Gil Evans

Gil Evans, pianist-arranger-composer; b. 5/13/12 Toronto, Ont., Canada; d. 3/20/88

As an arranger Gil Evans has few peers in jazz history. His arranging style bears an instantly recognizable color pallet, often with its use of unusual brass colorations for jazz: combinations of tuba and french horn for example. His settings provided the framework for several historic recordings and made him in-demand for other portraits of great soloists. As a bandleader he pushed the envelope, generally leading a large ensemble though because of his unique instrumentation rarely could one call his ensembles big bands in the traditional jazz configuration born of the swing era.

One of those truly organic musicians who was largely self-taught, his family settled in Berkeley, CA when he was eight, where a family friend began giving him piano lessons. The family moved to Stockton, CA when Gil was sixteen, and it was there that he became a bandleader. In high school he began taking piano gigs at local hotels and formed his own band in junior college. He and Ned Briggs joined forces to lead a 10-piece band modeled after the popular Casa Loma Band. The band was the house band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA where they remained for two years up until 1937. Other early influences on young Gil included Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, on whom he modeled some of his earliest writing and who remained an abiding influence on his composing and arranging.

In Fall 1937 singer Skinny Ennis took over leadership of the band, retaining Gil at the piano as the band moved its base to Hollywood, where they were regularly featured on the Bob Hope radio show. One of Gil’s big breaks came when he was hired by bandleader Claude Thornhill. Thornhill, who had been associated with the Hope show, was a big influence on Gil and in 1941 engaged him as an arranger for his first orchestra. Thus began a roughly seven year stint. Gil was mightily influenced by Thornhill’s unusual voicings, particularly for brass and woodwinds. Taking cues from classical music Gil began to color Thornhill’s music with brass not usually associated with jazz, like french horn and tuba.

Evans settled permanently in New York in 1947 and his unusual arrangements for Thornhill began to attract the attention of some of the nascent beboppers of the time, including Miles Davis, John Lewis, and Gerry Mulligan. It was around this time that Gil’s apartment became a meeting ground for these and other musicians seeking fresh approaches. These musical and conversational exchanges led to development of the Miles Davis Nonet, which recorded the famous Birth of the Cool session for Capitol Records. That album was marked by its cooler, less bustling tempos than was characteristic of the modern jazz of the day, bebop, and several Evans arrangements provided key tracks. These included the tunes “Moondreams” and “Boplicity.”

For a good portion of the 1950s Gil was a freelance arranger, writing arrangements for several singers, including Helen Merrill, Tony Bennett, and Johnny Mathis, and for jazz musicians like Billy Butterfield and Gerry Mulligan. Gil and Davis began working together again in 1957, a partnership which yielded three very successful records: Miles Ahead; Porgy & Bess; and Sketches of Spain. In the 60s Evans began making his own recordings, all displaying his unusual voicings and distinctive settings for some of the best soloists of the time. These included Cannonball Adderley, Steve Lacy, Phil Woods, Budd Johnson, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, and Elvin Jones. Gil’s most noted work was done in to the studio. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s Evans maintained a band largely confined to rehearsals but which included some of New York’s finest musicians. There were occasional tours and weekly stints at New York clubs like the Village Vanguard and later at Sweet Basil in the 1980s.

In the 1970s Evans began incessantly exploring the music of Jimi Hendrix and taking on some of the accoutrements usually associated with rock music, including guitars, synthesizers, and electric bass. In 1982 his shifting cast of exceptional soloists, including Billy Harper, George Adams, Lew Soloff, Howard Johnson, John Scofield, David Sanborn, and Pete Levin. The band also frequently made the Summer jazz festival season, including memorable stints at Italy’s Umbria Jazz. There he collaborated with rock star Sting in concert in 1987, and played incendiary nightly concerts inside a cathedral ruins. Gil’s music has also found its way to film scores and his arranging influence has been considerable.

Ian Ernest Gilmore Green (or Gilmore Ian Rodrigo Green) was born May 13, 1912, in Toronto, Canada, the son of Margaret Julia MacChonechy and a father he never knew. He took the name of his stepfather, and thus became Gil Evans. His stepfather was a miner, whereas his mother took care of the children of rich families, and prepared meals for campsites. Moving wherever work would take them, they went from one North-American mining site to the next, including Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and such Northwestern U.S. states as Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Their child was put in boarding houses, moving from one family to the next, until they finally settled permanently in California, around 1922. Gil went to school in Berkeley, and there, his real musical training began. The father of one of his friends was a jazz fanatic and initiated him to this music. In 1927, he took the two teenagers to see Duke Ellington at the Orpheum theater in San Francisco.

Gil Evans (1st from the right) in California during the 30s

It was a revelation for Gil Evans, who decided to devote his life to this music. That same year, he bought his first record, "No One Else But You," by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. At the same time, he started transcribing, from the recordings, the music of such great jazz arrangers as Red Nichols, Duke Ellington, and Don Redman. In 1933, he put together his first group in Stockton, which had six musicians at first, but grew to nine in 1934. The group played arrangements by Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, all transcribed from the recordings. In 1935, the orchestra was on the same bill at the Palomar Ballroom as the triumphant Benny Goodman, then was hired to play at the Rendez-Vous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, in southern California, where it remained until 1938. Gil Evans was in charge of writing and conducting, and, from time to time, Stan Kenton held the piano chair.

Gil Evans (3rd from the left) and his orchestra in Stockton in 1934

In 1938, Alex Holden, who worked for MCA at that time, offered Gil Evans' orchestra a chance to accompany singer Skinnay Ennis. Gil accepted, keeping his position as arranger. Ennis found work for the group in comedian Bob Hope's well-known radio show for NBC in Hollywood. The manager then called up another arranger to work with the group, Claude Thornhill, who scored a big hit in 1937 with his arrangement of "Loch Lomond" for singer Maxine Sullivan. He and Gil Evans became colleagues and friends, but the two arrangers decided to quit this particular job in 1941. Thornhill had already put together his own orchestra in New York in 1939. This group had begun touring, and found itself, in the summer of 1940, at the Rendez-Vous ballroom in Balboa Beach. In 1941, Thornhill decided to move back to New York, and on March 20, the orchestra began a three-month residency at the Glen Island Casino. Gil Evans joined him as arranger alongside Bill Borden, and on November 17, for the first time in his career, one of his arrangements was recorded. Unfortunately, the U.S. had also gone to war during this time, and the barrage of draft orders compelled Thornhill to disband his orchestra.

Gil Evans in New York in 1948 (Photo: Al Avakian)

Gil Evans also went into the army; he remained stateside, and became a U.S. citizen. He was assigned to various army bands in which he often played the bass drum, notably in Augusta, Georgia, where he met Lester Young. It was during his army duty that Gil Evans discovered the nascent bebop music, to which he was immediately attracted. He was discharged, and moved to New York in 1946, settling in a small furnished room on 55th street that was destined to later become a mythical landmark. He then renewed his collaboration with Claude Thornhill when the latter reformed his orchestra. Evans remained as one of the arrangers for the Thornhill orchestra until 1948, and in this context experimented with many aspects of his budding creativity.

By now, his room on 55th street had become a near-permanent meeting place, where many musicians were busy creating a new musical universe, musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Lambert, John Carisi, George Russell, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. A project was conceived at that time by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, that of a medium-sized orchestra that would combine the sound texture of the Thornhill orchestra with the new discoveries of bebop. At first, Charlie Parker was proposed as leader of this ensemble, but in the end, Miles Davis was chosen. In 1948, a nonet was formed, and was booked at the Royal Roost on 47th street. The band was dissolved right after this engagement, however, but still managed to record twelve sides in 1949 and 1950 (including two arranged by Gil Evans) that would later be compiled in 1953 under the title The Birth Of The Cool, an album that is now considered a turning point in the history of jazz writing.

Around 1949, Gil married Lilian Grace (they were later divorced), and until 1956, he went through a period of limited musical output. He spent the time studying music extensively, and occasionally wrote for singers, radio, and television, but worked only sporadically in the field of jazz, with such artists as Pearl Bailey and Billy Butterfield in 1950, and Charlie Parker in 1953. Then, in 1956, his career really started to take off. First, Gil collaborated with Helen Merrill (on the album Dream Of You), then with Miles Davis, who had just signed with Columbia and chose Gil Evans for his first recording with a large ensemble. The album in question, Miles Ahead, was released in 1957, and several other collaborations followed, including Porgy And Bess in 1958, Sketches Of Spain in 1960, and Quiet Nights in 1962, all of which went on to become orchestral jazz classics. During this same period, Gil Evans also recorded several albums under his own name, with somewhat smaller ensembles for the most part. These include Gil Evans And Ten (1957), New Bottle, Old Wine (1958) which features Cannonball Adderley, Great Jazz Standards (1959), and Out Of The Cool (1960). In 1960, the orchestra was given a six-week residency at the Jazz Gallery, a New York club. Gil recorded again from 1962 to 1965, notably the albums The Individualism Of Gil Evans, Guitar Forms with Kenny Burrell, and Look To The Rainbow with Astrud Gilberto.

Gil Evans in Paris in 1987 (Photo Mephisto © Mephisto)

In 1962, he met Anita Cooper. They were married in 1963 and had two sons, Noah (born in 1964), and Miles (born in 1965). For four years, Gil hardly produced any music at all, and concentrated instead on raising his family. He began to record again in 1969, using medium-sized ensembles (usually twelve to fifteen musicians) in which electric instruments now began to play a very important role. The instrumentation also changed, with the number of wind instruments reduced in favor of the rhythm section, which was now augmented by guitars, percussion, and miscellaneous other instruments. A projected collaboration with Jimi Hendrix was cut short by the guitarist's premature death, but an album of jazz arrangements of Hendrix compositions performed by the Gil Evans Orchestra was nonetheless released in 1974. The orchestra began to tour outside the U.S., especially in Europe. In 1975, Gil Evans recorded There Comes A Time, which would turn out to be his last studio album for quite some time. All subsequent recordings by the orchestra were live albums, most notably those made in New York, albums such as Priestess (1977) and Live At The Public Theater (1980), as well as those recorded in London, including Live At The Royal Festival Hall (1978).

In 1980, Gil Evans recorded a series of duets with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz (Heroes and Anti-Heroes), and, beginning in 1984, the orchestra was hired to play every Monday night at Sweet Basil, a New York club. The Monday Night Orchestra, as it became known, played there up until Gil's death, and recorded several albums, including Live At Sweet Basil (1984), and Bud And Bird (1986). In 1985 and 1986, Gil Evans wrote music for several movie soundtracks, most notably Julian Temple's Absolute Beginners and Martin Scorsese's The Color Of Money. The year 1987 was particularly prolific, marked by numerous recordings as well as several European tours, including a concert with pop star Sting. In December of that year, he recorded another duet album, Paris Blues, this time in collaboration with his old accomplice, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Gil Evans died of pneumonia on March 20, 1988 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Charles Mingus before him had also come to die in 1979.

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