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By Bob Weinberg Jazz and blues. Blues and jazz. These bastard sons of the same mother have become so intertwined they're often taken for one another. Once was a time, not long ago, record sellers and radio charts made no distinction between the two. New Times puts blues and jazz under one heading in "Clubs" listings. Jazz Gillum was an important blues player, Blue Mitchell an important jazz man. Seminal figures from Louis Armstrong to Louis Jordan, from Billie Holiday to Billy Eckstine, can lay claim to both titles. Yet as these musics have grown up side by side, the lines of demarcation have been more clearly drawn: You listen to Miles Davis, that's jazz. You listen to Robert Johnson, that's blues. Right?
Jazz is the music of the city, blues of the country. Jazz is about improvisation, blues is about expression. Jazz is art, blues is a folk idiom. Jazz is the music of sophistication, blues the music of slavery.
There are kernels of truth to all of these assertions, but not much more. Popping some of this corn on Wednesday and Thursday at the Riverside Hotel: St. Petersburg-based pianist William Evans, with a program named for one of his compositions, "Variations of Blue." Evans's song, as well as the set -- standards with a few originals mixed in -- traces the downhome roots of jazz, with the help of South Florida musicians Pete Minger (trumpet and flugelhorn), Don Coffman (bass), and Steve Bagby (drums).
You may have seen Evans alongside South Florida's own first lady of jazz, Alice Day, or maybe when he played the Gusman with Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria, the thrill of a lifetime says the ivory-crasher. "It was unbelievable, man," he says with unrestrained awe. "And both of those cats were so nice to me. One of the highlights was at the first rehearsal, Dizzy coming over to me and asking once again what my name was. And then he says [imitating Dizzy's soft rasp], 'Hey, young man, I want to show you something.' And he sits down at the piano and shows me this tune that Marilyn Monroe sang in some film, 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy.' And I was just floored. Just the fact that Dizzy Gillespie is sitting at the piano showing me a song! Man! And after that, he really did remember my name. After the second show in Ft. Myers, he said, 'Young man, I sho' had fun.'" Evans cracks up at this cherished memory. "You know," he continues, "cats like that, they really got the blues in 'em."
Blues, Evans contends, is at the root of much jazz composition, as a takeoff point, an anchor. It was for "Variations," he explains: "It has some different kind of moves that you don't have [in straight blues]. It's kind of like an illustration of how jazz and blues go together, how they mix, you know."
Evans describes blues as a dialect with a specific vocabulary, one not easily copped by those who didn't grow up around it. Coming up in Detroit, Evans was exposed to many people A particularly those of his parents' generation A who had migrated from the South and imparted that feeling and form of expression to him. And as with many African-American musicians, his career started in church. But his ears were truly opened when he began college at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Prior to that I'd listen to a lot of classical and gospel A conventional piano music. But then I started to hear more blues and jazz, and that helped me a lot. But the feeling for that style, it's always been there. But you can only find it in certain places. It's not everywhere." When asked about Florida, he chuckles. "Even though Florida is the South, it's not as present here."
All the jazz greats -- even the most groundbreaking artists, such as Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Ornette Coleman -- recognized their strong link to the blues of their enslaved and oppressed ancestors. "When jazz players play the blues," Evans explains, "harmonically and rhythmically they extend way off, almost like they start to fly or something. Whereas straight blues players, like Muddy Waters, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, harmonically they stay inside a little bit more, and go almost more from a gut kind of thing. It's a heavy thing. Spiritually, what they do is every bit as valid as the great jazz players like Coltrane. Some of it, actually, is quite sophisticated."
And learning the roots, says Evans, is all-important. He likens the development of jazz players to passengers boarding a train. "Some people get on at the front of the train, but they have to check out the whole thing. So if you come in where you're into this real modern thing right off the bat, and if you're really big on fundamentals, at some point you're going to have to go back and check out bebop and swing. I kind of started in the middle, maybe around postbop. But I did my homework."
That preparation has paid off for the pianoman who's much in demand throughout Europe, where he tours each year and is currently shopping around recordings in solo, trio, quartet, and quintet formats. After performing with the quartet at the Riverside, Evans will share his knowledge with University of Miami masters' class students, both in performance and in a question-and-answer session. And in addition to setting students straight about the technical and business aspects of the profession, Evans will, at least in attitude, remind them of the importance of looking back as well as forward, to the humble beginnings of one of America's greatest legacies.
"The tradition of the blues is so strong," Evans re-emphasizes. "You cannot deny the influence of the blues, because it's something that comes from the way that we lived. It's spiritual. You cannot deny history. No one can."
William Evans performs at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Riverside Hotel, 620 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 524-0805. Tickets cost $15.