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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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,
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