Gil Evans is one of Canada’s best-known jazz artists, even though he left the country as a teen and toiled in the shadow of giants for most of his career.
Born Gil Green on May 13, 1912, in Toronto, Ontario, he was renamed Gil Evans after his stepfather, John A. Evans, his mother’s fifth husband. Evans spent much of his youth bouncing between Canada and the U.S. as the senior Evans, a miner, bounced from job to job. Gil and his mother finally settled (without John A. Evans) in Stockton, California in the late-1920s.
It was in high school that Evans developed his love for music, especially Louis Armstrong. He started his first band in college in 1933 before finding arranging working in Hollywood. It was there that he struck up a friendship with pianist Claude Thornhill. Evans dissolved his own band with the coming of World War II and, after the end of the war, joined Thornhill’s as an arranger.
He moved to New York and continued working for Thornhill’s Orchestra (1941-42, 1946-48). Evans, by now a bebop fan, was interested in challenging the standard big band sound represented by Thornhill, adding French horns and tubas to the orchestra.
Evans’ desire to move jazz forward was the raison d’être behind the informal salons he held in his 55th Street apartment for the cream of the city’s rising jazz talent. Among those interested in tapping Evans’ evolutionary leanings was Miles Davis, who met Evans in the summer of 1947. A mutual respect developed which would lead to collaboration.
French horns and tubas would subsequently turn up on Evans’ arrangements for Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool record, which was recorded over three sessions in 1949 and 1950. Now considered seminal in the history of “cool jazz,” Birth of the Cool, recorded in a nonet configuration, was met with bemusement and confusion by jazz aficionados. Evans’ collaboration with Davis would continue with the latter’s records Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960).
Evans would start recording under his own name with 1957’s Gil Evans and Ten (Prestige Records). Strong notices accrued to his work as a bandleader, especially Out of the Cool (1961) and The Individualism of Gil Evans (1964). His arrangement skills were also still in high demand, with his highest-profile project of the era being Astrud Gilberto’s 1966 album Look to the Rainbow.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Evans drew inspiration from the emerging rock scene of the 1960s. He was an admirer of Jimi Hendrix, whom he met through Davis, and planned to work with him before Hendrix’s death in 1970. Evans’ arrangements of Hendrix’s work emerged on The Gil Evans’ Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (1974), which included takes on “Voodoo Chile” and “Little Wing.”
Evans’ public profile continued to rise into the ‘80s as he worked on movie music (1985’s Insignificance, 1986’s Absolute Beginners and The Color of Money) and contributed to Sting’s 1987 solo album …Nothing Like the Sun.
Gil Evans died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1988 at the age of 76. He was inducted into Down Beat Magazine’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997.
Evans met Miles Davis
Started recording under his own name
Co-wrote Birth of the Cool track “Boplicity” with Miles Davis
Recorded an album of rearranged Jimi Hendrix songs
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame