Tuesday, November 26, 2019

“Mulligan – The Man Behind The Sound” - Herb Kimmel - an unpublished rejoinder to Will MacFarland

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Herb Kimmel read MacFarland’s article in [January, 1954] Theme and sent the editor a response that he hoped would be published as well. Both of these essays can be found in James Harrod’s book on the Jazz:West label which can be ordered via this link.

Whereas the previous MacFarland article is written in a style that can best be described as self-affected pomposity at its finest, Kimmel’s article is well thought out and penned in a cogent and concise manner. 

“Will MacFarland had written a piece for Theme Magazine (“Mulligan – The Sound Alone”) in which he argued that Gerry’s bad-boy behavior during concerts and club performances (and drugs) must be overlooked when assessing his contribution to American music. Mulligan was well known for turning his back on audiences, scowling, snarling, even making hostile comments whenever he was displeased. MacFarland used artists like Ezra Pound to make his point — rejecting the idea that Pound’s anti-semitism and anti-Americanism should be considered in evaluating his contribution to poetry. It was an interesting article. I wrote a rejoinder (“Mulligan – The Man Behind The Sound”), in which I argued that jazz lovers would appreciate Gerry’s music even more if they knew more about him as a person (son of a wealthy Philadelphia Republican family, etc.) I thought my article was a very positive endorsement of Gerry Mulligan and his work. But Jimmy Valentine made the mistake of showing it to Arlene [Brown Mulligan, Gerry’s wife] just before it went to press and she had a fit. She threatened to sue him (for what?) and make his life miserable if he went ahead and printed it. I remember that she said that she (and Gerry) wanted the world to just let him play and "fuck everything else!" Anyway, from then on she never spoke to me again. But Gerry and I continued to "get along" (for Mulligan, that’s as much as could be hoped).”24

Here is Herb Kimmel's unpublished rejoinder, “Mulligan – The Man Behind the Sound.”

“Whenever an attempt is made to evaluate the work of a creative artist whose private life or personality traits tend to vary markedly from the ordinary, the question is raised whether it is advantageous to attempt to separate the artist as a human being from his work itself, even for the sole purpose of making this evaluation. A recent magazine article concerning the music of Gerry Mulligan answers this question affirmatively, proposing a temporary suspension of the "law of gravity," so to speak, in order to objectify an analysis of Mulligan’s relative position in the 1953 jazz spectrum.

For the purpose of inverse comparison: It may not be necessary to visit the grounds of St. Elizabeths sanatorium or study the psychiatric reports on Ezra Pound’s mental condition in order to be able to read and enjoy his poetry. But, if we wish to understand and critically evaluate this poetry, or if we propose to determine Pound’s position among his predecessors and contemporaries, we cannot do so honestly without observing that the society in which this work was done (and is being done) has declared him legally insane. Our observation does not lessen the impact of Pound’s work; it has not diminished the influence he has had upon contemporary poetry. Nor should it.

If there has been confusion in the minds of some who may be vaguely aware of Mulligan's individualities, this confusion will not be cleared by suppressing the details of his different-ness. Rather, as is the case in any attempt to understand the end results of artistic endeavor, the only fair way to assess the creator’s worth is by understanding him as a person.

Mulligan has been called "Peck’s bad boy" of music; this appellation refers more to his musical changeability than to whatever personality peculiarities he may have. When the great majority of his musical fellows were still floundering in the sea of early bop, his work with Miles Davis, which produced the now well-known "Move" [which have come to be known as “The Birth of the Cool” recordings] recordings, was the signpost which indicated the direction jazz men could and did take. Now, after having been the object of much public criticism regarding the recorded work in 1952 and 1953 of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, criticism specifically concerned with the so-called reactionary, old-fashioned, or even square harmony in the arranged portions of these records,

Gerry may comfort himself in the knowledge that any number of current magazine articles and books on the subject contain bold announcements that bop is dead or dying. Again, his work indicated the direction the new
metamorphosis would take.

The quartet's newest album suggests that, as far as Mulligan is concerned, even the Bach-like improvised two-horn counterpoint, which caused so much controversy until it was finally accepted generally, (accepted to the degree that the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which has exaggerated this type of sound considerably beyond Mulligan’s farthest experimental excursions, was named the nation’s number one small combo for the second consecutive year
in the Down Beat poll), may have outlived its meaningfulness with respect to jazz. The one consistent motivating idea, which seems to have determined each of these directional changes, is an extremely acute sensitivity to the most subtle indications of the point of diminishing returns as regards the innovation in question. Mulligan seems to know just how much any of these ideas is part of the main stream of American jazz; he knows when to stop and reverse his field.

The key to this flexibility is what should concern us. If we desire to test the validity of the changes themselves and understand them, we must take a closer look at Gerry Mulligan, the man.

To do this we might start at any one of several diverse points. For sheer pleasure let’s lean close to the small bandstand at the Haig in Los Angeles and silently follow the thin line of baritone background as it winds in and out of the trumpet solo. Just a vague wire for the horn to cling to, tight-rope-wise, as the changes are spanned. The man behind the reed, eyes closed, is listening as well as marching along; he smiles appreciatively at a long low note and raises a curious brow when a new invention is born of the horn. Then he stops blowing and frowns at some people at the bar who have become noisy. He may even, as he has in the past, silence the whole group and leave the stand; or, more embarrassingly, wait for attention to refocus on the music, presenting the strange scene of four quiet musicians idly standing around, waiting. For these actions he has been criticized. He has been called arrogant, insulting; but not by those of us who were leaning close and listening. Ask him about it later and he gives the simple answer you wanted to hear: "If they didn’t come to hear the music, okay. But shouldn’t the people who care get a chance to enjoy it?” This is quite the opposite of arrogance. And he’s right. It may be unfortunate that jazz is to be heard, for the most part, in bars where liquor is sold. But there
are so many other available drinking places for the noisemakers and loud talkers; let them do their drinking to the tune of juke box jingles or cocktail lounge stylists.

Gerry has also been chastised for being antisocial, for not seeming to have any interest in the glib conversational between-numbers social graces which have filled up so many minutes more profitably spent making music; for example, the opposite extremes of this diversion represented by Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy DeFranco, the former being an expert blender of the ridiculous with the sublime, the latter, although a thoroughly personable fellow, not always able to achieve as subtle a verbal mixture as he is reed-wise. Gerry just wants to blow, that’s all.

Except for a rare reference to the fact that the next tune is in fulfillment of a request (probably made two weeks previous), the most he ever says on the stand is typified by his usual verbal sign off, "Shortly." This is certainly more appropriate than the perfunctory routine about a short intermission and so forth, so boringly mouthed by many well-meaners who are less rebellious than Mulligan.

Let’s not make any bones about it, Gerry Mulligan is a rebel. Starting with his extreme departure from the Philadelphia Republicanism of his boyhood home to his insistence on not using a piano in any group he fronts, he has sought constantly to scuttle the old when it stands in the way of the new, or to revert to it for a fresh start when the new has become everyday and over-used. There were no pianos in the marching bands of New Orleans as they paraded to the cemetery, mourning the loss of a beloved side man, nor in the trucks and wagons in which so much of their earliest swinging was done, and there is no reason today to nail side men to this keyboard crucifix which limits the very aspect of music in which they should be most unrestricted. If the Mulligan sound is rare and pleasing, can it be coincidence that the harmonic limits placed upon the horns is nothing more than the whispering thump of Carson Smith’s bass line? Of course not; the freedom given to Gerry’s saxophone and Chet Baker’s trumpet are their lifeblood. Without it the quartet would be just another group with the same old sound. Audiences do not shoutingly urge this group to play “Perdido” or “How High the Moon.”

Many of Mulligan’s fellow musicians feel he is too critical of their mistakes, too quick to point the finger of blame on him who goofs. This may be true, but only in the case of competent jazzmen. Every artist has the right to demand equal observance of the discipline of his particular medium, especially jazz musicians. Unlike their counterparts in poetry and painting, musicians work in groups, and each member is measurable by the member who is the weakest link in the chain. How many magnificent solos have never made their way out of the recording room because one of the other instrumentalists committed some accidental slip? 

Would Arthur Miller tolerate a Spade Cooley score for one of his plays?

This writer has seen Gerry take a group of fumbling amateurs and pour hours of patient urging and instructing into the tedious task of polishing and shining their musical wares, and their horns as well. At times the sound they would make was almost unbearable, but after many weeks of coaching and showing them how, nursing their temperamental outbursts, Gerry made them sound like an ensemble, and he glowed like a proud first-grade teacher. The difference is obvious; the sophisticated musician should be above goofing, and when an accident occurs it is his responsibility alone. There is no reason to pretend it didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have happened if someone hadn't been sloppy or careless.

Gerry’s rebelliousness has done harm to none but himself and his immediate family. Perhaps we listeners have reason to complain that his recent absence from the jazz scene is our loss too. A newspaper music critic claims that Gerry’s prominent role in contemporary jazz demands that he give up certain of his more troublesome habits or forfeit his position of leadership. This is ridiculous and indicative of a callousness beyond description in this article.

If there are reasons why Gerry should change his ways, and this writer thinks there are, they relate to the effect on Gerry Mulligan, the person, not his listeners. It’s almost like saying to Kenneth Patchen, "Please stop having arthritis; it’s interfering with your poetry production." It goes without saying that they would both stop if they could; and, given another chance, Gerry

Even at this moment, when Gerry’s production necessarily is at its lowest point, when the harm may seem to have outweighed the good, the Mulligan rebelliousness must be evaluated in a larger time-framework. The accomplishments he has already produced stand as an ineradicable monument to his past value; they cannot be undone, and without them jazz would surely have a different face today. The Mulligan contributions of the future are impossible to estimate. We can only be sure that he will continue to swing as he has always swung in the past, and that he will never stop trying to keep his fellow musicians swinging. How do we know this? Simply because that’s the kind of person Gerry Mulligan is; that’s the kind of man
behind the sound.”

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