The book takes a conventional biographical approach from Mulligan’s birth in Long Island in 1927…
Gerry Mulligan With Ken Poston
Backbeat Books (2023)
Gerry Mulligan undoubtedly changed the face of jazz at least twice. In addition, he was a brilliant arranger and superb baritone saxophone player. This book was organised by his last wife, Franca Mulligan. In 1994 Ken Poston, a West Coast writer, was contacted by Franca Mulligan to say that Gerry wanted to write an autobiography and would Poston be prepared to help with that. Poston agreed and spent time with Mulligan taping his reminiscences. The plan was that Mulligan would use the resulting tapes to do the book himself. Mulligan, however, died in 1996. Franca Mulligan asked Ken Poston to complete the work.
The book takes a conventional biographical approach from Mulligan’s birth in Long Island in 1927. Mulligan’s authoritarian father wanted his sons to become engineers and his sole interest in education was on the technical side. The family moved around a great deal because of the father’s work. The only part of education that Mulligan enjoyed was music.
Mulligan soon announced to the head teacher that he was leaving to join a band. The first band of any note was Elliot Lawrence and Mulligan who was self-taught wrote the arrangements. This was around the time when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were emerging on to the scene making many question the jazz that went before.
In his late teens Mulligan wrote and played for Gene Krupa’s orchestra and then for Claude Thornhill. Also at this time, he was studying with Gil Evans and began associating with artists such as John Lewis, Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Zoot” Sims, and Al Cohn.
In the late forties Mulligan spent most of his time at the apartment of Gil Evans in Madison Square Gardens area. They used the piano to test ideas when it was available. Crowding in to the apartment at various times was George Russell, John Lewis, John Carisi, Dave Lambert and Charlie Parker all listening to music recommended by Gil Evans. It was a time of new ideas, theorizing and figuring out how to make a living and how to restructure jazz, even about the role of the tuba and bass. Mulligan writes: ‘Miles really wanted something of his own. …it was Miles who took it out of the basement and put it into the rehearsal hall, which was kind of a mixed blessing because Miles was responsible for the first push. But then when we actually got to work, he didn’t have the ability to take over as a leader’. John Lewis and Mulligan did the bulk of the writing. ‘Gil Evans wrote a couple of things because he was busy writing for the Thornhill band.’
Mulligan succumbed to the vice of the time, heroin. Gail Madden sought out Mulligan to help with his addiction. She was an early arts entrepreneur who hoped to set up a group about ‘Creative Research’. She hoped to use Max Roach, George Wallington and Mulligan. Mulligan states that she was a remarkable woman, years ahead of her time using ‘sleep conditioning’ and she eventually cured his depression. Charlie Parker was enthused by her ideas.
The couple left New York and moved to California. They hitchhiked across the country; Madden knew Bob Graettinger the composer for Stan Kenton: she had helped him to beat addiction. Graettinger wrote the controversial ‘City of Glass’. An introduction to Stan Kenton was arranged and eventually Mulligan wrote ‘Young Blood’ and ‘Walking Shoes’ for the band, ‘Gail was a brilliant woman, and for me, she helped me in ways that are just. immeasurable.’ Mulligan attempted to find her some years later but he was not successful. It is unfortunate that the influential Madden seemed to disappear into obscurity.
The Gerry Mulligan quartet made its first recordings in 1952 when were working at the Haig Club in Los Angeles. Mulligan explains that Erroll Garner had been playing at the club on a nine-foot Baldwin concert grand. It had to go when Garner finished his engagement. Mulligan decided that the quartet could manage without a piano. He had played with Chet Baker a couple of times, and he knew that Chet was a melodic player. Gail Madden had recommended Carson Smith Chico Hamilton. Mulligan told Hamilton: ‘We rehearse with a small set. you know we’d only have maybe a snare drum and hi-hat and a standing TomTom and maybe one top cymbal on a stand. no bass drum, no set of TomToms, so it was a minimal set.’
Mulligan found it easy to play with Chet Baker, but they did not form a deep personal relationship. Mulligan claimed their differences were too great and he blames Chet Baker for the drugs bust that landed Mulligan in jail and broke up the quartet.
The quartet recordings, beautiful in their simplicity, electrified the jazz world. Eventually, Bob Brookmeyer replaced Baker. According to Mulligan the reunion with Baker in 1974 did not go well. ‘It turned out to be such a complicated affair. There were too many people involved and too many strangers involved, and it was like a big show. It wasn’t like we were able to get away from the whole thing and establish something. And Chet was operating under particular difficulties, and of course his particular way of dealing with that was to be surly and demanding, and he was just really mean to everybody. So, it wasn’t possible to really explore anything.’
Mulligan was living with actress Judy Holliday for around 7 years until her death from breast cancer in 1965. Holliday was very talented; winning an Academy Award, a Tony for her musical work on Broadway, and a Golden Globe. Reputed to have an IQ of around 172, she was investigated by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security for suspected links to communism. Holliday was diagnosed with cancer around the time that Mulligan started the first edition of the Concert Jazz Band. You certainly get the impression that Mulligan could have been a more sympathetic partner. The whole of the early part of the Concert Band’s life was played out against Holliday’s illness and severe depression.
Norman Granz helped with the finance of the Concert Band setting up recordings on their first trip to Europe. Mulligan was not particularly pleased with the band’s performance. He seemed to be more concerned with keeping the band in line and dealing with various forms of over-indulgence.
Actress Sandy Dennis was Mulligan’s partner from 1965 to 1974. Mulligan has little to say about her, except that she a very private person who was reluctant to express her feelings. This was the period when Mulligan had a sextet and was signed to Philips and Mercury.
In the later chapters of the book Mulligan writes about the increasing racial tensions in the 1960s. Mulligan expresses resentment that white jazz musicians were not treated fairly. ‘I had black guys, new on the scene, who were enjoying a great deal of success. I think in their way they were enjoying a great deal more commercial success then I was, because they were selling a lot more records and they were in demand. these guys with chips on their shoulders would do really rotten things to me and they didn’t even know me. and it would surprise me. Dizzy once tried to explain to me that he thought the cause of that in my case was because I had been accepted by the leaders and important people of previous generations like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and the men in their bands.’
‘The 1960s was an unattractive period for me. I saw the total fragmentation of the scene, and I saw the kind of cutting off of communication between important elements: the people who should have been in communication with each other and were now suffering from our kind of resentment and negativism that was destructive and that went on through the 1960s and I guess was even worse in the 1970s………. It’s not always too comfortable to be a white jazz musician, because very few of the benefits are coming the way of the white musicians. We’ve sort of been written out of the history by white critics and white writers, as well as by black writers.’
Mulligan met Contessa Franca Rota Borghini Baldovinetti in the early seventies. ‘Franca had a different kind of attitude, she was very much a realist and an optimist and pragmatic in the way if you want to do something, then go ahead and do it. I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t face dealing with agents and promoters. the whole scene had become something I couldn’t handle.’ Franca took over the running of Mulligan’s life and the Concert Jazz band was re-born and toured the US and Europe.
An alliance with Dave Brubeck led to some symphonic work with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Mulligan arranged some of his pieces like ‘K-4 Pacific’ for the orchestras.
‘So, things have gone along pretty smoothly for years, and I’ve had one group after another, all based on the idea on the simple idea of the quartet. The piano, bass, and drums and baritone sax and I’ve been lucky to always have good players.’
As a composer, Mulligan’s music is clear and original without being esoteric. From his self-taught beginning he developed the use of counterpoint, and his linear pieces still influence writing for orchestras. Duke Ellington recognised Mulligan’s prowess on the baritone saxophone because Mulligan established the baritone saxophone as a solo voice. Ellington’s composition dedicated to Mulligan and Harry Carney was ‘Prima Bara Dubla’ a great tribute from a man that Mulligan admired without reservation.
There are many people that Mulligan encounters over time. Stan Getz is one that Mulligan can offer few words of praise for. Mulligan’s view is not unusual, Getz over the years incited animosity from a large number of people. Some of the incidents in the book that Mulligan describes can sound trivial. An incident with Dizzy Gillespie in Nice is recounted where Mulligan was blanked. More serious is the incident with Stanley Turrentine who pulled a trick on Mulligan at the Newport Jazz Festival that altered the running order of the Festival in order to give more prominence to the Turrentine group.
The problem with a book assembled in this way is the lack of objectivity. There are few, if any, great jazz biographies. Robin D.G. Kelley’s book on Thelonious Monk is an honourable exception. Gerry Mulligan deserves a book of that stature. The present text could well serve as notes. Mulligan’s life was fascinating both musically and personally, but it needs a detached author who can probe, research and excavate beneath the surface.
Reviewed by Jack Kenny