By Alyn Shipton

Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz

ISBN: 9780197579756

264 pages

The jazz world has not been blessed with many books about Gerry Mulligan that are commensurate with his stature as one of the most important jazz musicians and composers. Shipton’s book is an exception:  it is excellent and essential.

The Keith Waters book on the Miles Davis studio recordings (1965 to 1968) is in the same Oxford Studies series and is almost forbidding in its technical detail.  Waters adheres to the title. Shipton, to his credit, virtually ignores the title and goes for a wider sweep although it is a pity that the title does not indicate the breadth of the coverage. Shipton does cover the quartet of the 50s but he also covers Mulligan’s work with Elliot Lawrence, Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa where the self-taught Mulligan started to develop the contrapuntal writing that would be a feature of all of his work. It is particularly evident in the Miles Davis ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions as well as Mulligan’s quartets with Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer and Jon Eardley.  Shipton also covers the formation of the Concert Jazz Band and the quartets of the 1960s.

The beginning of the Quartet with the absence of the piano was innovative and accidental. Mulligan is quoted as saying: ‘I didn’t want to play on a little old tiny upright piano, and I’d heard and played around Los Angeles sessions with Chet Baker, and Chico Hamilton was playing with a little group that Charlie Barnet had, so it gradually jelled and we got it together, and musically it worked out very well. The thing with Chet was really incredible, because some of the things that we would do that were . . . totally improvised, not worked out ahead of time at all, were seamless in the finished quality that we wound up doing. I never played with anybody, including Brookmeyer, where we had that kind of rapport.’

The analysis of the recordings is fascinating. Shipton includes transcriptions and musical samples. There are many examples. There is an extract from Denzil Best’s ‘Move’.  The opening of Mulligan’s solo on ‘Bernie’s Tune’ and the first bars of the curiously titled ‘Bweebida Bobbida’. Shipton’s colleague Adrian Fry from the Buck Clayton Legacy band completed them, and the examples are interspersed through the text.

Light is shone on the drug arrest that eventually brought the quartet with Chet Baker to an end.  The account differs from the Mulligan’s account in the book which was published after Shipton had finished this book.  The period after the first Chet Baker quartet is covered at length.  The conflict with the two recording companies: Fantasy and Pacific are explained, as is the work the Tentette and the Sextet. The difficulties of finding a partner who could dovetail in the way that Baker did is described. He also covers the albums made with such figures as Annie Ross, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz and Ben Webster.

Shipton is good at research, and he uses his contacts well. The text has an authentic feel, and he does manage to reveal some interesting facts. Mulligan had an anger problem and on the first trip to Europe Bob Brookmeyer, annoyed by Mulligan, said that he wanted to quit. At one point Brookmeyer slept with Mulligan’s wife!  The friendship survived all that.

It is good that Shipton acknowledges the part played by women in Mulligan’s life. Arlyne Brown was virtually Mulligan’s manager for part of the fifties.  The mysterious figure of Gail Madden who accompanied Mulligan from the east coast to the west was also a musician and helped Mulligan to deal with his heroin addiction.  The piece ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ was a memory of their trek across the country. Gail was a former partner of Bob Graettinger who arranged an intro for Mulligan to Stan Kenton before she disappeared.  The bassist Bob Whitlock remembers her: ‘Gail was nothing if not flamboyant. . . . I also found her to be intelligent, resourceful, rebellious, bold, opinionated, and altogether fascinating.’

Mulligan’s relationship with Judy Holliday occurred at the same time as the Concert Jazz Band was developed.  Holliday was a highly intelligent actress on stage and screen.  Shipton tends to underplay her importance. She won an Oscar and made an album with the Concert Jazz Band. She died in 1965 aged 42.

Probably the longest lasting relationship in the fifties and sixties was with Bob Brookmeyer. Brookmeyer writing to Mulligan just before Mulligan’s death wrote: ‘I often get asked by interviewers what it was like to play in the quartet with you, and the answer has not changed in the last 42 years. “It felt like playing with Bach.”’

If a publisher wants to commission the definitive book on Mulligan, Shipton would be the obvious person.