Azure Miles Records ~ The Music of Michael Robinson

Writings About Music by Michael Robinson


A Musical Hypothesis: Liberace
and Bill Evans

Wladziu Valentino Liberace 1919-1987

 

Even though I have no actual proof or evidence of this, it is my belief that Bill Evans was a watcher of Liberace's original television program series. Its also possible that Evans listened to recordings and/or heard Liberace perform live too around the same time and before the television show, but my guess is that Evans heard Liberace mostly from that program. From this experience, I believe Evans derived significant inspiration for the creation of his own artistic vision even though their styles and music are obviously worlds apart. The power of influences are sometimes measured by how well they inspire artists to find an individual pathway as opposed to copying, at times arising from diverse genres (or even fields) rather than the same genre.

Logistically speaking, The Liberace Show began in the summer of 1951 as a replacement for Dinah Shore, with its official beginning in 1952. It quickly became one of the most popular programs on TV, carried by 217 American stations and twenty foreign countries. This time period coincides with Bill Evans being stationed at Fort Sheridan in Illinois during his army service from 1951 to 1954 where he played in the army band. The following year of this formative time for Bill Evans was spent in seclusion living with his parents in New Jersey where he acquired a grand piano to work on his playing.

What Evans experienced from likely viewing The Liberace Show was a classical pianist playing an array of classical compositions with an awareness of Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, Show Tunes, Blues and Latin music, forms that were also a central part of the impetus for Swing and Modern Jazz. At the same time, when Liberace played examples of Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, Show Tunes, Blues and Latin music, he was doing so with the technique and awareness of a classical pianist. There's even an intuitive Nancarrow-like spark related to the player piano. Liberace's repertoire included arrangements that blended classical and popular forms together in an original and disarming manner, at times astonishingly unexpected and subtle. All of this blurred traditional musical borders and boundaries, and that is what most impressed Bill Evans, in my opinion. Simultaneously, I feel its also possible that Dave Brubeck was similarly influenced, but my focus here is on Bill Evans.

My sense is that Bill Evans absorbed the style and innovations presented by Liberace that revealed organic connections between classical and popular forms, and used these influences while building his own pianistic style in the service of musical improvisation. This includes technical considerations of tone, phrasing, attack, articulation, color, texture, equal use of both left and right hands, dynamic shadings, and an obsession with musical clarity of line together with a powerfully irresistible rhythmic drive. Sure, there was a considerable amount of chaff embroidering in what Liberace played, but Evans possessed a mind, ears and soul capable of extracting the artistically nourishing grain kernels, and adding them to his formulating and evolving recipes for new breads, so to speak.

Even though Liberace performed compositions and arrangements with seemingly little actual improvisation, he always played with a sense of enthusiasm and spontaneity that was truly jazz-like, though not actually jazz because he wasn't improvising, not to mention his musical language. I'll never forget the time my piano teacher, Barney Bragin, had me purchase one of Liberace's piano arrangements, and discovering to my dismay that the level of difficulty was out of this world.

While working on this essay, I was pleased to discover online that Dave Frank, who taught jazz piano at Berklee College of Music for nearly twenty years, now with his own teaching studio in Manhattan, includes among his superlative Master Classes one focusing on Liberace, in addition to others focusing on Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker and other giants.

In terms of sheer physical strength, Liberace was known to move his twelve hundred pound grand piano himself when stage hands weren't available. He accomplished this by putting a pillow on his back, crawling underneath the piano, and actually lifting it off the ground a short distance to the requisite spot, a task normally requiring four men.

There's even a mob-related matter concerning Liberace in Las Vegas where he was the original top audience draw, setting the template for later arrivals of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. In 1947, Ben Siegel heard him perform at the Hotel Last Frontier, and asked the pianist to move to his new Flamingo Hotel. Before the deadline came for a nervously conflicted Liberace to make his decision, Siegel was murdered in Beverly Hills for unrelated reasons never definitively solved, and Liberace remained at the Last Frontier, eventually transitioning to the Riviera Hotel.

 



Liberace with Jayne Mansfield

"He was a very flamboyant entertainer. He was Mr. Show Business, Mr. Showman. He was a showman. But he was a great pianist. And a lot of people never realized what a fantastic pianist Liberace was. But he was really a brilliant pianist." - Jerry Weintraub

 

Bill Evans was a true jazz improviser in the sense that he rarely repeated himself, and created fresh, spur of the moment extemporizations, as opposed to playing the same solos over and over. First absorbing pertinent aspects of Liberace's techniques and innovations, Evans then incorporated those chosen methods and concepts into actual musical improvisation in a deeply substantive and original manner. And Evans was fond of pointing out that his improvisational approach was similar to what classical composers like Bach and Beethoven were famous for in addition to their compositions.

 

Bill Evans 1929-1980



Liberace's television program featured a most intimate connection with audiences during performances, and I feel that this also influenced the extraordinary intimacy Bill Evans achieved particularly with his solo recordings and the Conversations With Myself album. Evans also stated that he preferred playing solo over the more common trio setting mostly used during his career. It may be that the famously unforgettable opening of the first track on Conversations With Myself, a stunning jewel-like rendition of Round Midnight, shows most directly Liberace's influence on Evans, stirring French impressionistic accents into a glowing jazz standard.

Both pianists were true Romantics who employed a profound sense of theater with their playing, with Liberace appearing mostly exuberant and extroverted, while Evans went far into the other direction, being a model of removed introspection.

Again, I wish to stress that I believe it was the Liberace of his original television show and earlier recordings and performances that influenced Bill Evans, as opposed to Liberace's later career where theatrical elements were added onto his performances in greater fashion. This coincides with the earlier time in his life whereupon Bill Evans was more susceptible to absorbing influences from other musicians.

Among other musical influences upon Evans, I hear mostly Red Garland in terms of pianistic impressions more than the commonly listed Bud Powell and Nat King Cole. In fact, I feel that Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz were greater influences upon Evans than those latter two pianists. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were two classical composers effecting Evans deeply too, particulary his exquisite chord voicings and textures that were so stunningly original for jazz, articulated with an unmatched sensitivity of touch.

Ever since first hearing Bill Evans on the Ed Beach radio program while in tenth grade, I was astonished by his stark originality and beauty, and perplexed as to how he arrived with such music. With the presentation of my hypothesis regarding the influence of Liberace, I feel a doorway of perception has been opened into a fuller understanding.

Years ago, I myself was guilty of trivializing Liberace when he came up in a conversation with Philip Mealey, a gifted protégé of Earl Wild. Phil immediately corrected me, emphatically stating that professional pianists held deep admiration for Liberace’s technique and artistry.

One of the greatest things about music is the phenomenal variety it affords. Whatever one’s mood might be, there’s a form of music to suit it. And this includes silence, or no music, a concept of Henry David Thoreau adopted rather literally by John Cage some years later.

It was after happening to mention a famous quote from Liberace in the liner notes of a recent album that led me to investigate his music, not expecting much because his reputation seemed to suggest little more than shimmer by way of arpeggios, glissandi and ornamentation. Instead, what I uncovered was a brilliant pianist with both a keyboard and arranging gift of genius. For example, Liberace uncovered an uncanny musical connection between the First Movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Insensatez in one of his solo piano arrangements. Another example is how with devastating humor he was able to perform a piano duet version of Cole Porter's Night and Day with any layperson by having his duet partner simply focus on the repeated note featured prominently in the melody line while he filled in all the rest with great flourish and virtuosity.

In addition to Liberace's remarkably vibrant, full and polished tone quality powered by riveting rhythmic propulsion, he also possessed a superb singing voice making it obvious where the impetus for his vocal-like playing begins.

Listening to and watching Liberace, he had an obsession with piano playing that once more brings to mind Bill Evans. This quality emerges with both pianists even more so than with Glenn Gould. There is a degree of pianistic concentration radiated by Liberace and Evans that seduces listeners almost as much as the music itself. They were both possessed by an obsession with perfection even though their styles are galaxies apart.

I was amused to learn that Liberace was born the same year of 1919 as another Italian American virtuoso pianist, Lennie Tristano, because the two of them represent extreme opposite ends of the piano music spectrum, with Liberace focusing upon being accessible to mainstream audiences while Tristano traversed the outer limits of avant garde austereness. Nonetheless, they shared a perfectionistic obsession with developing their personal musical approach and language towards its fullest potential without compromise, achieving a stunning and unsurpassed clarity of aesthetic vision both technically and expressively. What a shame they never recorded an album of duets because that would have been truly wild! There is no record of them ever meeting to my knowledge, but perhaps I am mistaken.

I found myself utterly charmed by the boldly lyrical manner in which Liberace plays both classical and popular selections. Some of the approaches and arrangements are so unabashedly over the top that they actually enter the realm of the avant-garde, and I found this delightful too. He was unafraid of revealing inner impulses, and following them to logical conclusions no matter how unlikely. Even his theatrical element, beginning with the highly intelligent decision to wear a white tuxedo amidst an orchestra wearing black tuxedos at the Hollywood Bowl, is both fascinating and dazzling. Superficial people may make fun of his costumes (I do deplore his use of furs, of course), but they are marvelously designed and executed. His stage shenanigans are uproariously funny and entertaining too, all executed with brilliant skill. Again, one must be in the mood for this type of performance, but at the right time his is a profoundly satisfying musicianship. It’s clear even when Liberace is playing arrangements that may well have been the actual invention of muzac that he is a profoundly intelligent and creative artist who exemplifies throwing caution to the wind.

It would be fair to say that much of Liberace’s music is light-hearted in the best sense of that word. It is about enjoyment, gentleness and unabashed romanticism, qualities found in all races and cultures, and is transcendent of his particular ethnicity and sexual orientation.

He was interested in escapism, and playing music that was largely about embroidery and sheen, as opposed to deeper forms of improvisation practiced by pianists like Bill Evans. But Liberace presented this style of music more effectively and convincingly than anyone else. He constructed an art form around fanciful, intoxicated rapture, including enhancing his music with elements of theater. When I’m in the mood for this type of musical experience, which is admittedly much less often than listening to my favorites in the realms of Indian classical music, jazz, rock and pop, it's both fun and yes, absolutely intellectually stimulating to decipher Liberace’s varied musical forays, many of which are highly complex and subtle even in the arena of knowingly playful silliness. This was Liberace's intention much of the time. Intent is a prerequisite for comprehending and appreciating artists; to have respect and understanding for their personal visions rather than stereotypical conventions.

On one of his early television shows, Liberace presents the music and dance of Hawaii, and I learned for the first time what the dancer’s hands are portraying, such as the sun, the ocean, and the palm trees. Just listening to him speak on any subject is a truly educational experience. He was not only a great musician, but a great thinker in general. Watching his last television interview with a young Oprah Winfrey, I was utterly transfixed by his eloquence and breadth of interests. Included with Liberace's riveting discourse is the most touching interpretation of Silent Night I’ve ever heard, despite his being quite ill at the time, leaving us several months later.

 

 

Love him or hate him, or anywhere inbetween, Liberace was definitely part of the musical milieu of his time, especially for jazz pianists. They were certainly intrigued by his playing and arrangements at the very least, and it’s likely they also found stylistic, technical, procedural and expressive inspiration for adaptation within the mantle of their own playing and overall musical approach. No doubt, his music was a guilty pleasure for some, not wishing to admit it for various reasons.

If you lack a sense of (musical) humor, you will likely miss the Liberace boat. If you are so rigidly pretentious that everything must be super-serious, that simply isn’t real. Please keep in mind that Indian classical music recognizes Hasya Rasa, meaning humorous elements, as the second most important musical mood after Shringara Rasa, which is the erotic aspect of existence.

My original title for this essay was Saturnalia Tessellation, with Saturnalia referencing an ancient Roman holiday that was the historic precursor of Christmas, which was Liberace's favorite holiday. Tessellation (the art of fine tiling) denotes his manner of formulating ingenious musical designs out of myriad seemingly disconnected styles.

My understanding is that Liberace wished to be remembered most of all for his music and humanitarian efforts. Even though he's no longer here to read or hear of my thoughts, it feels good to recognize his artistry and innovations while elucidating my musical hypothesis about the greatest jazz pianist of all time, Bill Evans.

After writing this, I stepped outside well after midnight into the Kula night. A twenty-four hour storm had passed, and a full moon shone over the cypress trees and over the West Maui Mountains and over the Pacific. Stars were sparkling the way I've read about too. The timing for Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal's "I'll Be Seeing You", Liberace's favorite song, was perfect.

I'll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll be seeing you

- Michael Robinson, September 2016, Kula, Maui

 

© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

 

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).