From the 1950s and well into the 1980s, Gil Evans was respected as one of the most modern and innovative arrangers in jazz. But that never brought fame in the world at-large or financial success, nor did his work as a composer or bandleader.
Those things were never of interest to Evans, whose modesty and free spirit were as strong as his talent.
His life and his passions were always about the music, as Stephanie Stein Crease reminds us in her excellent biography, "Gil Evans: Out of the Cool -- His Life and His Music." It was published this fall by A Capella Books, a Chicago Review Press imprint.
It comes 13 years after Evans' death from peritonitis in March 1988 at age 75 -- a time when he was enjoying perhaps the most visibility he'd had since his historic collaborations with trumpeter Miles Davis.
That musical match began in 1948 with their groundbreaking "Birth of the Cool" nonet project and blossomed with several orchestra projects in the late 1950s: the acclaimed "Miles Ahead," "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess" recordings for Columbia that tore down barriers between jazz and classical forms.
A self-taught player, Evans was a musical sponge of sorts -- listening to a wide range of performers and genres, soaking up what interested him, and crafting new innovations from instinct as well as trial and error. Those interests ranged from complex classical works and the music of Louis Armstrong to the bossa nova movement in Brazil and the intense rock music of Jimi Hendrix, with whom he had hoped to record. After Hendrix's drug-related death in 1970, Evans' Monday Night Orchestra recorded an album of Hendrix songs in 1974.
The major turning point in Evans' career -- in terms of his impact on jazz -- came in 1946 when he moved from California to New York City. Within a matter of months, his low-rent basement apartment a three blocks from 52nd Street -- then the core of the Big Apple's club scene -- became a hangout and a crash pad for an array of musicians who would impact him -- and vice versa. They included Davis, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Carisi and singers Dave Lambert and Blossom Dearie.
In her biography -- thoroughly researched and detailed -- Stein Crease has presented a warts-and-all portrait of Evans that puts his contributions to music in a greater context. She spent considerable time on his upbringing and early career as a West Coast dance band leader that helped shape his musical choices and interests in the decades to follow.
He was the first person to introduce such unorthodox instruments as the French horn and tuba into big band jazz arrangements, and he loved voicing all instruments in unusual combinations and roles. He offered a new sound and texture for jazz players amid the swirling intensity of bebop.
In the 1950s, he wrote arrangements for leading singers including Peggy Lee, Helen Merrill, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, yet he often turned down offers for orchestral projects and writing or scoring for film that could have been lucrative -- but didn't interest him.
Evans was born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green on May 13, 1912 in Toronto, Canada. His family moved to the west coast of Canada and then to Washington state and Stockton, Calif.
He learned to play piano by ear after listening to jazz recordings and radio broadcasts of dance music. In the 1930s, he led a band in Stockton, which was taken over by Skinnay Ennis. Evans remained in the band as an arranger until 1941 when he took a job as an arranger for Claude Thornhill's Orchestra.
After a three-year Army tour during World War II, Evans returned to the Thornhill band, staying until 1948. Then came the conceptual collaborations with Miles Davis.
"Part of the attraction for Davis was Gil's skill at interweaving the soloist and the written material. Furthermore, Evans's work had an intellectual appeal that was lacking in the environment of small band bebop," Crease writes.
Evans didn't enjoy his strongest visibility as a bandleader until the last four years of his life. In 1983, he formed a Monday Night Orchestra that played weekly at New York's Sweet Basil jazz club.
Players like George Adams, Hiram Bullock, Lew Soloff and David Sanborn signed on for little more than cab fare or beer money -- and often sacrificed better-paying opportunities for the chance to collaborate with Evans. Until the end, he was a leader whose bands worked infrequently at best. But the music was always cutting-edge and adventurous.
Stein Crease's insights will have Evans fans dusting off recordings that he arranged or performed on for some invigorated analytical listening.