© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"It was the hottest band I ever played on."
— Bill Crow, bassist
I once made the mistake of referring to Bill Kirchner as a “Jazz writer.”
He wrote back straightaway and declared: “No I’m not; I’m a Jazz musician who writes.”
Boy, can he, as you will no doubt observe from the following excerpts from his booklet notes that accompany the Mosaic Records boxed set - The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Series [MD4-221].
If you ever wanted to know why the Concert Jazz Band was so special and how it worked, the ingredients in that “secret sauce” could probably only be deciphered by a “... Jazz musician who writes.”
© Bill Kirchner/Mosaic Records ®, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission. [Special thanks to Bill and Michael Cuscuna for allowing me to use this material on my blog.]
“The history of jazz is replete with memorable long-term partnerships: Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, Red Nichols and Miff Mole, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Jackie Cain and Roy Krai, Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse, Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, and Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays among them. Some of these were official collaborative ventures where co-leaders shared equal billing. But at other times, there was a leader/sideman relationship that became something much more.
Such was the long-term association between baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (1927—1996) and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (b. 1929), which certainly ranks among jazz's most fruitful. The combination of the two was musically a natural. "They thought alike," observed jazz critic and historian Doug Ramsey. "They were both composers. But in their cases, it was the improvisation of composers who had very carefully thought out the way musical lines interrelated, and I thought their counterpoint worked beautifully."
Indeed it did — apparently, from their first encounters, which dated from 1953. At that time, Brookmeyer was a member of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz s quintet, which was playing an extended engagement in southern California. Getz and Brookmeyer discovered a startling new group: Mulligan's pianoless quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker. "We played Zardi's [with Getz] for 13 weeks, I think," recalled Brookmeyer, "and during that time we began to play after work with Chet and Gerry and Stanley and I, and they both said that it was the best band they'd ever played with and they would like to have this as a band. But then, of course, who's going to be the bandleader? Stanley already had his wings as a bandleader, and Gerry was just beginning to flex his."
Ironically, in January of 1954, Brookmeyer succeeded Baker with the Mulligan quartet. As musically superb — and commercially successful — as the pairing of Mulligan and Baker had been, this new combination proved at least as spectacular, and much longer in duration. It yielded a number of memorable recordings, initially including GERRY MULLIGAN IN PARIS (Vogue, 1954) and GERRY MULLIGAN QUARTET AT STORYVILLE (Pacific Jazz, 1956). After introducing a four-horns-bass-and-drums sextet on CALIFORNIA CONCERTS (Pacific Jazz, 1954), Mulligan made this his working ensemble for most of 1955 and '56; the frontline included Brookmeyer, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims (1925-1985), and Jon Eardley or Don Ferrara (b. 1928) on trumpet. This too-short-lived ensemble made three sparkling albums for Mercury/EmArcy: PRESENTING THE GERRY MULLIGAN SEXTET, A PROFILE OF GERRY MULLIGAN, and MAINSTREAM OF JAZZ. The addition of two horns made the sextet a writer's showcase for Mulligan (mostly), Brookmeyer, and. in one instance (an arrangement of Claude Debussy's LA PLUS QUE LENTE), Gil Evans.
By 1957, Mulligan was a major jazz star: a poll-winning baritone saxophonist with a unique and popular group sound. But it was as a precocious composer-arranger that he had made his initial reputation. When drummer Gene Krupa's orchestra recorded Mulligan's advanced arrangement of now HOW HIGH THE MOON in 1946, Mulligan was barely 19. In the next six years. Mulligan contributed more arrangements to the band libraries of Krupa, Claude Thornhill. Elliot Lawrence, and Stan Kenton. Two of his compositions recorded by Kenton, YOUNG BLOOD and SWING HOUSE, are widely regarded as among the finest and most innovative big-band writing of the era; the former can be heard on one of Kenton's best albums, NEW CONCEPTS OF ARTISTRY IN RHYTHM (Capitol, 1952). The contrapuntal concepts (i.e.. use of simultaneous, independent lines) that Mulligan employed in these pieces — and soon afterward featured to acclaim in his small groups — made a deep impression on many jazz composer-arrangers, one of the most important ol whom was a Kenton tenor saxophonist named Bill Holman (b. 1927).
However, it was as a driving force with trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1948-50 BIRTH OF THE COOL nonet that Mulligan made his most important early contributions as a writer. Gil Evans and Mulligan had both written for Claude Thornhill. and they desired to get the sound of the Thornhill band (especially its rich French horn-and-tuba mellifluousness) with a smaller instrumentation. Thus emerged, under Davis' leadership, an ensemble that had a short existence and was a commercial failure: fortunately, it recorded a dozen pieces for Capitol that have become among the most influential in jazz history. Seven of these were composed and/or arranged by Mulligan: JERU, ROCKER, VENUS DE MILO, GODCHILD, DARN THAT DREAM, DECEPTION and BUDO. (Note: for decades, some of these have been frequently miscredited to other arrangers. These credits came from Mulligan himself.)
Also, as an aside, a little-known fact: both Mulligan and one of his future associates, Johnny Mandel (b. 1925), stated that Mandel was in line to be a charter member of the Davis nonet — as both a player (he played trombone and bass trumpet) and writer. Alas, when the nonet began its rehearsals in 1948, Mandel was living in Los Angeles, doing a six-month residency necessary to obtain a Local 47 musicians' union card.
When Mulligan moved to California in 1951, he brought with him the concepts he had used so successfully with the Davis nonet. In January of 1953, after he had become a virtual overnight star with his pianoless quartet, he recorded eight pieces for Capitol with his own "tentetle" — a fusion of the BIRTH OF THE COOL concepts with those of the quartet. The legacy of both the nonet and tentette would far outlive their brief existences and show up later in Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band.
But there was an interim step. In April of 1957, Mulligan assembled an all-star New York City band for two days of recording for Columbia — for what was intended to be his first big-band album as a leader/composer/arranger. (Despite his identification with "West Coast jazz” Mulligan was a full-time California resident for only a handful of years.) The band was definitely an impressive one, with soloists including the leader, Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and trumpeters Don Ferrara, Don Joseph and Jerry Lloyd. From two days of recording, four pieces emerged: three Mulligan originals — THRUWAY, MOTEL and MULLENIUM — and his arrangement of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. The results (currently available on MULLENIUM, Columbia/Legacy) are distinctly Mulliganesque, highly listenable and at times brilliant, but in Mulligan's view, the light, dancing quality that he had come to value in his smaller groups was absent with the seven-brass-five-saxes-and-rhythm instrumentation. As Mulligan told Burt Korall in 1961, "The sound was too heavy and full. The flexibility I had been so happy with in the small band was missing."
In 1994, Mulligan went into further detail about this issue. "I really liked the sound of that band in '57. There were a couple of things that I wrote for that band that I got to sound more of the way I wanted a big ensemble to sound. I only ever heard a couple of other bands sound like that — or get that sound on my charts, too. What I hadn't really come to terms with was the rhythm section. In order for the rhythm section to do what I wanted them to be able to do, and why I left it as loose as I did, they would have to get to know the arrangements real well. And we never had that luxury of time. Certainly at that point I hadn't figured out how to write rhythm parts so that they flowed — how much do you indicate, how much do you write out. Nothing could be more boring than a totally written-out bass part. And if you write figures with the band, especially in the Fifties, it really takes a while for [rhythm] guys to make it sound like their own. It sounds like they're playing figures, it sounds stilted.
"So I kind of wrote myself into a blind alley with that, because it didn't ultimately jell. But 1 liked some of the stuff I wrote — there's an interesting arrangement of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, beautifully played. So we had our moments. But in the end, we might have gone back to it, because I had done a couple of dates, and George Avakian was producing the dates. I said, 'Well, let's put it aside for a while." and then George left Columbia and went someplace else, and it never got completed as a project."
While the Columbia dates were less than totally successful, they seem to have given Mulligan some clear ideas of what the instrumentation of his future Concert Jazz Band would be. Meanwhile, Brookmeyer left the Mulligan quartet in August of 1957 to pursue an increasingly busy freelance career in New York (as well as a memorable 1958 membership in the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with the clarinetist/saxophonist and guitarist Jim Hall). In April of 1958, Mulligan put together another outstanding quartet with trumpeter Art Farmer, Henry Grimes or later Bill Crow on bass, and drummer Dave Bailey; it lasted for a little more than a year. During this period. Mulligan also was involved as a minor actor (and sometimes as a musical performer as well) in several films: I Want to Live. The Rat Race. The Subterraneans, and Bells Are Ringing.
It’s been reported by several sources, including Leonard Feather, that the money from Mulligan’s film work was his basis for bankrolling the Concert Jazz Band. Mulligan later denied this: “I didn’t do that much. I acted in a couple of things, but it didn’t pay that much better than working [in] clubs.” But he undeniably was one of the best-paid and most successful leaders in jazz. Feather reported that “in England, where even in 1957 he was able to command $3,500 a week, every London show was a sellout, and Gerry registered more poll victories than probably any jazzman since Armstrong.” So as of 1960, when Mulligan started the Concert Jazz Band, “Whatever money I made I was sinking back into the band.” (The name of the ensemble signaled Mulligan’s intent to have, as he told Feather, “a real out-and-out jazz band,” not a dance band. As Mulligan observed, “Most bands that have been put together lately have been trying to reach a happy medium, and this doesn’t exist; they spoil the possibilities in both directions.”)
In any case, the CJB’s beginnings were less than momentous, according to Brookmeyer. “In January of 1960, Gerry called and said, could he come by my apartment; he had a week in Basin Street East [in New York] and wanted to put together a big band for it. He wanted me to write an arrangement of BWEEBIDA BOBBIDA. I don’t think that any massive decision had been made to have a [permanent] big band. That was the start, and we started rehearsing. There must have been some more jobs after that until the summer when we went to California, and that’s when we changed some personnel.
“The first six months were sometimes spent on keeping Gerry on track (laughs); I could see the potential. Gerry wanted to build out from the quartet. He wanted not a Stan Kenton or a ‘big band,’ so the quartet was the base of everything we built up from that. I was sort of the house arranger, and I was, especially the first year, the hirer and firer, and the straw boss and whatever else. Because it was the first time in my life I’d ever had a chance to be physically and musically and personally involved with something like this, where I could help something go forward.”
(Doug Ramsey confirmed Brookmeyer’s account: “I’m not ruling out Gerry’s role in this, but Brookmeyer really did do, as I understand it from Mulligan and others, a lot of the work of keeping the band level and focused. And I think he did a marvelous job of that, while writing great stuff himself and playing his behind off.”)
As one would expect, the band’s instrumentation, as determined by Mulligan and Brookmeyer, was other than conventional. There were six brass: three trumpets, Brookmeyer’s valve trombone, a slide trombone, and a bass trombone. Apart from Mulligan’s solo baritone, there were four reeds: clarinet (with some alto saxophone), alto (with occasional flute), tenor, and a section baritone doubling bass clarinet. (The clarinet lead in the reeds was not intended to be a Glenn Miller- or Ellington-style sound, but rather reflected Mulligan’s and Brookmeyer’s fondness for the way that the Claude Thornhill band--of which both men were alumni--used the instrument.) True to Mulligan’s small-group model, the rhythm section contained only bass and drums; when piano was (infrequently) used, it was played by either Mulligan or Brookmeyer. Overall, the idea was to have enough horns to provide punch and a variety of tone colors, but to have an ensemble that was lighter on its feet than a typical big band.
Mulligan intended that the bulk of the solo work would be handled by himself, Brookmeyer, tenor, and one trumpet. As he told Feather, “I’ve seen a lot of bands fall into a trap of spreading the solos around so everybody can play. Now these are known as musicians’ bands, and one of the reasons they can never establish themselves with an audience is that the audience takes time to be able to understand the playing of each man, and so many players go by that they never really have a chance to hear anybody, so nothing really sticks in their minds.” Mulligan’s attitude about this matter seems to have relaxed somewhat as the band evolved. But regardless of who was soloing, his philosophy was to allow for as much spontaneity--with open solo sections and “head” backgrounds made up on the spot--as possible.
Bill Crow (b. 1927), who along with trumpeter Clark Terry (b. 1920) joined the CJB late in 1960, talked about how this worked. “The thing that I really liked about that band was that we had a good riff-maker in each section: Clark and Bob and Gerry. We would play the written chart through whatever ensemble kicked off the next soloist, and then we didn’t count measures; we waited until Gerry gave us the signal, ’cause he liked to let the soloists stretch out. And then he would start playing the backgrounds that he liked to play with the quartet behind the soloist on his second or third chorus. And the rest of the saxophone section would chime in--harmonize what Gerry was doing. And then Brookmeyer would think of a nice counterline, and Clark would think of a nice hot little lick to stick in there. And pretty soon we had a whole new head arrangement for that section. After we’d used that up, Gerry would give us a signal, either musical or a hand signal, to go on to the next written section. It would really expand the charts and make them so interesting; we never recorded much of that.”
Mulligan and Brookmeyer put together the band with an inevitable amount of trial-and-error, making replacements when necessary. “The thing that nobody knows,” explained Brookmeyer, “is that Gerry and I really tried to make it not a ‘white band’. At early rehearsals, we had Charlie Rouse, [trumpeter] Blue Mitchell--three or four gentlemen of color were invited to be part of the band, because we did not want a white band.” (In fact, Mulligan had employed a number of black musicians during the Fifties: Rouse, guitarist Freddie Green, bassists Peck Morrison, Joe Benjamin, Henry Grimes, and Leroy Vinnegar, drummers Chico Hamilton, Dave Bailey, and Gus Johnson, and trumpeters Art Farmer and Oliver Beener. Bailey became the CJB’s first drummer, and Johnson played on its last album. And as noted, Clark Terry eventually joined and became one of the band’s spark plugs; in later years, Thad Jones and Snooky Young also were often in the trumpet section at various times.)
In addition to Brookmeyer (who wrote the largest number of the CJB’s arrangements) and Mulligan (who wrote surprisingly few), Al Cohn (1925-1988), Bill Holman, and Johnny Mandel contributed vitally to the band’s library. Mulligan went so far as to fly Holman from California to work in New York for three months. “I’d known Gerry since the early Fifties,” Holman related, “when he brought in those charts for Kenton, and we’d see each other periodically. In the late Fifties he started spending more time out in L.A., so we hung out some. He knew that I had the same kind of approach to writing -- probably a lot of it was gained from playing his music. I think he thought he could trust me. [Author’s note: Mulligan had already trusted Holman with writing arrangements for THE GERRY MULLIGAN SONGBOOK recorded in December of 1957 for Pacific Jazz. The album featured an all-star saxophone section--Lee Konitz, Allen Eager, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Mulligan--with a rhythm section of Freddie Green, Henry Grimes, and Dave
“One night at one of Terry Gibbs’s gigs in ’59, Gerry asked me if I’d be able to come back to New York for a few months and help him. I jumped at it; I came in March or April of 1960. He put me on salary for a few months, and he put me up in [actress-singer] Judy Holliday’s mother’s apartment; she was living with Judy at that time, so the apartment was empty. My particular gig, I found out when I got there, was to arrange a lot of his quartet hits for big band. Brookmeyer and Cohn and all those guys were getting to write pretty much what they wanted (laughs), and I had to rewrite Gerry’s hits. Which was fine--it was good music, and within the concept of the band I
had quite a lot of freedom.”
Later on, other distinguished composer-arrangers became important contributors to the CJB book: Johnny Carisi (1922-1992), George Russell (b. 1923), and a newcomer named Gary McFarland (1933-1971). And furthermore, there were a few charts from Bill Finegan, Thad Jones, Wayne Shorter, Sy Johnson, and others.
By the time the CJB played at Basin Street East in April of 1960 (after a warm-up weekend at the Red Hill Inn near Camden, New Jersey), its personnel was, as reported by Feather: Danny Stiles, Phil Sunkel, Don Ferrara, trumpets; Bob Brookmeyer, Wayne Andre, Alan Raph, trombones; Eddie Wasserman, Dick Meldonian, Bill Holman, Gene Allen, reeds; Bill Takas, bass; Dave Bailey, drums; and Mulligan, baritone and piano. According to Feather, “Holman played only the first week at Basin Street, then withdrew to concentrate on writing, and was replaced by Zoot Sims.” (At Basin Street, the CJB shared the bill with singer Sarah Vaughan and a clarinetist named Mike Gold.)
Early in the band’s existence, Mulligan acquired a vitally important financial backer: Norman Granz, head of Verve Records and mastermind of the hugely successful Jazz At The Philharmonic tours of the postwar era. Bill Crow explained: “[Drummer] Mel Lewis told me Norman had presented this deal to Gerry that he would be Gerry’s partner. Norman could have the band for European tours and recording where he could make some money, and [in return] he would make up the difference between the losses that Gerry took booking the band into clubs over here. Evidently Gerry told each guy, ‘I need everybody to tell me what’s the absolute lowest salary that you can survive on for this band to work.’ So the guys that had families asked for a little more, the single guys took a little less, and everybody was happy about it because it was such a good band.”
The CJB continued to work in the New York area, including a May booking at the Village Vanguard, and in late May-early June, it made its first recordings. Personnel changes continued, including Gene Quill (1927-1988) for Wasserman and Jim Reider (1931-1968) for Sims. Sims, however, would return later.
In mid-June, the CJB made its first trip to California to play a one-nighter, a jazz festival at the Hollywood Bowl. At this point, Brookmeyer made an important decision. As he told it: “I was staying with Mel [Lewis], and I went with Mel to a rehearsal of Terry Gibbs’s band; the band was fantastic. And I thought, ‘Jesus, we sound like fucking amateurs--this is a band!’ So I don’t recall whether I even asked Gerry or not, but I hired Mel and [bassist] Buddy Clark and [trumpeter] Conte [Candoli]. Then we made some other changes when we came back. But getting Mel, of course, was the key.”
And it was. Without slighting the ability of Dave Bailey (b. 1926), a most capable small-group drummer and a Mulligan stalwart, the addition of Lewis (1929-1990), one of the finest big-band drummers of all time, proved a crucial step forward. Lewis continued to live in California until 1963, but he commuted regularly between Los Angeles and New York for Mulligan and other work--a rather extraordinary display of commitment.
Back on the East Coast, the CJB made a Newport Jazz Festival appearance on July 1. Of that occasion, Gene Lees wrote a vivid account: “It was pouring rain that night. I was back in the band tent when they went on. Voice Of America was videotaping the show. I slipped into the control room, which was at the front of the stage. The stage was at chest height, and, under the roof of that improvised control booth, I had the perfect vantage point. I could see not only what was happening on stage but the TV monitors showing what the cameramen were picking up. The band began to play Bob Brookmeyer’s chart on Django Reinhardt’s MANOIR DE MES REVES an exquisite thing. I watched a monitor as a camera panned across a sea of black umbrellas in the rain and then picked up a great puddle onstage in which was reflected the image of Gerry Mulligan, upside down, as he started his solo. The raindrops fell into this puddle, making the image tremble, like the music. The memory is indelible.”
At the end of July, the CJB returned to Plaza Sound in New York; after more key personnel changes (including Zoot Sims returning on tenor), the band redid and completed its first album.
Lead trumpeter Danny Stiles was replaced by Nick Travis (1925-1964). Along with Brookmeyer and Lewis, Travis became one of the CJB’s pivotal members. As Mulligan attested, “I had a lot of pressure (laughs) from Nick Travis and Brookmeyer and Mel Lewis to put that band together. They were always on my case. It never would have become a band without their collaboration,pushing me to do it.”
Norman Granz hastened the release of the first album, THE CONCERT JAZZ BAND to coincide with the CJB’s fall tours. Typical of the critical response was John S. Wilson’s October 30 review in the New York Times: “On the basis of its first disk, THE CONCERT JAZZ BAND ...is the most promising big band organized in the last fifteen years.”
In mid-September, the CJB flew to California and beginning with the Monterey Jazz Festival, executed by bus and plane a West Coast and, then, cross-country tour of the United States. (This included five nights in the Sutherland Lounge in Chicago, October 19-23.) After the album had been made, there were three other personnel changes: Dick Meldonian, who had recently become a father and didn’t want to go on the road, was replaced by Bob Donovan; Wayne Andre left to become a CBS staff musician and was succeeded by Willie Dennis; and Jim Reider returned as section tenor, allowing Zoot Sims, who didn’t want to play in the section, to travel that fall with the CJB as “guest soloist”.
“By that time we’d really solidified,” Brookmeyer recalled. “Two weeks in the [Village] Vanguard [author’s note: actually four--two in July and two in September] had given us a good spirit, and we really felt that we were a good band. I remember the first night at the Vanguard with Mel, I just looked across and thought, ‘My God, this feels so good!’
“[On tour] we rode in a bus. Nick Travis and Mel and I were sort of the cadre--I was first and Mel was second and Nick was in there somewhere. So we sort of ran the band away from the stand - probably on the stand a little bit, too. The bus was a zoo--screaming and yelling, everybody got nicknames, a lot of drinking. Mulligan was flying back to New York after every concert to be with Judy [Holliday]. [Author’s note: in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Mulligan was involved in a serious relationship with Holliday. The actress at that time was ill with the early stages of the cancer that would kill her in 1965.] He made one trip with us, and couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I’ll never do that again--you guys are crazy!’
“And we were! In Europe I called us ‘the basketball team,’ careening around. 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.”
Upon completing its sweep of the U.S., the CJB flew off to western Europe for a three-week concert tour of major cities, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Genoa, Gothenburg, Milan, Paris, Stockholm, and Zurich. A few items from the Berlin and Milan concerts--as well as from an October 1 appearance in Santa Monica, California--were later released on the CJB’s
ON TOUR album. Recordings of its Paris and Zurich concerts--alas, not owned by Verve-- were released on CD in the 1990s. Mulligan also mentioned in 1994 that a tape of the Gothenburg concert was mislaid and found years later by Granz. (It’s now owned by Fantasy.) By all accounts, the European sojourn was highly successful in every respect; unfortunately, it was the CJB’s only trip overseas.
Back in New York, the CJB began a two-week engagement at the Village Vanguard on November 29--“all three previous stints [at the Vanguard] having been standing room only smashes,” according to a press release. Buddy Clark and Conte Candoli had returned to California after the tour, replaced by Bill Crow and Clark Terry, and Zoot Sims departed for good. The hiring of Terry, who was recommended by Nick Travis, evidently compensated for the loss of Sims. “Clark just really turned the whole band on,” declared Crow. “The right addition to that band--he had such a big bag of really extraordinary things that he could do on a big band.”
Crow and Lewis quickly became an exemplary rhythm team that functioned for most of the remainder of the CJB’s existence. “Mel was interesting,” said Crow. “When I first heard him, I was at the Hickory House with [drummer] Joe Morello and [pianist] Marian [McPartland]. Guys would come in to sit in, including Mel, and he didn’t sound like anything special to me. I was so used to Joe’s control when he played with the trio, and I felt that Mel was playing a little heavy for that, but he seemed like a good player.
“Then he went to California, and my suspicion is that he fell under the influence of [drummer] Shelly Manne, because the next time I heard him play, he was doing all those subtle, interesting things that I had heard Shelly do, and I had never heard Mel play like that before. I had heard him with Kenton, but not the way he had it down a year or so later. All of a sudden he had control of his cymbal sound, and he wasn’t cutting the brass section as much as he was setting them up. And he would switch over to that kind of a dead sizzle cymbal he found that had a crack in it--it had such a wonderful sound behind the sax section.
“Mel’s tendency was always to settle. I never heard him rush in my life; if he ever made a mistake, it was to slow down. So I used to just play on the front end of that beat, and it seemed to really match what he was doing, and I could feel like I was putting some life into it. I just loved playing with him. I could trust where he was going to be, and really enjoyed the decoration that he brought. He told me one time, ‘I don’t believe in kicking the brass section anymore; those guys get lazy and they lay behind the beat, and if you don’t kick ’em, they have to get up on time and swing themselves. And they’ve got enough accents in the sound of the brass that the drummer doesn’t have to be adding to that.’ He said, ‘I’d rather play the saxophone parts, and then set the brass section up.’ He was just brilliant in figuring out how to get a good beat going that would excite the band, and not ever feel like he was pushing.”
The vibrancy of the Crow/Lewis team can be heard on the CJB’s AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARDat , recorded on a single Sunday afternoon. (Material recorded at other times during the two-week run has not been locatable in the current Verve vaults.) The band as a whole sounds relaxed and thoroughly seasoned by this time, with countless possibilities ahead.
But because of an unexpected development, only some of those possibilities were ever realized. In January of 1961, Norman Granz sold Verve to MGM for $2.5 million. The financial support that had enabled the CJB to exist as a full-time working band abruptly disappeared, and Mulligan was unable to carry the band on salary on his own. So Mulligan reverted to his quartet (now with Brookmeyer, Crow, and Lewis, Gus Johnson, or Dave Bailey) as his principal working group, and the CJB became a part-time band that worked mainly in the New York City area. As Crow noted in his book From Birdland To Broadway, “...the spirit wasn’t the same. We weren’t the family we had been; we had lost the continuity and the feeling of commitment. Gigs with the Concert Jazz Band were still fun, but the band wasn’t the center of our lives anymore.”
All was not lost, however. The CJB still had two remarkable albums ahead: A CONCERT IN JAZZ and GERRY MULLIGAN ‘63. (In addition, in April of 1961, an augmented edition of the band recorded a vocal album supporting Judy Holliday; it was released by DRG as HOLLIDAY WITH MULLIGAN in 1980.) And it still played in public with a frequency that most part-time big bands today would envy. Crow’s gig diary for 1964, for example, notes the following CJB bookings: four weeks in Birdland for January, another four weeks in Birdland during March and April, a Carnegie Hall concert in November, and finally, three weeks in Birdland in December. At that point, with the closing of Birdland, the band simply ceased working, though it never seems to have come to an official end.
In a glowing Down Beat review of two January ’64 nights by the CJB in Birdland, Ira Gitler wrote: “...if this band cannot work when it wants to, there is something very wrong with the state of music in the United States.” (The band on those two nights included a trumpet section of Travis, Terry,
and Thad Jones, as well as Richie Kamuca and Al Cohn alternating on tenor, and Phil Woods subbing for Quill.) But possibly the CJB had simply run its course. In a 1970 Down Beat interview, Mel Lewis revealed that “Gerry’s always had a stopping point. I guess we were actually starting to take over and he’d feel that. He didn’t resent it, but he couldn’t let it go beyond a certain point.” Thad Jones added, “It’d be going like a sonofabitch, and all of a sudden it would hit a brick wall. Not a brick wall, but a velvet wall.” For that matter, Brookmeyer also has spoken of having wanted to take the CJB musically further out than Mulligan was comfortable in going.
So in a very real sense, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra, which began late in 1965, picked up where the CJB left off. Not coincidentally, one of its key charter members, as both a player and composer-arranger, was Brookmeyer. (Also, between 1961 and ‘67, the trombonist co-led a unique quintet with Clark Terry--a fellow Sagittarian.)
Mulligan continued to have a distinguished career for another three decades, though in retrospect, the decade following the demise of the CJB seems to have been rather anti-climactic for him, compared with his monumental accomplishments of the preceding two decades. (Perhaps the title of a 1965 Mulligan album of pop/rock tunes tells part of the story: IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM JOIN ‘EM.) In the late 1970s, he put together a slightly larger, more
conventional big band that worked off and on for several years, and in the Eighties and Nineties, he toured actively with his quartet, now using a piano-bass-and-drums rhythm section. (In 1992, Mulligan even re-recorded the Miles Davis BIRTH OF THE COOL material with a nonet.) By the time of his death, Mulligan had become a jazz elder statesman.
Not long before Mulligan died of cancer on January 19, 1996, he, Phil Woods, and others performed on an ocean-liner jazz cruise. “On that last gig,” Woods reported, “Gerry played so deeply and honestly with his quartet that all of us (Johnny Mandel, Gene Lees, and [Woods’s wife] Jill and I) cried like babies. It was some of the most beautiful music I ever heard in my life.”
Brookmeyer, too, has become a jazz elder statesman. After leaving the Jones-Lewis orchestra in 1968, he moved to Los Angeles and spent the next decade in artistic limbo. But in 1978, he returned to the East Coast and resumed an active career in jazz. His playing, always personal, has become even richer and more venturesome, and his compositions for large ensembles now comprise one of the most impressive bodies of writing in jazz history.
For a few years in the early 1960s, the Concert Jazz Band was the center of Mulligan’s and Brookmeyer’s artistic lives. Bill Crow insightfully summed up the relationship between the two men. “Bobby had a musical integrity that was so powerful that he became the sounding board for the band, like ‘Are we playing well?’ Not Gerry. And it was an interesting combination, because Gerry was taking care of the star appeal and the direction of the band in terms of presenting it to the public, and it was certainly Gerry’s musicality that was shaping the band. But if we wanted to know whether we were really where we belonged to be as a unit, we always had our feelers out to Bobby. And I think as a result of that, Gerry had a stronger musical core than he knew.
“Bob had his own musicianship and musicality that were so strong and radiated such a no-nonsense, ‘let’s get right into the core of this,’ that you couldn’t be superficial on that band. Even the drunks and the weirdos (laughs) would get sucked into that thing, and it was so strong. I don’t think Gerry would have been able to create that kind of a thing by himself, because he had too much ego. Bobby didn’t have any ego, except musically. Bob had a great sense of humor, and it made it impossible for Gerry to get into his ego thing; it pulled him back into his music thing where he was strongest, and I think without Bobby, that it might not have gone exactly that way.
“So I really valued him as the straw boss on that band. He brought a demand for musical integrity that everybody followed, and it really brought the best out of that band. He could do it in a way that Gerry never felt threatened -- Gerry just felt the support of having him.”
Thus happened one of the most impressive jazz orchestras of the postwar era. But let’s allow Brookmeyer the last word: “One of my classic stories happened in Berlin. Nick and Mel and I were having a beer out on the terrace. Zoot and Quill roomed together--my God, imagine that!-- and they come out. “Where are you going?” We’re going to the laundry.” So we’re still there about two hours later, and they come mopin’; back. “What happened?”
“They turned us down.”"