Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Evans, Gil (Ian Ernest Gilmore Green)

Arranger and composer Gil Evans made his mark on modern jazz by taking the sometimes-rough edges of bebop and smoothing them in stunning orchestral settings for trumpeter Miles Davis and others. Self-taught, Evans relied on his natural analytic style to guide himself through music.

Evans was born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green on May 13, 1913 in Toronto, Canada. He was raised by his mother, Margaret Julia MacChonechy, who worked as a nanny. His stepfather was a miner named Evans, and the boy eventually took his name. The family traveled across North America to different mining cities, leaving the boy behind in at times boarding houses, until they finally settled in Northern California in 1922.

In California, the Evanses amassed a record collection which included selections by bandleaders Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, which offered the boy his first tastes of jazz. In 1927, Evans had an opportunity to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra perform at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, which made a lasting impact on the boy.

Evans later credited this early exposure to the Duke Ellington Orchestra as inspiring him to devote his life to music. The boy embarked on what would become a lifelong course of self-study in arranging and composing by listening to music and transcribing what he heard, a method he would retain throughout his life. In Stockton, California, Gil performed in high school bands and developed his first ensemble.

In 1933, Evans co-led an ensemble entitled the “Briggs-Evans Orchestra.” In 1935, the ensemble was on the same bill as bandleader Benny Goodman at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Three years later, the group became the Rendezvous Ballroom’s house band at Balboa Beach, California. Evans’ duties there included writing charts, playing piano and occasionally conducting for bandleader Stan Kenton. The group ultimately came under the leadership of singer Skinnay Ennis, who led the group into a gig on Bob Hope’s NBC radio program in 1938.

For close to three years, Evans worked as an arranger for the Hope program. Around 1941, he began to feel he was ill-equipped for the job, especially after a producer ridiculed him as a “poor man’s Stravinsky.” The show’s producer eventually brought in pianist Claude Thornhill to write for the program. Evans was however a fan of Thornhill’s arrangements, and when the pianist decided to move to New York to start his own band, he hired Evans. Following Thornhill’s induction into the military, Evans enlisted in the U.S. military in 1942.

While in the Army, Evans remained in the United States and became a U.S. citizen. Evans was appointed to several Army bands, in which he would frequently perform on the bass drum, especially in a group in Augusta, Georgia where he met saxophonist Lester Young.

In 1946, Evans was discharged from the military and returned to New York, where he settled into a small apartment on 55th street. Evans reunited with Thornhill and joined his orchestra. Thornhill was an innovative arranger, who often divided the orchestra into alternative sections and also introduced the French horn into his arrangements. Evans found Thornhill’s methods a perfect fit for his own ideas, and the band offered a platform to workshop his ideas and polish his talent. The first arrangement Evans did for Thornhill was of Russian composer Modeste Mussorgsky's “Pictures At An Exhibition.”

While Thornhill's skills as an arranger and composer were in high demand, his desire to compose after World War II began to decline, which opened even more doors for Evans to sharpen his skills. He began to introduce more modern jazz into the Thornhill band's book, including his arrangements of Charlie Parker's “Anthropology” and “Donna Lee.” Evans’ arrangement of “Donna Lee” was recorded in 1947 and featured saxophonist Lee Konitz, clarinetist Danny Polo, trumpeter Red Rodney. Evans even taught the older members of the Thornhill ensemble how to perform them with swing and inflection, until he left the band in the summer of 1948.

Evans’ apartment became a haven and meeting place for New York musicians interested in modern jazz. Among those who congregated there were baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and pianist John Lewis. These musicians took their musical ideas to Evans to discuss their music and critique it. This nucleus of workshop activity led to the creation of a collective nonet, which was ultimately placed under Davis’ leadership.

In September 1948, the ensemble played a two-week residency at the Royal Roost Club on 52nd Street. The ensemble consisted of Davis, Mulligan, Konitz, tuba player Bill Barber, French hornist Junior Collins, bassist Al McKibbon, drummer Max Roach and trombonist Michael Zwerin.

The band was billed at the Royal Roost as the “Miles Davis Nonet: Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis,” which acknowledged the collective spirit of the group. While their run at the Royal Roost met mixed reactions from critics and listeners, it caught the attention of Pete Rugolo from Capitol Records.

Rugolo decided to record the group in April of 1949, which resulted in the album Birth of the Cool. Evans was a vital part of the record, co-writing “Boplicity” with Davis and arranging “Moon Dream” and “Darn That Dream.” Thanks to Evans's mastery, these arrangements make the ensemble sound richer than one would expect from nine instruments.

On “Boplicity,” Evans carefully arranges each layer of the ensemble into a harmonically rich unit. In this way, he carefully blends the instruments, resulting in a thoroughly cohesive sound. Evans’ strength in this arrangement is his use of the lower brass, allowing them ample space to shine whilst not overusing them.

After these sessions, Evans married his first wife, Lilian Grace, and lowered the intensity of his involvement in music. For the next several years he wrote and arranged occasionally, and spent a lot of time studying music. He periodically arranged and composed for radio, television and musicians, such as Charlie Parker, singer Pearl Bailey, and trumpeter Billy Butterfield.

Throughout the 1950s, Evans played piano with Mulligan at the Basin Street club and with drummer Nick Stabulas. In May 1957, he reunited with Davis to record the album Miles Ahead. The album included versions of Kurt Weill's "My Ship" as well as "The Duke," Dave Brubeck's homage to Duke Ellington, and a version of “Maids Of Cadiz” by noted French composer Leo Delibes and the Evans original “Blues For Pablo.” The collaboration proved to be an artistic and critical success.

In the fall of 1957, Evans made his recording debut as a leader and pianist on the album Gil Evans and Ten. The group featured former Thornhill members trumpeters Louis Mucci and Joke Koven as well as drummer Nick Stabulas and bassist Paul Chambers. On “Jambangle,” Evans constructs a free-flowing arrangement that changes tempo and feel on several occasions. Evans is a natural accompanist on the piano, playing with a light touch that still is harmonically supportive of the soloist.

In 1958, Evans and Davis recorded a reinterpretation of composer George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess, which featured Gershwin's “I Loves You, Porgy." Beginning in November of 1959, Evans and Davis began the recordings for Davis’s album Sketches of Spain. Davis was inspired to record an album of Spanish themes after hearing composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s piece “Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra.”

In November and December of 1960, Evans recorded Out of the Cool, which included his original piece “La Nevada.” In this song, Evans creates an enthralling arrangement that creates a fair amount of tension right from the beginning. Evans makes excellent use of the brass section by creating strident back round lines for them to play, further reinforcing the edgy atmosphere of the song.

In 1961, Davis recorded with the Gil Evans Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and in the subsequent year the duo recorded a project for Columbia Records with vocalist Bob Dorough. In 1962, Evans met Anita Cooper and married her in 1963. The couple eventually had two sons, Noah and Miles.

In 1965, Evans wrote arrangements for Kenny Burrell’s album Guitar Forms on Verve Records. 1965 also saw Evans arrange and orchestrate Look to the Rainbow for singer Astrud Gilberto. In 1968, Evans arranged Davis’ album Filles de Kilimanjaro.

In 1969, Evans released the album Blues In Orbit, which featured his experiments with electric instruments. He became fascinated by guitarist Jimi Hendrix and was set to record with him in 1970, though sadly Hendrix died later that year. In 1974, Evans’ orchestra played a Carnegie Hall concert dedicated to Hendrix’s music and later recorded the album Gil Evans’ Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix in tribute to the late guitarist.

Following his 1973 album Svengali, Evans continued his experimentations with electronic sounds with the 1977 album Priestess, which featured a fourteen-piece orchestra and a synthesizer. In 1983, Evans contributed several arrangements to Davis's album Star People and went on a tour of Japan with his orchestra and Davis’s group on a double bill.

In 1980, Evans recorded several duets with Lee Konitz, which resulted in the albums Heroes and Anti-Heroes. Starting in 1984, Evans’ orchestra started a Monday night residency at the New York Club “Sweet Basil.” Evans also lent his talent to film scores, scoring director Julian Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners and director Martin Scorcese’s 1986 movie The Color of Money. In December of 1987, Evans recorded the soundtrack to Paris Blues with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.

In his lifetime, Evans received many awards and honors. In 1985, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1986, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1989, he was posthumously awarded a Grammy Award in the category of “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band” for the album Bud And Bird.

Gil Evans died in Cuernavaca, Mexico on March 20, 1988, after suffering a bout of peritonitis. Evans is survived by his second wife Anita and his two sons Noah and Miles.

Select Discography

as Gil Evans

Gil Evans & Ten (1957)

Great Old Standards (1958)

Out of the Cool (1960)

The Individualism of Gil Evans (1964)

Blues In Orbit (1971)

Svengali (1973)

Gil Evans’ Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (1975)

Priestess (1977)

Live at the Public Theater Volume 1 & 2 (1980)

Bud And Bird (1986)

with Miles Davis

Birth of the Cool (1950)

Miles Ahead (1957)

Porgy And Bess (1958)

Sketches of Spain (1960)

Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968)

Star People (1983)

with Kenny Burrell

Guitar Forms (1965)

with Astrud Gilberto

Look To The Rainbow (1966)

with Lee Konitz

Heroes (1980)

Anti-Heroes (1980)

With Steve Lacy

Paris Blues (1987)

Contributor: Eric Wendell