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“The way Mulligan wrote made his omission of the piano inevitable: His chords were moving so much that the piano got in the way. Gerry was a straight-ahead, here-and-now arranger, impatient with complications. His great contributions were the liberation of the minor seventh and a sort of freedom of tonality, a horizontal kind of thinking."
- George Russell, composer and arranger
In our continuing efforts to provide Gerry Mulligan’s many contributions to Jazz with more of an online presence, this feature provides yet another piece of the Jeru bibliography to go along with those already posted on these pages by the Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff, Bill Crow and Gordon Jack, et al.
Leonard Feather, the esteemed Jazz author and critic was an astute observer of the Jazz scene for almost fifty years from his arrival in the United States in 1939 until his death in 1994.
Surely his writings about Jeru deserve a place among the Jazz luminaries who have contributed their views and interpretations of Mulligan and his music.
This is the first of two articles that Leonard published in successive issues of Down Beat magazine beginning on May 26, 1960.
“Mulligan er utvivlsomt en af de mest begavede musikere i den unge jazz," is the unequivocal opinion of Erik Wiedemann of Copenhagen. "Muito interessantes sao os trabalhos, num mood mais cool, de Gerry Mulligan," observes Jorge Guinle of Rio de Janeiro. And Arrigo Polillo of Milan states, "Apparve presto chiaro a tutti che nel jazz de Mulligan vi era qualcosa di nuovo e di diverse." In Paris, Andre Hodeir has expounded at length on "Mulligan, artiste a la sensibilite exquise," while Joachim-Ernst Berendt has echoed from Baden-Baden, "Mulligan ist vielleicht der ideenreichste unter den jungen arrangeuren der Jazzmusik.” These and a few score more around the world have sung the virtues of a tall, red-haired young man who is probably the most popular saxophonist living.
The Gerry Mulligan era, begun in the October 22, 1952, Down Beat ("Mr. Mulligan Has a Real Crazy Gerry-Built Crew," read the headline on Ralph Gleason's rave review of the original quartet), currently is reaching a peak with his almost simultaneous appearances in four films: a playing part in Jazz on a Summer's Day, an acting and playing role in The Subterraneans, and acting assignments in The Rat Race and The Bells Are Ringing. Of his work in Bells, Judy Holliday said, "I was amazed by his sense of timing. He played a comedy scene with me so beautifully that we're almost hoping it will be cut out — it makes everything that follows seem anticlimactic."
Mulligan's movie work gave him enough financial security to start his first successful big band venture; the orchestra, assembled in New York, played its first date there in April at Basin Street East.
Along with Mulligan's musical growth, there has been a striking development in his personality. Musicians who once saw in him an air of belligerent intolerance, a garrulity, a lack of direction, now are inclined to observe that the intolerance is directed against stupidity, racial prejudice, and narrow mindedness and the talkativeness—based on sensitivity, a keen concern for music, the theater, politics, and a broad range of general interests—is leavened with humor and a refusal to accept pompousness on any level.
"It's hard to realize how much he's changed," says drummer Dave Bailey. "In the five years I've been with him he's grown up; he is a man, and he's happy. He said to me one day, 'Dave, I've got a band, and I've got no problems in it. I'm so happy about it I'm shaking'."
Chico Hamilton, who played in the original quartet, says: "He's trying to become a very good human being and has become aware of his fellow man. I think of Gerry not as a genius but as just another guy — a nice guy and a very sincere person." And Elliot Lawrence observed, "Often you see people mature from boyhood to manhood, but it's more than that. Gerry now is a completely different person."
Mulligan himself attributes much of the change to a fruitful experience with psychiatry. As for his musical advancement, he declares: "People think jazz is a young man's game, like athletics; but the fact is, creativity must improve as you get older and more mature,"
That his life has stabilized itself may seem remarkable to many who have studied the turbulent pattern of his first 25 years. Born in Queens Village on Long Island, NY, April 6, 1927, he was the youngest of the four sons of a management engineer whose jobs took the family to many cities, making it hard for the children to form durable childhood associations. Gerry is three-fourths Irish: his maternal grandmother was German. Mrs. Mulligan now manages an apartment building in Washington; the three brothers all took up their father's profession.
"Gerry's parents were strict authoritarians," recalls Russ Saunders, a bassist who knew him as a teen-ager. "And he had the background problems of a strict Catholic home. He was very devout; this inhibited him in many ways and it was the source of our frequent disagreements."
Regarding this matter, Mulligan has said, 'The Catholic background was deeply ingrained in me; but the conversations with Russ and others had a lot to do with my later thinking. This was my first exposure to anything other than the Catholic philosophy. It's one thing to stop being a Catholic and another to go back and weed out your thinking when it goes back to early childhood. But from the time I left home I never went to church again, which is a remarkable step in itself."
His childhood was as deeply entrenched in music as in religion. A nun, Sister Vincent, gave him his first piano lessons in 1934. He had been picking out melodies from infancy, had recently taken up the ocarina, and had even written a song.
Though his parents had sung in choirs and his father could play violin and piano, there was little love for music in the household. After pleading vainly with his family to buy him a musical instrument, Gerry borrowed a clarinet while at school in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1938. He took some lessons, but had more success teaching himself; soon he was playing in the school orchestra and, without any training, wrote his first arrangement.
Gradually, he drew closer to music and away from the family. By 1943, taking a part-time job as an office boy, he saved up enough to buy a clarinet; a year later, in Philadelphia, he bought a tenor saxophone, organized a dance band for West Philadelphia Catholic high, and wrote a book for the band.
He sent three arrangements to Russ Saunders, whom he had known while living in Reading, Pa. ("they were all in concert; I had to transpose them," says Saunders), and sold a couple to Johnny Warrington, then leader of the radio house band at radio station WCAU.
"His first efforts were pretty feeble," Warrington said, "but he accepted criticism well, and came back with the arrangements changed. He was a good kid, with real musical Stardust in his eyes; sometimes he'd go along with the band for the ride on a one-nighter. He enjoyed hanging out with the boys in the band; to him they were real big operators in the music business."
The big operators, however, never found room for Mulligan as a 'blowing colleague. After his junior year in high school, during the 1944 summer vacation, Gerry landed a job on tenor with Alex Bartha's band at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N. J. At least one member of the band advised him to stick to writing on the grounds that his playing just didn't make it. But Mulligan refused to be discouraged. When a chance came to stay with the band for a road tour in the fall, he decided to quit school.
"My family are still kicking themselves because I didn't get my high school diploma," Mulligan said. "They thought if I'd stayed with the church, everything would have been all right. Our ways of thinking were completely unrelated. But there is a passive acceptance between us now."
The abrupt halt in his school studies did not mean an end to Garry's education. "He was always a sensitive, bright boy," said Mrs. Frank Socolow, a friend from the Reading days. "He read a lot and gravitated toward other people in .the arts. I'm sure he didn't stop studying when he stopped going to school.'
"He was a tremendous reader of books," said Elliot Lawrence. "Intellectual-type books, psychology and mythology and what have you. Maybe he was at the wrong school and felt hemmed in at a Catholic high school."
According to Russ Saunders, "Gerry was ill at ease with his family. The other brothers had a leaning toward mathematics, business, the higher forms of learning, and here was Gerry bumming around with a bunch of musicians; they never adjusted to it. They were well-to-do, with a comfortable home, but he turned his back on it all and pulled himself up by his bootstraps."
The Bartha tour failed to materialize, but in the fall of 1944, Mulligan made a three-month tour as arranger with Tommy Tucker's band. Exposure to the bop band of Billy Eckstine during the tour induced him to try to lead the Tucker group a little further out than it was willing to venture; at the end of the tour Tucker decided Mulligan was expendable.
The WCAU house band was now in the hands of Lawrence, whom Gerry promptly approached for a job. "He came into the studio looking like the all-American high school boy," Lawrence said. "He wrote regularly for me for a year, and we kind of palled around together and he stayed with my folks. I found him polite and gentlemanly and never saw any other side to his character until he took me to his family's home one day; then I found out about the terrible clashes with his parents, who hadn't wanted him to leave school,
"Gerry was dying to play in the band, but unless one of the sax men got sick, we never let him. He wrote constantly and quickly, and in his spare time he'd jam at the Down Beat -with Red Rodney."
One occasion when Gerry did get to play with the band was a concert at which Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were to appear. Gerry recalled, "I said to Elliot's sax section, 'For God's sake, can't one of you guys break a leg or something so I can make this concert with Bird?' And sure enough, the day before the concert, one of the tenor players slipped and broke a wrist. Everyone gave me an odd look, like I was practicing witchcraft."
Parker, talking with Mulligan and learning that he had been frustrated in his desire to blow, invited him to sit in at a local club with the Gillespie quintet. Nervous but proud, Gerry formed a friendship with Parker that was cemented in a series of visits to New York.
It was during this period that Mulligan received an offer to join the Gene Krupa Band. "I think one reason Gerry took the job," Lawrence said, "was that Gene had promised to let him play as well as write." As it turned out, during the year with the band Mulligan only played for four months — two on alto and two on tenor. At the end of the year Mulligan's music went on record for the first time: his Disc Jockey Jump, cut in January, 1947, became a hit single for Krupa.
It was during the post-Krupa, pre-California period (1947-51) that Mulligan made his crucial steps both as writer and soloist. First he sold all his horns except a baritone. There was far less competition than on alto or tenor, and Gerry was fascinated by the depth and scope of the horn.
During the next couple of years he became part of a highly informal salon in the dark, windowless one-room basement apartment of Gil Evans on W. 55th St. in New York City. "Miles and Bird often stayed there," George Russell reminisced, "and everybody fell in; we were all gravitating around Gil. Gerry was still doing much more writing than playing. He was lighthearted and gay, a crisp and witty and outspoken person.
"Those were hungry days. At one time five of us collaborated on an arrangement for Buddy Johnson's band— Gerry, who wrote the intro, Gil, Johnny Carisi, John Lewis, and I. Buddy must have been ashamed to refuse it with all those names on it, because he bought it the next day — and it was a pretty bad chart."
The way Mulligan wrote, Russell said, made his omission of the piano inevitable: "His chords were moving so much that the piano got in the way. Gerry was a straight-ahead, here-and-now arranger, impatient with complications. His great contributions were the liberation of the minor seventh and a sort of freedom of tonality, a horizontal kind of thinking."
Gil Evans said, "He didn't strike me as impatient; in fact, he spent a lot of time on his work. I didn't try to guide him consciously; we were just musical associates. But I was Thornhill's arranger then, and I did get Gerry the job with Claude."
As Mulligan remembers it, "Gil wasn't the only influence on my writing; he was the final influence. Before that there were Ben Homer, who wrote some good things for Tommy Tucker, and Eddie Finckel with Krupa; they were major influences. And George Williams influenced me in terms of section writing. Later I turned out to he an influence on him. I was tremendously affected, too, by Bobby Sherwood's ballad writing; he could get that symphonic ensemble sound, using inner lines. Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti made an impression on me, too."
In 1948, a nonet crystallized out of the workshop around Gil. Miles Davis, as leader, got a two-week gig at the Royal Roost in September; four months later came the first of three memorable record dates, now on a Capitol LP aptly titled Birth of the Cool. Mulligan played on all the sessions, arranged George Wallington's Godchild and three originals, Jeru (the nickname Miles gave Gerry) ; Venus DeMilo, and Rocker. Though they have since become the most discussed records in the historiography of modern jazz, these sides were dilatorily treated at the time. Some came out on 78s, others were not released at all for years.
Gunther Schuller, who played French horn on the last date, said he believes there were strong differences of feeling about the objectives of this group: "Gil and Miles wanted a rich, earthy sound while Gerry wanted a lighter, more transparent quality.
"By my classical standards," added Schuller, "Gerry was a disorganized person at the time, the kind who in his very pleasant, nonchalant way would saunter in late. But he was tremendously flexible and had an affability under all circumstances."
During the New York years, Mulligan's only steady jobs were eight months' writing and playing with a new Elliot Lawrence Band and a few months with Thornhill. There was also a short-lived combo led by Kal Winding, featuring Brew Moore and Gerry, with which he played one of his first record dates and made several nightclub gigs. But by now he was more than dimly aware that destiny had not designed him as the eternal sideman. "How come," he said once to Allen Eager, "everyone else is leading bands and getting ahead while I'm not in a position of leadership and authority?" Some of this attitude had been inculcated by a girl named Gale Madden, who for a couple of years was a strong influence, and whom Gerry considers largely responsible for the no-piano idea. Miss Madden encouraged him to keep writing and to organize rehearsal bands to try out his work.
Money was so scarce that Mulligan was involved in some weird ventures in the effort to keep rehearsing.
"One time," Eager recalled, "when there was no money for a hall, we met at Charlie's tavern and decided to take our horns to Central Park. We went to a knoll overlooking the lake and had our rehearsal there with an audience of children, nurses, and dogs. Nobody interfered the first day or two; then the cops ran us out."
According to bassist Buddy Clark: "Gerry got a kick of playing in the open air; sometimes we'd have two or three bassists to compensate for the lack of a piano. We even played the first modern jazz concert in the Catskills — around the swimming pool at the Waldemere hotel."
About the same time Rita Cansino, a dancer cousin of Rita Hayworth, who wanted to sing, paid Mulligan to write a library. "She thought I was star material," Gerry recalled with a grin. "Even wanted to build an act and have me dance."
A swinging personnel was assembled, with Mulligan on piano, but after two months of patient preparation at Nola studios in New York City, the venture collapsed. There was a slight hitch that was making work hard to get; Miss Cansino couldn't sing.
At this stage, Mulligan was no longer the ail-American boy. A gaunt, haggard-looking figure with close-cropped hair and a raggedy beard, he was given to wearing sneakers and a rope belt; he and Gale Madden wore identical green pork-pie hats. "Gerry and Gale," said George Wallington, "were the pioneers of the beat generation." Easily irritated, he blew up at a Herbie Fields rehearsal, denouncing the band's inability to interpret; he returned his fee and asked for his arrangement back. There was a similar scene with Benny Goodman after a few days of desultory rehearsal with a modern band Goodman assembled in 1948.
By now Mulligan was firmly identified with the baritone, but it was Serge Chaloff who had begun to dominate the polls previously won by Harry Carney. Once, after hearing him with the Woody Herman Band, Mulligan said to Charloff, "Watch out, in a couple of years I’ll be the No. 1 baritone." ("Serge wasn't a writer on his horn," Gerry said recently, "the way Bird was. When Bird played cliches, at least they were his own cliches.")
By 1951 Mulligan, in bad shape financially and physically, decided to head west. With the help of Milton Bauchner, a jazz-loving businessman in New Jersey, he played a concert in Newark with a horn just reclaimed from a hock shop, borrowed some money, and soon moved on to Reading to see a brother.
From there he and Gale Madden hitchhiked across the country. "We took turns napping in the backs of trucks," Mulligan said. "We went by moving truck, oil truck, private car; stopped off in St. Louis, then got as far as Albuquerque. An old friend from Reading was at the university there. After I'd worked briefly in Albuquerque, we made it to Los Angeles."
This was June, 1951. Gerry Mulligan had spent most of his 24 years escaping —from social and religious problems, from conformity, from reality, and finally from the musical maelstrom of Manhattan in which he had found no firm path to tread. Impossible though it must have been to perceive, the Mulligan success story was barely a year away.(Part two of this article will appear in the June 9 issue.)”