Larry Bunker was born in Long Beach, California, on November 4th, 1928, and joined the group after Chico Hamilton left to resume working with Lena Home. Chico described Larry's playing to me this way: "He is a good player. On some of those records, I can't always tell if it's him or me playing."
I had already met Gerry before I joined the group and played with him at a few sessions. I had also worked with Chet at a club in Inglewood where Harry Babasin ran things. Of course I knew Chico casually and had seen him play around town, but we were not particular friends, because we traveled in different circles. I had already seen the quartet a few times when Gerry asked me to replace Chico, and I thought it was an interesting concept. I was bowled over by Chet particularly, and if truth be told, I was a bigger fan of Chet than I was of Gerry. I don't know why the group was so popular with the public, but it seemed to be the right thing at the right time. There was an enormous influx of musicians who had recently left the Kenton and Herman bands, and suddenly the whole "West Coast Jazz" thing seemed to start. Gerry, with his sensibility and musicality, showed up right in the midst of that, and soon there were lines around the block at the Haig to hear the quartet.
I don't remember rehearsing with them before joining; I just started immediately at the club. I could learn the material from the records, but there wasn't that much to learn really, because nearly everything, even Gerry's originals, was in a song format — AABA. They had their repertoire down, and it was up to me to jump in and chug along, but it was difficult at first. I was so oriented to what a rhythm section with a piano should sound like that it took some getting used to, but the transparency became very appealing and I liked it. Gerry, Chet, and Carson, who was a good bass player, had some kind of magic chemistry in delineating the harmonic structure with just three voices, so that after a while I didn't miss the piano.6 Of course Gerry's abilities as an accompanist were very important, because he and the bass outlined the harmonic structure while Chet was playing. Gerry would indicate the notes of the chord, but Chet's approach while playing backgrounds to Gerry was very different: much more linear and across the changes.
There wasn't very much sitting in, but I remember when Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer were playing at the Tiffany, Gerry went over to visit Stan and came back raving — raving—about Bob. Those guys would take it in turns sitting in with us, and Gerry would go over there to play with them on intermissions. Lee Konitz of course played with us, and I seem to remember Oscar Pettiford sitting in on cello.7
I was with Gerry from January to June 1953, and that was my only job: six nights a week with Mondays off. I never sent in a dep, even though I was starting to get into the freelance field of recording in films and early T.V. That was daytime stuff, so I didn't have to take any nights off. I got along with him O.K., although we never talked about art, literature, politics, or the issues of the day. He was very bright and he was aware that he was very bright and he could use that to knock you off balance, which made him a bit intimidating. Although we didn't hang out together, he was nice enough to me—friendly, though not overly so. I showed up and played, did what I was told, and took the money — but I had a good time. He and Chet were both a little bit into the drug thing, which didn't seem to impair their ability to perform. I have never done drugs. I had my own little bout with the bottle, but not drugs. If you are not a "druggie" and you are hanging out with people who are, they can manifest an "outsider" thing to you. no matter how nicely it's done. Even then, and I was only twenty-five years old, I had known too many people who were dear to me found face down in the gutter, dead from an O.D., so I was petrified of any of that.
As for Chet. he was a brilliantly talented juvenile delinquent and not someone I could get next to, because I couldn't abide his attitudes. He was married to a lovely lady named Charlene at the time, and he was just a chauvinistic pig to her. At intermissions, she would be waiting at the bar for him while he was in the back seat of someone's car with a groupie, and if she dared to ask where he had been, he would kick her ass. That didn't appeal to me, and whatever else he was interested in also didn't appeal to me. Sometimes he would come into work with his mouth all cut from having been in a fistfight during the day, but that was Chet. The paradox was that he could be incredibly sensitive in his playing. He was a more linear player than Gerry, probably because of his lack of technical knowledge about what he was doing; so much of it was a magical, intuitive thing. Even without piano harmony to guide him he could sail across the changes when they were merely implied. Some people thought he couldn't read music, but he certainly could, though not very proficiently. He had been in an army band, so he would have had to read marches, and in the few situations I was with him when he had to read, he did O.K. He couldn't read chord changes, though, and he didn't know what they were, except for that amazing ability he had that enabled him to hear where they went. Gerry was right on the money when he said, "Chet knew everything about chords; he just didn't know their names."
When other musicians realized that he didn't have any theoretical knowledge, they would sometimes try to get him at jam sessions by calling tunes in ridiculous keys that nobody was familiar with, hoping to trap him. They would try "Body and Soul" in G-flat, for instance, but it didn't matter at all, because they could have said Q-flat and Chet would still have been able to play it. After a while that all stopped, because the guys couldn't transpose that fast from their accustomed keys, so they were trapping themselves, but not Chet. They backed themselves into corners that they couldn't get out of, but he would just sail through all of it because he didn't have those kinds of constraints. His mental apparatus worked in a different way, and that was what was so amazing about him, the fact that he could do what he did with such limited theoretical knowledge.
Gerry, on the other hand, was enormously knowledgeable and skilled in harmonic structure and chord changes —all of that. He could solo in a very linear fashion as well, but he may have wanted to play in a more vertical way because we didn't have a piano. He played the piano sometimes himself, and although he wasn't a great pianist, he knew what he wanted to do on the instrument. On baritone he was amazing, but sometimes it was a little hard to play with him, especially on a double-time thing where he would blow so many notes that he would get behind the time. I would be scuffling along, trying to drag him with me, but that was because of that big, awkward horn he was playing. Unlike an alto or tenor, it takes a long time for the air to get through. I have great respect for him both as a writer and a player.
I remember he did something really wild when we recorded those tentet things. We rehearsed one of the pieces, and after we made a take on it, we listened to the playback. Gerry flopped down on the floor in the middle of the studio, concentrating in a really dramatic, Christ-like pose, with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. When the recording was finished, he got up off the floor and said, "O.K., guys—pencils." He then proceeded to dictate a new road map for the chart, which completely rearranged it, and when he counted us in, it was like a brand new piece of music. His writing had a magical quality, and he probably influenced both Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer, because he was a fantastic arranger. He acquired a lot of his knowledge when he was very young, certainly before he was twenty, and if you examine his earlier music side by side with a Gil Evans chart, you can see they probably influenced one another. There are definite similarities in their chord voicings and ways of voice leading.
One of Gerry's originals on that tentet album was called "A Ballad," which I wanted to learn. After the album was released, I kept listening to it, and I asked him to play it for me on the piano. When I went behind him to see the voicings, he stopped playing immediately. "Oh no you don't," he said. "You have to learn it by hearing it." He knew I had good ears, so he wasn't going to show me the voicings; I had to learn them by hearing them. I was able to learn an enormous amount about harmonic structure from him, but I had to do it the hard way. The experience of working with Gerry Mulligan was very valuable in my own musical development.
The final piece in the jigsaw concerns Carson Smith again, who rejoined the quartet when Bob Whitlock left to go back home to Utah.
It was Christmas 1952 when I got back from the ninety-day tour with Billy May. I went straight to the Haig and saw Chet and Bob during their break. We went outside to smoke a little grass in Chet's car just as the cops drove by. That was Chet's first ever bust, and he took the fall because it was his car. A couple of days later, Gerry called and asked me to return to the group because Bob was leaving, and I stayed for the duration of the quartet with Chet. Mulligan of course was known as the driving force behind Miles's "Birth of the Cool" project. He was a very popular Wunderkind, and those first singles with Bob Whitlock were saturating the airwaves. Chet was initially unknown, but he was becoming a legend because he played so beautifully.
Weekends at the Haig, we had a line of about three hundred people waiting to get in, and all the jazz musicians in Hollywood came to hear us. I tend to play with my head down and eyes closed, and one night when I looked up. Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were standing next to me. I couldn't believe it! They had flown in from Manhattan just to hear the group. Oscar Pettiford sat in several times with us on cello, and he even had me sit down and play the instrument while he played bass, which was a laugh and a half, but it was fun. One of our regular customers every night after the second show at the Ambassador was Freddy Martin, who just loved us. I understand that he used to be a pretty good jazz tenor player. I saw everyone at the Haig at one time or another.
By the time I rejoined Gerry, we didn't rehearse much. I think in the six months I was with him, we might have had about four rehearsals for new material. He often introduced something new by just turning round on the stand and asking me if I knew it. One night he really stumped me, because he wanted to play "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," which I didn't know. He got madder than hell and, on the next break, he took me outside and told me that as a bass player I was supposed to know the repertoire. He finished up by saying that the next time he asked me if I knew a tune, I better know that tune! The following day I bought the sheet music—and learned it so well that I have been playing it as a solo ever since.
"Carson City Stage" was the only original I wrote for the group, and it was my biggest hit! Funnily enough, Gerry didn't like the tune but he loved the introduction, so the intro became the tune, which is all you hear. He decided on the title because he was good with words. I also wrote most of "Freeway," which is actually credited to Chet and not me, but you can't take credit for everything, can you? I used to stay at his house, partying all night, and then crash out on the sofa—"With a Chesterfield," as they say. One day Chet sang some little riffs which I played on his old beat-up piano. I wrote them on paper, adding a bridge which I was going to use for something else, and Gerry recorded "Freeway" while I was away with Billy May. Mostly, though, everything was Gerry's; we just followed him. He conceived the idea of the group and the arrangements, and although we had every opportunity, nobody contributed more than just serious playing. I wish I had known how to write in those days, but I didn't.
Gerry's abilities as an accompanist on the baritone was the most important factor as far as the group's success was concerned. I didn't miss the piano at all, because he had such an arranger's mind, he could always pick the best notes to back a soloist. The bass plays the bottom of the chord, and the most important harmonic note above is the seventh leading to the third, and Gerry was always right-on; I have never heard anyone play that way, and certainly nobody could have done it as well as Gerry.
While I was with him, I never sent in a dep. If I had, the only one he would have let me get away with was Joe Mondragon —but that is a whole different story, which I will get to later. Some of my favorite records had Lee Konitz with us. and his version of "Lover Man" is one of the best Konitz solos I ever heard. I'm still a big fan of Lee's. When Chico left to return to Lena because he couldn't turn down the money, some of the best drummers in town tried out, including, as I recall. Chuck Flores. Gerry just didn't seem to find anyone he liked until he heard Larry Bunker, and we all agreed that Larry had the best sound for the quartet. He was a marvelous player, especially on brushes, which that group needed. I had worked with him on Billy May's band when he took Alvin Stoller's place, and at first we didn't get along, but quite soon I realized what a great musician Larry was. He was a master percussionist and a very crisp drummer, whereas Chico was more of a showman, although I loved his "Jo Jones" style with the hi-hat.
Gerry was a bit of an oddball in those days because he was young, very tall, and probably didn't weigh more than ninety-five pounds! He was an imposing sight on the stand, with his huge baritone sax, which he loved to swing up and down while he played, if you remember, just like a bent straw. People were in awe of him, and when they sat down, they really paid attention to the music. Occasionally, though, we would get a table where customers were talking. He would stop everything and lecture the audience: "If you don't like what you came to hear, we would like you to leave right now." And the crowd would applaud him for it. We'd pick up without losing a beat and play the rest of the tune out. He didn't socialize much and I rarely saw him off the job, but Chet and I were the best of friends.
Chet was very sports-minded and, as everybody knows, he loved to race cars, not on the track but on the highway, and he scared the hell out of me many times. Once in San Francisco around 2 a.m. he showed me Lombard Street, which is a hill famous for the number of Z bends it has. We drove down there in what seemed like half a second flat, and it was so much fun, we did it two or three more times, until all the lights started going on around the neighborhood. We often went skinny-dipping after work, and I remember once, when we were leaving the Haig, he decided we should go skiing on Bear Mountain. We rented some skis, and although he had never skied in his life, he took off down the hill as though he had been born on them. Chet seemed to be good at everything, and the girls went crazy over him. He really knew how to have fun, and he lived life to its fullest, never wanting to miss out on anything. I know Chico has said that there were personal problems between him and Gerry, but I didn't witness any difficulties at all. Towards the end, just before Gerry got busted, they were living together, and I know Gerry loved Chet, and Chet felt that Gerry was one of the greatest musicians he had ever met.
In January 1953 Gerry recorded his tentet album with Joe Mondragon on bass instead of me. I knew that he loved Joe, as everybody did in the music business. Joe was a perfectionist who played beautifully, and I will never forget him, because he was always wonderful to me. I learnt a lot from him, and even though I was a complete unknown at the time, he used to send me as a sub if he couldn't make a record date. Anyway, one night at the club, Gerry seemed a little hostile to me and I asked him what the problem was. He said, "I've been really listening to you the last few nights, and I'm not getting the feeling I want. There is something wrong with this rhythm section because you and Larry aren't playing well together. I'm not happy and I'll be looking for a new bass player in the next few days, Carson; that's where it is right now." I told him that I thought we'd been playing better and better each night, but if there was something he wanted me to change, I would change it. He wouldn't listen, and I was heartbroken. Then it turned out that he had this tentet date and he started rehearsing with Joe Mondragon. I was there for each of the three nights they recorded at Capitol Studios, and it was magnificent. When I came to work after the last night, Gerry said, "Carson, you've been playing considerably better lately. I don't know what changed your attitude, but I like what you're doing, and I wish you'd stay with the group." That was the end of that! I've often thought about it, and I think that Gerry was unable to say to me, "You've been my bass player for a long time, but I want to use Joe Mondragon on a record date." He found it easier to fire me for three nights and then rehire me, and to this day I still laugh about it because we never had any problems.
Anne Baxter [actress], who was an adorable person, often came to hear us, and one night her agent asked if we would play at her birthday party. At the end of the night, at 2 a.m., we set off for her house in the Hollywood Hills, where we played for about an hour. She wined and dined us and couldn't do enough for us, because she loved the music. Later, I sat down at the piano and started fooling around with her score of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. She asked if I liked the piece, and when I told her it was one of my favorites, she insisted that I take the music home.
I remember arriving at the Haig one night to find that Gerry had eloped to Palm Springs with one of the waitresses, called Jeffie Lee Boyd. She was a friend of Dick Bock's, and I had tried to date her a few times, but I guess I wasn't her style. The marriage lasted for about a month before they had an annulment, and I could never figure it out, although I've heard several stories. We didn't know that Gerry was messing around with drugs, and one rumor was that he had gone down to Palm Springs to dry out and Jeffie was there to help. I don't know if I believe that or not, but it could be true, because it sure was a strange marriage! She was still working at the Haig when Gerry got busted, and shortly afterwards Arlyne Brown arrived on the scene from New York. She was the daughter of the great Lew Brown of the DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson songwriting team, and she and Gerry had known each other for years. It seemed that within a matter of days Arlyne had taken over and become Gerry's manager, with the intention of showing him the way to a new life. She was a real New Yorker and, man, was she strong that woman!
One night, two plainclothes detectives named Hill and O'Grady came into the Haig and sat down right in front of the bandstand for two whole sets. Chet pulled me aside and told me they were cops and Hollywood was their beat. Their great fame came from going around busting celebrities like Robert Mitchum and Lenny Bruce and, let me add, they were a couple of assholes.
If the club hadn't been full, they would have arrested us there and then, but they waited until a quarter to two, when it was time to close the joint up. They herded us into the office and looked up our sleeves, checking for needle marks. I was bewildered, because I didn't know what they were talking about, but after checking Chet, Larry, and me, Gerry just broke down, saying, "I've been screwing around with drugs again," just like that. He didn't have to say a word, but he was like a beaten man. He took the cops to the house that he and Chet were renting in East Hollywood near Sunset Boulevard and Western, showed them his paraphernalia, and went off to jail in handcuffs. I know now that he was desperate to get away from the drug scene and that was the only way he knew how to do it.8
Gerry's lawyer kept the case bouncing around from court to court for a couple of months while we carried on playing at the Haig. By this time he and Arlyne were renting a tiny house in the Hollywood Hills. The night before his final court appearance, when he fully expected to get the case kicked out for good, we all went up to Gerry's place for a little party to cheer him on. The next day the judge gave him six months at the Sheriff's Honour Farm, and that was the end of the first Gerry Mulligan Quartet.9
The Honour Farm was in Saugus, which is about thirty miles out of L.A. on the road to San Francisco, and I was Arlyne's ride when she visited Gerry. He would arrange for me to see one of the other prisoners, usually a musician, while he and Arlyne spent their hour together."11 We all expected Gerry to reform the quartet when he was released, and in the meantime, Chet and I got to play with Charlie Parker for a while. We also did some things on our own with Russ Freeman and Bob Neel, because Dick Bock was preparing Chet to become a bandleader, although Chet didn't want to be a leader. We were keeping fairly busy, not busy-busy, but hanging in there and paying the rent. We were both astonished to find that, on the day Gerry was released, Arlyne picked him up and took him right to the airport. Somebody said his final remark was, "Good-bye, Los Angeles, you will never see me again."
It has been said that Gerry and Chet didn't get back together again because Chet wanted more money, but I was his closest friend and I never heard him talk about money. As long as he could have a little bit of weed every day, he was happy; money was the last thing he thought about. I will never figure out why they didn't get back together.
I did play with the group once more a few years later, in 1964, when Gerry organized a reunion at the Hollywood Bowl with Chet and Chico. At the last moment. Art Farmer took Chet's place, and when Gerry made the announcement, a lot of the audience assumed Chet was getting stoned somewhere, because by that time, he had a bad reputation as a junkie.
I think that Gerry, along with Duke, Gil Evans, and Bill Holman, was one of the best arranger/composers in jazz, and nobody will ever replace him. When it comes to people in that position, you can name them on the fingers of one hand. He did so much in music, and he will always stand out as the greatest musician I have met in my entire life, bar none. He was the very best on baritone, although I may be a little prejudiced, but he just got better and better. In recent years when he wasn't writing so much and concentrating on playing, he was the strongest and the best. As for Chet, I can't say enough about him. He was the most musical and melodic trumpeter I've ever played with. He and Gerry were magnificent together because they had "The Magic."
On a discographic note, all the Pacific Jar.z recordings by Mulligan's quartet and tentet are available on Mosaic MD3-102. The quartet's San Francisco date, which included "My Funny Valentine," can be heard on Fantasy -OJCCD-711-2, and their final studio session, which was produced by Gene Nonnun, has been reissued on Jazz Society (F) 670511 CD.
1. Some bizarre and also some historically important events occurred at the Ambassador Hotel over the years. Albert Einstein once rang reception to complain about room service, and on another occasion Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald set fire to their room, creeping out in the confusion to avoid paying the bill! In 1952, while Gerry Mulligan was still appearing at the Haig, 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. Sadly, the hotel achieved a different notoriety when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated there after having just accepted victory in the California primary during his campaign for the presidency in 1968.
2. This incident occurred early in May 1952, just before Chet Baker joined Charlie Parker for a two-week engagement at the Tiffany club.
3. In an enthusiastic Down Beat review titled "Mr. Mulligan Has a Real Crazy Gerry-Built Crew." Ralph Gleason said, "the group turned San Francisco into the modern music center of the country . . . they are a musical sensation."
4. According to Carol Easton in her book Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton (Da Capo), Carson's description of Gail Madden being "a little strange" may be an understatement. Easton says, "From 1947 to 1949 Gail was living with Bob Graettinger. She was a frustrated pianist who saw herself as the woman behind the genius (whomever he might be at the moment). She looked even freakier than Graettinger, in mismatched shoes, men's clothes, whatever took her fancy. She shared Graettinger's oblique perspective on life and was one of the few people who could make him laugh, but she was volatile and erratic if not downright psychotic. Graettinger came home one day to find everything dyed pink —bedspread, towels, curtains, clothes, shoes, everything."
5. It shouldn't come as a surprise that both Mulligan and Baker were unfamiliar with "My Funny Valentine." Rodgers and Hart had written it for a 1937 show called Babes in Arms, and despite earlier recordings by people like Cab Calloway, Mel Torme, and Eddie Condon, it remained in obscurity until revived by the Mulligan quartet in 1952. The following year, Frank Sinatra sang it on his very first L.P., Songs for Young Lovers—and the rest, as they say, is history.
6. Towards the end of the fifties, when Art Farmer joined the group, his initial reaction to working without a piano was: "It's like walking down the street with no clothes on!"
7. In his excellent book Bird's Diary: The Life of Charlie Parker 1945-1955 (Castle Communications), Ken Vail mentions Joe Maini sitting in with the quartet. He quotes the following letter to Parker from Maini, who was visiting Los Angeles with Jimmy Knepper: "Jerry [sic] Mulligan is making a lot of money out here. He's got a small group with no piano. I played with him the other night on his gig and it was a lot of fun." The letter is dated January 23, 1953.
8. In a long 1959 Mulligan profile by Nat Hentoff in the New Yorker, he confirmed that Gerry expected to be sent to the Federal Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, where he hoped to be cured. That is why he so readily gave himself up, and in a more tolerant society, that is where he would have been sent, rather than to jail.
9. James Gavin, in his book Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Chatto and Windus), points out that the judge who sentenced Mulligan also sent Barbara Graham to the gas chamber for murder in 1955. Susan Hayward took the role of Graham in the 1958 film I Want to Live, which featured Mulligan on the soundtrack as well as in some early nightclub scenes.
10. Mulligan has described his incarceration as "sheer torture," but Robert Mitchum on his release from an Honour Farm in 1949 said, probably tongue in cheek. "It was like Palm Springs without the riff-raff!"
11. It was a long time ago, and understandably Carson's memory is a little at fault here. Mulligan remained working in California for a while after his release, before returning to the East Coast with Bob Brookmeyer.