Personalities | Gerry Mulligan | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

Gerry Mulligan was the leading exponent of the baritone saxophone in jazz, and one of the key instigators of the style that came to be known as cool jazz. Along with trumpeter Chet Baker, Mulligan came to exemplify the cool ethos in the 1950s; he returned to the roots of that style with his Re-Birth Of The Cool (1992).

The title and the concept echoed the groundbreaking Nonet sessions of 1949–50, which were led by Miles Davis but fuelled by the arrangements of Mulligan and Gil Evans. The use of French horn and the intricate weave of timbre and texture in the music foreshadowed the later developments of the ‘third stream’ (the movement’s main progenitors, pianist John Lewis and composer Gunther Schuller, were both involved in the sessions), as well as the cool school.

Birth Of The Cool

Mulligan was born in New York City in April 1927 and grew up in Philadelphia. He began arranging music in his teens, inspired by the example of the great swing band arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Jimmy Mundy, Fletcher Henderson, Sy Oliver and Gil Evans.

Mulligan wrote arrangements for the Claude Thornhill band in New York in 1946, and was introduced to the textural possibilities of twentieth-century classical music by Evans and drummer Gene Krupa, a devotee of Ravel. Mulligan was an eager learner and quickly began to develop a style that built on his roots in swing but displayed a more contemporary idiom and personal voice.

The ‘Birth Of The Cool’ recordings of 1949–50 featured his compositions (‘Jeru’, ‘Venus De Milo’, ‘Rocker’) and arrangements. The clarity, control, swing, and rhythmic and harmonic invention of the music were all less frenetic than the bop model, and the cooler approach was ideal for Mulligan.

Quartet And Big Band

Mulligan formed the first of his ‘pianoless’ quartets in Los Angeles in 1951, featuring Chet Baker’s romantic trumpet. The contrapuntal possibilities of two (or more) horns, bass and drums would preoccupy him throughout the 1950s. His collaborators included trumpeters Jon Eardley and Art Farmer, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and saxophonist Zoot Sims.

Mulligan began touring with his Concert Jazz Band in 1960, and continued to work on and off in that format throughout the rest of his career. While he made his greatest impact with his smaller groups, where improvisation was the primary element of the music, the large ensemble lent itself well to his particular style of writing and arranging. He revelled in the greater textural possibilities that the big band offered, and he went on to experiment with composing for orchestral ensembles as well, albeit less successfully.

Exploring The Big Horn

Mulligan’s interest in musical textures extended to his choice of instrument. He began playing tenor saxophone but was seduced very quickly by the deeper sonorities and extended textural possibilities offered by the baritone register. Although he also played soprano saxophone and piano, he was best known for his...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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