Gil Evans photo by Janet Knott, The Boston Globe
Gil Evans’ career, like his music, defies convention. Most great creators in jazz made an impact early in their lives, then settled for a steady, gentle decline — or died young. Evans, a self-taught pianist, and arranger was 45 years old when he first recorded an album under his own name. He had is debut as a solo piano player when he was 67. Now, in his 70s, he leads one of the most daring, powerful bands in jazz.
Unlike other major jazz arrangers, Evans has composed only a few pieces, and his best work has involved other people’s music. His exquisite settings for Miles Davis’ horn on Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain alone will ensure his place in jazz history. Most of the great band leaders have also been superior players. But Evans plays in a serviceable, stripped-down style that can best be described as “arranger’s piano.”
In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, he has remained a stubborn individual, unconcerned about trends, or establishing a niche. And he is an elusive figure. His career has zigzagged between short, intense, and highly productive periods and sudden retreats from activity and public view.
Despite all this — perhaps because of it — Evans has created a body of music that ranks among the finest in jazz. This Wednesday Evans will turn 75, and he is not ready for retirement yet.
As he arrives at Sweet Basil, the New York club where he’s been leading his orchestra on and off every Monday for the past three years, Gil Evans looks like an improbable patriarch. About 5 feet 8 and reed-thin, he sports an Indian headband, black leather jacket, turquoise pants, canary-yellow shirt, and white sneakers. His face, all creases, and soft angles suggest weatherbeaten wisdom.
Carrying a batch of scores under his arm, Evans walks to the door, stops, and starts digging deep in his pockets. He’s looking for his list of
guests, which he’ll leave at the door. He patiently juggles his papers from arm to arm, unrecognized by the people in line buying tickets and seemingly oblivious to musicians walking in, assorted hangers-on, and waitresses negotiating their way around the tables carrying big trays of food. Evans finds the paper, nods to the doormen, smiles, and walks into the club. Only a couple of the band’s 13 members are around, calmly setting up. The rest will be trickling in during the next half-hour or so. It’s now about quarter past 9, and in 15 minutes, with whoever is ready, he is going to start the show.
Evans lives in a small studio apartment in Manhattan. A good third of it is taken up by an upright piano, a synthesizer, and an electric piano. There is a big bed, and on it are an open newspaper and a couple of large magnifying glasses — a reminder of Evans’ chronic eye troubles. There are a stereo system and cassettes — dozens of cassettes. There are cassettes on the floor, on top of and around the turntable, on top of the piano, and some, more neatly stacked, in a couple of wall racks. There’s also a small, eclectic record collection that includes Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and Astor Piazzolla. On one wall are several shelves overflowing with music parts and scores. In typical Evans fashion, he doesn’t own copies of his own celebrated scores. ”No, no,” he says softly, sitting on the edge of the bed, quietly filing his nails. He pauses for a moment and narrows his eyes. “I think Miles must have them. Yeah, I think Miles has ’em.”
To hear Evans talk is to be reminded of his music. There are subtle shadings and surprising turns; a delicate balance of busy lines followed by stillness.
Born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green to Australian parents in Toronto, Evans later took the surname of his stepfather, a miner. He got into music, he says, when he was 15. A friend in high school in Berkeley, California, played jazz piano and had some records by Don Redman, Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, and Louis Armstrong. Evans simply fell in love with the music. “Just like that,” he says. “I hadn’t been in music at all before that.
“We moved away from Berkeley right after that, so I bought me a crank-up phonograph and some records. In those days, about 1930, radio was a big thing,” Evans recalls. “Every radio station had remote programs from ballrooms and supper clubs, so almost every day I heard all these bands like Duke Ellington, the Casa Loma band, Claude Hopkins.” He bought their records and started transcribing the music, not just the melody and the basic chords but the complete arrangements. “It was hard, and it took a lot of time, but I didn’t care. I loved it.”
The family lived in Stockton, California, and he recalls that every week a man used to come from San Francisco with a new supply of records, among them some jazz records. “I bought every record Louis Armstrong ever made between 1927 and 1936,” he says. “Actually, I learned music from Louis Armstrong. I learned to love music, to love songs. He made a lot of records, and a lot of them had dog songs, second-rate songs; parts of them were terrible, with stock orchestrations and the rhythm sections . . . ”
Evans looks down and shakes his head, his voice trailing off. Then he looks up again. “But in every one of those three-minute records, there’s a magic moment. In every one of them.”
Evans organized his first group in Stockton in 1933, writing all the arrangements, learning the trade through practice. (“It was a little band
that could play the music as soon as I’d write it,” he once said.) He was later musical director of singer Skinnay Ennis’ band and in the early ’40s he became an arranger for the Claude Thornhill band.
This band had a distinctive, sophisticated sound, and Thornhill’s arranging style became a great influence on Evans. The instrumentation regularly featured two French horns and a tuba along with the regular lineup common in dance bands, and the arranging was subtler and often riskier than was customary. Evans’ astute arrangements of be-bop pieces, such as Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee,” or the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie “Anthropology,” earned him the respect of other musicians.
Be-bop — brash, fast-paced, undanceable, given to virtuoso flights — was a sweeping rhythmic and harmonic revolution in popular music, and the clubs on Manhattan’s 52d Street were its vital center. In 1946, Evans, just discharged from the Army, moved to New York.
“I came to meet all my heroes,” Evans recalls. “Got off the train, got in a cab, and went straight to 52d Street. I didn’t even have a place to stay — and I didn’t care.” He left his bag in the checkroom at The Three Deuces, and on his first night in New York, he met some of jazz’s giants — Erroll Garner, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. “It was fantastic. I didn’t know anybody; nobody knew me. I said to Bud, ‘Bud, you are the greatest!’ He said, ‘Yeah? Get me a job.’ No ‘thanks,’ no nothing.
Nothing like that at all. Welcome to New York.” Evans laughs now. “I never bobby-soxed again after that.”
He rented a place on 55th Street, and it soon became a mixture of jazz salon, graduate school, pit stop, and home for a long list of semi-regulars that included Charlie Parker, George Russell, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Miles Davis, John Carisi, and Dave Lambert.
“It was one big room in a basement, that’s all,” says Evans. “One big room. It had a piano and a bed and a tape player. In those days it was a weird tape machine . . . a kind of home recorder. That’s all there was in the place — and a sink. I rented the place and left the door open for two years. I never knew who was going to be there when I got home. I didn’t care.”
Trumpeter and composer John Carisi, one of the members of the group, recalls that “there was a parade going on at all hours. Guys coming and going, quietly, and a lot of record-playing and a lot of talking about music.”
“All the time,” Evans agrees. “That’s all that ever happened — or we would be at the piano trying some chords.”
Evans was older and a more experienced musician than many of those who came to his apartment. “It was like a school in a way,” says composer and theoretician George Russell. “Not an ordinary school but an esoteric school — and Gil was the schoolmaster. He was a calming force. He was always the one who could allay your fears. He didn’t seem to have many fears or anxieties.”
In 1948 Evans resigned from the Thornhill band. The decision, stemming from Evans’ frustration with the band’s increasingly somber sound, was also a timely one.
The big-band era was coming to a close. Also that year, much of what was discussed at Evans’ apartment crystallized with the formation of Miles Davis’ nonet and the three recording sessions that followed — the first in January 1949, the last in March 1950 — and later became collectively known as “The Birth of the Cool.”
The nonet’s music, mostly written by members of the 55th Street “school,” who also played in the sessions, was a radical departure from be-bop. The new style completely reexamined the approach to theme, form, and improvisation. Perhaps the most striking features were its sound — dark-toned, relaxed, and polished — and its instrumentation — alto sax, baritone sax, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and rhythm section. The nonet was, in fact, a scaled-down version of Thornhill’s orchestra.
“We just reduced it down to the minimum number of players to cover the harmony,” recalls Evans, “and Miles is such a good lead player. He is still the best lead player. He can play high and soft, with feeling. You hardly ever know he’s playing high.”
Although Evans contributed only one arrangement (of the standard “Moon Dreams”) and a composition (“Boplicity,” co-written with Davis), the sessions bear his distinctive stamp. ” ‘Boplicity’ alone,” wrote the French critic Andre Hodeir, “is enough to make Gil Evans qualify as one of jazz’s greatest arranger-composers.”
Still, the band’s size and style made it difficult to find regular work in clubs, and the recordings received a lukewarm response. Davis and Evans parted ways. The trumpeter went on to “hard-bop,” an earthier style of be-bop. Evans went “out on the street,” working as a free-lance arranger, orchestrating music for radio and TV shows and writing for singers such asTony Bennett, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, and Helen Merrill. Talking later about jazz dates during this time, Evans was quoted as saying, “One reason I didn’t do much is nobody asked me.”
As it happened, Evans’ work with Merrill led to a reunion with Davis and the works on which his reputation largely rests.
For Evans, 1956 and 1957 were momentous years. Merrill, who argued with her recording company over retaining Evans as her arranger, was a very vocal fan. She reminded Davis of Evans’ talents as a writer.
The first product of their reunion was Evans’ uncredited arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” for the Miles Davis Quintet. But in the fall of 1956 Evans and Davis began planning an ambitious project involving the trumpeter and a large ensemble.
They went into the studio the following spring, and the result was Miles Ahead, 10 pieces superbly arranged as mini-concertos for fluegelhorn and orchestra. It was the first of the three gems that established Evans’ reputation.
Miles Ahead was followed, two years later, by a stunning recreation of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. A year after that Davis and Evans, a longtime fan of Spanish music collaborated on Sketches of Spain, a finely achieved blend of blues and flamenco music. Acclaimed as their greatest accomplishment, Sketches won them a Grammy Award. It’s a credit to Evans’ talent that although they were all conceived within a few years, these three works have distinctive personalities.
In these collaborations with Miles Davis and in his own arrangements of jazz standards, Evans’ works are much more than brilliant orchestrations.
”His arrangements are such a complete transformation of the original materials,” says composer Gunther Schuller, “that it really comes at the level of the art of composing more than arranging.”
Russell, one of the composers who frequented the 55th Street apartment and whose work Evans has arranged, says Evans “has illuminated and brought up things I never thought were there. “He lights up a piece of music,” says Russell. “He lights up Gershwin. Turns the lights on, all kinds of color lights.”
When asked about his working method, Evans pauses. He has no set way, he says. “I use the melody and the rhythm to get me started, and then I use the harmony for the sound, to get a certain sound,” he says. “It takes certain notes. There are all kinds of choices of how to voice a chord. I spent 30 years sitting in front of the piano trying to figure out different ways to voice a minor ninth chord. The way you choose is going to give you a certain feeling. I sometimes have gone over and over and over again to find just the right notes in that chord and what notes to leave out.” And that, he says, is why he’s been “fighting” with his neighbors for 50 years.
“I understand them,” he says. “I can appreciate their problem. They hear the same music playing over and over. I don’t hear like that. I hear an orchestra playing, and I’m changing some neighboring tones because I want it to sound a certain way.”
In Miles Ahead, Evans deftly unified an eclectic collection of pieces into a large, extended work. Yet he doesn’t think in terms of form. “I really don’t,” he says. “My character structure, it’s never been inclined toward thinking. It’s like the old joke, ‘How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?’ That’s how I am. And playing is the same way. I don’t think about what I’m gonna play when I play with my band. I play it, but I do it all tactile. It’s after I play it when I say, ‘Oh, I see.’ ”
In 1962, just a couple of years after recording Sketches of Spain, Evans and Davis got together again, this time to work on a bossa nova album. As the project progressed they grew dissatisfied with the results and eventually gave up on it. Never quite completed, it was released anyway, half-finished, as Quiet Nights. Since then Evans and Davis have worked together regularly. In 1963, for example, they collaborated on a score for a Broadway play entitled Time of the Barracuda. The play was never produced, but the music was recorded, and a few pieces surfaced later on in Evans’ repertoire.
In some Davis projects — most notably his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro — Evans’ participation has gone uncredited. But according to Anita Evans, his second wife, that’s the way he wanted it. Some people, she says, are out to make Davis a villain. But she remembers CBS’ calling to ask about credits and Evans’ saying, “Look, no, that’s just something personal, and I don’t need any credit for that.”
Anita and Gil Evans separated in 1978, but have remained close friends, and she now handles the administrative details for the Gil Evans Orchestra. Davis, Anita says, has a different “imperative” than Evans. “Gil’s satisfaction is in the sculpting,” she says. “He doesn’t care about putting it out — at least he never did before.”
Evans simply has different concerns. “I care about life process,” he says, “that’s all. I’m not an artisan. There are people who can do that thing all the time. I went to see the Picasso museum in Paris. You spend a day there, and you know what kind of wild energy this man had. I don’t know what I do, except it’s a life process with not too much product. Product is a natural outcome of the process. Life goes on, and you follow it. The product, in a way, is incidental.”
The phone rings. It’s been ringing at seemingly regular intervals throughout the afternoon. Evans answers. On the phone, Evans is even more
laconic than he is in person. This time the conversation is a short one. He hangs up and shakes his head. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “My days used to go by, weeks used to go by . . . now everybody is calling me.”
He shakes his head again, and there’s a long pause. “I can’t complain, really. There’s a certain amount of reluctance that comes after a while, so I have to keep getting nudged back into it.”
Anita says that in the past, Evans’ lack of activity has not been due to a lack of offers. “It’s not that the calls didn’t come. It’s just that he
didn’t feel like doing them. Maybe he didn’t have the confidence, maybe he didn’t have the interest, maybe he didn’t have the desire.” She stops. ”Maybe fear of success. That’s what I used to think early in the game. He wanted to be always writing and thinking about music. He just wasn’t feeling a public person at that time.”
Evans himself says he has never been a prolific writer. “Every once in a while something would happen, and I’d be working really hard. A few times in my life that happened. It happened with Miles in 1957, and there were four or five years when I was really pressed to do some work, and it was time to do it, so it was OK.”
The ’60s were, for Evans, years of sharp contrasts. After the longest engagement of his career, at the Jazz Gallery in New York City (“We worked six weeks, six days a week — the most I’ve ever worked before and since”), Evans took his band into the recording studio. The resulting album for Impulse, Out of the Cool, was a clean break from his earlier work. Here the forms are freer, the textures lighter, the rhythms more strongly enunciated, and the written parts give way to collective, spontaneous arrangements. “I like that record,” he says. “It’s amazing, but after you’ve been playing together for so long, it’s almost foolproof. Sometimes it’s better than others, but you always land on your feet.”
He signed a contract with Verve, which called for four albums but resulted in only one, The Individualism of Gil Evans, and a later record compiling what Evans calls “rejects.”
He also worked as an arranger for such artists as guitarist Kenny Burrell and singer Astrud Gilberto and wrote sound-track music for a couple of films that were never released. In 1966 he organized a permanent band that performed at the Monterey and Pacific Jazz festivals, and in 1968 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. During the ’70s, Evans recorded his latest studio albums (There Comes a Time and The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix ) and worked mostly in Europe.
Even during productive times, Evans felt a need to retreat, to enjoy family life. Evans married Anita, a woman about 30 years his junior, soon after they met in 1963, and they had two sons, Noah, a sound engineer who is now 23, and Miles, 21, who plays trumpet in his father’s orchestra.
“I got off on that domestic thing,” he recalls. “I put all my time into it, because I never had any children until I was 50. So that was an experience — and I went right into it. I started out with them when they were born, and I became a baby, and I grew up right along with them, just went through the whole thing. I feel lucky. I have three wonderful friends in Anita and those two boys. We’re tight. We were a tight quartet.”
Was this the only reason he decided to take breaks from working? “I was taking care of some of my problems,” Evans answers cryptically. Then he pauses and takes a sip of his tea. There’s a long silence, and then he elaborates. “One is being lazy, the other is being afraid, and the other one is being stupid. Now, I’m not saying this expecting you to say, ‘Oh, no.’ I’m saying this as a matter of fact. ‘Stupid’ doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an idiot. ‘Stupid’ simply means that you’ve been stopped, that you’re blocked, that you can’t go any further in that particular area until you stop being stunned.” Once again he falls silent, and just like an Evans melody, the subject vanishes.
He is a gentle, gracious man, but still, it is clear that, for Evans, talking is a frustrating chore, especially when it’s about himself. But he
can also be surprisingly forceful when talking about the work of German psychologist Wilhelm Reich, Reichian therapy (which, he says, leans more to the physical than to the intellectual), and religion.
“The reason most organized religions are wrong is that they are antiphysical,” Evans says. “You are not supposed to have anybody pleasure
except to raise a family. And the other thing, which is much worse, is that they promise you a life thereafter that they can’t deliver.
“It’s cruel to talk people into accepting a miserable life because they are going to live great after,” he says with just the slightest edge. Then he
adds, “I don’t have any fancy thoughts. The reason I’m here is to live my life. No more, no less.”
He is active now. He has written scores for some films, including Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, and he’s now working on another soundtrack. He has also performed at Nightstage in Cambridge and at Yale University.
This summer, the Gil Evans Orchestra will be a sort of “house band” at the Umbria Jazz Festival, in Italy. And, of course, he is playing every Monday night in New York.
Horst Liepolt, the music producer at Sweet Basil, recalls that Evans came to the club in 1983 and played for four weeks. “I asked him if he wanted to stay on, and he did, and it just became a thing,” says Liepolt. “He should have had this his whole life long. He always should have had a workshop.” Evans, who has worked in America only sporadically, agrees. “It keeps me going,” he says.
Sweet Basil is a medium-sized club. To the side is a wood-covered bar. At the far end the small stage, holding more than a dozen musicians, looks impossibly cramped. Evans sits at the electric piano, facing the audience, stage left. Directly behind him is an acoustic piano. Evans will switch, back and forth, throughout the evening.
By 9:30 the room is packed, but the band members are still drifting in. Tonight, as the set starts, the trumpet section is missing.
It has been said of great jazz arranger-band leaders that they “play” their orchestras. Evans doesn’t. If anything, he has composed it, and now he is letting it go. This band — featuring a shrewd mix of prized sidemen, top studio musicians, unknown players, and a couple of established leaders in their own right — is relaxed and confident. The pieces are loosely structured, and Evans encourages his players to retain their personal approaches and improvise collectively — and they go at it with a vengeance. It’s a chancy proposition. Sometimes the magic is simply not there. When it works, it amounts to instant recomposition, jazz as a true “sound of surprise.”
Some nights, says lead trumpet player Lew Soloff, who has been with Evans for 20 years, the music sounds endless and not too good. “But also, 25 percent of the time, it would sound amazing.” Even if you hear the band on a bad night, says Soloff, “what you are going to hear is real, and it’s never, never going to be the same.”
Says Evans, “Sometimes the music teeters on the verge of formlessness, and then someone can’t stand it and does something, and we all go in and would be back in some kind of ‘form.’ One guy came to me one night and said, ‘You thrive on vagueness.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ ” He laughs.
Sometimes the music does simply drift. But Evans lets it go. He likes taking chances even more than he likes conciseness. “Sometimes I suffer with it,” Evans says. “But at the same time, I know we’re getting something out of it. Somewhere, somebody, someone is going to do something, maybe it’ll be me, so I let it go vague like that. But yes, it drives me crazy. It needs editing. It’s been a long time, but now I’m just beginning to need more structure.” Then he reconsiders. “At the same time, it’s fun to hit a note, any note, and then just see what happens — away we go.”
A musical scuffle breaks out. Over a heavy funk beat, two trumpets and a trombone are loudly, furiously trying to outdo one another. In the front row, French horn player John Clark takes the brunt of the assault and crouches forward for a bit of musical theater. Then just as abruptly as it gathered, the storm dissipates. All of a sudden there’s a transparent stillness, the audience gasps and then explodes in applause. Evans, playing with his eyes closed, his head bobbing, smiles. Throughout the set, he’ll turn once in a while and make a gesture indicating a change in dynamics or announcing a new section. Sometimes he just lays out, his hands hanging between his
legs, just listening.
Sometimes Evans responds to the applause, getting up, raising his hands to his chest, clasped like a prizefighter, smiling and nodding. Evans, who modestly refers to himself as the band’s “cheerleader,” seems slightly embarrassed.
“I tell you one thing,” says Soloff. “I haven’t figured out something that I can put together myself that would give me that kind of freedom. I can’t give myself the kind of freedom he gives me.”
The best jazz always involves the courage to risk and change. “Most people, when they have great success with one thing, take it and wear it out trying to make as much money as possible with it,” says Soloff. “So many people like those records with Miles, and they come and say, ‘Oh, man, you should do that, you should keep doing that.’ But Gil is an artist. He doesn’t want to do what he did. He already did it. He does what he believes in and wants to do and not what is expected of him.” He stops, and then softly adds, ”I mean, the past is very important, but there’s gotta be some people in this world who are not afraid.”
The set ends. Musicians file out. Evans, sort of a prisoner in his corner, is the last one out. He picks up his jacket and starts to walk offstage. A fan approaches him and shyly asks something. Evans smiles and nods, and the guy runs back to his table and returns with a friend who has a camera. The fan doesn’t know quite what to do, so Evans puts his arm over his shoulder and says something. They laugh, the picture is taken. They shake hands. As Evans turns away, another fan approaches. This is repeated three, four times. Then he puts his jacket on, sneaks toward the kitchen door, and soon he’s gone. He also needs a break. There’s one more set to play.
This Gil Evans’ profile appeared in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, May 1987