Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gullin, Lars (Gunnar Victor)

Saxophonist and pianist Lars Gullin's richly romantic compositions may be the first jazz with an authentically Nordic accent. His work shares a natural affinity with North American “cool jazz,” it is imbued with a distinctively Swedish sense of melancholy.

Collaborations in Sweden with Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Zoot Sims, Quincy Jones, Clifford Brown, helped Gullin become Scandinavia's most internationally acknowledged jazz musician in his era. In 1954, he was the first non-American musician to win Down Beat magazine's New Star Award, without ever having set foot in the United States.

Lars Gunnar Victor Gullin was born on May, 4, 1928 in the town of Sanda on Gotland, an island off Sweden's southeastern coast. He lived there until age seven, when his family moved to the town of Visby.

Gullin began his musical studies on a variety of instruments. First, he experimented with folk music on an accordion he received at the age of three. By age five, he could play his own “tunes,” dreamt up through improvisation. At the age of twelve, he auditioned on bugle for the Visby Military Music School. Once accepted, he played bugle, clarinet, and drums in the school's ensemble, despite being two years younger than his peers. The piano music of the Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was an early influence, and around 1947 he moved to Stockholm to study composition and piano.

Gullin’s first job in Stockholm was playing piano in Charles Redland’s Orchestra, playing dance music at the Winter Palace. Switching shortly thereafter to alto saxophone, he joined the band of Arthur Österwall, on Redland’s recommendation. After a time, Arthur handed Gullin off to his brother, Seymour Österwall, at with point Gullin switched to baritone saxophone.

While he was at first reluctant to take up the baritone, his interest grew after he heard the Miles Davis Nonet's 1949 recordings, which featured baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan,and his sound began to develop, along with his skills as an arranger. With a few radio broadcast arrangements under his belt, Gullin composed and arranged his first major piece in 1950, entitled "First Walk."

Gullin admired and emulated the delicate sound of tenorist Stan Getz, as well as the collaborations between altoist Lee Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano. Tenorist Zoot Sims recorded with Gullin in 1950, which included the Swede's first recording on baritone, on a tune by Gullin entitled “Yellow Duck,” whose “cool” melody set the tone for his future in jazz.

When altoist Arne Domnérus and trumpeter Rolf Ericson formed a working band to perform at the Nalen dancehall in Stockholm, Gullin joined them in 1951. Gullin’s talents were gaining a stronger reputation, and his efforts to graft the sound of Getz and Konitz with his own baritone sound proved to be a fruitful endeavor.

Getz toured Sweden that year, and Konitz visited two years later, and Gullin developed close relationships with both Americans. Meanwhile, his arranging and composing duties become more of an integral part of his musical persona, and a handful of his original compositions established his unique role in Swedish jazz.

Gullin typically wrote out solos for members of his ensembles, and these solos showed a strong ability to conceive of varied statements that were idiomatic to each instrument’s style of the time period. Also in 1951 James Moody made his second tour of Sweden, and Gullin made a total of ten recorded collaborations with the saxophonist, further raising his profile.

On February 21, 1951, Gullin performed on his first recording session as a leader, which resulted in four tracks with rhythm trio that consisted of Bengt Hallberg on piano, Gunnar Almstedt on bass, and Jack Norén, the drummer from the Nalen band. The resulting material of “That’s It,” “Gull in a Gulch,” “All Yours,” and “Deep Purple” (also known as “Coolin’ on S.S. Cool”) were included on the New Sounds From Sweden, Vol. II LP, which was issued by Prestige in the United States, part of the label's effort to make the most of Sweden’s emerging jazz talents.

Reviews of the album in Down Beat later that year were positive, with one reviewer stating: “There’s no doubt about it - Gullin… is about the best of the modern baritone sax men - nobody in this country can give him much trouble.”

Before his employment at Nalen ended, Gullin began frequent work as a freelance arranger and saxophonist, and was also signed to Polydor records. He recorded seventeen tracks over the next two years for this label, the majority of which consisted of commercial material arranged for a quartet.

Yet even as Gullin recorded jazz aimed at the mainstream American fans he also began to experiment more with his own roots in composition. Not everyone appreciated Gullin’s new brand of folk-inspired jazz. One critic for Estrad, one of Sweden's leading jazz magazines at the time, labeled Gullin’s new concept “fäbodjazz,” or “goatherd’s jazz.” Despite his increasingly controversial position within Sweden, Gullin worked heavily in 1952 both as a leader and in the bands of his colleagues, and appeared in various ensembles organized by jazz critics and magazine editors.

Gullin also began to experiment with drugs, which led him down a tumultuous path. In the summer or fall of 1951, he was treated for gallstones, and he received painkillers so that he could delay surgery and complete a tour. Once he finally had the operation, he wore a corset to be able to play. The doctors prescribed more painkillers. Fraternizing with drummer Jack Norén, also a drug user by this point, expanded Gullin’s exposure to drugs, with an introduction to hashish. Soon he was forging his own prescription and became addicted to heroin. Later, Gullin began a series of extended hospital stays which became more frequent in the later 1950s.

Adding to his book of original compositions, Gullin frequently wrote new melodies over the chords to popular jazz standards. He also made changes to the original tunes' structures to add originality. This enabled him to, on one hand, learn a large portion of standard American jazz repretoire, and at the same time write jazz that sounded like Swedish folk music.

"Silhouette," recorded in late 1952, was one such tune, which displayed some of the dreaminess or melancholic qualities critics came to associate with his style.

In 1953, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band toured Sweden between September and November. This led to notable collaborations for Gullin with members of the band, including Quincy Jones, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Alan Dawson, and Annie Ross. Jones’s “Stockholm Sweetnin’” became a classic after these sessions, which also includes "Sometimes I'm Happy."Jones wrote between concerts in his hotel room and rehearsed the Swedish-American groups while Gullin helped write out the parts in time to record.

In 1953, Gullin managed to keep himself going, playing nightly around Stockholm and touring Sweden’s remote areas with his own quartet, and even a tour of England. In 1954, bassist Red Mitchell arrived for his first visit to Sweden, and Gullin recorded frequently with him in octet settings, an ensemble size Gullin began employing more frequently around this time.

After a period in the Långbro Hospital in the spring of 1954, Gullin recorded for Metronome Records on May 25 in a famous quartet session, which consisted of Gullin, Rolf Berg on electric guitar, Georg Riedel on bass, and Robert Edman on drums. "Danny's Dream" from this session became Gullin’s most famous composition for many enthusiasts and experts, as well as the general public, as it subsequently appeared in a number of films and other settings.

This murky, rhythmically ethereal piece sparked further labeling of Gullin’s music as “goatherd’s jazz,” but Gullin continued to fit his own experiences to eventually produce a sound that was heavily steeped in the pictorial representations and mythologies of Sweden.

Gullin’s career received a major boost when he won Down Beat magazine's Critic’s Poll for Top New Star on his instrument in 1954. He subsequently toured England for a second time, then returned to Sweden, where his gigging life became erratic. Frequently in the hospital for long periods, and drinking excessively to avoid hard drugs, Gullin’s life was also marred by estrangement from his wife Berit. Gullin wrote a new composition in 1956 which commemorated his nurse, "Ma," and a tune titled “Perntz” in honor of his doctor. "Fedja" is also from the same recording session as “Ma.”

Gullin began to spend less time in Sweden, and made short concert tours in continental Europe, one of which was as sideman to trumpeter Chet Baker plus a rhythm section. Back in Sweden, Gullin worked as a leader at Nalen between late 1956 and the first half of 1957, and took part for a time in Rolf Ericson’s Swedish-American All-Star group that toured the folk parks.

Over the course of the next year, Gullin’s behavior became increasingly erratic, and he spent seven months in Långbro Hospital, at times receiving permission to participate in recordings. However, the saxophonist had trouble keeping appointments with record executives and being on time to gigs. Consequently, Gullin played in public very rarely, and any writing commissions he received produced minimal results, leading to a bad reputation that would haunt him for the rest of his career.

Dismissed by his musical partners and the Metronome label, 1957 was a bleak time for Gullin. He boarded with close friends in Stockholm for short stays, and his health worsened. Disaster came when he was sentenced by a court to be committed to the mental hospital at Vadstena for no less than five years, after he asked an insurance agency to lend him money for narcotics.

Thankfully, after his wife Berit worked with a judge to free him, and secure gigs and recordings, Gullin was released from the institution shortly after entering. The gigs, however, did not come to pass, and Gullin decided to seek refuge in Italy with Berit upon an invitation to play at the San Remo Festival in March of 1959. In Italy, Gullin was happily active, securing work with saxophonist Gianni Basso and trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini in Milan and the west coast. There, he wrote music on a rented grand piano while off from performing. It was in Italy that he wrote much of the music that appeared in 1973 with his piano album Like Grass, and the 1970 album Jazz Amour Affair.

In December of 1959, Gullin returned to Sweden, having abstained from drugs during his sojourn abroad, and soon was back at Nalen as a part of a sextet, and toured with a quartet that had a four-month sponsored touring package. However, trouble returned when the Swedish state revenue system wanted him to begin repayment on all his back taxes. He was not given the opportunity to gig and record regularly, with many citing his previous unprofessional habits.

Some younger Swedish musicians began to champion Gullin’s cause, hoping he would retool his music to become more contemporary. Gullin lived with bassist Björn Alke and pianist Lars Sjösten, while Berit and the children began living in Stockholm with her parents. Gullin was apart from them for the rest of his life, with only a handful of reunions with his children.

Gullin relocated to Denmark in 1962 and stayed until 1964. During his time there, he worked often at the Jazzhus Montmartre with Brew Moore, Rolf Ericson, Archie Shepp, and even Bud Powell. The opportunity to compose was also a top priority for Gullin, and much of the resulting 1964 EMI album Portrait of My Pals was created from material born from these experiences, which he composed in Denmark. However, with the arrival of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster at Montmartre, Gullin’s activity dwindled, and for a time his only income was drawn from janitorial work at the club. Heroin soon found its way back into his life.

In 1964, Gullin permanently returned to Sweden, and although financial hardships would follow, his life was more content due to intermittent, but meaningful successes. Portrait of My Pals, which contained original music from the early 1950s and five new compositions with arrangements featuring strings, went on to win the Golden Disc award from Orkester Journalen the following year. The new music on this album demonstrated that Gullin had indeed developed a new and more fashionable approach, no doubt influenced by his commissions to compose for television, particularly in Italy and Denmark.

With the momentum of Portrait, gigging opportunities became more plentiful, and Gullin stayed free of heroin due to help in the form of prescription methadone treatments, which he kept on until the end of his life in 1976.

In 1965, Gullin was a awarded a stipend to be dispersed annually over a three-year period. The Swedish Society of Popular Music Composers (SKAP) also granted him accommodations in the form of a house a few miles south of Stockholm. Gullin, along with his new wife Mailis and their new daughter Poulina, later moved to the rural village of Moshult in the countryside of the Småland region of Sweden.

The move was arduous and frightening. They found themselves with nothing to eat, no heat, and a renewed set of problems raising a young child. They received some money from Mailis’ father, and ate what they could grow in their garden during the summertime, and had no indoor toilet. Without a car, they had fifteen kilometers to walk for any employment possibilities.

Gullin’s music career was consequently inert, focusing just on day-to-day subsistence with his family. As can be expected, he made no recordings as a leader between 1966 and 1969. He also began to have circulation problems in his legs, and his teeth began falling out.

Rolf Nilsson, who became Gullin’s informal manager in the last couple years of his life, visited the saxophonist around 1968, and noticed that Gullin was composing without a piano. Securing a loaned piano for Gullin, Nilsson was able to keep the composer active, despite these tremendous odds. In 1968, Gullin also received a lifetime Artists Stipend from the Swedish government, which gave him an element of credibility in the public eye.

In the winter of 1970, Gullin moved to the village of Slott in the Småland region, and in his country home there, jammed for hours on an untuned piano while also working on new music that ushered in the final three large works of his career. First came the Jazz Amour Affair suite, comprised largely of danceable and uplifting material for jazz septet and symphony orchestra.

During the early 1970s Gullin’s loss of teeth resulted in numbness in his mouth, and he did not play saxophone for between two and four years. On his 1973 album Like Grass, which featured Lee Konitz on “The Carousel,” he played piano only. Originally a work for choir, the album was inspired by a verse from Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more."

After two performances at music festivals in 1974, Gullin played baritone again, but his embouchure was greatly weakened by using only his lips. The effect was a much harder, fatter sound than his previously delicate and warm, charming tone. In May of 1975, Gullin led a quintet in East Berlin featuring tenorist Bernt Rosengren, pianist Lars Sjösten, bassist Björn Alke, and drummer Fredrik Norén, which met with great success. Continuing to gig around Stockholm for a short time, Gullin’s final triumph happened in February 1976. He led a recording session, done as a live concert, with the Radio Jazz Group for a collection of music that would become the three-part Aeros Aromatic Atomica suite.

On March 30, 1976, Gullin performed for a Stockholm audience for the final time. The engagement was at a club called Kurbits in the Old Town area of the city, where he was featured with Bernt Rosengren’s quartet, with some of Gullin’s fellow bandmates. Gullin’s group then toured Western Sweden, which proved stressful. Gullin began experiencing sudden painful attacks, which were aggravated by poor medical care. These attacks grew more frequent, and onn May 17, 1976, Gullin died of a massive heart attack beside his bed. Mailis Gullin remembered that on that lively spring day, the passion flowers and daylilies in their home had bloomed, which occurred only one day each year.

In his final years, Gullin and his family had just begun to feel the daily comforts of middle-class status. His works have since become a mainstay of Swedish jazz, and his impact on “cool jazz” in the 1950s was important to the development and popularity of the style. His most enduring recordings, along with select sideman appearances, have been catalogued and released by the Swedish label Dragon Records.

Select Discography

With Chet Baker, 1955-1956, Vol. 1 (Dragon DRCD-224)

Modern Sounds, 1953, Vol. 2 (Dragon DRCD-234)

Late Summer, 1953/55, Vol. 3 (Dragon DRCD-244)

Stockholm Street, 1949-1950, Vol. 4 (Dragon DRCD-264)

First Walk, 1951/1952, Vol. 5 (Dragon DRCD-380)

Sideman 1949-52, Vol. 6 (Dragon DRCD-391)

Silhouette 1951-53, Vol. 7 (Dragon DRCD-395)

Danny’s Dream: 1953-1955, Vol. 8 (Dragon 396)

Summertime 1954-56, Vol. 9 (Dragon DRCD-401)

More Sideman 1951/1954, Vol. 10 (Dragon DRCD-405)

After Eight P.M. 1954/1956, Vol. 11 (Dragon DRCD-410)

Contributor: David Tenenholtz