“A beautifully constructed biography.” —Variety
“A beautifully constructed biography.” —Variety
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The life (19121988) and career of Gil Evans paralleled and often foreshadowed the quickly changing world of jazz through the 20th century. Gil Evans: Out of the Cool is the comprehensive biography of a self-taught musician whom colleagues often regarded as a mentor. His innovative work as a composer, arranger, and bandleaderfor Miles Davis, with whom he frequently collaborated over the course of four decades, and for his own ensemblesplaces him alongside Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland as one of the giants of American music. His unflagging creativity galvanized the most prominent jazz musicians in the world, both black and white. This biography traces Evans's early years: his first dance bands in California during the Depression; his life as a studio arranger in Hollywood; and his early work with Claude Thornhill, one of the most unusual bandleaders of the Big Band Era. After settling in New York City in 1946, Evans's basement apartment quickly became a meeting ground for musicians. The discussions that took place there among Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and others resulted in the “Birth of the Cool” scores for the Miles Davis Nonet and, later on, for Evans’s masterpieces with Davis: “Miles Ahead,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Sketches of Spain.” This replaces 1556524250.
Winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award
The life (19121988) and career of Gil Evans paralleled and often foreshadowed the quickly changing world of jazz through the 20th century. Gil Evans: Out of the Cool is the comprehensive biography of a self-taught musician whom colleagues often regarded as a mentor. His innovative work as a composer, arranger, and bandleaderfor Miles Davis, with whom he frequently collaborated over the course of four decades, and for his own ensemblesplaces him alongside Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland as one of the giants of American music. His unflagging creativity galvanized the most prominent jazz musicians in the world, both black and white. This biography traces Evans's early years: his first dance bands in California during the Depression; his life as a studio arranger in Hollywood; and his early work with Claude Thornhill, one of the most unusual bandleaders of the Big Band Era. After settling in New York City in 1946, Evans's basement apartment quickly became a meeting ground for musicians. The discussions that took place there among Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and others resulted in the “Birth of the Cool” scores for the Miles Davis Nonet and, later on, for Evans’s masterpieces with Davis: “Miles Ahead,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Sketches of Spain.”
“A beautifully constructed biography.” —Variety
“A beautifully constructed biography.” —Variety
On a golden day in early October 1987 in New York City, Gil Evans was walking with a friend through some of the densely wooded paths in the middle of Central Park. His step was brisk, his blue eyes clear. His wizened, aging features relaxed with the beauty of the morning. The last few months had been unusually hectic for Evans, now seventy-five years old. Over the summer his band had been to The Hague, the south of France, Italy, and, most recently, Brazil for four days. He was finally settled back at home, half a block away, in a tiny fifth-floor walk-up apartment on West 75th Street that doubled as a studio.
He walked deeper into the woods and started rummaging around in the pockets of his well-worn jeans and flannel shirt. Leaning against a big, old oak tree, he pulled out a small, gnarled hardwood pipe, which he filled with marijuana from a leather pouch. He wordlessly offered the pipe to his companion and slowly took a couple of puffs. He then pulled out a small bird whistle he had ordered from a Sierra Club catalog. The whistle's lifelike trill — not too harsh or metallic — attracted scores of birds, who flocked around the huge oak within minutes. Evans named ten or so varieties of birds whose calls he could pick out, then paused to savor the mixture of their voices. His fascination with sound was as keen as it had been when he was a child. Suddenly, he stretched out his thin, now reedy arms in greeting, marveling at his newly assembled orchestra.
* * *
Gilmore Ian Ernest Green was born on May 13, 1912, to Margaret Julia McConnachy, who was in her late forties at the time of his birth. She was an adventurous and imaginative Scotch-Irish woman, qualities she passed along to her son. Little is known about Gil's biological father or his relationship with Margaret. She told Gil as a child that his father was a doctor who died before Gil was born, in a hospital in Toronto that had burned down. She also told him that he was her gift, that she'd found him on a beach where he had fallen from a star. Gil later said that until he was about eleven, he didn't suspect anything different.
Gil's mother's adventures and travels have made her life and his childhood difficult to document. Those of Gil's friends who knew Margaret remember her as a thoroughly charming woman with a British accent, but Gil himself was unclear about his parents' background. In 1936, in what is probably Gil's first press interview — for the local paper in Santa Ana, California, where he played with his ten-piece dance band — Gil said that both his parents were born in Australia. Many years later, he said his mother was Scotch-Irish and that dire poverty had driven her from the British Isles. She took a route common to other poor, respectable young women in the late 1800s and responded to ads for housekeepers abroad. She moved to South Africa, Australia, and then Canada. Maybeth Carpenter, a vocalist with Evans's band in 1938, who Gil's mother befriended, said that Margaret told her she had married five times. She said that Gil's father, Green, a Canadian doctor, was her fourth husband, and he had died before Gil was born. She separated from her fifth and last husband, John A. Evans, another Canadian, when Evans was a teenager and the family was living in Stockton, California. There is no documentation of any of Margaret's marriages or the deaths or separations from her first four husbands. But, like other women who hired themselves out in similar positions, she may have had more than business relationships with some of her various employers.
John Evans, a miner, became Gil's stepfather when Gil was a young child. The family migrated to wherever the older Evans could get work — in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon — before eventually settling in California. Gil remembered the bitter winters of Saskatchewan, going to a different school every year, and occasionally riding a horse to school. Years later, he described with awe the way his petite mother — she was less than five feet tall — served up Paul Bunyan-sized breakfasts at logging and mining camps. His first obtainable school records, from Stockton High School, show that he attended the ninth and tenth grades at Berkeley High School, and that he spent the first six weeks of his junior year in Burbank before entering Stockton High in October 1928. His grades in Berkeley were excellent, all As and Bs, but during his last two semesters at Stockton, they slipped; though he graduated on June 19, 1930, he flunked both English and algebra and received a D in elementary music.
One can only speculate about that D. During his senior year, Gil was preoccupied with music; transcribing songs and arrangements from records, playing with his band, and related activities kept him very busy. As a young child, he was totally fascinated by sound, any kind of sound. He could recognize visitors by the sound of their cars or even their footsteps. He became interested in jazz in Berkeley when a friend's father had set up a piano, phonograph, and drum set in the basement; he started teaching Gil basic chords and how to pick out tunes on the piano. (Years later, Gil realized that he was taught the names of certain chords and inversions incorrectly.) Gil considered his friend's father "advanced" for encouraging the kids to play and listen to jazz. He heard his first jazz records in that basement — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson — and the father took Gil and his own sons to hear Ellington at the Orpheum Theater in 1927. Gil fell in love with what he heard.
Gil began spending a lot of time at the local record store, where he could sit and try out records before he bought them. He was also spellbound by the remote radio broadcasts that started proliferating from the mid-1920s on, playing the music of the day — hot, danceable jazz. "When I was coming up, radio was really the big thing. There would be remote broadcasts from all over the place. Armstrong came on all the time, and so did Duke, and the Casa Loma band. Don Redman had a wonderful band of his own that used to broadcast live a lot. I caught all those broadcasts as much as I could and it was a wonderful education, really."
When the Evans family moved to Stockton in the autumn of 1928, the city had a population of about 20,000, and downtown Stockton looked almost like the pioneer town it had been half a century earlier. The main street was lined with storefronts with two-story facades and wooden sidewalks; some men still toted guns. The town was largely supported by agriculture. There was a large Asian community: Chinese immigrants who came in the mid-1800s to build the railroad and Filipinos who supplied cheap farm labor. Stockton also had its upper crust. The Holt family, who hired Gil's mother as their children's governess in 1930, were the originators and first manufacturers of Caterpillar tractors. They remained one of Stockton's foremost families for decades. The Grupe family, whose son Greenlaw became one of Gil's close high school friends, developed a thriving real estate dynasty, which the family has kept a close grip on since the early 1900s.
Gilmore Evans, John A. Evans, and June M. Evans were listed together in the Stockton directory of 1929, with an address on North Center Street. Within a year, all three had separate addresses. John Evans became a brakeman with the Western Pacific Railroad. Margaret and Gil both moved into the Holt household, where she was hired as a governess, which put Gil at a disadvantage socially. He frequently ended up staying with friends, and when he was seventeen, he rented a room in a boarding house near the center of town. After 1931, John Evans no longer appeared in the city directory.
When Gil first entered Stockton High, he was a tall, attractive sixteen-year-old whose natural poise and independent style were very apparent to his peers. Quiet yet affable, within weeks he gravitated toward other students who either played instruments or were excited about music. For the most part, his new friends came from fairly well-off families who, later on, weathered the Depression gracefully. He especially gravitated to the homes of friends whose families owned pianos. One of them was Ben Wallace, an outgoing, generous teenager, whose father's steady business — a funeral parlor — allowed the family to live in a large, well-equipped home. Ben's mother used to delight at listening to Gil play the piano for hours after school; Ben listened from the next room, marveling at the beauty of Gil's explorations.
Ben was sometimes asked to play drums for the casual gigs Gil and his friends began to get around town. Wallace himself admitted that his playing was not that good; he got invited because he usually could borrow his family's car and had some cash.
Gil was also happy to spend time at Ben's house because Ben had an extensive collection of 78rpms featuring Louis Armstrong's small recording groups: his Hot Five and Hot Seven played some of the most innovative improvisational jazz of the era. Gil was enthralled by these recordings and borrowed freely from Ben's collection, a couple of records at a time. Many years later, when Gil achieved a certain degree of fame, he used a stock response with journalists asking about his early influences: "Everything I ever learned about jazz came from Louis Armstrong. As far as how to handle a song and how to love music, I learned from him. I bought every Armstrong record between 1925 and 1932, that was his most creative period, you know." Ben Wallace showed the good-natured generosity of his youth when he spoke about Gil some sixty years later. "When Gil left Stockton in 1931 to go to college," Wallace said with a laugh, "he took all my Armstrong records with him. I didn't have a single one left."
Gil also frequently stayed with Leroy Judd, who was a much better drummer than Ben Wallace and became a member of Gil's first working band in 1929, playing for high school dances and parties. Gil was very fond of Leroy's mother, who was musical herself. He spent a great deal of time at the Judds, at the piano or hunkered over their phonograph copying music from records. Gil's five-piece band often used the Judd's basement to rehearse, and a couple of years later, so did his ten-piece band.
Gil and his friends were a close-knit group. Since fraternities were not allowed at their high school, they decided to form a club, which they called the "Goober Club." They took in enough members to rent an old house with a large water tank that they soundproofed and made into a card room. The club's instigator and money man was Greenlaw Grupe, who was already following in his family's business-savvy footsteps and was the club's secretary-treasurer. As a music lover, budding entrepreneur, and patron of the in-crowd, Grupe became the manager of Gil's newly formed combo; he did everything from seeking out gigs to financing incidentals to running interference when trouble came up.
Gil's little band played the most popular dance numbers of the day, such as "China Boy" and "Limehouse Blues." Everyone was dancing, and in the late 1920s, up-tempo arranged dance music, played by ten- or twelve-piece bands and spiced up by exciting jazz soloists, was the rock and roll of its time, just as swing music — played by even bigger dance bands — would be a few years later. Gil's very first arrangement was based on the then-current hit by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider." Gil's arrangements of the hits of the day, the results of his painstaking record copying, made his band a big attraction at parties. Members of the Goober Club usually came along for the ride.
Bruse Ross, the club's vice president, who later ran a small business in Stockton, recalled:
He [Gil] was smart. He was a real student, but he'd get everything without even trying — Latin, mathematics, anything, the whole bit. He was of a different breed, I'll tell you. Things came easy to him. He had no musical education at all — he picked it up all by ear. I can remember him playing a piece over and over, play that much on a record and take it off, play it over again with his ear cocked down there. But jeez, when he used to play piano [illustrates with foot stomps], the whole building could hear him clobber down, boy.
* * *
While most of Gil's friends led fairly sheltered lives, Gil lived independently and ate many of his meals in restaurants. He didn't seem to have to account to anyone, though he remained very close with his mother, a cheerful, seasoned wanderer who made do in all kinds of circumstances. Gil, who inherited her creative resourcefulness, managed to have a part-time job of some kind and one car or another from the time he was sixteen. And these cars, though used, were classy. Gil was paid under the table by cafe owner Gus Terzakies to haul students over to his cafe at lunchtime in his Pierce Arrow, an elegant old roadster that was finally wearing out, part by part. This scheme lasted about a year until the car had its final breakdown. Gil also scared up other part-time jobs while in high school — delivering gas canisters and playing solo piano at tea time at the elegant Hotel Stockton. The Pierce Arrow and its successors — a LaSalle, a Ford, and later a Cadillac — were paid for by loans, mostly from Greenlaw Grupe. But no matter how well used these vehicles were, they reflected Gil's adventurousness and independence.
Gil's personality already manifested certain contradictory elements that would last throughout his life. His growing prowess as a bandleader and pianist gave him cachet with his high school crowd, but he was neither exhibitionistic nor egotistical about his talent. His musical activities made him a ringleader, but he was actually a loner who didn't follow the crowd. He could be a prankster, but he was also gentlemanly and soft-spoken, and he completely charmed his friends' mothers. He had an almost innate sense for quality items, like the Pierce Arrow, but didn't desire luxurious things for their own sake, and he was usually broke. For all the unreturned loans or records, his friends thought of him neither as a con artist nor as particularly deprived.
None of his friends really knew much about Gil's early life or his family's circumstances. In those days, people didn't reveal intimate details about themselves and their families the way they do today. Ben Wallace said he sometimes felt sorry for Gil, but couldn't exactly describe why. Others thought Gil was the most interesting and unusual person they knew, and they never got any indication that he was lacking in any way, emotionally or otherwise. If anything, they romanticized his autonomy.
Music was already ruling Gil's life. He made his way through high school and was regarded as extremely bright, even excelling at a couple of courses. Most of his waking hours were devoted to music in one way or another, and particularly to his band. Performing for school parties and functions was the ideal social leavening agent, and having a band was an adventure that everyone could partake in. It was also an experience that took on a life of its own and had its own necessities — a place to transcribe records, rehearsal space, transportation, and money for gas, food, tuxedos, and publicity. Gil's direct, unassuming manner helped him get what he needed for his fledgling combo — plus enthusiastic support from his friends. He learned to become a smooth operator without ever seeming like one — an unoppressive mooch. As his future friend and colleague Jimmy Maxwell once said, "He was one of these very captivating people that would come over and eat you out of house and home, and somehow you'd end up thanking him."
* * *
When Gil graduated from Stockton High in June 1930, his yearbook photo was accompanied only by his name. The rest of his classmates had captions running on for a paragraph or two, listing their accomplishments, goals, and dreams, but Gil never got around to submitting his blurb. Gil was uncomfortable about documenting his accomplishments, musical or otherwise. This self-effacing attitude — a strange mixture of modesty and lack of confidence — and his readiness to get on with the next project followed him to adulthood.
As a young man graduating from high school, Gil's accomplishments, and even some realized dreams, were beginning to mount up. His little band was playing in and around Stockton three or four nights a week, and he was working on new material in every spare minute. He wasn't alone, either. By this time, when dance bands were sprouting up all over the country, several young musicians performed around the Stockton and Modesto area as collaborators and competitors. Most of Gil's musicians, and his audience, were fellow students. Gil graduated from high school in June 1930 and entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton in September. In January 1931 he transferred to Modesto Junior College, a bigger school eighty miles from Stockton that attracted students from all over the state and provided new opportunities for Gil's band.
Excerpted from Gil Evans by Stephanie Stein Crease. Copyright © 2002 Stephanie Stein Crease. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Stephanie Stein Crease is a music journalist and recording industry professional. She has contributed to The New York Times, Down Beat, JAZZIZ, Pulse, and The Oxford Companion to Jazz. She lives in New York City.
Stephanie Stein Crease is the author of Music Lessons: Guide Your Child to Play a Musical Instrument, and Duke Ellington: His Life in Jazz. She
is a music journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, Down Beat, JAZZIZ, Pulse, and The Oxford Companion to Jazz.
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