He has been called "The Lone Arranger,"
"Duke Ellington's Son," he was a father-figure for Miles
Davis and his name's apt anagram is "Svengali."
Evans celebrated his 75th birthday with a concert at the Hammersmith
Odeon in London; with Van Morrison, Steve Lacy, Flora Purim and Airto
Moreira as guests. It was a real occasion and a happy bus. By chance I
was riding on it.
Crossing the Thames on our way to the gig,
one of the musicians asked him for an advance. Without hesitation, Gil
dug in his pocket and handed over a 20 quid note.
Anita, responsible for keeping track of details like this, raised her
eyebrows and although she obviously didn't want to bug Svengali before
an important concert, she also obviously thought that such fast and
off-the-cuff financing could very easily be forgotten with the passing
of time. Like ten minutes.
She coughed and said as close to
a whisper as she could manage: "Er, um...Gil. Ahem. Don't you
think you should get a receipt?" He looked abashed and took a hit
on the small pipe he always carried while she wrote down the details.
Gil's 15-piece band had become a Monday fixture in New
York's Sweet Basil. Although the club is small and the pay minimal,
regular members included such stars as John Abercrombie, John
Scofield, Jon Faddis, Jaco Pastorius, George Adams, Hiram Bullock,
David Sanborn and Sting (singing "Angel," "Stone Free"
and other Jimi Hendrix material in the band's library.)
music depended on who showed up, and Gil rarely knew who until they
arrived. Like Ellington, Evans was a casting director more than a
leader. He affected the music by his mere presence. It sounded
according to how he felt on any given night. Instructions were not
required because he had already taken care of dynamics, timbre and
space by who was hired. He did not choose instruments, he chose
instrumentalists. He did not hire a trumpet player, he hired the late
Johnny Coles; who might be said to have been playing the Colesophone.
He chose musicians for their flaws as well as attributes. Coles
splitting notes was just as heartbreaking as it needed to be.
don't even need written music anymore," Evans told Down Beat
magazine. "Hiram [Bullock] or I strike a chord and away we'll go,
improvising ensembles and everything for 10 or 15 minutes. I tell the
players not to be terrified by the vagueness.
looks like we're teetering on the edge of formlessness, somebody's
going to be so panicked that they'll do something about it. I depend
on that. If it has to be me, I'll do it, but I'll wait and wait
because I want somebody else to do it. I want to hear what's going to
Gil liked to say that "insecurity is the secret of eternal
youth." The first thing you noticed about Gil, after his
generosity, intelligence and good humor, were his big ears; like radar
dishes. Yes, big ears. And the stone-grey hair framed a craggy face
with a childlike smile that defied chronological age. He would not do
anything the easy way. He also said: "The worst addiction in the
world is convenience."
Born in Toronto on May 13, 1912,
he moved to Southern California, where he worked as a pianist and
learned the arranger's craft. He led his own band in Balboa Beach,
where Stan Kenton got his start a decade later, from 1936 to 1939. He
remained as arranger when Skinnay Ennis took it over to play the Bob
Hope radio show. In the process he lost his "name" band. He
rarely, if ever, said anything about regretting it. He was, after all,
the "lone arranger."
In 1941 he went to New York to
write for the Claude Thornhill orchestra, which won two successive
Billboard polls in the "sweet band" category. Debussy
flirted with Charlie Parker on Evans's version of "Yardbird Suite"
(featuring Lee Konitz) for Thornhill's band. It was the first time
bebop had ever been played by a "sweet band."
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 said that
"the sound hung like a cloud."
The sound matured
when Evans became musical director of the historic Miles Davis "Birth
of the Cool" nonet in 1948. In the '50s it evolved into "Porgy
and Bess," "Sketches of Spain." and "Miles Ahead,"
the closest thing he ever had to hits. What an all-American pair they
were, Miles and Gil. Their collaborations stay in your head like Orson
Welles's "Citizen Kane." Rare combinations of quality and
When a golden-spined 6-CD box Miles/Gil
retrospective was released by Columbia Records in 1996, the box's
booklet said: "Like the late films of Orson Welles, too many
Davis/Evans collaborations "have been misunderstood, dismissed or
left unreleased." America does not treat its geniuses with much
Their collaboration can be compared to Duke
Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle and
Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. They were all odd couples - people
of very different character. Most of all, there was an imbalance of
ego. Gil's ego was certainly no match for Miles's. (Few were.) Miles
was not at all embarrassed to take top billing.
It took 15
years for Gil to be finally granted credit for his famous "Round
Midnight" quintet arrangement for Miles. And on the above-
mentioned box's golden spine, Gil's name is tiny and barely clinging -
one line from dropping off the bottom. On the sleeve, Gil's name is
shades lighter than, and far behind "Miles Davis." On the
replica of the LP "Porgy and Bess" inside, Evans is credited
only as "orchestra under the direction of..." In reality,
even "arranged by..." would be inadequate.
single-handedly raised the line between arranging and composition. The
booklet continues: "Evans found in Davis his ideal interpreter,
an artist whose strengths served as a focus for Evans's most profound
It would seem, then, that a more
appropriate credit would be "composed by Gil Evans. Interpreted
by Miles Davis." But this would not have been healthy for Miles's
ego. Nobody, certainly not Miles, ever did much to (pardon the pun)
help Gil balance the score. Gil was not very helpful either. He was
not a complainer. To a fault. No way would he sue Miles Davis.
preferred to take another hit on his little pipe. On a series of desert-island"
big band albums under his own name - "Out of the Cool," "New
Bottles Old Wine," and "Priestess" in the '60s and
'70s, - Svengali transmuted Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter
Stomp," Bix Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues," Dizzy
Gillespie's "Manteca," Kurt Weill's "Bilbao" and
John Benson Brook's "Where Flamingoes Fly" into hanging
clouds of sound.
The hanging clouds met an electric storm in
1974 when he explored the symphonic implications of rock on the album
"Gil Evans Plays Jimi Hendrix." A sound cannot be copyrighted
and although his was widely reproduced in film music (James Bond movies,
for example), commercial jingles and by other people's bands, Evans
basically lived from his U.S. Social Security check during his "golden
years." He once admitted that his New York senior citizen's public
transportation pass came in handy. He laughed about it, there was no
Later recognition included a National
Endowment for the Arts grant and soundtracks for "Absolute
Beginners" and "The Color of Money." Still, his 75th
birthday tour was of Europe, not the United States. And it was a
Frenchman not an American who wrote the first biography of Evans.
Laurent Cugny, a bandleader and arranger, 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. Cugny continued: "The
only people he had problems with were record producers. He called them
greedy and they accused him of being an inefficient perfectionist."
Which was true enough. Ironically, however, his music was
rarely perfectly executed. Like Ellington's, it did not require "perfection"
in the sense of every note being in place. The feeling is what counted
and he did know how to find musicians ready and willing to invest
theirs; and how to squeeze feeling out of people who may have been
otherwise too shy. But so many of his recordings beg for one more take.
"When he told you about his life," Cugny said. "You
began to see he was always been a victim of the system. He wanted to
record with Louis Armstrong, whom he worshipped, but it never happened.
Jimi Hendrix's death ended discussions for a joint project. And he
received no royalties for Miles's 'Sketches of Spain.'"
name of this series is "Sons of Miles." But Gil Evans was more
like Miles's father than a son. He was Miles's sun.