Obituary: Gerry Mulligan

Steve Voce
Monday 22 January 1996 00:02 GMT

"With Gerry Mulligan you feel as if you're listening to the past, present and future of jazz all at one time," said Dave Brubeck, who had a musical partnership with the baritone saxophonist for four years, from 1968 to 1972.

The unwieldy baritone was never a popular instrument with musicians and the number of great players was small. They included Serge Chaloff, Duke Ellington's Harry Carney and Joe Temperley, Lars Gullin from Sweden and, from Britain, John Surman, John Barnes and Ronnie Ross. Mulligan, who became the most famous of them, was lauded also as a witty and inventive composer and arranger and for the clarity of his simple and yet profound communication with his audiences.

Although he already played saxophones when he first joined Gene Krupa's big band in 1946, it was as the band's staff arranger that he first attracted attention with his composition "Disc Jockey Jump". In 1948 he worked with a nine-piece band put together by a nucleus of jazz composers including Miles Davis, John Lewis, Gil Evans and John Carisi, who together developed the "cool" style of modern jazz playing. When recorded by the popular hit label Capitol in 1949, rather surprisingly for this was intellectual music, the handful of tracks changed the whole future of jazz writing, and are still potent influences today. Mulligan was never recognised for his major role in this group, the credit going wrongly to Miles Davis in New York. Mulligan wrote also for the bands of Elliott Lawrence and the innovators Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton.

He hitch-hiked to Los Angeles in 1951 and worked at the Haig Club with a trio. It seems likely that the piano at the Haig was less than good and Mulligan began working without it. The piano-less jazz group was to be the key feature of his next two decades. As he established himself on the West Coast he recorded there with a "tentette" based on the New York composers' band, and developed the famous piano-less quartet with Chet Baker, an inventive and sensitive trumpet player whose life at that period was, like Mulligan's, totally governed by heroin addiction. When Mulligan was gaoled for drug offences the young Stan Getz replaced him in the quartet until he came out. By then the music recorded by Mulligan's quartet had become amongst the best-selling jazz issues of all time and his future was assured.

Baker rightly thought that he could make more money leading his own quartet, and he left, eventually to be replaced by the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, an inventive composer and player who ranked with Mulligan, and theirs was a uniquely complementary partnership - intellectual as well as musical.

On one occasion Mulligan was being interviewed by an aggressive television- show host. At the rehearsal Mulligan had given the interviewer much information, and had mentioned the fact that he had been in gaol for drug offences. In the live show the interviewer said, as though he was confronting the musician for the first time, "I understand that you were involved with drugs, and did some time because of it." Understandably, this left Mulligan in a corner with nothing to answer. The man followed up quickly. Mulligan employed many black musicians throughout his career but at this time, by coincidence, there were none in the quartet. "I notice," said the interviewer, "that there are no black musicians in your group. Is this accidental, or by design?"

Brookmeyer, who was sitting nearby, glared at the interviewer, jerked his thumb at Mel Lewis and said, "We've got a Jewish drummer. Will that help?"

Although he was revered by his fans, by the critics and by most musicians, Mulligan was often arrogant and self-centred. "I think I managed not to be an adult in just about every imaginable area," he said in 1986. "A band is most fun when you're in rehearsals. When you're working you have no time to enjoy it." Mulligan was an impossible taskmaster at band rehearsals. He demanded perfection and would keep his musicians splitting hairs deep into the night. "One night," recalled Joe Temperley, "he spent so many hours trying to polish just a few bars that I very nearly got up and walked out." Mulligan also liked to play piano in his bands, but typically only as a soloist, being apparently incapable of working in a rhythm section.

Mulligan extended the "piano-less" theory first to a sextet and then to his hugely successful 13-piece Concert Jazz Band, first formed during the Fifties. Unusually the band used low volume and sensitive dynamics. "Our band shouts but it doesn't scream. When you overblow the tone quality goes." The group triumphed with fine soloists like Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and Clark Terry. The Concert band toured the world financed by the impresario Norman Granz, for whose Verve label it recorded. When Granz sold the label in the mid-Sixties the band was left without work.

This was a bad period for Mulligan, for his partner the film star Judy Holliday died of cancer in 1965. The two had composed songs and recorded together, and Holliday had drawn Mulligan into the world of Broadway musicals. However, she didn't like her singing on their records together and the material was not issued until 1980. Mulligan later married another film star, Sandy Dennis.

Mulligan's gaunt face suited the cameras, and he appeared in several films, including I Want to Live (1958) and Bells are Ringing (1960) with Judy Holliday, also playing and composing the music for innumerable soundtracks. He recorded outstanding small group albums with a succession of top jazz soloists, notably Ben Webster and the altoists Johnny Hodges and Paul Desmond, and in 1972 reformed the big band as the Age of Steam, so called because of his love of steam trains, this time experimenting gently with electronic instruments and rock. This band expired to be succeeded eventually by a new big band in 1978 which won a Grammy in 1980. Mulligan cut back to a quartet with piano in 1986 and continued to discover brilliant young players like two of his pianists, Bill Charlap and (his final one) Ted Rosenthal. He reformed the big band for a tour in 1988 when he appeared at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, and he toured and recorded with symphony orchestras playing his own compositions.

Mulligan shared with Duke Ellington the distinction of working as a composer and being able to hear his music immediately played back to him by his band.

Gerald Joseph Mulligan, saxophonist, bandleader, composer: born New York 6 April 1927; married three times (one son); died Darien, Connecticut 19 January 1996.

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