‘At the height of his success, Gerry was the dominant baritone saxophonist in the world’
– Music critic, biographer, lyricist and journalist Gene Lees
Gerald Joseph Mulligan’s father was from a family of Irish immigrants in North Carolina, while his mother, from Philadelphia, had Irish and German ancestry. Three of their four sons arrived while they lived in Chester, Pennsylvania, before work moved the family to New York, where Mulligan was born in Queens Village, Long Island on 6 April 1927. He was less than a year old when the family moved again, this time to Marion, a prosperous town in Ohio mainly associated with the construction and mining industries.
Looking after a big house and four sons proved too much for Mulligan’s mother, so a black woman named Lily Rowan was hired to help out. She grew fond of the youngest son and felt protective towards her ‘Bonzo’. Spending an increasing amount of time at Lily’s house, he loved to ‘lean against the piano bench with my nose at keyboard height’ watching her player piano play Fats Waller rolls. While he showed interest in piano, Mulligan would eventually choose to learn the clarinet at his Catholic school, where he wrote his first arrangement for the odd mixture of instruments that made up their orchestra: ‘one clarinet, one violin, one drum, one piano player—seven or eight of us.’ The nuns at the school took exception to the tune’s title, “Lover”, and it was never performed.
Mulligan continued to arrange into his teens, also taking up various saxophones and moving to New York in 1946, where he ended up spending most of his time in Gil Evans’ flat on 55th Street, taking turns on the piano and taking part in the informal salons hosted there. This was during a fertile period of reinvention when many of the attendees were looking for new sources of inspiration, in particular the European Impressionist composers, such as Debussy, Ravel, Satie Delius and arguably England’s greatest composer, Vaughan Williams. What was appealing about their approach lay in the way that they had freed the music from the need for defining root notes, or tonics. Instead of a key being explicit, its tonality was suggested; it too was impressionistic.
Composer and bandleader George Russell had formulated this modal theory, sharing it with other members at Evans’ salon, and Evans and Miles Davis set about implementing this new music in a jazz setting, Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Mulligan worked as an arranger and alto player in the bands of Gene Krupa, and Claude Thornhill (1948), which also involved Evans, and Elliot Lawrence (1949). His growing reputation and involvement in the salon made Mulligan the perfect choice when Evans and Davis were seeking an additional arranger for their Birth Of The Cool nonet (1949–1950), although he actually ended up being one of the main contributors, charting the majority of the music and playing on every session, significant for it being the his first outing on baritone and, importantly, helping to orchestrate the horns to achieve their choral sound.
Mulligan also recommended Lee Konitz for the sessions who he had met in Thornhill’s band, proving to be a perfect choice, because that is exactly the sound for which Davis was searching. Miles loved the sound of the Thornhill Band, and if Konitz had not been recruited it is arguable that things might not have progressed.
After the nonet, Mulligan recorded his own tentet before moving to Los Angeles in 1951. He landed a gig arranging dance numbers for Stan Kenton, then Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, before forming an unusually piano-less quartet in 1952 with Bob Whitlock, Chico Hamilton and Chet Baker whom he had met jamming at the Haig Club, and with whom he had discovered an almost telepathic rapport.
Their residency at the Haig and the recordings they made propelled them to instant stardom, which might have gone on unchecked if it were not for a six-month prison term for possession of heroin that put Mulligan behind bars. Meanwhile, Baker developed his style and solo career so that by the time Mulligan was released, the offer of reforming their band was no longer financially attractive. Instead, Mulligan began a series of new musical partnerships over the course of the next few years, with Bob Brookmeyer then Jon Eardley replacing Baker, Red Mitchell substituting for Whitlock and Frank Isola for Hamilton.
Returning from a huge success with this quartet in Paris, Mulligan formed a sextet with Zoot Sims (1955–1958), followed by a group with Art Farmer (1958). Being the best baritone saxophonist around meant constant invitations to play alongside a fantastic range of talent: Desmond, Ellington, Webster, Hodges, Holiday, Armstrong, Basie, Getz, Monk, Winding, Davis, and a soloist spot with the Dave Brubeck Trio (1968–1972).
He first recorded for Verve on their historic recordings at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1957 where he guested with Teddy Wilson’s Trio; the track listing was like a best of JATP. He was also recorded leading his own quartet featuring trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. A few weeks later he was at Capitol’s Hollywood studio recording with Harry Edison, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson on an album aptly titled The Jazz Giants of ’58. The following day, Mulligan and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond recorded some of their Blues In Time album that they finished before the end of August. Before this very productive year was out, Mulligan had recorded Getz Meets Mulligan in Hi-Fi that ranks alongside some of his best work
The following year he put his arranging skills to good use when working on an album with Gene Krupa, appropriately called Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements. When not being a guest in other peoples’ bands, the 1960s brought Mulligan a new focus for his arranging skills: big-band music for a thirteen-piece concert jazz band. His first sessions for Verve in May 1960 at Plaza Sound Studio in New York and subsequent sessions in June created Gerry Mulligan and The Concert Jazz Band. Before the year was out, he took the concept on tour, culminating in Gerry Mulligan And The Concert Jazz Band At The Village Vanguard that was recorded in New York in December.
During the 1970s and most of the 1980s, Mulligan kept just as busy, intermittently leading another big band, the Age of Steam, and forming various groups and playing festivals, including dates with Charles Mingus. In the 1990s, he embarked on a world tour with his ‘no-name’ quartet and led a ‘Rebirth of the Cool’ band that performed and recorded remakes of the Miles Davis Nonet classics. Davis had been keen to take part on the heels of his recent well-received performance of the material at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Quincy Jones, but unfortunately died shortly before they were due to enter the studio. Mulligan himself died five years later on 20 January 1996 from complications after knee surgery, although his wife reported that he also had cancer of the liver.
Mulligan became known for his sensitive arrangements and revolutionary orchestrations. His compositional and tuition skills were highly sought after; he was made the Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, and was invited to be the Glasgow International Jazz Festival’s first-ever Composer-in-Residence, for which he wrote “The Flying Scotsman”, both in 1988. He received many awards, including a Grammy in 1981, induction of the Birth Of The Cool album into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982 and a personal induction into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993.
Listen to our exclusive Gerry Mulligan playlist here
And these are just a few of our favourite albums From Gerry.