Gil Evans: Out of the Cool by Stephanie Stein Crease

Among the finest 20th-century orchestraters in any musical genre, a unique bandleader and a singular personality, Gil Evans certainly merits more than one biography. Both of these bios are solid works, quite readable and chock full of information.

Similarly structured, they deal with Evans’ career in a linear fashion and use many of the same sources. Still, there are enough differences between the volumes for them to be complementary. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Stephanie Stein Crease’s Gil Evans: Out of the Cool contains a discography, while Larry Hicock’s Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans does not.

Born in 1912 in Toronto, Evans and his family moved around frequently before settling in Stockton, Calif., 80 miles east of San Francisco, where he attended high school. A pianist, Evans was turned on to jazz at 15 and initially learned to compose and arrange music by transcribing recordings. Evans worked with a band in high school and led a territory outfit until 1937 when it was taken over by popular vocalist Skinnay Ennis, who landed a job on the Bob Hope radio show. Evans stayed with Ennis until 1941, and then began writing for Claude Thornhill full time.

There’s much more information about Evans’ career through 1941 in Stein Crease’s book than Hicock’s. Both, however, use trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who played with Evans and with Ennis, as a major source of information. Stein Crease quotes him as saying, “Gil had a knack for writing for 10 pieces so that it would sound like a 12- or 15-piece band. The trombone would play the fourth sax part or one of the sax players would fill out the brass section so that we got all kinds of colors with the use of mutes. And as you know, Gil was very skillful early on at making colors, making beautiful sounds.”

The period in Evans’ career upon which his great reputation with the jazz community rests is roughly from 1942 to 1962 and includes his work with Thornhill and Miles Davis. The two authors give these years plenty of attention, and implicit in both their works is that Thornhill had a strong influence on Evans. Thornhill and Evans both did charts for Ennis in 1938. Stein Crease and Hicock both quote Evans from a 1957 Nat Hentoff Down Beat article as saying, “Even then Claude had a unique way with a dance band.” It was from Thornhill that Evans got the idea of using French horn and tuba with the Davis nonet. And Evans brought a lot to Thornhill, not only beautiful ballad charts but the sound of bop in arrangements of tunes including “Donna Lee,” “Yardbird Suite” and “Anthropology.”

Much is written in both books concerning Evans’ impact on Davis’ innovative Capitol recordings; not only about his “Moon Dreams” and “Boplicity” charts, but the general influence he had on the dates. I also dig Stein Crease’s discussion about cool jazz, which puts the Capitol recordings in perspective. In it she quotes Andre Hodeir, possibly the first and among the most influential of Evans’ champions. I’ve often wondered if his enthusiasm for Evans’ work helped create the climate that brought about the wonderful Evans/Davis Columbia collaborations Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. It’s pointed out by both authors that Evans made uncredited contributions to other Davis albums, including Filles de Kilimanjaro.

From 1957 to the mid-1960s Evans made some impressive albums under his own name, e.g. Gil Evans & Ten, that didn’t receive enough attention. Hicock tries to remedy this situation by devoting individual chapters to them. Stein Crease devotes plenty of attention to them too, but Hicock’s enthusiasm is laudable and, hopefully, will be catching. Hicock’s cheerleading for the Evans bands of the 1980s is also welcome. The performances of these outfits were deliberately loose and informal. Soloists were sometimes not determined in advance; they just stood up and played when they felt like it. Hicock quotes sideman John Clark as saying that Evans “used to call it a leaderless band.” Performances could be ragged but were frequently full of spontaneity.

Evans’ self-effacing quality manifested itself frequently. He didn’t like to boss people around and didn’t mind if Davis took credit for work he did. But he knew what he wanted and was musically uncompromising. His refusal to speed up his writing to satisfy record producers is legendary, and he turned down a job with Barry Manilow, which would’ve resulted in his biggest payday. This integrity, as well as his artistic achievements, is what impresses his biographers.