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It’s always an event when new music by Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band is released. Gerry [1927-1996] was one of the greatest talents the Jazz world ever produced and while his music was performed in many musical settings, I always thought that the Concert Jazz Band, which was in existence from 1960-64, represented the apex of his career.
Greatness often helps achieve more greatness and Mulligan’s effort to bring the CJB together and to market it was enhanced by the timely arrival of impresario Norman Granz on the scene.
As Tad Hershorn explains in the following excerpts from his seminal biography - Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Justice for Jazz [University of California Press, 2011].
“More significant was Granz's attempt to expand his musical boundaries by underwriting and promoting the short-lived, well-traveled, and much-loved Concert Jazz Band under the leadership of baritone saxophonist, arranger, and composer Gerry Mulligan from the spring of 1960 through December 1964. Mulligan stated that his aspirations for the band were to achieve "the same clarity of sound and interplay of lines that 1 had in smaller groups."' Doubling on piano, he brought out the talents of the thirteen-member all-star band with arrangements by himself, Bob Brookmeyer, Johnny Carisi, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, George Russell, and a twenty-seven-year-old Gary McFarland.
The Granz touch was visible in the extensive promotion for the Concert Jazz Band, which included a full-page ad in Down Beat in late October 1960 announcing the release of its first album, Gerry Mulligan: The Concert jazz Band, and the beginning of a seventeen-city tour of the West and Midwest before three weeks of concerts in Western Europe. The Mulligan outfit played to four standing-room engagements within six months at the Village Vanguard, where one of the band's recordings was made in December 1960. The band's renown brought in a host of honors in 1960 and 1961 from the public and critics alike, including Down Beat's annual international critics' poll and Billboard's annual jazz writers' poll."
Now, thanks to the Nederlands Jazz Archief “Treasures of Dutch Jazz and Jazz at the Concertgebouw,” the music performed by Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band during the Amsterdam [November 5th] portion of the CJB’s 1960s tour has been released on CD as Young Blood - Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band Live in Amsterdam 1960 [NJA 1902].
Here are the insert notes from the recording as written by Bert Vuijsle, a Jazz journalist and author.
“At least one prominent listener was ecstatic after Gerry Mulligan's midnight concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, on November 5, 1960. Michiel de Ruyter, the dean of Dutch jazz critics, qualified the Concert Jazz Band as 'the best white big band in the entire history of jazz.' In his review in the Amsterdam daily Het Parool he wrote: ‘There are hardly any big bands these days; up until now, Ellington's and Basie's were the only orchestras of a truly high level and with their own distinct personality. With the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band there are now clearly three of such bands'
Other newspapers echoed De Ruyter's enthusiasm. De Volkskrant: 'Mulligan's big band provided a breath-taking experience for a packed house.' De Telegraaf: 'A superb jazz concert. It is miraculous how Mulligan succeeded so convincingly in producing this homogenous sound with such renowned, highly individual soloists.' De Tijd/Maasbode: 'From the very start, the beautiful "sound" of this orchestra filled the hall with its gratifying interaction between excitement and relaxation. It made the orchestra sound like a big band should sound: like an organ.'
When Gerry Mulligan launched his Concert Jazz Band in the spring of 1960, he was returning to his first love. In 1946, as a precocious 18-year-old, he already wrote arrangements for drummer Gene Krupa's big band. The next six years he kept on arranging for Krupa, Claude Thornhill, Elliot Lawrence and Stan Kenton. Then, in the summer of 1952, he suddenly became world-famous with the exact opposite of a big band: his pianoless quartet, with Chet Baker on trumpet and himself on baritone saxophone.
During the rest of the fifties Mulligan remained faithful to the combo concept. He mostly worked with a quartet, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer succeeding Chet Baker in 1954. Sometimes Mulligan expanded his quartet to a sextet, with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims and trumpeter Jon Eardley. With this group he came to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw for the first time in April, 1956. The Dutch Jazz Archive released the recording of this concert on the CD Gerry Mulligan: Western Reunion (MCN 0801).
In early 1960, Mulligan had signed up for a week's gig at jazz club Basin Street East in New York, and decided to put together a big band for the occasion. He opted for a relatively small formation: three trumpets, three trombones (including Brookmeyer's valve trombone), four reeds, bass, and drums. Together with his own solo baritone saxophone this amounted to a 13-piece-band. He retained the pianoless formula of his quartet and sextet, but occasionally Mulligan or Brookmeyer would play the piano.
The name Concert Jazz Band signalled Mulligan's intent to have a real jazz orchestra, not a dance band. 'Most bands that have been put together lately have been trying to reach a happy medium, and this doesn't exist,' he said at the time. ‘They spoil the possibilities in both directions.'
Surprisingly, Mulligan wrote relatively few of the arrangements for the band. 'So far as my own participation is concerned, my stamp is on the band and I'm the featured soloist, but up to now I've been more of a supervisor of the writing than a very active contributor,' he stated. 'But all of what we do is based on the conviction that music is to be enjoyed, by the player as well as the listener.' Bob Brookmeyer, Al Cohn and Bill Holman all contributed to the band's book, even when Mulligan's own combo compositions had to be arranged for the larger formation.
Johnny Mandel played a special role. He had written the music for the 1958 movie I Want To Live, a drama about the death penalty starring Susan Hayward. Mulligan played on the soundtrack and appeared briefly in the movie leading a septet. Three of the tunes, Theme from 'I Want To Live', Black Nightgown and Barbara's Theme, were subsequently arranged by Mandel for the Concert Jazz Band.
After the week at Basin Street East in April of 1960 Mulligan was lucky to get an important financial backer, which enabled him to keep the Concert Jazz Band going. Norman Granz, promoter of Jazz at the Philharmonic and owner of the Verve label, would record the orchestra and take it on a European tour. The profits from this would compensate the losses incurred by booking the band into American clubs that didn't pay enough to cover the musicians' payroll. The band started recording in May of 1960, and in December made the album Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard. 'Working in front of an audience has a markedly different effect on a band,' Mulligan told liner notes writer Nat Hentoff. 'It can - as it has with us - result in a confidence as a unit that's a marvel to see, hear and feel. There are times when a few things may go wrong in such a performance but when conditions are right, the band can achieve a more vivid presence and can create more spontaneous excitement than in a studio.'
The three-week European tour of November of 1960 took the band to cities such as Gothenburg, Berlin, Milan, Basel, Copenhagen, Genoa, Paris, and Stockholm. 'In Europe I called us "the basketball team", careening around,' Bob Brookmeyer recalled. 'But there was a lot of esprit in the band, and we really enjoyed playing, and we were, I think, proud of the band, too.'
The two concerts in Holland on November 5 (at 8.15 p.m. in The Hague and at midnight in Amsterdam) were both sold out. At the Concertgebouw, Gerry Mulligan announced the tunes with his usual, slightly sardonic flair. There were some moments of irritation with the sound technicians: 'Too much mike! Come on, man. Please put the microphone down. Pretty please? Come on, we're waiting. Turn down the microphone, please!' And with the photographers crowding the stage: 'Not that I have anything against art, mind you, but first things first! And we're very flattered you find us photogenic. Now, let's see, I'm supposed to be doing something here before I lost my temper.'
Several reviewers hinted at guest soloist Zoot Sims' condition: 'staggering and growling', 'nervous in his playing', 'his brilliant inventiveness of olden days now remained shrouded in - alcoholic - vapors...' The story goes that Sims caused great hilarity when, clumsily descending the steep staircase down to the Concertgebouw stage, he almost fell over. And one thing is certain, Zoot Sims doesn't reach the heights of his 1956 and 1958 Amsterdam performances here. This CD includes two Mulligan compositions not heard on other releases from the 1960 tour: 18 Carrots For Rabbit (a tune composed for the Verve album Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (from November, 1959), and Young Blood (originally written in 1952 for the Stan Kenton band).
Not every Dutch critic was as impressed by the Concert Jazz Band as Michiel de Ruyter. In the daily Het Vrije Volk Ton de Joode called the music 'fake jazz.' In his opinion, 'the new music of this orchestra was for the most part a sleep and irritation inducing display.' Constant Wallagh was equally unimpressed in his Algemeen Dagblad review: 'At the end of the lengthy performance all that was left was a dizzying feeling of ennui.'
But the positive voices were stronger. De Telegraaf praised 'the overall excellent programme, opening up new vistas of modern jazz.' The reviewer of De Tijd/ Maasbode singled out Mulligan ('shone with his marvellously light, never overblown tone, and his rich ideas, notably in My Funny Valentine and As Catch Can') and Bob Brookmeyer ('stood out with his enormous musicality and sense of "timing", both as an orchestra member and as a soloist').
And Michiel de Ruyter analysed in Het Parool: ‘This orchestra has its own, completely unique sound, while the affinities that are always to be found of course, contain references to both Ellington and Basie. We can only rejoice at that. Still, its individual character always prevails. A lovely warm and sonorous sound, great depth and breadth in expression, huge variation in dynamics: from beautiful pianissimos to the bright outbursts that a big band should be capable of producing.'”