Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Mulligan, Gerry (Gerald Joseph)

Baritone saxophonist, composer and arranger Gerry Mulligan made key contributions to the emergence of the "cool jazz” sound. He brought the baritone saxophone into the public ear as a solo instrument, and combined his refined classical sensibilities with the advanced harmonies of bebop.

Gerald Joseph Mulligan was born on April 6, 1927 in Queens Village, New York to George and Louise Mulligan, the youngest of four sons. George was a management engineer, and was forced to move with his family on several occasions because of his work.

                         Gerry Mulligan
                  Artwork by Jerry Blank

One of these moves was in 1928 to Marion, Ohio, where his father worked for the Marion Power Shovel Company. There. the family employed an African-American housekeeper, Rosa, and young Gerry spent many hours at her home, where he recalled listening to player piano rolls by Fats Waller and others. The boy also met traveling musicians who stayed at Rosa's, since there were no hotels in he area that served blacks at the time.

Both of Mulligan’s parents had experience singing in choirs, but rarely integrated music into the household. In 1934, Sister Vincent, a nun that taught at the Catholic school Mulligan attended, gave him his first piano lessons. By the time Mulligan was seven years old, he had written his first song.

Young Gerry was eager to expand his knowledge of music. In 1938, he borrowed a clarinet and took a few lessons. He learned more on his own, and soon began to perform with the school orchestra. Around this time, Mulligan began to try his hand at arranging, despite his lack of formal training. Mulligan’s first arrangement was of a Richard Rodgers song entitled, “Lover.” An overzealous nun, shocked by title of the song, confiscated the arrangement before it could be played.

Mulligan moved with his family to Reading, Pennsylvania when he was fourteen years old. In Reading, Mulligan began taking clarinet lessons with Sammy Correnti, who supported his interest in arranging. By 1944, Mulligan had saved up enough money working part time as an office worker to buy himself a tenor saxophone. Mulligan soon formed a dance band at West Philadelphia Catholic High School and wrote a book of arrangements for the band to perform.

At the age of sixteen, Mulligan sold his first arrangements to Johnny Warrington, at the time as the leader of the house band at radio station WCAU. In the summer of 1944, Mulligan was invited to join bandleader Alex Bartha’s ensemble in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When the opportunity came to join the ensemble on tour in the fall, Mulligan accepted and chose to quit high school over his parents.

Unfortunately, the Bartha tour failed to happen. Instead, Mulligan joined pianist Tommy Tucker on the road in the fall of 1944 for a three-month stint as an arranger. Tucker paid Mulligan $100 a week to write a few arrangements. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Mulligan began working as an arranger for the WCAU band when Elliott Lawrence replaced Johnny Warrington as bandleader.

In 1946, Mulligan moved to New York City to join drummer Gene Krupa's band as a staff arranger. Mulligan was also enticed to join because it offered him the chance to perform, though he only received the opportunity to play alto and tenor saxophone for the first few months. While with Krupa, Mulligan’s arrangement for “Disc Jockey Jump” became his first arrangement to be recorded, as well as his first hit.

After leaving the Krupa band, Mulligan joined the Claude Thornhill Orchestra as an arranger and occasional saxophonist. It was with Thornhill that Mulligan began to not only make fundamental strides in both his compositional and arranging skills, but also his soloing skills. It was during this time that Mulligan began to exclusively play the baritone saxophone, citing the general lack of competition on the instrument and the deep range that could be achieved.

The arranging staff of Thornhill’s group included Gil Evans, whom Mulligan first met while arranging with the Krupa band. Mulligan began living with Evans at his West 55th Street apartment, which became a hangout for many of the era's forward-looking musicians, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Evans’ apartment became a haven where musicians could workshop new ideas and experiment with different sounds.

In September 1948, Mulligan joined Miles Davis’s experimental ensemble, which grew directly out of the workshops conducted at Gil Evans’ apartment. The ensemble performed only a few times, including a two-week residency at the Royal Roost club. The ensemble is best known for recording the singles that eventually became the album Birth of the Cool.

Mulligan's writing, as well as his sound, were integral to the Birth of the Cool sessions. He wrote and arranged "Jeru," "Venus de Milo," and "Rocker," and arranged "Darn That Dream," "Godchild," and "Deception."

On "Deception," Mulligan offers listeners a complex arrangement that “deceives” the listener into forgetting that there are nine instruments playing. The arrangement never feels overdone and the ensemble plays with a relaxed tone, calling upon a new style that blends the harmonic sophistication of bebop and the delicacy of classical music. This refinement can be heard again on a 1956 recording by a Mulligan-led sextet of Claude Debussy's "La Plus Que Lente," arranged by Gil Evans.

Between the Birth of the Cool sessions, Mulligan arranged and performed with famed trombonist and composer Kai Winding, who also played on the Birth of the Cool recordings. In September 1951, Mulligan recorded his first record as a leader, Mulligan Plays Mulligan. On “Funhouse,” Mulligan demonstrates a fugue style arrangement by providing a counterpoint between the tenor and baritone saxophones. His playing brings a freshness and airy intelligence to the cumbersome horn.

Despite these artistic achievements, Mulligan had difficulty making ends meet during the late 1940s. Desperate for a change of scenery, and hoping to escape the drug-addled musicians' scene in New York, Mulligan hitchhiked to Los Angeles in the spring of 1952. Mulligan’s first job in California was as an arranger for bandleader Stan Kenton. Most of the arrangements he wrote for Kenton were pedestrian and somewhat uninspired, and were often used when Kenton needed arrangements for specific moneymaking concerts.

Upon his arrival on the West Coast, Mulligan began performing at The Haig, a Los Angeles jazz club. Occasionally, a young trumpet player from Oklahoma named Chet Baker would sit in. Mulligan and Baker soon formed a quartet which included Bob Whitlock on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums. The group was later expanded to a "tentette" of ten instruments, which can be heard on the January, 1953 recording of "A Ballad."

These groups didn’t include a piano, supposedly because there simply wasn’t a piano available when the group first got together. However, the concept of a pianoless ensemble was innovative at the time, and Mulligan returned to this model throughout his career.

The Mulligan/Baker group became immediately successful and won them considerable acclaim. Their engagements at The Haig were constant sell-outs and in the fall of 1952 they recorded the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. On “Bernie’s Tune,” Mulligan and Baker achieve a beautiful sense of melodicism, while creating the contrapuntal archetype of cool jazz.

Mulligan and Baker’s group was short-lived. In the summer of 1953, Mulligan was arrested on narcotics charges and was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Sheriff's Honor Farm in Modesto, California. During Mulligan’s time in prison, Baker became an international star as a leader, yet returned to perform with Mulligan throughout his career.

Mulligan soon reformed his quartet with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and later trumpeter Art Farmer, replacing Baker. The 1959 Farmer-Mulligan quartet can be heard on the track "Festive Minor." The late fifties also saw Mulligan paired with pianist Thelonious Monk by producer Orrin Keepnews for a memorable duo album for Riverside, which included Monk's classic "'Round Midnight."

In 1960, Mulligan formed the “Concert Jazz Band,” which performed to substantial praise at the Village Vanguard in New York City. The thirteen-piece ensemble, which can be heard on the track "Weep" and "Blueport," also used the pianoless model and featured a percussion section, five reeds, and six brass instruments. The ensemble was surprisingly prolific in an age when other forms of jazz and popular music were superseding big bands.

Mulligan revisited his work with small groups in the 1960s. After the demise of Dave Brubeck’s quartet in 1967, Mulligan started to appear on a regular basis with Brubeck. Billed as the "Gerry Mulligan/Dave Brubeck Quartet" the ensemble worked together through 1973 and intermittently until the last year of Mulligan’s life. A highlight of Mulligan’s work with Brubeck was his performance on Brubeck’s oratorio, The Light in the Wilderness with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony in May of 1970.

Beginning in the 1970s, Mulligan labored extensively to develop a collection of works for the baritone saxophone in orchestral settings. Mulligan performed Frank Proto’s the Saxophone Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony and Harry Freedman’s Celebration with the CBC Symphony. In June 1984, Mulligan premiered his first orchestral commission, Entente for Baritone Saxophone and Orchestra.

Mulligan also used his musical talents to compose for films. His first commission was the main theme to the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns. He composed for films throughout his career, including the 1967 film Luv and the 1977 films La Menace and Les Petites Galères. Mulligan’s final film composition was the main theme to the film version of the Broadway play I’m Not Rappaport in 1996.

In 1992, Mulligan began touring with a tentet he entitled, “Re-Birth of the Cool.” The ensemble played the classic music of the Birth of the Cool album and appeared at the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York. Mulligan’s final album was the more blues and bebop based album Dragonfly. His final performance was on November 9, 1995 as part of the 13th Annual Floating Jazz Festival aboard the SS Norway.

Mulligan passed away on January 20, 1996 at his home in Darien, Connecticut following complications from knee surgery. Mulligan is survived by his wife Franca, his former wife Arlyne Brown Mulligan and son Reed Brown Mulligan.

Select Discography

As Gerry Mulligan

Mulligan Plays Mulligan (1951)

Mainstream of Jazz (1955)

At Storyville (1956)

What Is There To Say? (1958)

Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band (1961)

Night Lights (1963)

Age of Steam (1971)

Carnegie Hall Concert (1974)

Walk on the Water (1980)

Symphonic Dreams (1987)

Re-Birth of the Cool (1992)

Dream a Little Dream (1994)

Dragonfly (1995)

With Miles Davis

Birth of the Cool (1950)

With Paul Desmond

Blues In Time (1957)

With Ben Webster

Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (1959)

Contributor: Eric Wendell