Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gerry Mulligan - "Big Band Soft Sell" by Harry Frost

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

Articles today about big band Jazz usually lament the disappearance of them.

But truth be told, one look at the annual college issue of Downbeat reveals a veritable plethora of them.

This piece by Harry Frost appeared in the April 1964 edition of Downbeat.

But, ironically, in this case  it was written when the Concert Jazz Band was coming to an end [It would be gone the following year, the remnants of it revived and reinforced by a new contingent of New York based studio musicians under the leadership of Mel Lewis and Thad Jones.].

It is a valuable article because it includes comments by Gerry about how he saw his own band and because they offer insights into the thought and care he put into what he was doing with the band or as Mr. Frost -  Gerry’s “... very definite idea of how a band should work and sound.” To wit:. - “in our band we build up sound; “ “big band feel in the way that a big band ought to feel;  our band shouts, but it doesn't scream; when you overblow, the tone quality goes."


“IN THE IMPOSING ARRAY of names in the field of the big band, past and present, there is a striking paucity of leaders who had, or have, excellence both as instrumentalists and writers.

The classic illustration of a distinctive instrumentalist with matchless composing and arranging ability is, of course, Duke Ellington. Beyond him, most leaders have functioned primarily in the organizational sense, in many cases companion to playing ability from outstanding to superb—Basie, the Dorseys, Goodman, Hampton, Herman, James, and Krupa come readily to mind.

There have been others of less than stunning ability as players who functioned almost exclusively as leaders, including some remarkably gifted leaders such as Jimmie Lunceford and Glenn Miller.

Among those classed as leader-arrangers there are many brilliant examples of men like Ralph Burns who are occupied with studio and recording work. From there, the only arranger-led band available to the ballrooms and concert halls on a national basis, and all too many years ago, was the late, lamented Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. In years past, Dizzy Gillespie offered one instance of a completely equipped instrumentalist-writer who led a big band. When he buckled down, Gillespie certainly qualified as a band arranger of exceptional merit.

It appears then that a blowing musician who can write and chooses to lead a band is a rare duck — or a rare rooster named Gerry Mulligan.

With his crest of red hair and sometimes cock-of-the-walk manner, 37-year-old Gerald Joseph Mulligan has the bearing, knowledge, experience, ability, drive, and desire to head a big band and have it perform according to his very definite idea of how a band should work and sound.

"I've always liked the idea of a band," he said. "I started as an arranger rather than a player."

Mulligan was 19 when he began writing for the Gene Krupa Band in 1946. He recalled, "Gene's band was so professional that it scared the hell out of me. They had no trouble playing anything I wrote."

Mulligan was already very professional himself. His arrangements from that period display a firm grasp of band writing and temperate use of the bop figures then in vogue. One of his efforts, Disc Jockey Jump, was something of a hit as big-band instrumentals go. Mulligan also sat in the Krupa saxophone section briefly, playing alto and tenor.

After his Krupa days, Mulligan was drawn to the baritone saxophone, a marriage of man and horn that turned him in the direction of concentrated playing as well as writing. In 1948 he became part of a rehearsal band revolving around Miles Davis, which led to the now-hallowed sides made for Capitol under Davis' name in 1949 and '50. Mulligan wrote and played for the group. [aka “Birth of the Cool” recordings]

"Everybody contributed—Gil Evans, Miles, John Lewis, Johnny Carisi, Lee Konitz," he said. "That's the reason it was a musical success—because of the spirit behind it. We were experimenting, and we worked and rehearsed until we had what we wanted.

"It was Gil's and my idea to evolve a small version of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. There were just nine pieces. We used the fewest possible instruments to get the feeling and sound of the old Thornhill hand."

The results were important not only from the standpoint of opening new vistas in jazz writing but also in reaching new listeners who were attracted by the smoothness, fullness, and stylistic appeal of the group. Even to the untutored listener, the group was, at the very least, harmless. Mulligan's Venus De Milo, along with Jeru and his arrangement of George Wallington's Godchild, testify eloquently to the role of Mulligan in that historic band.

After a period with Elliot Lawrence, for whom he wrote and played, Mulligan performed similarly for the man whose foresight had inspired that 1948 rehearsal band, Claude Thornhill. During this same time, Mulligan did some writing for Stan Kenton. Then came Mulligan's move to California, and there followed the notable piano-less collaboration with Chet Baker, the first of several Mulligan combos that established the baritonist as a dominant jazz figure.

THE FRUITION of Mulligan's considerable talents occurred in 1960 with the formation of his 13-piece Concert Jazz Orchestra (nee Band). Since then, Mulligan has forged a place for his band in this most difficult of all musical enterprises. The Mulligan band has been acclaimed for its unity and cohesion; many have sung its praises in terms of a large group with a small-group feel.

Mulligan nodded, saying, "I hear that comment a lot... and it's true, but I don't think of it in that way. My idea is not so much that we are a big band with a small-band feel but that we have a big-band feel in the way that a big band ought to be.

"There's been a thing in recent years with block ensemble writing. When we got into the '50s, the Stan Kenton Band was the biggest influence as far as the young writers were concerned. You could hear it all around the world — young arrangers who had heard Kenton and wrote in that style. And in this kind of writing there is what I consider a basic mistake — in the writing and in the playing.”

"As you add horns to a group, they start playing louder and louder, and to me that's reverse logic. If you're going to add horns to a group, it should get softer and softer. You're already adding to the strength of the sound, and to the volume, with the increased number of horns. That's the logic I've approached our band with. We hit a certain level of volume and this confuses people. They think it's a small-band sound. It's not at all. This is the way a big band should sound.

"The two biggest lessons I had in dynamics came from Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton — one lesson by good example and one lesson by bad example.

"When I was with Claude and we would be playing a big hall, I sometimes had an odd sensation in that band. We would be playing so softly that I'd look down at the horn in my hands and not be conscious of a sound coming out of it, and yet I knew it was there. But the sound was so soft that it blended immediately with all the other instruments. The sound of that band, starting out from this soft quality, would swell and you could almost see the sound spreading into this big hall. . . . That was the first lesson about the carrying qualities and the acoustical values of a big band.

"Now the second lesson came sometime during this same period around '51. I went to see Kenton's band at the Paramount in New York, and I was sitting  in the first balcony. The band came on, and I swear that they played so loud that the sound went out in front of the band and dropped right down into the pit. It didn't get halfway back in the theater. Sitting up in the balcony, all I could hear was the air whistling through the trumpets. There was no tone quality left. They were trying to play as loud and as hard as they could, and they defeated their own purpose. The guts of the sound was lost.

"If you start that loud, there's no place to go — your dynamics are shot. You can't go up—if you start with a triple f there is no more.

"In our band we build up to a sound. When we hit our peak sound, it's a full sound. Our band shouts, but it doesn't scream. When you overblow, the tone quality goes." A stirring sample of how the tone quality stays in the Mulligan band is its record of Lady Chatterley's Mother, written by Al Cohn, wherein the band lets fly and swings hard, and yet everything is beautifully controlled.

For that matter, there is ample recorded evidence of how fine a band it is, 

this Mulligan group of six brass, five reeds, drums, and bass (and piano if the leader decides to lay aside his baritone). In the book of the Concert Jazz Orchestra there is a healthy balance between new and familiar material.

"The gaping maw of the recording industry demands new things all the time, but this misses the point for us," Mulligan explained. "We like to play the older arrangements because the more we play them, the better we know them. And our approach to some of the older arrangements is quite different than it was before. It's interesting to see the way some of these things have evolved."

He smiled reflectively and continued, "Of course, there is such a thing as playing one number too often. There was a time when we were getting constant requests for Bernie's Tune, and we played it so much that some of the guys were getting bored with it—Brookmeyer in particular. We finally stopped playing it because I was afraid that if I called out Bernie's Tune, I'd have to have an operation for the removal of a valve trombone from the skull."

Bob Brookmeyer is one of many impressive talents associated with the orchestra. Other than tours once or twice a year, the band stays close to New York, and Mulligan is able to call on the best men available. There is a who's who of arrangers responsible for the band's library, and they include Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, Gary McFarland, Brookmeyer, and Mulligan himself.

The band adjourns from time to time while Mulligan works with more negotiable small groups, but when the time comes, there seems to be no great problem in getting the band together and in shape.

"When I first formed the band, in order to get it to a point where it felt like a band, I kept it together for almost two years steadily," the leader said. "Then I went back to the quartet for a year, until last fall when I got the band together again for a few jobs around New York. By the second night we had it going just like before. Once that band feeling is established, it stays. It's just a matter of getting back to it."

At the very least the band will have the opportunity of "getting back to it" at Birdland from time to time, and there is talk of a second European tour in the fall. The band's first continental tour, in '61, was a resounding success.

Mulligan's schedule is tightened by his work on a musical comedy score in collaboration with Judy Holliday, who is doing the lyrics. It is an adaptation of Anita Loos' play, Happy Birthday.

The Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Orchestra has already passed its fourth happy birthday, and it appears certain there will be many more.

"Like any band, we need acceptance," Mulligan said. "By that I mean it's a concert band, and we like the people who come to hear the band, or play the records, to really listen. It's important that they open their ears and their minds. There's a line in a book by Robert Gover, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, about a guy listening to jazz and listening at it instead of to it."

THROUGH THE YEARS, the basement tones of Mulligan's baritone saxophone have been strongly representative of his firm footing. He has always been adventuresome, always willing to experiment, and yet his music always falls within the bounds of good taste and good sense. He is a creative musician who is able to create without losing, or baffling, his audience, and this is the reason for his solid position in the mainstream of jazz.

In the intense mien of Gerry Mulligan there is at once an athleticism and an intellectualism. He has tensile strength. He is ideally equipped to guide his band through the storm-tossed seas of the music business. To the phalanx of his talents add a large measure of generalship. Mulligan has been through a lot of changes, and he knows them well. In his living, as in his playing and writing, there is clarity, directness, and awareness.

These qualities in Mulligan relate to some lines from another book by Gover, The Maniac Responsible, in which the main character is ridiculed for having ideas apart from those popularly accepted. In a similar way, one not sympathetic to jazz, or Mulligan's approach to jazz, might try to bait him:

"When you were very young, did someone hit you on the head with a very heavy object?"

"Yeah, reality."

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