Great Encounters #46: The early friendship of Miles Davis and Gil Evans

September 12th, 2016



“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons.  This edition describes the early friendship and collaboration of Miles Davis and composer/arranger Gil Evans, who Miles once described as “the greatest musician in the world.”





Excerpted from Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans,

by Larry Hicock


“I first met Gil when I was with Bird,” Miles told Marc Crawford in a 1961 interview for Down Beat.

     He was asking for a release on my tune, “Donna Lee.”…I told him he could have it and asked him to teach me some chords and let me study some of the scores he was doing for Claude Thornhill.

     He really flipped on me on the arrangement of “Robbin’s Nest” he did for Claude.  See, Gil had this cluster of chords and superimposed another cluster over it.  Now the chord ends, and now these three notes of the remaining cluster are gone.  The overtone of the remaining two produced a note way up there.  I was puzzled.  I had studied the score for days, trying to find the note I heard.  But it didn’t even exist – at least on paper it didn’t.  That’s Gil for you.

     Gil and Miles quickly became friends.  Gil found Miles, for all his outward aloofness, to be thoughtful and serious-minded, but also extremely funny.  Miles was taken with Gil’s personal manner – his cool demeanor and his gregarious nature.  “Gil is my idea of a man,” Miles said.  “Say you had a friend who was half man and half donkey, and suppose he even wore a straw hat and you said, ‘Gil, meet George.’  Gil would get up and shake his hand and never care what George looked like.”  In his autobiography, Miles recalled their first encounter:

     When I first met him, he used to come to listen to Bird when I was in the band.  He’d come in with a whole bag of horseradishes – that’s what we used to call radishes – that he’s be eating with salt.  Here was this tall, thin white guy from Canada who was hipper than hip.  I didn’t know any white people like him.  I was used to black folks back in East St. Louis walking into places with a bag full of barbecued pig snout sandwiches and taking them out and eating them right there, right in a movie or club or anywhere.  But bringing horseradishes to nightclubs and eating them out of a bag with salt, and a white boy?  Here was Gil on 52nd Street with all these super-hip black musicians wearing peg legs and zoot suits, and here he was dressed in a cap.  Man, he was something else.

     It would be another year, in 1948, before Gil and Miles actually worked together.  In the meantime, Miles joined the circle up at Gil’s apartment.  Max Roach, who was also in Bird’s group with Miles at the time, often accompanied him.  “All the young writers at that time hung around Gil.  He was very generous with information to those people who were really interested in orchestration.  And one of the most avaricious people, if you will, was Miles Davis.  He couldn’t get over this.   He saw this was another direction.  That kind of sound fascinated Miles.”

     And so too it was Miles’s sound that attracted Gil – the unique tone and timbre of an instrumentalist’s voice.  “That’s how we got together, basically,” he told Ben Sidran in 1986.  “The sound is the thing that put us together immediately, and it’s always been like that.  It’s still the same way today.”

     Of course, by this point, Gil himself was already moving away from the Thornhill band’s trademark sound, and at the same time, Miles was looking beyond bebop.  It was between these polarities, the near-stillness of Claude Thornhill and the ferocity of Charlie Parker, that Gil and Miles would begin to explore that sound, what Gil saw as their common waveform.  “Miles was looking for something,” George Russell said.

     And whoever or whatever his guardian angel was, it attracted the two of them.  I don’t think Miles invited himself to the apartment – I think Gil was very attracted to Miles, as many people were, to his playing, and to his sense of artistry.  I think he already had the inclination to like Gil – to be attracted to Gil and to Gil’s music – and to think he could work with it, which he did.  Gil was a perfect match for Miles Davis because he had the temperament to be able to work with him, Miles being somewhat difficult and stubborn at times.

     If Miles was “difficult,” working for Charlie Parker was becoming impossible.  Increasingly, Miles complained, Bird showed up “just to play and pick up his money.”  There were nights when he didn’t show up at all.  There were gigs for which the rest of the band never got paid.  Bird’s astounding solos began, too often, to take a back seat to his stage antics.  He’d make fun of the other players, singing and clowning around during their solos.  In the middle of a song he’d crack jokes to the audience, or he’d start playing a different tune.  All of this infuriated the serious young trumpeter, and made the heady goings-on over at Gil’s place even more attractive.  Well before he resigned from Parker’s band in December 1948, Miles had set the wheels in motion for his new collaborative experiment with Gil Evans.





Excerpted from Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans,

by Larry Hicock




From 1959…Gil Evans conducts Miles Davis and his band



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