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Sons of Miles
GERRY MULLIGAN: When the Past, Present and Future of Jazz Met.
by Mike Zwerin
4 March 1999


The lead of the full-page article in the Feb. 2, 1953, issue of Time magazine went: "The hot music topic in Los Angeles last week was the cool jazz of a gaunt, hungry-looking young (25) fellow named Gerry Mulligan . . ."

The accompanying photo of the baritone saxophone player with the bristling crew cut and the jaw jutting defiantly behind the crook of his horn was captioned: "From Bach and tailgate, polyphony."

The fact that such courtly, swinging, rootsy, contrapuntal music being played in a modest temple to honest music called the Haig - described as "a beachcomber's shack on a used-car lot" - could become a Time magazine feature was hot news indeed.

The quartet put together by the late Gerald Joseph Mulligan featured Chet Baker, trumpet, Bob Whitlock, bass, and Chico Hamilton, drums; and it illustrated what he meant when he said: "Jazz is an art of many emotions; ours is to relax and build from a comfortable position."

The comfort was only skin deep. It was stretched over an exciting, revolutionary premise - four horizontal lines with no cluttering chords. Not only was the imagination of the players stretched, but also, to quote the critic Nat Hentoff, the music "stimulated listeners to hear more sensitively, more sophisticatedly. . . . It was exhilarating to realize how far you, the listener, could stretch you own ears."

The jazz fraternity at the time equated popularity with artistic compromise. But Mulligan's fresh compositions like "Walkin' Shoes" and "Nights at the Turntable," Baker's soulful interpretations of ballads like "My Old Flame," plus the quartet's distinctive ensemble sound and improvisational proficiency reaped popular acceptance and critical praise at the same time.

With Mulligan's Jerry Lewis-like crew cut complimenting Baker's Elvisesque pompadour, the quartet was photogenic as well as communicative. Writing in The Wire, Richard Cook called the group's counterpoint "grave but athletic . . . played by very young men; and their taste for a calmly burning music is one of those persistent sparks that keeps jazz from growing old."

Very different sorts of people, Mulligan and Baker had one of those improbably magic relationships improvising music can produce. Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond is another example. Although Baker was replaced by the excellent Art Farmer, by Bob Brookmeyer (on valve trombone) and by the comfortable trumpeter Jon Eardley (perhaps closest in spirit to the original), Mulligan was somehow incomplete without him.

He had many other major credits as composer, arranger, leader, player and showbiz personality. He was a close friend of the actresses Judy Holliday and Sandy Dennis, and he appeared in movies like "I Want to Live," but the collaboration with Baker would remain his definitive frame of reference.


Gerry Mulligan


After Serge Chaloff (with Woody Herman) died young, Mulligan became the dominant figure on the baritone saxophone for four decades. His friend Brubeck described his playing: "You feel as if you're listening to the past, present and future of jazz all at one time."

Growing up in the New York borough of Queens, he composed a song titled "You and Me and Love" at the age of 7. When he was 19, he wrote the hit "Disc Jockey Jump" for Gene Krupa. He wrote for and played with the Elliot Lawrence and Claude Thornhill pioneering, dance bands.

Along with Miles Davis, John Lewis and others, he was a "student" in the Gil Evans "school" of music, with "classes" in Evans's basement apartment behind a laundry on West 55th Street. The place was alive with jam sessions and copyists meeting dawn deadlines. Evans, who wrote "Sketches of Spain" and "Miles Ahead," taught Mulligan how to write flowing lines that sounded as though they were improvised and that hornmen loved to play.

He composed and arranged classics like "Jeru" (his nickname), "Boplicity" and "Godchild" for Davis's groundbreaking nonet later named "Birth of the Cool." Between the nonet and his piano-less quartet, Mulligan was credited with having been a midwife for "West Coast Jazz," a term he detested.

After hitchhiking to Los Angeles in 1950, he hooked up with the big band of that prototypical West Coast jazzer Stan Kenton, called Kant Standem on the East Coast. When it turned out that Kenton did not much like Mulligan's work, the latter's stock went up in New York.

In the '70s and '80s, he and his Italian wife Carla split their time between an apartment near La Scala in Milan and suburban Connecticut. He preferred Europe - "In America they sell music as though it were a can of peas." He knew how to live well. One of his peers called him a "dilettante," implying too many beautiful summer days with beautiful people in the Italian countryside and not enough time listening and learning.

Mulligan hated nightclubs: "I'd probably never have set foot in one if jazz hadn't dragged me in." And festivals: "I've never liked the carnival atmosphere."

As he grew older, he framed his striking, angular face with long white hair and a beard. He wore custom-made Italian suits. He was described as "a stretched, natty leprechaun."

He continued to lead a combo. He directed his acclaimed little-big Concert Jazz Band, he gave master classes, and the chairman of a respected university music department called him "the dean of American jazz composition." In 1992, he revived Miles's nonet as "Re-Birth of the Cool." And he was earning a reputation for being difficult.

In The Wire, Richard Cook described him as "one of life's tougher customers . . . lean and unsmiling and implacable." Mulligan scolded audiences for talking, berated agents for not taking care of business; he fired musicians on flimsy pretexts and screamed at reporters for their "yellow journalism." In January 1994, on the occasion of being elected to the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, he explained to the journalist Mitchell Seidel:

"I've got a short fuse. In recent years I discovered I had hypoglycemia. It's like the opposite to diabetes. If you ingest sugar or anything like sugar, the body produces this surge of insulin . . . I finally realized that this caused tremendous mood swings. My blood sugar would be up and down like a yo-yo. It was a wonder I could drag myself round. It's not been easy."


Photo: Gerry Mulligan
Credit: Christian Rose

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