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Sons of Miles
GIL EVANS: The Lone Arranger
by Mike Zwerin
23 April 1998


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."

Gil 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.

His wife 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.)

The 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.

"We 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.

"If it 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 happen."

Gil Evans

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."

Evans 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 accessibility.

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 elegance.

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.

Evans 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 musical statements."

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.

He 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 evident bitterness.

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.'"

The 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.


Photo: Gil Evans
Credit: Christian Rose

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