Gerry Mulligan - Biography
Gerry Mulligan is the most famous baritone saxophonist in jazz history and one of the most respected arrangers of the post-war era. Leading his own influential groups and playing with stars like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Billie Holliday, he was a perennial favorite among musicians, critics and fans alike. He won the Down Beat Readers Poll as the leading baritone saxophonist an amazing twenty-nine consecutive times. Peter Watrous of The New York Times described his solos as having “flow, logic, tempo, and sense of progression.” “Gerry Mulligan belongs in the pantheon of jazz composer-arrangers...his influence as both a writer and a player will last as long as jazz does,” wrote jazz educator and saxophonist Bill Kirchner.
Gerald Joseph "Gerry" Mulligan was born in New York on April 6, 1927. His father was an engineer. The family moved frequently, ending up in Philadelphia where Mulligan went to high school. The youngster had started on piano when he was seven, moving on to clarinet and saxophone when he was fourteen. Encouraged to craft arrangements by his first reed teacher, Mulligan wrote for his high school band. When he was all of sixteen, he approached Johnny Warrington, director of the WCAU radio orchestra, and offered his services. An impressed Warrington took him up on it, and began buying charts from him.
Mulligan had also been playing saxophone in local ensembles and soon dropped out of high school to pursue a full time career as a musician. Tommy Tucker's band took him on the road as an arranger at $100 a week. Mulligan soon returned to Philadelphia to write charts for Elliot Lawrence. In 1946 he moved to New York as a member of Gene Krupa’s arranging staff, and soon joined the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He’d met another young arranger, Gil Evans, when both were with Krupa. Evans, now also with Thornhill, had a tiny apartment on West 55th Street where Mulligan and many other progressive musicians hung out. That’s where the ideas for the Miles Davis Nonet were first discussed. Emphasizing improvisation in a format that added French horns and tubas to a typical bebop ensemble, the band opened up a world of new possibilities for jazz. Although the nonet played only a handful of dates, Davis reconvened the band for a series of Capitol sessions in 1948 and 1949, later collected under the title Birth of the Cool. Mulligan arranged three of his own tunes (“Rocker,” “Venus de Milo,” and “Jeru,” his nickname) and wrote charts for three other compositions for the project. While he was with Thornhill, Mulligan had decided to concentrate on the baritone sax, and he played on all of the nonet dates. Although not terribly popular at the time, the cool sound was widely influential over the next few years, particularly on what became known as “West Coast Jazz.”
Scuffling in New York, Mulligan decided to try his luck in California and hitchhiked west. He got a job writing charts for Stan Kenton’s orchestra, although he and Kenton did not get along. In 1951, Mulligan formed his first quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet, Carson Smith on bass, and Chico Hamilton on drums. It was noteworthy at the time for not including piano in the line-up, and this idea of a piano-less combo would be explored by a variety of jazz musicians in the Fifties, from Ornette Coleman to Sonny Rollins. Mulligan’s original band, whose recordings for the new Pacific Jazz label and for Fantasy Records were very well-received, lasted just one year. He soon reformed the unit with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer replacing Baker, the start of a long musical relationship between the two men.
After bring jailed for drug possession in 1953, Mulligan moved back to the East Coast, which remained his base for the rest of his career. During the Fifties, he worked on a series of albums for Pacific Jazz. Most often he worked in a sextet format with Brookmeyer and saxophonist Zoot Sims, but he also led tentets and the first of his Concert Jazz Bands. "I'll always think as an arranger," Mulligan later explained, "and each band represents another writing approach." At the height of his improvisational powers during the decade, he also became a well-known celebrity, romantically linked with several actresses, including Judy Holliday and Sandy Dennis.
In addition to performances and recordings with his quartet and, beginning around 1960 with his Concert Jazz Band, Mulligan also participated in a notable series of recorded encounters with stars like Paul Desmond, Ben Webster, and Thelonious Monk in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In 1957, Mulligan and a slew of others including Monk, Basie, and Coleman Hawkins appeared on CBS-TV’s The Sound Of Jazz. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, he frequently played in pianist Dave Brubeck’s quartet. The New Gerry Mulligan Sextet, featuring Dave Samuels on vibes, made its debut in 1976. In 1978, he reconstituted the Concert Jazz Band for an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York. The ensemble went on to tour the United States, and appeared on stages around the world through the Eighties. Starting in 1992, Mulligan assembled a tentet to reinvestigate the Birth of the Cool repertoire. Re-Birth of the Cool (1992 GRP) featured performances by alto saxophonist Phil Woods, and trumpeter Wallace Roney. A touring version of the band with Art Farmer and Lee Konitz played festivals across the United States before making a world tour.
A spring tour of Europe in 1995 co-billed his quartet with Brubeck’s group. The two men concluded every show with a duet performance. But Mulligan was ill, and his final concerts were with his Quartet on board the SS Norway's Caribbean cruise, in November 1995. Gerry Mulligan died at home in Darien, CT, on January 20, 1996. He was 68. The Gerry and Franca Mulligan Foundation, established in 2001 by his widow Franca Mulligan, furthers Mulligan’s interest in music education with grants and programs. A permanent exhibition of artifacts from the Gerry Mulligan Collection is on view at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
During his busy career, Mulligan acted in several films and composed film scores, musicals, and songs in addition to his jazz writing. He was also active in the classical sphere, commissioning a repertoire of symphonic music for baritone sax and, encouraged by Zubin Mehta, composing his own orchestral music. A December 1989 concert series with the New York Philharmonic included a performance of his first classical composition, Entente. Mulligan was the recipient of many honors and awards during his lifetime, including membership in The American Jazz Hall of Fame and the Down Beat Hall Of Fame. He was nominated for several Grammy awards, winning one in 1981 for Walk on the Water (DRG). The original Birth Of The Cool album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982.