Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music
Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music
by Stephanie Stein Crease

A Cappella Books, October 2001
ISBN: 1556524250

by Donald Clarke

copyright © 2002 Donald Clarke
first published in Jazz Notes

A few months ago the Austin American-Statesman ran a series of articles about "creative" people living in Austin. These "creative" people demand decent restaurants and lots of activity in the arts, thus helping to make Austin a place where even more "creative" people will want to live. But upon closer examination, the people the paper was talking about, earning and spending lots of money, were mostly designers of software and the like. The really creative people, I would have thought, are the artists, writers, musicians and film-makers who create the stuff that goes on the software. But they are called content providers, and most of them do not appear on lists of the affluent. The average musician in Austin makes about $10,000 a year, has no health insurance, and can't afford to eat out. So it has always been with arrangers. Nelson Riddle was paid flat fees for all the classic work he did with Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, and many others. The only records that paid off for Riddle were albums with Linda Ronstadt, where she tried recording Sinatra-type material; the record company was too cheap even to pay Riddle a flat fee, but gave him a percentage instead, and the albums turned out to be hits. It was Riddle's estate that benefitted, however. By the time the money came in, he had died of cancer.

And Gil Evans was broke all his life. Gilmore Ian Ernest Green was born in Toronto in 1912. One source states flatly that Evan's mother, Margaret Julia McConnachy, was British, that his father was Australian, and that they had immigrated to Canada from Australia. Evans once said in an interview that both his parents were born in Australia; Margaret told somebody else that Dr. Green had been a Canadian. The hospital where he was born is said to have burned down, but we don't know if anyone has done the necessary research. Margaret must have been a charming and resourceful person, quitting jobs as easily as she could find them and making friends everywhere; she said she was married five times, but at any rate her last consort was John Evans, a miner, from whom she separated when Gil was a teenager and they were living in Stockton, California. The confusion over Gil's name led to comedy when he was drafted into the U.S. Army (nominally still a Canadian citizen); the change was not made legal until 1968. But you won't find that out in this book.

Margaret had evidently taught Gil everything he needed to know about self-sufficiency. By the time he graduated from high school in 1930 he had been hooked on music for years, and was already a bandleader. He led a successful dance band on the West Coast until 1938, and two of his opposing personal characteristics already stood out: He was a natural leader -- the band was like a family, yet everybody knew who the boss was -- and he was also a strange combination of integrity and diffidence. All his career he was unflappable. The booking agency MCA could have got the band better bookings and a recording contract, but Evans didn't think the band was good enough. In retrospect, it is obvious that the last things Evans wanted to be was a star, and later there were some years when he apparently had no work at all, but he was perfectly suited to the hand-to-mouth existence of the arranger.

The popular vocalist Skinnay Ennis left bandleader Hal Kemp, took over the Gil Evans band in 1938 on behalf of the long-suffering MCA, and immediately landed a plum job backing the Bob Hope show (those were the days, when every radio show had its own band). By the end of the year one of the other arrangers was Claude Thornhill, who had also worked for Kemp, then had a big hit with his arrangement of "Loch Lomond." By 1942 Thornhill had his own band, for which Evans wrote arrangements until 1948, with a gap for WWII; after the war Gerry Mulligan also wrote for Thornhill, and the band included such sidemen as Lee Konitz and Red Rodney.

Thornhill's band was heard by the public as a sweet dance band (its biggest hit was "A Sunday Kind Of Love") but the arrangements were much better than that, adaptations of classical tunes and Charlie Parker's bebop compositions played by a band whose unpredictable voicings included French horns. During this period Evans had a legendary basement flat in New York City where George Russell, Mulligan, and others liked to hang out; typically, though the door was never locked, nobody ever forgot whose flat it was. And then came the famous Birth of the Cool sessions: one short gig and 12 78-rpm sides made in 1949 and 50 by a nonet under Miles Davis's name, with two arrangements by Evans. The records sank without trace at the time, but were rediscovered not many years later as the moment cool jazz had been invented. It was all about beauty, and Gil Evans was at the center of it.

He became most famous for writing four classic big-band albums for Miles Davis in 1957-62: Miles Ahead , Porgy & Bess, Sketches of Spain , and Quiet Nights . The last was not a proper album, but thrown together by Columbia, to the fury of Davis and Evans. There was also a Carnegie Hall concert in 1961 that was recorded live. Filles de Kilimanjaro in 1968 was the quintet with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, partly or wholly arranged by Evans. Evans never received a penny in royalties.

Davis and Evans remained close friends all their lives, both living in New York; Davis had a swanky modernized brownstone, while Evans had a fifth-floor walk-up. After many years Evans admitted that Miles was "cheap," but the music was all that mattered; Evans was capable of spending hours on a single chord. Davis actually forgot to pay him money that had been promised for rehearsals and such (reunions were always being mooted), but Evans reasoned that Davis was a superstar and needed the money. In 1960 Columbia had offered Evans an artist's contract, but he never signed it, probably both puzzled and insulted by the boilerplate language. In 1973 his friends and his hard-working second wife organized a tour to promote the album Svengali . The night before they were to leave, he announced that he'd changed his mind. He didn't want to be a bandleader; he was just going to stay home and play the piano. But he had to go after all; he was incredulous when they told him that they would do the tour with a cardboard cutout of Gil Evans leaning on the piano.

This book contains a useful discography, including all the Evans arrangements known to have been recorded, starting with "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish," by the Ennis band in 1938, and ending with Evans tribute albums made 50 years later, after his death. Altogether there were more than 20 big band albums under Evans's name, some recorded live; duo albums with Lee Konitz and Steve Lacy; two gorgeous versions of an album, one early and one later, with the underrated vocalist Helen Merrill; and other bits and pieces. All of Evans's work was full of the sound of surprise. As his assistant (and future bandleader) Maria Schneider put it, "Gil had all sorts of ways to do things that are not in the books, and they all had a very consistent logic. It was a little bit of a parallel universe that went by its own mathematical rules."

When a musician asked him what he was supposed to do, Evans would basically tell him to do what he felt like doing: Evans had hired him, and knew that he could add something personal. A long series of Monday night concerts at Sweet Basil in the 1980s crowned an ultimately rewarding career, and a few of those nights were raggedy, because Evans, like Ellington, like Johnny Carisi, like all the great ones, wanted his music played by certain people, who might or might not be on form.

And among the creative people for whom there is not enough work nowadays are what used to be called publishers' editors. Any writer needs a little advice here and there, and Stephanie Stein Crease got cheated in that department. She writes on page 5 that Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven "played some of the most innovative improvisational jazz of the era," as though they were merely among the best of the lot. On page 6, "up-tempo arranged dance music . . . was the rock and roll of its time." In what sense was that? Did it make parents angry? On page 10, the Casa Loma band is "all but unknown today." But that band influenced generations of musicians, and 20 CDs of its tracks have been issued; somebody must be buying them. In a letter from Evans quoted on page 89, a name is "deleted for political reasons only," which is fine, but the sentence then should have been left out; it is of no value.

But as the book goes on, Stein Crease allows the story to tell itself with lots of anecdotes and quotes, including some hilarious patches from Evans's rollicking wartime letters; he describes the military experience as "associations with feeble-minded ciphers of the manswarm." He also jokes about his "nostrils distended (from overuse of Benzedrine Inhalors)," and Stein Crease apparently takes him literally, a risky thing to do. In the end the book is a workman-like addition to the shelf, the pictures and the discography adding to the pleasure.

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