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   Gil Evans

In 1962, Evans, now fifty, marries Anita Cooper; within two years their sons Noah and Miles were born. Sketches of Spain won a Grammy, and Evans won several international critics polls for Best Composer and Arranger, and two years later his album The Individualism of Gil Evans  was nominated for a Grammy. His writing for this album shows an experimental turn, allowing for extended solos and collective improvisation, yet still has his signature colors, textures  and timbres.  The musicians who participated in the sessions, as always, were  included highly individual jazz players and  expert studio musicians. Among them were Phil Woods, Steve Lacy, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones, Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, Eric Dolphy, Kenny Burrell and Wayne Shorter.

Gil received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1968; he and composer George Russell were the first jazz musicians/composers to receive this prestigious award (Evans did not receive it the first time he applied).  During the late 1960s, Evans continued to do some arrangements with Miles Davis, and Davis often used him as a consultant, though they no longer worked together on the scale of their previous recorded collaborations. Remarkably, their musical interests followed similar paths: they both veered into new territory, with electronic instruments, a more fluid rhythmic sense, and influences from rock and world music. Evans’s album Blues in Orbit is his first recording in this vein. His band at that time kept attracting  a striking combination of musicians. Some were deeply rooted jazz players, and some were electronic pioneers. Contemporary musicians such as Lew Soloff and David Sanborn were thrilled to have this experience, and often played for no fee. Said Soloff: “What Gil liked to do was to think of the person. He didn’t think of a tuba, he thought of Howard Johnson. He didn’t think of a saxophone sound, he thought George Adams…He didn’t want you to play like a machine or a perfect band playing a chart. He was after the particular people he hired to sing this thing together in their own very individual manner.”  The band did not work steadily, but gave several notable performances during the 1970s, including at the Village Vanguard, the Whitney Museum, and ion their first European tour.

Evans was named a founding artist of the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., in 1972 and performed with his orchestra for one of the Center’s inaugural concerts. For this occasion, Evans expanded the group to 16 musicians. A Downbeat reviewer raved: “It was extremely moving to watch the group operate. They worked hard, never seeming to tire, compelled by the joy of creation…Has the magic of Gil Evans created an entirely new genre of music?”  

The band's repertoire was ever widening.  In 1974, the Evans gave a concert tribute to guitarist Jimi Hendrix, followed by an album, The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix. Evans  considered Hendrix another “sound innovator”, and had hoped to work with the guitarist before his tragic death in 1970. Some of these arrangements were written by Evans's band members, and  became a staple in the band's repertoire for years to come, with the kind of “ haunting cry” that Evans sought to express. The Hendrix album, along with Svengali and There Come A Time, also recorded in the mid-1970s, were the last studio recordings Evans made for several years.

Though Evans's performances through much of the 1970s were infrequent, he still worked non-stop on his music and continued to receive awards and recognition in surprising ways.  Evans was  honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, who held a Tribute to Jazz Musicians, naming them “National Treasures.”  That same year Evans’s orchestra went on three successful trips to Europe.

Evans's work and visibility took an upturn when the Gil Evans Orchestra started performing regularly on Monday nights at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village, starting in 1983. This long-running residency gave Evans, now 71 years old, a renewed recognition of his artistry, which was always in step, if not ahead, of what was gong on in several genres musically. For the last years of Evans’s life, his band played at the club every Monday night when they were in New York. Word about the band’s vibrant performances spread, and Evans was in demand; the band performed at the 1984 Kool Jazz Festival on the same bill as Miles Davis; a few months later, the same billing drew a crowd of  15, 000 people to a stadium outside of Paris. Evans taught several master classes and clinics; he also collaborated on film scores, including Absolute Beginners and The Color of Money .

In 1985, Evans received an Honorary Doctorate from the New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts; he was also awarded a Jazz Masters Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor given to living American jazz musicians. That year, Evans hired Maria Schneider (now an acclaimed composer/arranger) as a copyist, and later on as an assistant.  Schneider once  said: “Gil had all sorts of ways to do things that are not in the books, and they all had a consistent logic. It was a little bit of a parallel universe that went by its own mathematical rules.”

Throughout 1987, Evans and the Gil Evans Orchestra were in demand.  The band did a three-week whirlwind tour of Europe, honoring Evans’ 75th birthday, and performed at several international festivals. The Evans Orchestra did a 10-day residency in July at Umbria Jazz in Italy, capped off with a concert with Sting. That fall, the band appeared at a festival in Brazil, and a couple of months later, Evans joined Laurent Cugny’s Big Band Lumière for a tour of France, featuring Evans’s arrangements. A banner year, Evans also recorded a  “remake” of Dream of You with Helen Merrill, and also did a duo recording with Steve Lacy, bringing his recording life full circle: Paris Blues with Lacy was his last recording.

Gil Evans died on March 20,1988,  in Cuernavaca Mexico, where he’d gone to recuperate from  surgery, with his sons taking turns helping him. A small keyboard and a pile of arrangements were at his side.

--Stephanie Crease, New York City, 2012
Author of Gil Evans: Out of the Cool (Chicago Review Press, 2001)