Published in Gene Lees’ “Jazzletter” Vol 25 #6, June 2008
I think it’s time for a reminder about the Gerry Mulligan era in jazz. Gerry left a very large musical footprint from the fifties through the nineties, but he isn’t mentioned a lot lately. At the height of his success, Gerry was the dominant baritone saxophonist in the world, and his inventions in big band arranging and in small group structure left a lasting mark on the collective jazz ear.
While he was mastering his instrument, Gerry developed a reputation for being the world’s foremost sitter-in. He would walk onto any bandstand with his horn and would prove his right to be there by playing superbly. At the first few Newport Jazz Festivals he managed to sit in with every one of his idols, from Duke to Dizzy. For one festival, Ellington wrote a special composition featuring Gerry and Harry Carney in duet.
I knew about Gerry as an arranger, but didn’t know his playing until I met him in 1950 at a jam session at the studio of painter/saxophonist Larry Rivers. (I was a valve trombone player in those days.) I saw Gerry around the city during the next year or so while I was learning to play the bass, and then played bass with him once on a drummer’s pick-up job out in Queens, but we didn’t get to be friends until after he spent some time in California, where he developed his piano-less quartet with Chet Baker. In 1954, when he came back to New York with a sextet and called me to replace the departing Peck Morrison, I began what became an eleven year association with Gerry that developed my playing and gave me the opportunity to work with some wonderful musicians.
Gerry’s ’54 sextet, with Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Eardley, Dave Bailey and me, soon became a quartet again, with Brookmeyer. In a later quartet, Brookmeyer was replaced by Art Farmer. I happily toured with that group, but in late 1959 I decided to remain in New York when Gerry went to California for an extended stay. His quartet broke up there when Farmer and Bailey left to form the Jazztet with Benny Golson.
After making a couple of movies in California, Gerry put together his Concert Jazz Band. It was something he’d had in mind for quite a while, and the movie money made it possible. To get a music library together right away, he had Bill Holman expand some of the quartet and sextet material. And he used several of Johnny Mandel’s wonderful compositions from the movie “I Want to Live.” Gerry’s intention was always to get back to big band writing, but his duties as bandleader and soloist took up most of his time, so his arrangements for the Concert Jazz Band were few.
When they returned to New York from a tour of Europe, Conte Candoli and Buddy Clark left the band to go home to LA, and Clark Terry and I replaced them. Between bookings for the band, Gerry again worked with a quartet, with Brookmeyer, Mel Lewis and myself. (When the band finally expired, Gus Johnson replaced Mel in the quartet.) We rehearsed once a week, whether or not there were gigs, and the band attracted the interest of arrangers like Al Cohn, Gary McFarland and Wayne Shorter, who all wrote things for us. And, of course, Brookmeyer was writing, too.
At one rehearsal, Gerry brought in a stack of music paper and began handing out parts. We all thought, “Ah, Gerry has begun to write again!” But when we played what he had given us, it turned out to be the same eight-bar phrase orchestrated ten different ways. He was thinking about arranging, but hadn’t come up with an arrangement yet.
Even though he or Brookmeyer would sometimes play a tune on the piano, Gerry wanted the core sound of the Concert Jazz Band to be the pianoless quartet. The band played moderately softly most of the time, always coming back down to that quartet sound for the beginnings of solos. Gerry told us at a rehearsal, “We can have just as much dynamic effect going from mezzo piano to forte as we can from forte to triple-forte. But at the softer level, you can hear all the inside parts, and that’s what I want to hear.”
We concentrated on blend and tone quality, and the sound of the band was always rich. Mel Lewis and I got along well together as the rhythm section, and the section leaders, Nick Travis, Bob Brookmeyer and Gene Quill, knew how to keep the sound where Gerry wanted it.
Another thing that made that band unusual was Gerry’s approach to the accompaniment of soloists. With the quartets, he liked to improvise harmony lines on his baritone behind the other horn, and liked to hear the same thing behind his own solos. On the big band, he would have the rest of the musicians join in on the backgrounds. Behind a soloist, Gerry would set a figure and the saxes would harmonize it, and then the brass would add counter-figures. While this was developing, the soloist might get five or six choruses. Except on ballads, we never went on to the next written section until Gerry gave us the cue. As a result, arrangements often were opened up into very long versions. It kept us on our toes, and kept us excited about the music.
“Blueport,” on the album Verve recorded live at the Village Vanguard, displays the inventiveness of the band during a very long exchange of fours between Gerry and Clark Terry. Actually, even though it goes on for quite a while on record, that rendition was much longer originally. Gerry found a spot on the tape where a couple of minutes could be seamlessly excised, in order to make it short enough to put it on an LP.
The Concert Jazz Band was one of Gerry’s finest achievements, but it couldn’t survive the economic realities of the 1960s. Gerry reluctantly broke it up after the summer of 1961, getting it together again occasionally over the next couple of years for a week or two at Birdland.
Gerry wrote a beautiful piece called “Night Lights” around 1962. For the 1963 Philips album on which it was the title tune, he put together a new sextet, with Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Dave Bailey and me. But the group was too expensive for Gerry to keep together for club work. We went back to the quartet, with Brookmeyer, for the club and concert circuit.
Gerry and the actress Judy Holliday were a happy couple in those days, and the songs that he wrote then, like “Night Lights” and “Butterfly With Hiccups,” reflected that happiness. Judy had a flair for writing lyrics, and so they wrote songs together. They worked on a musical version of Anita Loos’s play “Happy Birthday”. My wife and I spent an evening at Judy’s house in Washingtonville where she sang all the songs, with Gerry at the piano. They were very excited about the project, but it fell apart when Loos lost interest in doing the necessary rewriting to turn the play into a musical. It never reached the stage.
Judy recorded some of the songs they wrote for “Happy Birthday” on a studio album with an augmented version of Gerry’s big band. Judy was unhappy with her singing on that date, and the release of the album was postponed until she could return to the studio to redo her work. But she died in 1965 without getting it done. In 1980 the original performances were finally released as “Holliday with Mulligan,” on the DRG label.
I left Gerry‘s quartet at the end of 1965 for some steady work in New York, and we never worked together again, though we remained friendly, and occasionally played together at fund raisers and minor festivals. I followed his music with interest for the ensuing thirty years.
When my first book, “Jazz Anecdotes,” was translated into Japanese in 1995, I got an offer to produce a CD for the Venus Records label in Japan. I put a quartet together, with Carmen Leggio, Joe Cohn and David Jones for a record date at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood, New Jersey. One of the tunes I chose for the date was Gerry’s “Night Lights.” I liked the way it came out, and in the liner notes I dedicated it to Gerry.
When the first copies of the CD arrived at my home in January, 1996, I wanted to send one to Gerry. As I reached for the phone to call him and tell him about it, it rang. It was a friend giving me the sad news that Gerry had just passed away. I wish he could have heard the music.