Gil Evans - Biography

As the foremost jazz orchestrator of the modern era, Gil Evans, with his brilliant grasp of instrumentation and dynamics has been a profound influence on several generations of arrangers and composers. Perhaps best known as Miles Davis’ partner on classic albums like Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches Of Spain, Evans also recorded vibrant and important albums under his own leadership.

Ian Ernest Gilmore Green was born on May 13, 1912, in Toronto, Canada, the son of Margaret MacChonechy and a father he never knew. Early in life, he was given his stepfather’s surname, and became known as Gil Evans. His stepfather was a miner, while his mother worked caring for the children of rich families or preparing meals for campsites. They moved all over Western Canada and the American Northwest following the work, until they settled in Stockton, California, around 1922. While he was in high school, Evans was taken to San Francisco to see Duke Ellington and his orchestra. As Evans later told Brian Priestly in Jazz Journal International, "I will never get over it! I wasn't even into music then. I was just buying records and going to high school." The fifteen year old promptly decided to devote his life to music.

Evans started to study the records he was buying by transcribing the work of such jazz arrangers as Ellington, Red Nichols, and Don Redman. By 1933, he was co-leading the Briggs-Evans band in Stockton, playing charts based on his transcriptions. In 1936, he formed a group which became the house band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach. Two years later, the ensemble had a chance to accompany singer Skinnay Ennis. With Evans as arranger, Ennis found the group a steady job on Bob Hope's NBC radio program in Hollywood. After about three years, Evans “began to realize that I wasn't really technically equipped to handle that kind of work," as he later told Down Beat. The Hope program's producer also brought in pianist Claude Thornhill to write some arrangements. Evans and Thornhill became mutual admirers, and when Thornhill left for New York in 1941, Evans soon followed to become one of his arrangers. Thornhill’s group waxed Evans’ first recorded arrangements on November 17 for Columbia. They continued to record for the label until July 1942, when the draft reached many of the members of the group, including Thornhill.

Evans, still a Canadian citizen, enlisted in the army in 1942. He remained in the US, assigned to a variety of army bands. He also became a United States citizen. While still in the service, he heard the new sound of bebop, which immediately attracted his interest. Moving to New York after his discharge in 1946, he sought out the new music centered on 52nd Street, and rented a room just a few blocks away, on 55th. “Just one big room with a bed and a piano and a record player and a sink,” is how he described it to Ben Sidran on Talking Jazz. “And I left the door open for two years...most of the time I met people like Miles [Davis] and John Lewis [and] George Russell.” Thornhill had regrouped his big band, and Evans returned to arranging for the group. It had been Thornhill’s idea to utilize two French horns in the band, while Evans added flutes and a tuba. The key to the band’s sound was the lack of vibrato and sophisticated harmonic development. Evans later described the style: "Everything - melody, harmony, rhythm - was moving at minimum speed. Everything was lowered to create a sound, and nothing was to be used to distract from that sound." He added that "the sound hung like a cloud."

After staying with Thornhill for a couple of years, writing arrangements for such bop tunes as Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” and Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee,” Evans left the group in the summer of 1948. He directed his energies to a project that he conceived with Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, a medium-sized group that would combine the sound experiments of the Thornhill group with the new language of bebop. Evans, Mulligan and Davis trimmed the big band down to a nonet, with three rhythm players and six horns to cover all the harmonic needs. The group had only one gig, at the Royal Roost in September 1948, but luckily Capitol recorded the group at three sessions in 1949 and 1950. (The complete sessions, plus the Roost broadcast, were compiled on Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of The Cool, 1998 Blue Note.) Evans’ contributions to the proceedings were charts for "Moon Dreams" and "Boplicity," a tune he co-wrote with Davis.

For the first half of the Fifties, Evans labored in semi-obscurity, working with singers and writing for radio and television while continuing his self-directed studies. There were projects with Charlie Parker in 1953, Johnny Mathis in 1956, and later that year, Helen Merrill’s Dream Of You (1956 EmArcy). But as he later confessed to Sidran, “I was really waiting for Miles, to tell the truth, during those years.” In May 1957, Evans and Davis reunited in the studio for the first sessions of the Miles Ahead album. Columbia took a gamble on a big budget for their new trumpet star, and it paid off with this artistically and commercially successful release.

Later that year, Evans got his own session as a bandleader for the first time, ironically with Prestige Records, the label that Davis was in the process of leaving. For Gil Evans & Ten (1957 Prestige), he put together a group that included Steve Lacy on soprano sax, Lee Konitz on alto, and Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, playing compositions by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Leonard Bernstein, plus one of Evans’ original tunes. Another medium-sized group album followed the next year on New Bottle Old Wine (1958 Pacific Jazz) with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley as the featured performer in a program of classic jazz standards. For the next few years, Evans alternated between collaborations with Davis and with his own projects. A second major album with Davis, Porgy and Bess (1958 Columbia), was recorded in the summer of 1958, with Evans’ next album, Great Jazz Standards (1959 Pacific Jazz) getting underway in early 1959. In April 1959, Evans appeared on television for “The Robert Herridge Theater Show” in New York, conducting the orchestra for Miles Davis. Sessions began in November 1959 for their next innovative pairing, the glorious Sketches Of Spain (1960 Columbia), an influential classic of modern jazz orchestration, which won a Grammy award in 1960 for Best Jazz Composition Of More Than Five Minutes Duration. As Michael Zwerin has written (and as an original member of the Birth of the Cool band, he should know), “Evans single-handedly raised the line between arranging and composition.” The complexities and the beauties of their collaborations are well-documented in the Grammy-winning boxed set Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (1996 Columbia/Legacy).

Out Of The Cool (1960 Impulse) continued Evans’ experiments in dynamic texture with a typically wide-ranging selection of tunes. For his follow-up, Into The Hot (1961 Impulse), the self-effacing Evans took the rather remarkable step of having virtually nothing to do with the album beyond having his picture on the cover. Instead, there are three performances with an orchestra led by trumpeter John Carisi (composer of “Israel” from the Birth of the Cool sessions), and three more by a septet led by pianist Cecil Taylor. The early Sixties brought Evans more work with Davis, including a Carnegie Hall concert, the Quiet Nights album, and some small groups featuring trombonist Frank Rehak and vocalist Bob Dorough. Evans also arranged albums for Kenny Burrell (Guitar Forms, 1964 Verve) and Astrud Gilberto (Look To The Rainbow, 1965 Verve), along with his own sessions for Verve, notably The Individualism Of Gil Evans (1963). His pace slowed over the next few years as he took time to help raise his family. There are no entries in his discography for 1966, just one date in 1967, and an aborted pair of sessions with Miles Davis in 1968.

In 1969, Evans decided to start his own band. Interviewed for the liner notes on Where Flamingos Fly, a group of 1971 recordings that didn’t come out for ten years, Evan told John Snyder that he felt like he had to do it “ ‘cause for all my life I’d been sitting in front of that piano trying to figure out another way to voice a minor seventh chord...I sat for so long, I had calluses on my ass.” Evans, ever open to new sounds and technologies, was beginning to experiment with electronic instruments. Blues In Orbit (1969 Ampex), with Evans on electric piano in groups featuring trombonist Jimmy Knepper, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, electric guitarist Joe Beck, and drummer Elvin Jones, was recorded live in performance at the Village Vanguard. During mixing sessions for the album, Evans met and was very impressed by Jimi Hendrix. A projected collaboration with Hendrix was thwarted by the guitarist’s untimely death, but thereafter Evans would frequently perform Hendrix compositions. The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix (RCA Victor) was released in 1974 following the live album Svengali (1973 Atlantic) which featured Harper, Howard Johnson on tuba, baritone sax, and flugelhorn, and David Horowitz on synthesizer. The title is Gerry Mulligan’s clever anagram on “Gil Evans.”

Paradoxically, when Evans finally did have his own band, he relinquished a lot of control over the music, tending to sketch out the outlines of a piece while letting the members of the orchestra largely determine the flow of the music. Some of the stars in his later bands were trumpeters Lew Soloff and Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson, saxophonists Harper, Dave Sanborn, George Adams, and Hamiet Bluiett, Gil Goldstein on synthesizers, and Mark Egan on electric bass. The orchestra was recorded in concert on a number of albums, including Priestess (1977 Antilles), Live At The Royal Festival Hall (1978 RCA), and Live At The Public Theater (1980 Trio). Heroes and Anti-Heroes, an album of duets with alto saxist Lee Konitz, came out in 1980. Evans did some arranging for Miles Davis’ 1983 album Star People (Columbia). Starting in 1984, his orchestra had a regular Monday night slot at Sweet Basil, a New York club. The group was recorded a number of times on the job, including several volumes of Live At Sweet Basil (1984 Gramavision), and Bud And Bird (1986 ProJazz), which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Big Band.   

Evans was probably busier in his seventies than in most other periods of his life. He wrote music for Julian Temple's Absolute Beginners and Martin Scorsese's The Color Of Money in 1985. His 75th birthday concert in London, recorded that July for the BBC, was followed by a much-promoted collaboration with pop star Sting (Last Session, 1987 Jazz Door). Evans returned to New York to record Collaboration (1987 EmArcy) with Helen Merrill in August, only to fly back to Europe later in the year to tour with a band co-led by French keyboardist Laurent Cugny and make a duet album with his old friend and frequent accomplice, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, on Paris Blues (1988 Owl). Evans’ final recordings in early 1988 were a few tracks laid down in New York with British guitarist Ray Russell, who he’d met and recorded with during a 1983 British tour.

After Gil Evans died on March 20, 1988 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Miles Davis commented that “He never wasted a melody. He never wasted a phrase. He and Duke Ellington changed the whole sound.” Laurent Cugny, musical collaborator and author of the first Evans biography, called him "an angel. I can't think of a better word. He talked to me for hours about hundreds of musicians and he hadn't a bad word to say about any of them. I have never heard a musician say anything bad about Gil.”

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