Birth Of The Cool at the Gil Evans Memorial Service

Do you remember where you were on April 3rd of last year? Probably not. I don’t remember where I was, either. But I do remember where I was on April 3rd in the year 1988: I was at the memorial service for one of my favorite musicians, Gil Evans.

In 1987 and 1988, I was assistant to the the famous jazz saxophonist/composer/arranger Gerry Mulligan. Wherever Gerry went, I went, for almost 2 years. It was one of the best jazz educations anyone could receive! Well, Gerry had been a close friend of Gil’s, and when Gil passed away, Gerry put together a group to perform the two arrangements Gil had done for Miles Davis famous “Birth of the Cool” recordings in 1949 and 1950.

Putting this together was “easier said than done” because the group’s leader, Miles Davis, hadn’t played straight ahead jazz for many years and wasn’t planning to attend the memorial service, which was scheduled to take place at St. Peter’s church in New York City. I remember Gerry telling me that when he asked Miles via telephone if he’d participate, Miles responded, “Now, Gerry, why do you want to play that old sh*t for anyway?”

At the memorial service, Lou Soloff ended up playing Miles’ trumpet parts, and the the recreation sounded wonderful. After listening to the poor audio quality of the original recordings, it was a real treat to hear this music come alive again in person! It was especially exciting to hear some of the original musicians get together to play this music together for the first time in almost 40 years. Mulligan on bari sax, Lee Konitz on alto, Tuba player Bill Barber and pianist John Lewis (also one of my favorites) played with feeling and passion as they paid tribute to their dear friend and colleague, Gil Evans.

For me, it was like being a “kid in a candy store!” I got to hang out backstage and hear these old friends catch up with each other and talk about “the old days.” There are a particularly funny exchange between Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. At one point, Gerry looked at Lee and said, “I’ve never told you this before, Lee, but when you joined the Claude Thornhill Band and we all heard you solo for the first time, you really blew our heads off.” Konitz’ answer was as dry and oblique as his playing can sometimes be. He deadpanned, “Well, Gerry, I’m glad you got your head back.” (I think Gerry just looked at him!)

This was a rare opportunity to see and hear these great jazz artists together, because they were so busy leading their own groups that they rarely performed with each other any more.

I was reminded of the Gil Evans Memorial service today because I came upon a video of he event on YouTube this morning. (I didn’t even know it had been filmed!) The internet is truly amazing, and thanks to YouTube, you and I can now both watch the re-assembled Birth Of The Cool Band play Gil Evans’ arrangements of “Boplicity” and “Moondreams” in their one and only performance together since 1950.


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