I’d say my first memory of hearing the name Gil Evans was from his work on the soundtrack for the film ‘Absolute Beginners’ released in 1986. Like most things back then, just reading his name and of his work with some of the biggest names in jazz, would have sent me in search of more and would eventually bring me into contact with some wonderful music from the likes of Miles Davis and a collection of albums that are still dear to me to this day.
Gil, was christened Ian Ernest Gilmore Green, when born in Toronto Canada in the May of 1912 to Mother Margaret. His real father died before Gil was born, so eventually he took up the surname Evans, from his stepfather, John, a miner. The family moved all over, as John searched for work, before eventually settling in California.
Gil was fascinated by music from a young age, with records and radio broadcasts from the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, early influencers on his ears. He self-taught on piano and arranging, and found work locally, before a short tour took his band to Hollywood, where they settled picking up gigs before finding work on the Bob Hope Show occasionally.
Still classified as a Canadian national, he joined the US Army during the Second World War and upon leaving, took up residence in New York. His apartment there, quickly became a meeting point for musicians looking to develop something new, away from the Bebop idiom of the day. Among those in regular attendance included Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, later of The Modern Jazz Quartet. All three then teamed up with Miles Davis, as they developed music for a nonet, which was large enough to deliver a ‘big’ sound’, but still smaller than the standard big band, which were struggling to make a living in 1948. The line-up recorded 12 numbers over three sessions for Capitol Records, though they only saw the light of day in 1957, with the seminal album ‘Birth of the Cool.’
In the intervening years, Gil found work with the likes of Charlie Parker, Johnny Mathis, Pearl Bailey, Helen Merrill, Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett among many others, on countless albums, radio and TV sessions, making a living the best he could. Miles liked the hip Gil, and they reunited to work on three further projects, this time with a 19 piece orchestra, from which came ‘Miles Ahead’ in 1957, ‘Porgy and Bess’ in 1958 and ‘Sketches of Spain’ in 1960.
Evans also released records under his own name, as well as arranging tracks for the likes of guitarist Kenny Burrell. 1964 saw the release of the album ‘The individualism of Gil Evans’ and in 1966, he recorded with the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto.
Always exploring new sounds, at the tail end of the 60s Gil put together a fifteen piece orchestra to work in a free-jazz-rock style, inspired by the work of Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, there was talk of Jimi working with Gil’s big band, after being introduced by Miles Davis, but Jimi’s untimely death in 1970 ended that. Gil, now fully into the electric sound by 1974, used synthesisers on the album ‘The Gil Evans Orchestra Play the Music of Jimi Hendrix ‘
From 1983, he worked Monday nights at the Sweet Basil Jazz Club, in Greenwich Village and with the engagement lasting five years, spawning successful releases under the name of Gils Evans and The Monday Night Orchestra. He also worked with bassist Jaco Pastorius on the album ‘Live Under the Sky Tokyo ‘84.’
And so, to 1986, which found him working on two soundtracks. Arranging and producing one for the aforementioned ‘Absolute Beginners’ working with the likes of Sade, The Style Council, Jerry Dammers & David Bowie, as well as then working with Robbie Robertson and Willie Dixon on the film ‘The Color of Money’ directed by Martin Scorsese.
In his personal life, Gil had first married Lillian Grace in 1949 and then married for a second time in 1963 to Anita. They went on to have two sons Miles and Noah, with Miles eventually playing trumpet in Gils Monday Night Orchestra.
Gil died aged 75 in Mexico in 1988, following prostate surgery.
The trumpeter Henry Lowther – ‘Gil was an absolutely lovely man. He was modest and unassuming, but he was terribly disorganised and a chaotic bandleader. It was notoriously difficult to get music out of him. Sometimes, he’d turn up at the studio with a few scraps of paper, and sometimes he wouldn’t have anything at all (but) there’s no doubt in my mind that Gil was the most important writer in jazz history after Duke Ellington.’
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