Gil Evans Would Have Been 100 Yesterday -- We Remember The Great Man
Lots of stories on the radio and Internet Sunday honoring what would have been the 100th birthday of iconic jazz arranger, pianist, and bandleader Gil Evans. Evans died in 1988 at age 75 after a career that most famously included his seminal work with trumpet player Miles Davis -- Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights immediately come to mind.
His 1949 release with a teenaged Davis titled Birth of the Cool is considered one of jazz's key recordings.
Mr. Evans was about to embark on a project with Jimi Hendrix in 1970 when the guitarist sadly died at age 27. Hendrix's death broke the much older man's heart.
Evans was a man whose heroes were Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Fletcher Henderson, among others, but he was totally comfortable playing with the likes of Jaco Pastorious, Sting, and soprano sax master Steve Lacy.
He was into the electric stuff as much as acoustic, and his bands created tonal "colors" that could be subtle and deeply moving and/or madly off-the-charts.
Our memories of Mr. Evans, however, are far more personal than reading up on him in a jazz history book, or simply revisiting a few of his many recordings.
Long ago, we used to time our visits to New York City to ensure that we'd be there on Monday nights, when the Gil Evans Orchestra had steady gigs at the late Sweet Basil club and Seventh Avenue South clubs in lower Manhattan.
It was the hottest and loosest big band around, with such luminaries as Hamiett Bluiett, David Sanborn (very popular in the 1980s and beyond), and Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson often on board.
We introduced ourselves to Evans during a break one night, and he was as engaging as could be -- asking us where we were from and what we were doing in the city. Canadian-born, Evans grew up in Stockton, California, and he still thought of himself as "a Western cat," and so he expressed some jealously over our permanent residence in Arizona.
In 1980, we were cobbling together a series of interviews we'd done for a book that would be called Jazz Spoken Here (released on Da Capo Press, a New York City publisher).
We contacted Mr. Evans through his then-label, Artist House Records, and he agreed to chat with us. We met with him for hours in a freezing Soho area warehouse, where a grand piano improbably sat.
I was having so much at one time writin' the arrangements that I didn't realize that arranging is a loser's game because you don't get paid any royalties. I had such a juvenile attitude until recently that I used to feel that if I spent the day working that I should find a check in the mailbox the next day. I had it coming to me, right? It never came.
He recognized us from our regular visits over the years to his Monday-night gigs, especially after we mentioned Arizona to him.
"Yeah, man, Tucson!" Evans practically shouted. "You gave me the name of that Mexican joint! El Charro, man!"
What a memory.
He was a terrific interview -- one of our favorites ever -- in turn mesmerizing, funny, and thoughtful about his life and place in jazz.
At one point, we asked him about the pitfalls of making any money as a jazzman, and a jazz arranger at that.
"I've never been too money-minded," he told us. "I was having so much at one time writin' the arrangements that I didn't realize that arranging is a loser's game because you don't get paid any royalties. I had such a juvenile attitude until recently that I used to feel that if I spent the day working that I should find a check in the mailbox the next day. I had it coming to me, right? It never came."
Then, Mr. Evans started to laugh.