids playing. Their jaws dropped, and every one of those people became friends and mentors to us. And Bill Evans was one of those guys. With Joe Benjamin, Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, Barry Galbraith, they were the hired guns from New York who were there to play a Milton Babbitt piece, a Jimmy Guiffre piece, a Charlie Mingus piece.
Charlie, this bear of a guy who frightened many people, who came upon me as the little white Jewish kid playing the bass, was always a big teddy bear to me, always so sweet. I just think he liked me. The incongruity of it must have charmed him in some way. Here's a guy who doesn't look like him, from a different background, playing a music that at least he could respect and enjoy. This occasionally violent and frightening guy was never that way to me at all. Not remotely. He was just a sweet guy to me.
George Russell was one of the composers. I worked for George. I am grateful to him for picking me up a couple of years later from relative obscurity and pulling me into New York in his original sextet. That was a big entrée into the professional scene in New York. He needed my contribution, and that was lucky. I suppose it was lucky for him too, but I see it as lucky for me. John Lewis told me at that time, 'People don't do you favours, Chuck. They hire you because they need you.' There is a certain truth in that. I was thinking, 'Oh, I'm so grateful.' I don't want to make too much of a self-aggrandising thing about that. There were probably plenty of other people who could have done it, but I was the one he knew. And through that experience, and meeting Joe Benjamin, who was the bass player in that group of people at Brandeis, I had a lot of opportunities to play in New York, and to be sent on jobs as a sub for Joe.'
'And that's where our conversation started an hour ago, asking about British musicians with whom I worked in the pit orchestra of Shaftesbury Theatre in 1960. Joe Benjamin sent me on this job playing with the Jerome Robbins Ballet company, that had some jazzy pieces in the score that required the participation of jazz musicians in the orchestra. There were six of us, who travelled all over Europe that summer. It's funny, because I don't remember players from the other countries - from Copenhagen, Stockholm, Spoleto, Berlin, the Gartnerplatz Theatre in Munich. Nureyev defected to our dance company while we were in Paris at Le Théâtre de la Gaité. I also got to know the British jazz musicians on the scene who were not in the pit: Bobby Wellins, Kenny Napper, Phil Seamen, Stan Tracy - I knew those guys. Then, shortly after that, I came back with Bill Evans, and we played at Ronnie Scott's Club, when it was down in the basement at Gerrard Street. That was when I met Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and I had the great pleasure of going to rehearsals of Not Only But Also, out at Shepherd's Bush, watching these zany guys. I visited Dudley a couple of times, at a house next to Hampstead Heath. He was married to Suzy Kendal at the time.'

How was Bill Evans as a musical colleague?
'He was non-verbal. Not because Bill wasn't verbal. He was a literate, expressive person when he needed to be. But the musical communication took place in two ways: small, hand-written lead sheets, with an occasional bass note or rhythmic indication - and playing. That's it! Not a single other instruction. Not 'do this', 'don't do this', 'play here', 'lay out here'. All of that happened through how we played. All of the discussion of what should or should not happen in the music happened through the music itself. Something that may be a little bit difficult to describe if you've never had that kind of experience. But it is possible for someone to play in such a way that you know how to play with him.'

What of chord substitutions, alterations, doing it differently some nights?
'It wasn't really done differently night to night. It was carefully arranged music, worked out. Something which escapes the understanding and attention of many people who believe that they are using that as an aesthetic model. It was terrifically organised music. Bill organised it. His organisation was so solid, and so decided and decisive, that it was possible to modify it - within limits - without breaking it, because it was already so strong. So the modifications that happened were those elements that gave it its momentary spontaneity. Red Mitchell once said, 'There's nothing so well prepared as a great spontaneous performance.' Bill's music was superbly prepared. And I just fitted in to that preparation, as did Paul Motian, Larry Bunker, Arnie Wise, whoever played drums. Those were the three guys who played drums when I was with him, in that order. All of them great.
If I wanted to modify the music either by intention or error, the music was so strong that I couldn't break it, so it would just simply acquire a slightly different character for one moment or another. And that was enough to surprise us and stimulate us. Those small accidents were enough to keep us awake.
Improvisation works most successfully when only one element at a time is really loose. The idea of group improvisation is not a terribly successful one, unless the roles are limited. At that point it's not really group improvisation. It's: 'You improvise this little element of it, and make sure you take care of this element.' You have some freedom in that, but if you break out of that element at an inappropriate moment, you break the fabric of the overall design of the piece. Then it doesn't work.
So, while I'm all for spontaneity, and I believe both in actual spontaneity and the illusion thereof as a necessary element in life and in communication, I don't believe that it works very well with form. It works with embellishment. That's what I'm actually doing now. I'm telling a story, and Margot is sitting here listening to me speak for the umpty-umpth time...'

...and it sounds spontaneous to me.
'Yes. There is a spontaneous element about it, of course. But if I hadn't thought this through how many hundreds of times, and awakened in the middle of the night dealing with these aesthetic questions, who could make this stuff up?
So, Bill's trio was terrifically clever in disguising its organisation, but it was very organised.'

Did you have any freedom?
'Some of the changes that I did make...We'd come to the end of a piece, and it was a piece of a certain character, and there'd be silence. I'd be waiting, and maybe looking at Bill, or maybe NOT looking at him, knowing intuitively that he's thinking, 'What'll we play next?' It got to the point, quite soon, after we'd worked together for a year or so, that I'd know what ought to come next. Out of our repertoire of maybe thirty pieces, three or four of them would make appropriate segues from what we just did. I would start one of them. 'Okay, let's do this.' And what had in the past started with a piano introduction started with the bass playing a little bit of the tune. So the arrangement would change slightly. Maybe I would play the theme. Then Bill would play what he used for the introduction, and that became an interlude. It was that kind of flexibility that you might think of as being a big formal change, that really wasn't a change in the system in how we approached the form of the tune. That was all worked out by Bill, well in advance, very carefully.
I am still following in those footsteps, having now learned more or less how the aesthetic system of his harmony was constructed. Why did this sound happen at this place, and this sound at this place? How did the tensions and releases push the music forward in a particular way?
A few people find that compelling. I know that Dave Berger feels the same way. He writes music that's quite different from mine in many ways. Both of us think that in the example of how bass notes and melodies work, first comes Bach and after that Bill Evans. Bill Evans is not less than Bach in that particular respect.'

In the matter of driving things forward...
' ...and in the relationships of the outer voices. There's less polyphony in Bill, but the outside voices, they're just as good in Bill as they are in Bach. That's pretty remarkable. And I broke the code.'

Inevitably, I ask about Chuck's bass.
'Almost any decently set up bass that I played on I would sound like me. I'm sorry I sold the bass that I was playing with Bill, a 200 year-old Italian bass, bought from Bruno Martinelli, a bassist in the Udine Symphony, which was in Spoleto when I was there in 1961. I believe that instrument is now in use in the LA Philharmonic.

I now play a French flat-back bass, viol-shaped, of which one can find many similar examples from the 1880s. A Mirecourt, France, instrument. I don't think it's a Barbe, but it's a Barbe style.
Jacques Barbe was one of the famous makers from that period. It's a little less deep than the basses I used to use, a little more baritone, but tremendously quick-speaking. You don't have to force the sound out of it. You kind of look at it and it's ready to play.
What jazz players play are basses used as big bass guitars. The note has got to have the correct useful proportion of explosive percussion at the beginning, then enough sustain to carry some kind of lyrical quality onto the next note.

Different strings will do this differently. For many many years I switched to metal strings, which sustain very well. Different brands do different jobs. I used to use Thomastik Spirocores most of the time. They had a nice whine to them, enough upper partials in the sound to cut through, so you could hear the pitch and enough weight in the sound so that you could have a good rhythmic impulse. Recently I switched to a brand of Pirastro string, called Obligatos, which have a synthetic core. In the past, attempts to make strings of synthetic material have resulted in strings that were too flabby and didn't have enough tension and resistance to give the sound weight. So I would try some, and go back to the metal strings, and say, 'All things considered, this is the best compromise, although, boy, they hurt my hands, and they're hard to hold down, and they're like steel cables,' and all that. Plus, what you gain in drive you may lose in warmth. Well, now, these have a hit a nice happy medium. The have enough weight, they have enough tension, but are a little bit softer and supple under the fingers than the entirely steel strings. And they have a beautiful smooth steel wrapping around them so that they look like the steel strings. I think Mike Moore is using them, too.'

Conventional tuning?
'You're telling me. Fancy bass playing was never interesting to me. At the time that I started in this business with Bill, I realised that what I was doing was looked upon as relatively fancy compared to a lot of the traditional playing, but it really wasn't all that fancy. My interest was not in making this heavy-voiced instrument do acrobatics that are more attractive in lighter-sounding instruments, and in another register. The French horn: it is possible to play the French Horn lightly, and with agility, and it's quite charming when you can do it, but the big thing about that instrument is its weight. I think of the bass in the same way.'

What has evolved from the style of the Bill Evans Trio. Do you think people have misconstrued it?
'We are not having a conversation now. I'm talking. We have had a conversation, over lunch. At no time did the two of us babble at each other at the same time. That isn't very informative, or much fun. Many people have heard the texture of the Bill Evans Trio and misconstrued it as three people playing at once. Talking at once, three people occupying the same musical space.
They have misheard it. It wasn't that. There were roles. There were ways of decorating the job of playing the bass, but remaining in a subsidiary role. There were ways of decorating the job of playing the propulsive rhythms on the drums, but remaining in a relationship to the bass or the piano. I have heard a number of jazz groups in which the bass players and drummers simply play everything that they know all the time. It makes miserable music, to my ears. I was a judge at the Martial Solal competition four or five years ago. Every time I heard another piano player come out and compete, he was not only competing against the other piano players, he was competing against his accompaniment. But they all seem to accept it, as if this was normal. It has become à la mode to play that way. I can't listen to it. I really think polyphony is best accomplished beautifully by one mind. It is possible to have a duet, maybe even a trio, but you must have really mature musicians doing that, and they must tacitly agree to do only their portion of the job. It doesn't seem to be easy for people to do that.'

Chuck Israels' 'conversation' analogy is especially appropriate today, here in Long Beach. I didn't want a conversation; I could have listened to his opinions and anecdotes all afternoon.

View Chuck Israel on

Bill Evans Trio, with Chuck Israels, Waltz for Debby, 1965

First published in Jazz Review, May 2005. Used by permission.

Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb