Gerry Mulligan: the tall. reedy. crew-cut figure blowing on the impressive pipe-work of the baritone saxophone is one of the classic images of Cool Jazz. This melodic school came out of the famous Miles Davis Nonet sessions of 1949 and 1950. was later known as The Birth ofthe Cool. (in which Mulligan was involved as writer and player). and was taken up with the greatest enthusiasm on the West Coast. away from the hard-blowing. bop-based heat ofthe New York scene.
It is one of the small ironies ofjazz history that Gerry Mulligan. a New Yorker now resident in Connecticut. should have become so readily identified with Cool Jazz- but it made perfect musical sense. allowing the saxophonist to develop his Swing-based style in a more modern idiom.
It also gave him the opportunity to create and develop a new quartet format. featuring baritone saxophone and trumpet. bass and drums. The original band which he put together at The l-laig (a club in Los Angeles. where Mulligan had arrived by hitch-hiking from the East in 1951). featured trumpeter Chet Baker. who died just a few weeks ago after falling — or being pushed? — from a hotel window in Amsterdam. Unlike Mulligan. Baker never succeeded in throwing over the drug problems endemic to 1950s jazz. and the Dutch police called off their investigation when they discovered his involvement.
There is a story that Mulligan hit on the new format (that first band also featured drummer (‘hico Hamilton and a less well known bass player named Bob Whitlock) because there was no piano in The Haig. but it- turned out to be less accidental than that. as he explains.
‘Well. it was the fortuitous occasion of the lack of a decent piano at The Haig. combined with the fact that I had the idea to do that anyway. I might not have tried it at that time. or might not have gotten the people together who did it so well. if there had been a piano available — it was an unconventional idea. and l was a little hesitant. since I had tried something similar in New York and that didn‘t work out. you know. and once bitten. twice shy.
‘What really made it fortuitous was the fact that I had met Chet Baker at that point. and there was a definite musical affinity there. and I had heard Chico Hamilton at the right time — so the whole thing worked out. I should say that the reason there was no piano was that Errol Garner had been playing there. and they had this beautiful piano for Errol. but when he left. Red Norvo‘s group came in. with vibes. guitar and bass. They wanted me to do the off-night. Monday or Tuesday. whatever it was. and they were just going to bring in a little upright that wouldn‘t take too much space. I told them I couldn‘t be bothered with that. I wanted a real piano or nothing. and ifl couldn‘t get one. I would like to try to put something together without it.’
It was a format which gave Mulligan major scope for
development over the next decade. with subsequent featured brass players including trumpeter .lon Eardlcy. valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. and trumpeter A rt Farmer. The quartet which (ierry brings to (ilasgow will be in the more familiar mode. with young pianist Bill (‘harlap. but the greatest interest is likely to surround his all-American (‘oncert Jazz Band. which will provide a showcase for Mulligan’s compositional and arranging skills. Writing has always been an important aspect of his work. pre-dating. as he explains. his emergence as an instrumentalist on the unusual baritone saxophone.
‘I started out writing for the big hands. before I ever thought about being a professional player. I grew up in the 1930s listening to the big bands. and even though they were essentially commercial dance bands. there were always people in there trying to broaden the musical possibilities — which is why I think that era. which really didn‘t last very long. is now looked on as a kind of golden age. I suppose my first real inﬂuences were the great writers and arrangers from those bands. people like Duke Ellington. Jimmy .‘ylundy. Sy Oliver. Gil Evans. and Ben Homer. The instrumentalists came later— at that time. they were all part
ofthe overall texture for me.
On the eve of the Glasgow Jazz Festival. jazz musician
Gerry Mulligan tells Kenny Mathieson about his unorthodox beginnings with the sax. Festival Listings on page 31.
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‘I can't say that I actually enjoy the process of writing. it can be a painful process making the decisions — it's amazingly hard on the digestion! ()nce I've done the physical part. though. I like having written it. In the big band there are all kinds of textural possibilities which simply don't exist in a small group. I like having the availability of those instrumental textures. although I also like the freedom of the small band. which is why I enjoy doing both things. I'm glad I don‘t have to make a choice of just one or the other.‘
As ('omposer in Residence for this year's ( ilasgow Jazz Festival. Mulligan will be playing a guest solo spot with the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. and has written a specially commissioned work for the final night concert. Appropriately. he has chosen a theme which combines the host country with his great enthusiasm for trains. although he was unable to provide much ofa prev iew when we talked.
‘Well. it‘s called "The Flying Scotsman.‘ I‘ve written it. but I haven't heard it played yet. to make sure it is going to add up to something I like. That is always discouraging. when you spend a lot of time and effort writing a piece. and then you play it and don't like it. That's murder!‘
Clearly. we will just have to wait for the real thing. The big band lends itselfparticularly well to Mulligan‘s writing. with his love for spacious. lightly-textured lines. and he has always worked in that format (including. more recently. some compositions for orchestra) alongside his small groups. lnevitably. they require somewhat different approaches to the composition ofother material.
‘Oh. yeah. absolutely. With the quartet the trick is to write frameworks which allow for the maximum amount of improvisation. You have to try to anticipate the approach of improvisation that you should take. try to lead the thing where you want to go within that framework. With the big band you have to spell it out. because you can't leave it up to improvisation with a 15 piece band. although I know there are bands which have tried that. but I‘m not going to discuss what I think about the results! 1 want music to be beautiful.‘
I wondered if the very different textural possibilities opened by electronics interested him‘.’
‘Well. if you are a writer writing for synthesized ensembles. you can get away with a whole lot of stuff that you can‘t do with acoustic instruments. So I'm always interested to hear how people who work in that area go on. or go back. to cope with the real problems.
‘I have a complex syntheziser at home which I use primarily as a writing tool. but I don’t think of it at all as a performing instrument. I‘ve never really been interested in any of the electronic keyboards. They are good for creating certain kinds of atmospheres. but only as a separate orchestration possibility. never as a substitute for the piano. Consequently. when you use it. it creates a different kind of mood alltogether.
‘I did play with one keyboard player for a while. Mitch Forman. who liked to play it. and we tried taking one on the road to give him that chance. l did it once and I‘ll never do it again — carrying your own there‘s always something happens to it. or it doesn‘t work right. and if you try to get one where you are playing. they usually don‘t work either. or the touch is too different or something. and your piano player ends up spending all his time worrying about this damned instrument instead of the music.
‘That happens a lot. it seems to me. People have become a little obsessed by the mechanical toys which are going around. and the technology starts to take over from the music. and I care about what‘s inside the music. not what‘s outside. I like music to be beautiful. I love to be able to play really softly. and still keep that level ofintcnsity in the music. you know what I mean‘.’
That's what I really like best of all.‘
10The List 24 June — 7 July 1988