The earliest known recording of a Gil Evans arrangement is the Skinnay Ennis Orchestra's Strange Enchantment in 1939. Two years later, Evans [pictured] joined Claude Thornhill's orchestra and remained with the bandleader until 1949, with a four-year break for World War II. It was during his second stay with Thornhill that Evans developed his signature orchestral sound. One of the first examples of this revolutionary approach to arranging can be heard on Thornhill's 1947 recording of Robbins' Nest.
What surprises many people is that Evans began his career as a West Coast arranger in the 1930s. Exposed to bop and swing during World War II, Evans moved to New York in 1946 and combined what he knew and what he had learned. His post-war arrangements for Thornhill were cooler and treated the band's different sections as equals. Ironically, Evans' would eventually come full circle by influencing a generation of West Coast arrangers.
Equally fascinating is how Evans managed to influence and be influenced. In 1947, he turned small-group bop standards Donna Lee, Anthropology and Yardbird Suite into even-paced big-band suites for Claude Thornhill. At the same time, he had a major impact on Miles Davis, helping the trumpeter develop a more spacious approach to his playing—Milestones in 1947 (written by John Lewis and given to Miles as a gift) and the nonet dates of 1948 and 1949.
Ultimately, Evans was among the first to significantly modernize
the sound of large and medium-sized ensembles, more so than Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns. Breaking from the swing tradition and adding modal phrasings that made compositions sound less predictable and more airy, Evans' writing style shaped the direction of countless arrangers, including Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Quincy Jones.
Much of Evans' success as an arranger was a direct result of Claude Thornhill. In the mid-1940s, when Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and other bands were featuring brass-heavy arrangements and hot-dog soloists, Thornhill [pictured] was both a throwback and a visionary. Rather than develop muscle-bound charts that grew louder and louder as they progressed, Thornhill favored complex harmonic configurations that proudly demonstrated his band's ability to blow loud and tender all in the same song. As might be expected, such alpha-beta arrangements were a bear to play.
"Claude was respected by all musicians. He had a sensitive band, thanks to his concept of what a dance jazz band should sound like. I'm sure he was influenced by his classical training on piano. His personality dictated the need to have a quiet band that could play full as well as retain that warm sound of blended tones.
Claude was innovative—using Parker's themes early, orchestrated by Gil Evans. He also gave free rein to Gerry Mulligan [pictured], who produced terrific charts. Claude's theme song, Snowfall says a lot—five clarinets over the rest of the band in a slow tempo and good dynamics.
His way of auditioning players was telling. He'd have them sit near him and just improvise as he played the piano. He was always concerned with intonation and phrasing and found it difficult to tell someone in the band that they weren't in tune or not phrasing well. Instead, he would play that person's note or phrase on the piano while the band was performing and bring attention to the out-of-tune player. This made players more sensitive and aware.
Claude also used that system to get people out of the band who were not up to par. Frustrated with their lack of ability to measure up, they'd just quit.
Gil Evans had everything to do with Thornhill's modern sound and ability to attract and keep top players. Born in Toronto, Evans was a mining-town brat, moving from town to town as his stepfather worked ore lodes throughout the Northwest. The family eventually settled in California in 1922, and Evans' first exposure to jazz was seeing Duke Ellington [pictured] in 1927 in San Francisco. He soon bought his first record, No One Else But You by Louis Armstrong and Earl "Fatha" Hines.
While studying music in high school, Evans began transcribing records. In 1933, he formed his first group that included six musicians but soon expanded to nine. Evans was the band's arranger, and the group played ballrooms in Southern California until 1938. [Evans, third from the left, with his band in 1934]
That year, Evans was offered a job arranging for Skinnay Ennis' [pictured] band, which soon began to work with Bob Hope in Hollywood. Another arranger, Claude Thornhill, was brought in to help with the workload. Thornhill had already started an orchestra and was on the West Coast at the time. In 1941 Thornhill decided to relocate to New York for a three-month stay at the Glen Island Casino.
With the onset of World War II the following month, Thornhill disbanded his orchestra in 1942, and Evans joined the army soon afterward, winding up assigned to various stateside military bands. While in the army, he met Lester Young and heard bebop for the first time. After his discharge in 1946, Evans returned to New York and rented an apartment on West 55th St., just blocks from the clubs on 52d Street [pictured]. When Thornhill re-formed his orchestra that year, Evans re-joined as the band's arranger.
Evans' first big chart was Anthropology, an ambitious orchestration of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's bop tune based on the chord changes to I Got Rhythm. Evans' arrangement was recorded by Thornhill in September 1947, opening with Claude playing a tongue-in-cheek minuet. What followed was an ambitious bop interpretation showcasing various soloists, including trombonist Tak Takvorian and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz [pictured].
Evans' arranging style matured rapidly, and a month later, in October 1947, the band recorded his chart for Robbins' Nest, written by Sir Charles Thompson with help from Joe Newman. This is perhaps the first time you hear shades of his writing for the Miles Davis nonet that would form the following year and seeds of the Miles Ahead (Miles +19) session of 1957.
Robbins' Nest is truly remarkable. Evans' arrangement opens with the reeds blowing breathy, suspenseful minor-key interchanges. Trumpets and trombones exchanges dramatic lines in the background as Thornhill's piano wanders in. Thornhill then solos, blocking out the song's major-key theme, with reeds and trombones interacting in the background. Thornhill returns with block chords. The entire chart builds to a fascinating crescendo that begins 2:07 into the recording. It's pure Evans, with all of the cool-jazz phrasings that he would use to great effect in the years that followed. [Pictured: Thornhill's band in New Orleans, 1953]
What you hear on Robbins' Nest (and Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite from November 1947, for that matter), is the birth of a new sound, one that eventually would be adapted by virtually every major arranger of the 1950s. [Pictured: Evans in 1953 with Peggy Lee; photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
JazzWax tracks: Gil Evans arrangement of Strange Enchantment for Skinnay Ennis can be sampled here. Evans' groundbreaking arrangement of Robbins' Nest is available at iTunes, along with Anthropology, Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite. Or you can buy a CD that contains Evans' and Mulligans' arrangements for Thornhill here.