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The Surprising Influence of J.S. Bach on Jazz Great Bill Evans

Thinking about the legacy of jazz pianist Bill Evans, you might be surprised to know that some cool cats named Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and—especially—Johann Sebastian Bach helped shape his sound.

His sound captured Miles Davis, who asked him to play on the ground-breaking album, Kind of Blue.

Evans became one of the most creative minds in jazz, admired for his innovations, versatility, and intense expressive power at the keyboard. His jazz influences were many. But it was his deep study of classical music that set him apart. WRTI’s Debra Lew Harder has more.

Radio script:

[MUSIC: “So What,” by Miles Davis, from Kind of Blue, Miles Davis Sextet, Bill Evans, piano]


Debra Lew Harder: Solemn, skinny and bespectacled, pianist Bill Evans was called “The Minister” when he arrived on New York’s jazz scene in the late 1950s. But cool as he didn’t look, his sound captured Miles Davis, who asked him to play on the ground-breaking album Kind of Blue.

Bill Evans went on to become... 

Don Glanden: One of the most profound harmonic minds in jazz. A lot of that came from analyzing and studying classical music.

DLH: Jazz professor Don Glanden, Head of Jazz Studies at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia.

[MUSIC: “Peace Piece,” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans,  Bill Evans, piano]


DLH: Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg... 


DG: One of the amazing things was the range of classical composers he would cite as influences. Primary among them was Bach. He advocated, “You can never play enough Bach.”


[MUSIC:  “Fugue in B Major” from Prelude and Fugue Nr. 23 from The Well-Tempered Clavier Bk 1, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Bill Evans, piano, in practice session.]


DLH: Bill Evans’ jazz innovations  came from a deep study of classical music, but…


DG: You can’t forget his major influence was jazz. He understood all the different kinds of nuances that go into the jazz vocabulary. He could definitely swing…

[MUSIC: “One For Helen,” from Bill Evans At the Montreux Jazz Festival, Bill Evans, piano; Eddie Gómez, bass; Jack deJohnette, drums]

DLH: Evans’ mastery of both languages allowed him expressive freedom.

DG: He ended up with something he had complete control over, and could infuse this extraordinary level of emotional depth in everything he did.

[MUSIC: “I Loves You Porgy,” by George and Ira Gershwin, from The Paris Album, Bill Evans, piano]

Special thanks to WRTI's Bob Craig for his contributions to this story.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.