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Gil Evans in Nelson

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

A leading figure in jazz history spent part of his boyhood in West Kootenay.

Gil Evans was an arranger, composer, and bandleader who played a key role in the emergence of cool and free jazz. He collaborated with Miles Davis on several albums in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, including the landmark Sketches of Spain. Davis called him “the greatest musician in the world.”

Evans also went to school in Nelson in 1920, according to one of his biographers. However, his stay was brief and he left no traces that have yet been discovered. But in looking into this bit of trivia, I discovered a wealth of information about Evans’ complicated family tree that has never been presented before.

Two excellent biographies published in 2002, Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans by Larry Hicock and Gil Evans: Out of the Cool by Stephanie Stein Crease, outlined Evans’ childhood while noting conflicting accounts about his biological father and his mother’s many marriages.

She had five husbands and five children, including Gil. Each presented a genealogical mystery along with many sub-mysteries. Fortunately, since the books came out, a great deal more information has become available through various online resources.

I’ve established dates/places of birth, marriage, and death for all five of his mother’s husbands as well as dates/places of birth and death for the two of his four step-siblings who survived to adulthood.

While it doesn’t provide much additional insight into Gil Evans or his music, and the Nelson connection is fleeting, I promise there’s an interesting story to make it worthwhile.

Gil once described his mother as an attractive and independent woman who was a wanderer at heart. In a 1972 interview, he said: “She’s the one you should be writing about, not me.”

That’s mostly what I’ve done.

Arthur Ginbey Newman

Gil Evans’ mother was born Julia Margaret McConechy in Sebastopol, Victoria, Australia on Aug. 8, 1872, the eldest daughter of Montgomery McConechy and Julia Leslie McGuire. Her maiden has often been spelled (or misspelled) McConnachy.

To her family, Julia was known as Queenie, while others called her June. Her lineage was Scottish or Scottish-Irish. Her father worked for the Bank of Victoria and the family lived in Middle Park, a Melbourne suburb.

On March 27, 1891, she married Arthur Ginbey Newman at St. Silas’ Church at Albert Park, another Melbourne suburb. He was a native of Port Adelaide, the fourth son of John Newman and Emily Ginbey.

Julia’s father must have approved of this match, and perhaps helped broker it, for Arthur was also a banker. He started with the Town and Country Bank in Adelaide and was a teller at their Northern Territory branch for two years. He later went to work for the Commercial Bank, again in the Northern Territory, where “his health [was] undermined,” and later at the towns of Broken Hill, Yongala, and Melbourne.

The same year that he married Julia, he became manager of the branch at Minyip, a town 320 km northwest of Melbourne. There a son, Montgomerie Arthur, was born to them on Oct. 29, 1892. They also had a second child, whose gender, name, and birthdate are unknown; he or she evidently died as an infant.

Whatever affliction Arthur picked up in the Northern Territory did not improve and finally claimed his life at Minyip on Oct. 1, 1893, age 30. An obituary lamented: “His unvarying kind and gentlemanly demeanor towards all alike rendered him one of the most esteemed residents in the district.”

William Parton Willis

While it has been reported that Gil Evans’ father was a doctor, it was actually Julia’s second husband who held that occupation.

William Parton Willis was reportedly born in America and raised in Australia, but a baptismal record indicates he was born in Kent, England in 1868 to George and Louisa Willis.

He attended medical schools in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, earning bushellfuls of honors, before returning to Australia in early 1893 to join his brother-in-law’s practice in Melbourne as an eye specialist.

The following year, he and Julia were married. Soon after, he beat 18 other candidates for the post of surgeon-superintendent at a hospital in Westport, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The move was intended to improve his own health.

Supposedly, the number of applicants for the position resulted in the hospital clerk becoming “hoarse from reading the sheafs of testimonials.” Dr. Willis helped draw attention to his application by enclosing his photograph.

A daughter, Evelyn Jean, was born to William and Julia in Westport sometime in the last quarter of 1895.

Gil Evans never cited his mother as a musical influence, but she was nevertheless very musical, described as a “leading soprano in Sydney” before marrying Dr. Willis.

In 1896, she sang with an act called the Cadzow Family at a charity concert in Westport, and subsequently made several more appearances with them that spring in Nelson, Golden Bay, Kumara, Hokitika, Takaka, Greymouth, and Collingwood. She was billed as “New Zealand’s sweetest singer,” and offered operatic solos and duets with Mr. Cadzow.

Ad from the Nelson (NZ) Colonist, May 6, 1896.

“By the accession of Mrs. Willis the company will gain where strength was most wanted and it will gain very much in popular appreciation,” one newspaper wrote. “From what we have heard she possesses an exceptionally good soprano voice and her singing will prove a very great attraction.”

Another paper raved: “Mrs. Willis is a decided acquisition to the concert stage. She has a charming presence, and her voice is singularly sweet and attractive …”

If Julia gave any further performances, I haven’t been able to find them.

In 1898, Dr. Willis started to suffer from lung trouble and returned to Australia to find a drier climate. He took a position at a hospital in Tibooburra, a town in northwest New South Wales, while Julia and the children went back to Melbourne.

However, Dr. Willis soon regretted the move, feeling he was misled him about the position, which only became available because the hospital administration feuded with his predecessor. A whisper campaign began, alleging Dr. Willis was an alcoholic, that his medical diplomas were fake, and that he was a quack and imposter — all of which was untrue.

On Aug. 2, 1898, Dr. Willis was found dead in his bed at the Tibooburra hotel where he was staying. He was 34.

An inquest heard the likely cause of death was chloroform poisoning. £37 in cash was found in his clothes, along with bank deposit receipts for £1,003 sewn in the lining of his coat.

There was no suggestion of suicide. Although unhappy with his job, he was reported to have been “unusually cheerful” the evening before his death — perhaps because he had just resigned.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of chloroform overdose, “but whether such dose was taken intentionally or otherwise the evidence adduced does not enable us to say.”

Lionel Ernest Green

Now twice widowed before the age of 26, Julia was left to raise at least two young children on her own. It’s unknown whether her family provided any support. Her father died in 1892 and the following year her mother married a man named John Crosby.

We don’t know precisely where she was for the next seven and a half years, but according to Stephanie Stein Crease’s book, “She took a route common to other poor, respectable young women in the late 1800s and responded to ads for housekeepers abroad.”

One of those ads took her to South Africa, where she married Lionel Ernest Green at St. Mary’s Church in Durban on Jan. 10, 1906. Lionel was also an Australian, born in Melbourne in October 1871, 1874, or 1879 according to conflicting sources. He was of English origin, the eldest son of Louis Edward Green and Margauritte Lilian Annie Brem of Middle Park. He was also Gil Evans’ biological father.

We don’t know whether he and Julia were acquainted before coming to South Africa. On the marriage registration, Lionel listed himself as a storekeeper, but Julia gave no occupation.

They moved briefly to England before immigrating to Canada in 1910 (one source suggests they came first to New Jersey). On the 1911 census, they appear in Toronto, living at 43 Salem Ave. Lionel is listed as working in a factory, although Julia once said he was a furniture salesman. Julia told the census-taker she was 32 when she was really 39. Gil thought she was actually 45 when he was born in Toronto on May 13, 1912. At birth, he was was known as Gilmore Ian Ernest Green.

There is a recurring story in Gil’s early life about a Toronto hospital burning down: either Gil was born in it or his father worked in it (he was erroneously thought to have been a doctor), or both, but I haven’t been able to verify this. The Toronto Free Hospital for the Consumptive Poor did burn on Dec. 1, 1910, but that predated Gil’s birth, and he would not have been born there in any event.

More tragedy soon befell the family: Lionel died on Dec. 19, 1912 of scarlet fever. He was 32. Gil was seven months old. Lionel’s death registration gave his occupation as foreman and his last address as 1043 Dovercourt Road, although the 1912 Toronto city directory still had them at 43 Salem Ave. Lionel was interred at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.

Larry Hicock’s book described Lionel as “an inveterate gambler [who] died penniless,” so Julia began working a series of jobs to support herself and her children.

Manuel A. Gustin

Julia soon met Manuel Gustin, whom the 1911 census showed as recently arrived in Toronto from the US and unemployed. By 1913, they were living together at 377 Palmerston. He was more than 20 years her senior.

Gustin was born in 1851 in Warren County, Ohio and married Alice Henrietta Harner in 1875, but the marriage didn’t last. Their son, Paul, became a quartermaster in the US navy.

Gustin headed to Lake Worth, Florida and Julia and Gil followed him there. Border crossing records show mother and son entering the United States at Niagara Falls on Sept. 20, 1915.

Julia ran a small hotel near Lake Worth, an experience that proved unsettling. “There were alligators around and rattlesnakes — my mother would scream when she’d find one in the closet,” Gil recalled. He also remembered a counterfeiting ring operating out of the hotel.

Julia, now thrice widowed, married Manuel on March 20, 1917 at St. Lucie, Florida, but the relationship soon ended in divorce. At Lake Worth, Gustin worked as a real estate agent and justice of the peace. He once sentenced the local police chief to 10 days in jail for swearing in public. He also filed a $25,000 libel suit against a former client, but the outcome of the case isn’t known.

Gustin died at Lake Worth on Sept. 21, 1929, age 78.

John A. Evans

After her divorce, Julia may have lived for part of 1918 with her daughter and son-in-law in Toronto at 404 Euclid, but as of 1919, she was in Saskatchewan. What prompted her to go there is a mystery. She lived in Saskatoon at the Queen’s Hotel, and then moved to Dundurn, a town south of Saskatoon — or possibly it was Dundurn first and then Saskatoon. Either way, Gil likely began his education in that province.

According to Stein Crease’s book, Gil “remembered the bitter winters of Saskatchewan, going to a different school every year, and occasionally riding a horse to school.”

Then it was west to BC. Hicock writes: “Their first home on the coast was in Nelson, British Columbia, where at the age of eight Gil started grade school.” That would have been the fall of 1920.

I asked Hicock about this and he replied: “I got that reference from an interview with Gil and in part, possibly, from talking to Gil’s first wife. In both cases, fairly vague. However he did specifically refer to Nelson.”

Gil probably didn’t start school in Nelson unless the chronology is wrong and they went there before moving to Saskatchewan. Eight also seems a little old to be entering Grade 1.

Either way, depending on which neighbourhood he lived in, Gil would have attended Central school in Nelson, which still stands, or the old Hume school, which was replaced in 1923 by the current one.

Central School, built in 1909, is seen a few years before Gil Evans moved to Nelson and, possibly, became a student there. The building looks similar today except the top storey has been completely removed. Image MSC130-1908-01 courtesy of the British Columbia Postcards Collection, a digital initiative of Simon Fraser University Library

Like his mother, Gil had an extensive array of aliases. By now he might have answered to any one of several first names: Ian, Gilmore, Gil, or Buster; while his last name might have been Green, Gustin — or Evans, after his new step-father. Both biographers suggest that by this time Julia had met a miner named John A. (Jack) Evans, and was now making her living as a cook in mining and logging camps.

“[Gil] described with awe the way his petite mother — she was less than five feet tall — served up Paul Bunyan-sized breakfasts,” Stein Crease wrote. Hicock adds: “She was usually up by 3 in the morning to start breakfast for the crews and seldom had time to spend with her son before 5 or 6 in the evening, after she had fed and cleaned up after the workers.”

Gil therefore spent his formative years around miners and loggers and, forced to look after himself, became self-reliant and streetwise.

The Nelson civic directory for 1920 lists J.W. Evans as manager of the Mountain Chief Mining Co. Ltd, but it turns out this man was James W. Evans, who had a wife and three daughters. No other candidates for John A. Evans appear in the Nelson civic directories for 1918-21. The Nelson Daily News has been digitized but I can find no sign of Jack Evans, Julia, or Gil by any of their aliases.

We do, however, know some things about John A. Evans (though not what his middle initial stood for). He was born in Oakland, Oregon on Feb. 8, 1883 to Nathaniel and Alice Evans, making him nine years younger than Julia. For some reason, on the 1900 census, Jack turns up at Branham, Wash., as the foster child of Jasper and Evaline Wilson.

In 1910, he married Anna Sophia Coverdale at Rimbey, Alberta, where her family had a farm, having moved there a few years earlier from Illinois. Jack and Anna’s daughter Marie was born in 1914 near Brewster, Wash. Sadly, Anna died the following year in Spokane, age 24, though I don’t know the cause. Marie was then sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Rimbey.

I can find no sign of Gil, his mother, or Jack Evans on the 1921 Canadian census; they had probably already left the country. According to Hicock, they soon moved back to the US, and within two years had lived in Spokane, Seattle, and Odessa, Wash.

They also turned up in Burke, Idaho, now a ghost town in Shoshone County with some amazing mining ruins. They were there on July 13, 1923 when a spark from a train started a fire at the camp of Upper Mace and quickly spread up the valley. Gil recounted how he urged his mother to evacuate — and further noted her musical aptitude.

So we packed up all my mother’s sheet music and her mandolin and stuff and got out of the rooming house we lived in — that’s where my mother was working … [T]he fire started coming up sure enough, and it hit Burke … They took us down in this mine and people brought all their belongings … Somebody salvaged a barber’s chair, and I can remember I had so much fun down there, sitting in that barber chair pumping it up and down. The next morning we came out and there was no town. People were poking around looking for things and there was nothing left at all.

Damage was estimated at $1 million. Six hundred men were out of work and one woman suffered severe burns while trying to save her furniture. The town would rebuild, but Julia and Gil would not be part of it.

Abandoned mining buildings at Burke, Idaho, seen in 2014.

Eight days after the fire, Julia married Jack Evans at Butte, Montana — a move that may have been at least partly borne out of economic necessity. While it seems probable that Jack and Julia had known each other for some time, their marriage license is the first place where we can actually connect them. At that time she was calling herself June M. Gustin and listed her home as Burke while Jack gave his as Butte. She gave her age as 38 when she was really 50. He correctly listed himself as 40.

From Montana, they went to Evans’ home state of Oregon, and by 1927, arrived in California. Gil attended high school in Berkeley, Burbank, and then Stockton, where his peripatetic life finally started to settle down and he was at last introduced to jazz.

For those keeping track, the full sequence of moves within a span of about 13 years was Toronto to Florida (Lake Worth) to Saskatchewan (Dundurn, Saskatoon) to BC (Nelson) to Washington (Spokane, Seattle, Odessa) to Idaho (Burke) to Montana (Butte) to Oregon to California (Burbank, Berkeley, Stockton), with possibly other intermediate stops.

In Stockton, Julia found better-paying jobs than the duties she was used to in mining camps. “She had retained her beauty despite long hard years,” Hicock wrote, “and apparently she could charm anyone with her elegant British (Australian?) manner.”

Stein Crease’s book notes the 1929 Stockton directory listed Gilmore Evans, John A. Evans, and June M. Evans living together. But a year later they were all at separate addresses.

Julia had been hired as a children’s governess for one of Stockton’s more well-to-do families — identified by Hicock as the McCormicks and by Stein Crease as the Holts. Either or both were involved with the manufacture of farm equipment. While Gil’s mother lived in a mansion, he stayed in boarding houses.

As of 1931, Jack Evans was no longer in the Stockton directory. He was living in Jackson, Calif. as of 1935 and then moved back to Oregon, where he was farming at Rogue River as of 1940. He and Julia were by then divorced. It was her final marriage, although Gil said “She was still flirting when she was 90 — and men were still proposing to her.” (In reality, she didn’t live quite that long, but close.)

Stein Crease writes that those who knew Julia later in life recalled her as “a thoroughly charming woman with a British accent.” Gil supported her, even when his own finances were in shambles.

Julia died in Santa Clara, Calif. on March 16, 1960, age 87, and was buried in Alta Mesa Memorial Park. Her grave marker identifies her as Julia Margaret Evans and correctly gives her birth year as 1872.

Jack Evans died on July 8, 1963 in Medford, Oregon, age 80 — long enough for him to have been aware of Gil’s success in the music industry, although there is no sign that they communicated beyond his teen years.

Gil’s half-siblings

Of Julia’s five husbands, the first three died young. The last two she divorced. Gil said he had four older half-siblings, two of whom died before he was born. One of the latter was born to Julia and her first husband. The other was probably with her second husband, but possibly her third husband, Gil’s father. There was a six-year gap between their wedding and Gil’s birth.

Of the two surviving children, Gil said his half-sister was born “in India or Africa, I forget which,” and his half-brother was born in New Zealand, but he wrong on both counts. Neither was around during his childhood.

His half-brother, Montgomerie Arthur Newman, born in Australia in 1892 to Julia and her first husband, appears to have come to Canada at the same time as his mother and step-father in 1910, but I can’t find him on the 1911 Canadian census.

He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces for the First World War at Toronto on July 23, 1915, listing his mother as next-of-kin as 860 Dovercourt Road and his occupation as surveyor. His overseas service was lengthy and marked by a bout with rubella in 1916 and a gunshot wound to the knee in 1917. He was not discharged until August 1919 at Regina.

Detail from the World War I file of Montgomerie Newman, showing his mother’s address as “Mrs. Queenie Green,” 404 Euclid in Toronto, which is where his half-sister lived with her husband. Later, she was “Mrs. Q. Gustin” of Saskatoon.

By that time, Julia and Gil were also living in Saskatchewan. Montgomerie remained in the province after they headed west, and appears on the 1921 census in the village of Cupar, northwest of Regina. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1920s and worked as a radio telegrapher, but married Saskatoon resident Catherine Darge (Kate) Chisholm in Victoria on Aug. 6, 1923. They lived in Everett, Wash. for many years, then moved to San Jose. Their adopted daughter, Patricia, died in 1931, age three.

Montgomerie served in World War II as well, but it’s not clear whether it was with the Canadian or American forces.

Kate died in 1968, age 69, and was buried in Saskatoon. Montgomerie died on April 27, 1980 in Burnaby, age 87. By then, Gil was his closest surviving relative, but they only met twice, as adults, in California.

Gil’s half-sister Jean, born in New Zealand to Julia and her second husband, Dr. W.P. Willis, shows up on the 1911 census as a 14-year-old (she was really 15) living with her mother and step-father Lionel Green.

Like her mother and Gil, Jean was artistic. At age 19, she crossed the border to the US, bound for Buffalo with a theatrical company, giving her occupation as actress.

On Jan. 29, 1916, she married travel agent Hector Moncrieff Melville in Toronto. Curiously, she gave her full name on the registration as Jean Alacoque Willis. Where did Alacoque come from? It wasn’t there at her birth.

The following year, Jean gave birth to her only child, June Kathleen Melville. Her marriage to Hector crumbled sometime in the 1920s and she later wed Charles R. Cliff, vice-president of the Toronto Salt Works Ltd.

Jean clerked for an insurance agency but her continuing creative pursuits were attested to by appearances in Toronto theatre productions and her publication in 1939 of a literary work entitled Why Do You …

Gil and Jean met only once, in her home near Toronto, a year before her death. Gil remembered the meeting as taking place in 1960, but Jean actually passed away in August 1956, age 60 or 61. She was survived by her second husband and daughter. An arts scholarship was established in her name.

Evans himself died in Mexico in 1988, age 75, survived by his second wife Anita and children Noah and Miles.

Below I’ve summarized his mother’s marriages and children.

Updated on Sept. 2, 2023 just to note that there is no sign of Gil or his family in the Nelson Daily News.

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Nathan Wilkinson
Nathan Wilkinson
Nov 25, 2020

This is monumental, Greg! What a life - till the next update from the Nelson Daily News, then

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