By James Sandham
Well, music lover, I don’t know why it is, but my mind tends to turn to jazz about this time of year. Maybe with Labour Day having passed and fall on the way, my pace slows down as summer’s frenetic energy passes. Whatever the reason, I was extremely pleased to learn more about Gil Evans, one of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1997 inductees. Evans was a jazz arranger, composer, pianist and bandleader who was active mainly in the United States, where he worked with some of the genre’s best, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Gil Evans was born Gil Green in Toronto in 1912. This was a different era: The Republic of China had just been proclaimed, the Bolsheviks had just broken away from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and Eugene B. Ely had landed a plane on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, the first time an aircraft had ever landed on a ship. The world as we know it didn’t even exist. And musically, it was the age of ragtime and big bands.
Gil’s father had died before Gil was born, and the future jazz player spent many of his early years moving around with his mother as she looked for work, often as a cook in logging and mining camps in British Columbia. Mother and son gradually made their way around the Pacific Northwest, and then into the U.S., where they spent time in Idaho, Montana and Washington before eventually settling in California. It was around this time, when Gil was eight, that his mother met his future stepfather, John Evans. Evans was a miner, and it was a friend of his who gave Gil his first piano lesson.
The family moved to Stockton, California, in 1928. Gil entered high school there as a junior, and his love of music continued to grow. He and his school friends started a dance band, performing arrangements of popular tunes copied off of records. It was the first step in a story that would play out over the rest of Gil’s life.
Two years later, Gil graduated from high school, and that fall he entered the College of the Pacific, Stockton. He later transferred to Modesto Junior College, which was a bigger school, but moved back to Stockton after just two years. Gil Evans and His Orchestra, which was now a nine-piece band, quickly became a local favourite. They played regularly at a Stockton dance hall and soon made some of their first radio broadcasts.
Evans soon became known locally as “The Prince of Swing,” and by the fall of 1935 he and his band had been hired as the Rendezvous Ballroom’s house band in Balboa Beach, just south of Los Angeles. It was here that Evans first came in contact with some of the famous touring big bands – including those of Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey – and by 1937 his band was touring too. They were hired as the band for Bob Hope’s nationally syndicated radio show, and when the show itself went on tour in 1940, Evans was able to visit New York City for the first time, where he was exposed to jazz legends such as Billy Holiday, who further piqued his interest in the possibilities of the jazz sound.
In 1943, however, Evans was drafted into the military, serving in Virginia for three years as an instructor in a Band Training Unit. The Second World War really shook up the big band scene. Evans completed his service in February 1946, and returned to California to visit his mother and friends, all the while thinking about music. It wasn’t long before he was heading back to New York City, where he had a job waiting for him. But what he really wanted to do was to check out what had happened musically during the war years.
The answer was bebop, and Evans soon found himself right in the heart of it. He had rented a basement apartment on West 55th Street, and it soon became a gathering place for other up and coming young musicians. Dizzy Gillespie often came by, as did Charlie Parker – and soon a young trumpet player was also gracing the scene. This was Miles Davis. Davis was already playing with Parker’s quintet, and through their mutual association with Evans the Miles Davis Nonet came to form. Evans was talented enough to contribute two custom-made arrangements for the group, which Capitol Records recorded among a series of the group’s singles between 1949 and 1950. These were reissued in 1954 and again in 1957 as what we know today as the classic album, The Birth of the Cool.
Davis would go on to record “Miles Ahead” with the 19-piece Gil Evans Orchestra – their first large-scale collaboration – and the album’s huge critical success led to a series of collaborations between Evans and Davis over the next few years. Among these was a reinterpretation of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which became one of Davis’s bestselling records ever. Their next collaboration was Sketches of Spain, recorded over four sessions in late 1959 and March of 1960.
From there Evans went on to work with many of the jazz greats. In 1959 his orchestra played at the Apollo Theater, sharing the bill with Dinah Washington and Thelonious Monk’s quartet. The next year they played a six-week gig at the Jazz Gallery opposite John Coltrane’s quartet. Sketches of Spain won a Grammy Award a few years later, and Evans himself won several international critics polls for best composer and arranger. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1968, and in 1972 was named a founding artist of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
In 1983, at the age of 71, Evans was still working, doing a regular Monday night performance with his band at Sweet Basil in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He received an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1985 – the same year he was awarded a Jazz Masters Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. He died in March of 1988, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he’d gone to recuperate from surgery.