Gil Evans and modern jazz

Gil Evans


Gil Evans (1912-1988) was a pioneering jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader who played an important role in developing modern jazz – cool, modal, free, and fusion styles.


Born as Ian Ernest Gilmore Green on May 13, 1912, in Toronto, Canada, he later adopted the name Evans from his stepfather. Evan’s family moved around when he was a small boy, eventually settling in California. Evans started playing piano in Junior High School, receiving lessons from a friend’s father. He developed an early interest in jazz and continued pursuing music by educating himself and listening to recordings on the radio. He was particularly interested in Louis Armstrong and was inspired by Armstrong’s musical arrangements.

“I bought every one of Louis Armstrong’s records from 1927-1936. … In every one of these three minute records, there’s a magic moment somewhere. Every one of them. I really learned how to handle a song from him. I learned how to love music from him. Because he loved music and he did everything with love and care.
So he’s my main influence I think.”        – Gil Evans

Gil EvansEvans’ early career began in the 1930s when he arranged for the dance band of Skinnay Ennis. However, his major breakthrough came in the 1940s while working with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Evans’ arrangements for Thornhill were notable for their sophisticated harmonies and use of orchestral instruments such as French horns and tuba, which would become a hallmark of his style.


In the late 1940s, Evans moved to New York City, where he became a key figure in the birth of cool jazz. He rented a small apartment on 52nd Street that had a piano and a record player. The apartment became a meeting ground for major jazz musicians who lived and worked in New York at the time.  Artists like Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lee Konitz, George Russel and John Lewis got together in Evan’s apartment to learn and inspire each other. Miles Davis, who at the time was playing with Charlie Parker’s Quintet started visiting Gil Evans’ place, and soon started arranging music with Evans. 

“We talked a lot about harmony. How to get a “sound” out of harmony. Because the harmony has a lot to do with what the music is going to “sound” like. The instruments have their wave form and all that, but the harmony means that you’re putting together a group of instruments, and they’re going to get their own independent wave form, right? You can’t get it any other way except as an ensemble together.”   -Gil Evans


The informal sessions between Gil Evans and Miles Davis eventually led to the famed collaborations the landmark 1949-1950 “Birth of the Cool” recordings, which also included Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis. Gil Evans’ unique arranging style and use of instrument rarely heard in jazz, like the French horn and tuba, were key elements in creating the distinctive sound in “Birth of the Cool.” The partnership between Evans and Davis continued to flourish in the late 1950s and 1960s with albums such as “Miles Ahead” (1957), “Porgy and Bess” (1958), and “Sketches of Spain” (1960), which are celebrated for their rich orchestration and inventive use of jazz and classical elements. 


From 1957 onwards, Evans recorded albums under his own name, most notably “The Individualism of Gil Evans” from 1964. He worked with musicians such as Lee Konitz, Jimmy Cleveland, Steve Lacy, Johnny Coles and Cannonball Adderley. Throughout his career, Evans continued to explore new sounds and styles, collaborating with rock musicians in the 1970s and experimenting with electronic instruments. In 1966, he recorded an album with Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, Look to the Rainbow. He planned to record an album in collaboration with the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s death in 1970 brought such plans to a halt, but arrangements Evans intended for the project were later heard on Gil Evans’ Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (1974). Gil Evans continued his relationships with rock musicians, notably David Bowie (for the 1986 movie Absolute Beginners), Robbie Robertson (for the 1986 Martin Scorsese movie The Color of Money), and Sting (in live and studio performances in 1987).

Gil Evans’ contributions to jazz were recognized with numerous awards and honors, and his influence remains pervasive in the world of jazz and beyond.

Gil Evans passed away in 1988 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking arrangers and composers in jazz history.

Read Gil Evans’ biography to learn more about his life and work.



In this exclusive, live concert DVD, recorded in Switzerland, the Gil Evans Orchestra features Jazz heavyweights the Brecker Bothers, Billy Cobham, Mike Manieri, &, Lew Soloff playing original compositions from Evans himself, as well as from Charles Mingus, George Gershwin, Jimi Hendrix, and Thelonious Monk. Digitally Re-Mastered and featuring multiple Bonus Features, on this DVD, entitled Gil Evans & His Orchestra, Evans’ trademark leadership of this star-studded big band results in a performance of rare quality.

Learn more about Gil Evans & His Orchestra. 

Happy Listening!

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