Saturday, October 12, 2013

GERRY MULLIGAN by Gordon Jack.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

In discussing the ‘Birth Of The Cool’ arrangements writer Bill Kirchner observed “Their

influence has been compared to the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens and to other

classics by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.  These recordings had an

enormous influence on musicians and the jazz public.  Principally, they have been

credited – or blamed, depending on one’s point of view – for the subsequent popularity of

‘Cool’ or West Coast Jazz…….but their influence extended much further and writers

like Gigi Gryce, Quincy Jones and Benny Golson produced recordings using this


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is working on some larger features which it plans to post in the coming days. In the meantime, we thought you might enjoy another visit with Gordon Jack on these pages.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [LanhamMD: Scarecrow Press, 2004]  and he has graciously granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to reprint his work on these pages.

This essay first appeared in the March 2002 issue of JazzJournal and it can also be found in the sleeve-note for Bud Shank’s CD After You, Jeru [Fresh Sound FSR 5026].

Order information regarding Jazz Journal is available at

© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is now 50 years since Gerry Mulligan  created one of the most distinctive and arresting

sounds in small group jazz by the simple expedient of removing the piano from his

rhythm section.   This pianoless ensemble focussed attention on his solo abilities even

though he was  far better known as an arranger, having begun his career some years

before writing for Gene Krupa, Elliot Lawrence and Claude Thornhill.  He did

occasionally play with those bands and on a CBS album – The Arranger – there is a

delightful photograph showing him aged nineteen playing second alto in Krupa’s sax

section, but he was primarily employed for his skill with the pen rather than the

saxophone.  During his time with the drummer he wrote one of the band’s biggest hits –

Disc Jockey Jump.  In its first sixteen bars there is a resemblance to Jimmy Giuffre’s

Four Brothers  although it was recorded in January 1947, ten months before the Woody

Herman classic.

It was thanks to his involvement with the unique Claude Thornhill orchestra that he met

Gil Evans, and as a result became one of the most important figures in what was

eventually known as the Miles Davis ‘Birth Of The Cool’ nonet.  Gene Lees once asked 

Mulligan how Davis had become the leader and Gerry replied,  “He made the telephone

calls for the rehearsals and made everybody get in and play.”   Miles also obtained the

band’s only booking - two weeks at the Royal Roost in 1948.  In a recent  JJI interview

Lee Konitz said that the writing was the most important aspect of the band and because

Gerry had written most of the charts, he considered him to be the guiding light.  This has

been confirmed by Johnny Carisi who contributed Israel to the project saying, “Gerry

wrote more than anybody”.  Only recently has it emerged that the baritonist arranged

seven of the twelve titles recorded by the ensemble and not five as was originally

thought, proving his contribution to be even greater than was acknowledged at the time.  

Just as an aside, the principal writers - Mulligan, Evans and John Lewis - did not get paid

for the charts.  In his book Arranging The Score,  Lees quotes John Lewis saying to Miles 

“We wrote this stuff for ourselves. This was a rehearsal band and that was great.  Now

you’ve recorded  we’re supposed to get paid”, but apparently they didn’t get a penny.  In

discussing the ‘Birth Of The Cool’ arrangements writer Bill Kirchner observed “Their

influence has been compared to the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens and to other

classics by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.  These recordings had an

enormous influence on musicians and the jazz public.  Principally, they have been

credited – or blamed, depending on one’s point of view – for the subsequent popularity of

‘Cool’ or West Coast Jazz…….but their influence extended much further and writers

like Gigi Gryce, Quincy Jones and Benny Golson produced recordings using this

approach.”   Artistic achievement alone seldom pays the rent and the work situation in

New York became so difficult, that on more than one occasion Mulligan was forced to

rehearse a band in Central Park because nobody had enough money to hire a studio.

Towards the end of 1951 he decided to sell his instruments and with his girl friend Gail

Madden, hitchhiked to Los Angeles.  Thanks to her former relationship with Bob

Graettinger he was introduced to Stan Kenton, who was not too keen on Mulligan’s work

at first thinking it too simple.  Mulligan said “The first chart I took to a rehearsal was

rejected by Stan, but the next day Bill Holman brought in an arrangement that sounded

more like me than I did!”   On another occasion, one of Gerry’s scores called for Shelly

Manne to play brushes on cymbals.  After listening for a while with obvious displeasure,

Kenton shouted out “No! No! No! – we don’t use brushes on cymbals in this band  -

that’s faggot music!”   However, long time Kenton arrangers like Holman and Lennie

Niehaus have acknowledged Gerry’s influence in the way he thinned out the ensemble

lines allowing the band to swing more.  His writing was highly popular with musicians

and the public and numbers like Limelight, Swinghouse and Young Blood pointed the

band towards a far more subtle approach.  Talking about Kenton, Miles Davis once said

“If you get a guy like Gerry around a band all the other arrangers start writing a little

better.  In jazz writing there has to be space.  Gerry, Gil Evans and Duke know that but

some guys try to fill it all up.”   Years later when Mulligan was editing charts submitted

by other writers for his Concert Jazz Band, Bob Brookmeyer would joke to the musicians

“We’re having a rehearsal to-morrow – bring your erasers!”

Early in 1952 Mulligan obtained a regular Monday night booking at the Haig, a club with a capacity of 85 customers opposite the famous Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.  It was while he was appearing at the club that Richard Nixon composed his famous ‘Checkers’ speech at the Ambassador, which saved his position on the Republican ticket as Dwight D.Eisenhower’s running mate.  Albert Einstein once rang reception there to complain about room service and on another occasion, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald set fire to their room creeping out in the confusion without paying the bill!   Sadly, the hotel achieved a different notoriety when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated there while campaigning for the Presidency in 1968.   The Ambassador’s nightclub – The Cocoanut Grove – was the playroom for the elite of Hollywood society and Elizabeth Taylor, Howard Hughes, James Stewart, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe all came to dine and dance to the music of Freddy Martin.  Across the street at The Haig, owner John Bennett catered for an altogether hipper audience.  With no cover charge but a two drink minimum, the fans could sit and listen to Gerry Mulligan on his Monday night jam sessions with guests like Art Pepper, Dave Pell, Ernie Royal, Jimmy Rowles and Howard Roberts.  Bassist Bob Whitlock often played on these occasions and he recently told me how he had introduced Chet Baker to the baritonist.   Whitlock and Baker had known each other since 1948 when they played in downtown Los Angeles with Ray Vasquez’s Latin Band and had become lifelong friends. At a Mulligan rehearsal at the Cottage Italia, a restaurant in North Hollywood, Bob recommended Baker when it became obvious that a certain trumpeter (whose name is now forgotten) was not working out.   It was at this time that Gerry decided to stop using the piano because in Chet Baker he had found someone who was totally sympathetic to his aims.  They were quite different personalities but musically they became one of the great partnerships in jazz and the Mulligan pianoless concept in one form or another, lasted for the next 14 years.   One of the earliest titles recorded by the group for Richard Bock was Walkin’ Shoes, which was a reference to Mulligan and Gail Madden’s mode of travel from the east to the west coast.   It was the outstanding success of the early quartet recordings that allowed Bock who had been in charge of publicity at The Haig, to launch his Pacific Jazz label.

With the pianoless quartet Gerry achieved a unique and pristine ensemble sound dominated by his quite outstanding ability as an accompanist on the baritone.  His skill as one of the foremost jazz writers was matched by the way he could compose instant arrangements on the bandstand, finding perfect counter lines to whatever his playing partners conceived.  It was this single quality that made his groups so distinctive for despite becoming a virtuoso soloist, Mulligan was essentially an ensemble player and the quartet was most definitely an ensemble – not just two soloists sharing a stage with a rhythm section.  It should also be remembered that most of the group’s arrangements were improvised with very little being written.  Bob Whitlock who was the original bass player in the quartet has confirmed that “Gerry’s abilities as an accompanist were phenomenal.  He had that vast pool of ideas to draw upon from all those years as an arranger and he could tap into them on the spot.  He always had his ears open and expected the same from his cohorts.”  Trombonist Dave Glenn expressed similar sentiments to Steve Voce when Mulligan’s big band was touring the U.K. with Mel Torme in 1983.  “Even after all these years Gerry continues to amaze me.  He is the greatest cat I’ve ever heard in playing counter lines to a melody.  When we were working with Mel, they would perform as a quartet with Mel taking Chet’s role.  The counter lines were different every night and they were brilliant.”  During the fifties many groups emphasised the importance of the soloist at the expense of any group interaction.  Some leaders like Miles Davis actually left the stand when colleagues were featured but with his love of ensemble playing, Mulligan’s saxophone is hardly ever quiet on his recordings as he gently supports and encourages his associates.  In its eleven months existence the Mulligan/Baker quartet proved to be sensationally popular, leading to a  February 1953 profile in Time Magazine where it was described as “The hot music topic in Los Angeles………where they drew the biggest crowds in The Haig’s history.”   The previous month Gerry had recorded with his tentette with Baker again as the featured soloist.   The lead trumpeter on the date was Pete Candoli but on some titles Mulligan told me that it was Chet who actually played lead – thus disproving one of the great myths of jazz.   Given a choice between myth or the truth the media will generally go for the former, which is why Chet Baker still has a reputation of being unable to read music and also being ignorant about chords.  The truth as confirmed by contemporaries like Herb Geller and Bud Shank, is that he could read although in common with many jazzmen he was not a sight-reader and as Mulligan wittily observed, “Chet knew everything about chords, he just didn’t know their names!”   A little known fact is that just after the tentette recordings Gerry eloped with Jeffie Lee Boyd who was a waitress at The Haig, prompting Baker to book Geller into playing with him in the quartet for three weeks until the baritonist returned from his honeymoon. 

Gerry’s expertise as a composer of improvised arrangements was particularly evident in 1955 when he formed what many consider to be his best ever small group – the sextet.  On recordings like Elevation which he had written for the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra, he is in his element as he takes on his customary role of a Pied Piper leading Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and Don Ferrara through a series of extemporised riffs, hinting at a phrase here and a comment there which in turn is picked up by the other horns and developed into what could almost be a written arrangement.  Towards the end of the decade he made a series of fine albums with a diverse range of star soloists including Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Annie Ross and Jimmy Witherspoon.  His abilities as a supreme baritone soloist were at last fully recognised because as Bob Brookmeyer has observed , “When Gerry first arrived in Los Angeles in 1952 he was still considered to be primarily a writer.”  As late as 1957 he had told Nat Hentoff that it had only been within the previous two years that he had been fully able to control the baritone, with a direct line between his imagination and his fingers.

It was in the late fifties that Leonard Feather commissioned a fascinating poll inviting leading jazzmen and women to nominate their personal favourites.  It revealed that Mulligan had found total acceptance from a wide spectrum of players since Nat Cole, Miles Davis, Buddy De Franco, Erroll Garner, Urbie Green, Stan Getz, Terry Gibbs, Bobby Hackett, Carmen McRae, Oscar Pettiford and Lester Young were just some of the instrumentalists who voted for him.  In discussing Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods once said “No one played the instrument like Gerry, because it was too hard.”   His long time drummer Dave Bailey recently told me, “With his soft tone coupled with the masculinity of the baritone, he would sometimes blow your mind – especially on ballads.”  As with his writing, there was an elegant lyricism about his approach that belied the apparent clumsiness of his chosen means of expression.  This was partly because when soloing, he rarely ventured into the bottom fifth of the instrument preferring to construct his melodic lines in the middle and upper registers much as Lester Young – one of his inspirations – might have done had he played the baritone.  

Duke Ellington usually composed with his own sidemen in mind but he made an exception in Mulligan’s case when he wrote Prima Bara Dubla, which was performed with that other baritone master Harry Carney at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.  Over the years Gerry often played with the Ellington band usually sitting in the section next to Johnny Hodges, improvising(!) a sixth saxophone part.  Early in 1974 he took Carney’s place when the Ellington veteran was hospitalized prior to a concert in Miami.  The end of the fifties saw him appearing and playing in a number of Hollywood films like I Want To Live, The Rat Race and The Subterraneans  and if the latter, where he took the part of a horn playing preacher isn’t one of the worst films ever made, it will do until the real thing comes along!  The music though, composed by Andre Previn was fine and Mulligan played in an all star line-up with Art Farmer, Art Pepper, Bill Perkins and Russ Freeman.  He also had a non-playing acting role with the wonderful Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, handling his part with considerable aplomb.  Although they never married they were what the gossip columnists refer to as an ‘item’ until her death in 1965.   The decade ended with a two-part profile in the New Yorker by Nat Hentoff proving that his fame had now spread far beyond the narrow confines of jazz.  Indeed as Jerome Klinkowitz points out in his fine book Listen: Gerry Mulligan , the writer Thomas Pynchon refers to the baritonist in his 1960 story Entropy.  He was now recording for the Verve label and few eyebrows were raised when Norman Granz authorized an advertising campaign in the trade press simply stating, “1960 belongs to Gerry Mulligan”.   Almost as a confirmation Metronome organised a reader’ poll in 1959 to find the most popular jazz musicians of all time where he finished third, behind Miles Davis and the winner Charlie Parker.     The fact that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington finished no higher than sixth and 16th. respectively shows how ephemeral polls can be, but nevertheless it indicates how incredibly popular Mulligan was by now – a popularity he maintained throughout his career without in any way compromising his artistry.  

Having made some money from his film making, he decided at the beginning of the sixties to return to his first love by forming a larger organization which he called The Concert Jazz Band.   As a young man he had been an arranger and occasional sideman in other people’s bands but he was now the chief soloist, who unfortunately found little time to write. This ensemble was rightly called a big little-band, because his attention to detail ensured that the 13 pieces had the same clarity and transparency that characterized his small groups.   As Bill Crow observed at the time, “He knows exactly what he wants, which is a quiet band.  He can swing at about 15 decibals lower than any other band.” On the same subject Mulligan once told Harry Frost, “When you overblow, the tone quality goes.  Our band shouts but it doesn’t scream.”  It was not always just sweetness and light however and on numbers like The Red Door, I’m Gonna Go Fishin’, Lady Chatterley’s Mother and Blueport the band displays a relentless drive and passion that is totally infectious but which never gets completely out of hand – what George Simon has accurately called  “Controlled Violence.”   The CJB adopted the same free wheeling approach to ensemble playing that had been such a feature of his quartet and sextet.  Bill Crow told me, “What was so good about the band was having someone in each section who was a good riff maker – Gerry in the saxes, Bobby Brookmeyer in the trombones and Clark Terry in the trumpets.  Gerry would start to play backgrounds behind a soloist and by the second time around the rest of the saxes would be playing in unison or harmonising with him, then Brookmeyer or Terry would think of a counter line and the brass would join that.  The band would stay behind the soloist for five or six choruses of improvised riffs and it would really get going until it reached a certain level, when Gerry
would give the signal to go into the next written section.”

Unfortunately in spite of the band’s undoubted musical worth and Mulligan’s popularity, it was difficult keeping it on the road and he was often forced to revert to the quartet formula with Brookmeyer when bookings for the CJB became scarce.  In an enthusiastic review of a Birdland performance Ira Gitler wrote in Down Beat,  “If this band cannot work when it wants to, there is something very wrong with the state of music in the United States.”  Clearly a prophetic statement, because within eight months the CJB was playing its final engagement at Birdland on New Years Eve 1964, which was also the night the club closed down for business.  The personnel that so impressed Gitler included Thad Jones, Nick Travis, Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Willie Dennis, Phil Woods and Richie Kamuca.  Al Cohn, Ben Webster, Benny Powell and Jimmy Owens had also sat in with the band. 

Discussing his time with the CJB Clark Terry told writer Joe Goldberg, “Gerry’s a real leader.  He respects all the guys and knows how much they contribute and you feel you’re part of things.  He pays well too, unlike one leader I worked for who used to say ‘I want you to remember it’s me they are paying to see.”’  Many other sidemen have expressed similar sentiments.  Bob Brookmeyer for instance had an offer from Duke Ellington in 1962  which he had to turn down because Duke could not match what he was earning with Mulligan.  Bill Crow used to get increases without asking for them and Dave Bailey has confirmed that Mulligan preferred to pay his musicians generously, rather than give the money to the Federal Government.  He would also whenever possible, fly the band first class.  Apparently, the fringe benefits were so good that a number of  famous drummers – among them Art Taylor and Osie Johnson – regularly telephoned Gerry trying to get him to fire Bailey so they could take over!   

In retrospect, the closure of Birdland and the break up of the CJB seemed to indicate the end of an era, not only for jazz but for Gerry Mulligan too.  The sixties was a time when the avant-garde were challenging former truths and persuading many that the removal of melody, harmony and rhythm was the way forward – an approach that helped turn jazz into even more of a minority interest.  It was to be another seven years before Mulligan’s next major project, The Age Of Steam which was recorded in 1971.  Harry Edison and Bud Shank were in the line-up and Brookmeyer was involved again along with some of the younger generation including the magnificent Roger Kellaway, Tom Scott and John Guerin.  The album introduced Gerry’s exciting K4 Pacific which he often used as a concert finale in later years.  Another highlight was Shank’s sensitive work on the slowly moving harmonies of Grand Tour, an intensely sad and poignant original by the leader.  While Age Of Steam was being recorded Mulligan and Shank appeared on a Beaver And Krause L.P. playing Gerry’s By Your Grace, which ultimately became the much longer and grander Entente For Baritone Saxophone And Orchestra.  This piece which was dedicated to Nancy and Zubin Mehta was a totally successful marriage of the jazz saxophone soloist with the symphony orchestra.  Mulligan recorded it with the Houston Symphony under Erich Kunzel in 1987 and five months later it was performed in concert with Zubin Mehta.  On the same evening, Itzhak Perlman sat in with Mulligan’s quartet to play a little jazz.

During the last sixteen years of his life Mulligan maintained a punishing schedule, touring worldwide with either his reformed big band or the quartet which now featured a piano in a conventional rhythm section.  When I asked him about the reintroduction of a keyboard he said that he wanted to play the melody more, which of course is difficult in a pianoless context because of his role as an accompanist.  He had just been inducted into the Down Beat Hall Of Fame and he told me,  “Popularity polls can be strange because I started out as an arranger and I always think of myself as one, but I don’t show up in that category at all and that used to bug me.  Have you noticed in Down Beat that nobody ever votes for my present quartet?  If I don’t have a pianoless quartet it’s as though I don’t have a quartet at all!”

The period from 1980 was arguably his most creative as a songwriter yet Bud Shank recently said “Too few of us were aware of what he was doing then.”   Critics, while acknowledging his outstanding abilities as a creative soloist seemed to ignore the very real beauty of his compositions.  Lyrics have occasionally been added to his songs and Gene Lees who has called him one of the greatest composers in jazz, put words to I Heard The Shadows Dancing .   Mel Torme recorded The Real Thing with his own lyric and this piece was performed by Carol Sloane at a Mulligan Memorial concert on February 12, 1996. The Brazilian singer Jane Duboc wrote words to a number of Mulligan originals on a charming 1993 CD entitled Paraiso –Jazz Brazil.  Of course an earlier album that is always remembered with affection  is his 1961 recording with Judy Holliday where they collaborated on What’s The Rush, Loving You, It Must Be Christmas and Summer’s Over.  Just before she died in 1965 they were working on an Anita Loos play called Happy Birthday and Ms Loos was quoted as saying that the music for the show was “Brilliant”.  Over the years a number of instrumental albums have been devoted to his music by people like Claude Williamson, Sal Salvador, Vic Lewis, Elliot Lawrence and Gene Krupa.  Since his death though in 1996, it is as if his originals have been rediscovered since Bill Charlap with Ted Rosenthal – Brookmeyer with Lee Konitz and Randy Brecker – Kerry Strayer with Brecker again - Bud Shank and Ronnie Cuber have all recorded tribute albums.  Cuber’s  Three Baritone Sax Band Plays Mulligan with Nick Brignola and Gary Smulyan is particularly interesting, as it is Ronnie’s intention for the group to continue recording and touring, promoting Mulligan the songwriter.

In Gerry Mulligan’s hands the baritone saxophone, once considered an unwieldy section horn, became a vehicle for the most elegant and gracefully lyrical solo statements. He was also one of the music’s most creative arrangers and composers and his themes deserve to be as much a part of the jazz language as those by celebrated contemporaries like Benny Golson,  Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver.   

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