Gerry Mulligan Biography

Gerald Joseph Mulligan, 6 April 1927, New York City, New York, USA, d. 19 January 1996, Darien, Connecticut, USA. Raised in Philadelphia, Mulligan started out on piano before concentrating on arranging. He also took up the saxophone, first the alto and a few years later the baritone. Among the name bands that used his arrangements were those led by Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill and he occasionally played in their reed sections. While writing for Thornhill he met and began a musical association with fellow arranger Gil Evans. In New York in 1948 Mulligan joined Evans and Miles Davis, for whom he wrote and played, by now almost exclusively on baritone. It is important to point out that Mulligan wrote seven tracks on the pivotal Birth Of The Cool recordings. In the early 50s Mulligan led his own groups but continued to arrange on a freelance basis. In this capacity his work was performed by Stan Kenton (these charts also being performed in the UK by Vic Lewis).

In 1952 Mulligan began a musical association that not only attracted critical acclaim but also brought him widespread popularity with audiences. His performance of ‘My Funny Valentine’ around this time was usually stunning. This came about through the formation with Chet Baker of a quartet that was unusual for the absence of a piano. When Baker quit in 1953, Mulligan subsequently led other quartets, notably with Bob Brookmeyer in the mid-50s. He became a doyen of the California ‘cool jazz’ movement. Although the quartet format dominated Mulligan’s work during this part of his career he occasionally formed larger groups and early in the 60s formed his Concert Jazz Band. This band was periodically revived during the decade and beyond. He interspersed this with periods of leading groups of various sizes, working and recording with other leaders, including Dave Brubeck, in frequently rewarding partnerships with musicians such as Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk, and writing arrangements on a freelance basis. In the early 70s Mulligan led big bands, some of which used the name Age Of Steam, and small groups for worldwide concert tours, recording sessions and radio and television appearances. The 80s and early 90s saw him following a similar pattern, sometimes expanding the size of the big band, sometimes content to work in the intimate setting of a quartet or quintet.

As an arranger, Mulligan was among the first to attempt to adapt the language of bop for big band and achieved a measure of success with both Krupa (who recalled for George T. Simon that Mulligan was ‘a kind of temperamental guy who wanted to expound a lot of his ideas’), and Thornhill. For all the variety of his later work, in many ways his music, as writer and performer, retains the colours and effects of his 50s quartets. In these groups Mulligan explored the possibilities of scoring and improvising jazz in a low-key, seemingly subdued manner. In fact, he thoroughly exploited the possibilities of creating interesting and complex lines that always retained a rich, melodic approach. His classic compositions from the 50s, including ‘Night At The Turntable’, ‘Walkin’ Shoes’, ‘Venus De Milo’, ‘Soft Shoe’ and ‘Jeru’, and his superb arrangements for ‘Bernie’s Tune’, ‘Godchild’ and others, helped to establish the sound and style of the so-called ‘cool school’. The intimate styling favoured in such settings was retained in his big-band work and his concert band recordings from the 60s retained interest not only for their own sake, but also for the manner in which they contrasted with most other big-band writing of the same and other periods. By the late 70s and early 80s he was reluctant to perform and found greater solace in working on arrangements from his home, much like a solitary writer. In the 80s he made something of a comeback when he signed to GRP Records. Little Big Horn and Re-Birth Of The Cool were both satisfying and commercially successful records, as was Dragonfly for Telarc Records in 1995.

As a player, the beautiful lightness of touch Mulligan used in his writing was uniquely brought to the baritone saxophone, an instrument that in other, not always lesser, hands sometimes overpowers the fragility of some areas of jazz. It is hard to see in Mulligan’s work, whether as writer, arranger or performer he had a clearly discernible influence. Similarly, despite the enormous popularity he enjoyed over more than five decades, few, if any, writers or players seem to have adopted him as a role model. Maybe it is because the baritone saxophone has never become a popular instrument, in favour of tenor and alto. This seems both perplexing and unfair, as whatever skill he exerted, he succeeded with artistic success and seemingly effortless grace. At the least, this must be something to regret and maybe in time his contribution to jazz, especially in the pioneering decade of the 50s will be seen as ‘great’ and important.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.