Obituary by Jonny Whiteside
Tenor sax veteran Gil Bernal died on Sunday of congestive heart failure. He was 80. Bernal was an incomparable Los Angeles jazz musician who began his professional career with swing kingpin Lionel Hampton in 1950, and played and collaborated with everyone from Ray Charles to Quincy Jones.
Born February 4, 1931 in Watts, Bernal's neighborhood chums were folks like Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and Big Jay McNeely. A proficient saxist and singer by his teens, Bernal jammed at parties and dances and, after graduating from Jordan High, ended up touring nationally with Hampton in 1950. Turns out Hampton had fired a tenor player during a local engagement, and Bernal had chops enough to land into the gig. His band mates included Quincy Jones and Little Jimmy Scott.
Back in Los Angeles two years later, a now-seasoned Bernal formed his own jazz combo with trumpeter Shorty Rogers and drummer Shelley Manne. Jazz remained Bernal's life-long avocation, but in the Big Beat era the hot new R&B “honking” style was in vogue. He went onto to record some of R&B's fiercest, funkiest solos with the Coasters (nee Robins) — among them “Youngblood,” “Searchin',” “Riot in Cell Block #9” “Down in Mexico” and “Smokey Joe's Café.” He had his own kicking R&B instrumentals, and did sessions with Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, and The Dominos. With Lee Hazlewood at the controls, he raunched up Duane Eddy's 1958 hit “Rebel Rouser.”
After band leader Spike Jones caught the saxist's act in Vegas one night, he hired him on the spot, and Bernal spent six years with Jones – a man known for using only the finest players. Bernal told author Jim Dawson that he spent some of this time, “spoofing the honkers. I'd walk around and sit in Jayne Mansfield's lap and blow macho jazz. They'd put dry ice in the bell of my horn so that it would be smoking!”
As a vocalist, Bernal's ballad “The Eyes of Love” from the 1967 movie Banning earned him an Academy Award nomination. He can also be heard on soundtracks like In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood — both collaborations with Quincy Jones. Distinguishing himself as one Los Angeles' most in-demand and hardest working jazz players, more recently Bernal was drafted by Ry Cooder for work with both the Buena Vista Social Club and on Cooder's star-studded Chavez Ravine production.
Gil was a sweet, low-key character with a cool and easy-going demeanor, but on the bandstand he would deliver everything from sensual, lulling reveries to volcanic, fat-toned workouts. He masterfully combined good taste, rich atmospherics and an impeccable swing-ability that earned him the respect of multiple generations of Los Angeles musicians. Rest in Peace.