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Ambassador of Jazz

Bridging Cultural Thresholds One Song at a Time



“Jazz is just another language,” says twice-Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist, songwriter, and composer, Bill Evans. “You put together small phrases, sentences, in order to say something that makes sense. I am always trying to say more on my instrument.”

Evans has been saying more with his band, touring around the world, and in this country for three decades. Six months of the year he is on tour with his five-member ensemble he calls “soulgrass;” they go regularly to Japan, have toured Russia and Siberia multiple times, have fans throughout Europe and South America, and play in clubs, concert halls, and jazz festivals. They have made 21 recordings, with Evans as leader. He also performs with other bands and has played with Miles Davis, the Allman Brothers, John McLaughlin, and many others. He is among the most sought-after saxophone players in the business, and Miles Davis, with whom he played for four years, pronounced him “one of the greatest musicians I have come upon.” Evans was only 21 when Davis hired him to play in his band.

The saxophone, or “sax”, was created in the 1840s by a Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, who aimed for a woodwind with the agility of a clarinet but the projection of a brass horn. He made models ranging from soprano to bass, and Evans plays the tenor sax (bent), but also the soprano (straight), as well as the piano. As a boy in his native Illinois, he started on the clarinet, but quickly he switched to the saxophone, “because it was a sound I really connected with,” says Evans. “Then I met Stan Getz when I was 13 at the London House “Jazz is just another language,” says twice-Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist, songwriter, and composer, Bill Evans. “You put together small phrases, sentences, in order to say something that makes sense. I am always trying to say more on my instrument.”

Evans has been saying more with his band, touring around the world, and in this country for three decades. Six months of the year he is on tour with his five-member ensemble he calls “soulgrass;” they go regularly to Japan, have toured Russia and Siberia multiple times, have fans throughout Europe and South America, and play in clubs, concert halls, and jazz festivals. They have made 21 recordings, with Evans as leader. He also performs with other bands and has played with Miles Davis, the Allman Brothers, John McLaughlin, and many others. He is among the most sought-after saxophone players in the business, and Miles Davis, with whom he played for four years, pronounced him “one of the greatest musicians I have come upon.” Evans was only 21 when Davis hired him to play in his band.

The saxophone, or “sax”, was created in the 1840s by a Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, who aimed for a woodwind with the agility of a clarinet but the projection of a brass horn. He made models ranging from soprano to bass, and Evans plays the tenor sax (bent), but also the soprano (straight), as well as the piano. As a boy in his native Illinois, he started on the clarinet, but quickly he switched to the saxophone, “because it was a sound I really connected with,” says Evans. “Then I met Stan Getz when I was 13 at the London House Jazz Club in Chicago, and there was no turning back.”

Evans says he likes to play music that inspires him, much of which he composes himself. Be it straight jazz, bebop, funk, soul, Americana, or bluegrass, he is comfortable in all genres and likes to combine them. He also likes to infuse his music with the sound of traditional American instruments, such as the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar, hence “soulgrass.” When he is holed up in his studio in North Salem, where he lives with his wife, Rebecca Hale (an expert in antique and racing cars), he gets his inspiration from imagining what a song will sound like before an audience. What really drives him, though, in his words, “is that music has no boundaries. Whether I’m playing in Irkutsk, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, or Fairfield, people are familiar with the music and react to our playing in the same way. American jazz binds the world together, and we are its ambassadors.”

Nothing makes him happier than seeing smiling faces in his audience, and he is a master at putting his listeners at ease. Abroad, before beginning to play, he says a few phrases in the local language (“Hello, so happy to be here!”) from a phonetically written crib sheet, and then continues in English to tell them about the newest songs the band will play for them. Sometimes, he goes off script—to good effect. 

Last year, on a U.S State Department-sponsored tour, his ensemble was asked to perform at the American ambassador’s residence in Moscow before an audience of high-ranking American and Kremlin officials. After his usual introduction, Evans continued: “I am not that interested in politics but I understand people, and I have observed that they are much the same around the world, have the same concerns, they want to provide for their families and be happy. People in Russia are very nice, we have had a wonderful time, and this is what it is all about. It is politicians who create the differences.” There were smiles all around, and Evans has been invited back. 

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