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“Mulligan has been closely involved in the entire history of modern jazz orchestration, and younger fans, who know him primarily as a baritone saxophonist, are unaware of it. Yet it was as a writer that he gained his broadest early acceptance, and some of the arrangements he wrote for Gene Krupa— and an original for Stan Kenton called Young Blood — are well-remembered classics.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, critic and producer of the JazzLetter
"Chet was one of the best intuitive musicians I've ever seen. We used to get some remarkable things going. I remember one night at the Haig in Los Angeles, nobody called a tune all evening. As a tune ended, someone would noodle with another melody, and we would all go into the same thing. We'd play for an hour and a half that way, take a break, and go on and do it again. It never let up. It was one of the most exciting evenings of playing I can remember."
- Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophonist, composer-arranger, bandleader
"Then, too, to be honest, I find writing very frustrating. I'm a slow writer, because I'm trying always to think what it will feel like to play it in various situations. There's too much in jazz writing that doesn't move well. They haven't learned from the simplifying that we did with that nine-piece band with Miles, when we got it down to the fewest necessary elements.”
- Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophonist, composer-arranger, bandleader
"What I came back to is that jazz is a music to be played and not to be intellectualized on.”
- Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophonist, composer-arranger, bandleader
Who can foretell the future?
When Gene Lees wrote the following about Gerry’s lack of composing and arranging, primarily for larger groups, who could know that Gerry had another thirty-three years ahead of him and would spend most of the decades of the 1970s and 1980s writing for various configurations of his “new” Concert Jazz Bands.
Yet, its great to look back to gauge where things were in the Jazz World and Jeru’s World fifty years ago and to add this piece to the growing JazzProfiles Mulligan Bibliographic Holdings.
January 17, 1963
'”Why aren’t you writing more?" a friend asked Gerry Mulligan recently.
A rising young arranger said, "I learned a lot from Gerry. He's such a fine arranger. I wish he'd write more these days."
Another friend buttonholed Mulligan to say, "The only criticism I've ever had of your big band is that there aren't more of your charts in the book."
To all of which Mulligan grins and says, "I feel like asking all of them, Why don't you write something for me?' "
The fact remains that one of the best and most influential of modern arrangers writes remarkably few jazz arrangements nowadays. He does produce spontaneous ones with his quartet, which he plays with as much warmth and amiability as he ever did. But the big-band arranging of which he is one of the leading exponents isn't coming from his pen in any quantity these days.
Mulligan has been closely involved in the entire history of modern jazz orchestration, and younger fans, who know him primarily as a baritone saxophonist, are unaware of it. Yet it was as a writer that he gained his broadest early acceptance, and some of the arrangements he wrote for Gene Krupa— and an original for Stan Kenton called Young Blood — are well-remembered classics.
In the 1940s, Mulligan was writing for the Claude Thornhill Band. The band's chief arranger was Gil Evans. Mulligan and Evans agree that Thornhill never has been given his due as an influence in the evolution of modern jazz writing. It was Thornhill’s instrumentation (the use of French horns was among his innovations) that led to the development of Evans' early style.
In 1949 Evans and Mulligan had an idea for an experimental band. Pooling efforts and resources with other searchers, including John Lewis and Miles Davis, they organized a group. When Davis arranged for jobs and recordings, he became leader.
"We kicked the ideas around all that winter," Mulligan said. "We were looking for the smallest ensemble to give the writers the maximum possibilities. We got it down to six men and the rhythm section. You couldn't write for the sections — sax section, trumpet section, trombone section — because there were no sections."
The influence of the Evans-Mulligan-Davis nine-piece band is well known. It played few public engagements, though it made some appearances at the old Royal Roost in New York City. But it did make a series of single records for Capitol, launching the era of so-called cool jazz and shaking up jazz arrangers rather considerably.
Lewis went on to the Modern Jazz Quartet and Third Stream-ism. Evans and Davis were to part company for a few years, to join talents again in the mid-1950s to produce a now-famous series of trumpet-and-orchestra albums for Columbia. And Mulligan went on to form a series of groups, including a sextet and a big band and several editions of a quartet, the latest revision of which includes Mulligan on baritone and occasionally piano; Bob Brookmeyer on trombone and, also occasionally, piano; Bill Crow, bass; and Gus Johnson, drums.
Mulligan remembers with particular affection the version of the quartet that included Chet Baker on trumpet.
"Chet was one of the best intuitive musicians I've ever seen," Mulligan said. "We used to get some remarkable things going. I remember one night at the Haig in Los Angeles, nobody called a tune all evening. As a tune ended, someone would noodle with another melody, and we would all go into the same thing. We'd play for an hour and a half that way, take a break, and go on and do it again. It never let up. It was one of the most exciting evenings of playing I can remember."
Like Gil Evans, Mulligan has debts as an orchestrator to Duke Ellington.
There are, basically, two ways to orchestrate for the large jazz orchestra: the Don Redman-Fletcher Henderson way, which involves voicing saxes with saxes, trumpets with trumpets, trombones with trombones, in blocks; and the Ellington way, which, while recognizing the existence of the sections, doesn't hesitate to voice across the section lines — for example, a trumpet, a clarinet, and bass clarinet in trio in front of the rest of the band.
Evans' approach to the orchestra, while the end result sounds vastly different, is technically similar to Ellington's. So, very often, is Mulligan's.
Mulligan has been writing for big bands since he was 15, which means that although he is only 35, he's had 20 years' experience at it. Besides Thornhill and Krupa, he wrote for the Elliot Lawrence Band and several other groups. His own Tentet records for Capitol, which came after the Miles Davis nine-piece sides, still stand as some of the most delightful writing in jazz.
Why, then, has this long stream of impressive writing stopped — or at least slowed?
"I don't know why I'm not writing, really," Mulligan said during a reflective evening in New York, where he lives. "There are so many reasons that there's no one.
"My approach to the thing was always to simplify rather than to complicate. I've concentrated on the small band lately, but I've used my arranging ability not in written orchestrations but in making spontaneous arrangements and un-writing things we worked out. The main point has been to be able to change our arrangements to suit our whim. This is true of all the groups I've had.
"If I haven't written much for the big band, I've always tried to be clear about what I wanted the writing to be like. I made my taste the criterion in my approach to the band, and usually if I made myself explicit to the arrangers, they were happier, because they knew the restrictions within which they could work.
"But I wanted to keep freedom in it too — to permit the guys to improvise patterns, riffs, and the like, in ensemble behind the soloists. Bob Brookmeyer would wisecrack, 'We're having a rehearsal. Bring your erasers.'"
Mulligan said he spends most his time erasing things. He quotes Dizzy Gillespie as once saying, "It's not what you put in — it's what you leave out." Mulligan said he feels that's very frequently the case—and he would like what is going on in jazz writing better these days if "more guys understood that."
"Whereas everyone's been after me to write," he said, "I've been happy to let it rest. For one thing, I don't have the drive I had when I was experimenting, because I'm no longer experimenting — I know what I want.
"Then, too, to be honest, I find writing very frustrating. I'm a slow writer, because I'm trying always to think what it will feel like to play it in various situations. There's too much in jazz writing that doesn't move well. They haven't learned from the simplifying that we did with that nine-piece band with Miles, when we got it down to the fewest necessary elements.
"They seem to be reverting to writing by section. We should consider the dance-jazz ensemble as an orchestra to write for, not as three sections. But the guys today are writing more vertically than we were doing in the late '40s and early '50s.
"Mind you, it often sounds simpler. But that's because more groups of studio men can make things swing today than the guys would have been able to do 15 years ago."
Did this mean that the level of musicianship today is higher than it was then?
"I suppose," Mulligan said . . . and then added: "No. Let's say that the developments in jazz since that time have demanded more technical fluency. Musicianship is something more than fluency."
Mulligan paused at this point. The location was a musicians' hangout on 48th St. He ordered a beer and then asked the waiter what was on the menu. Hearing, he made a wry face. "I don't like food that much," he said.
"That's why you're so skinny," a musician cracked.
Mulligan's huge Irish grin flashed on, and he said "Yeah? A lot of my fat friends wish they disliked food as much as I do." Finally, though, he ordered and returned to the subject of jazz writing.
"This business of looking for new forms is asinine," he said. "The forms are there. They've got to be used. The problem I ran into, and I suppose all the other guys ran into, was that we tried to expand and disguise the existing forms and find new ones.
"What I came back to is that jazz is a music to be played and not to be intellectualized on.
"We're back to the same forms. With the quartet, we've got to a point where the arrangements are as simple as possible. The function of the arranger is to set up a framework for the players to express themselves — and not only the soloists but the whole ensemble. This is applicable to the big band as well. That's why there are those improvised ensemble passages. I want things to arise as naturally as possible.
"I saw the direction we were all going — getting involved in classical techniques. I find it difficult to concern myself with watered-down versions of what classical composers did 50 years ago.
"From time to time you hear in classical music an idea you can make use of. But just to start using it, to throw it into the music, is no good. You must go through a period of initiation with it, then figure out how to use it."
He said it would be nice to have an experimental orchestra but that he found out the only way he could have one was to pay for it himself.
"It's not enough to write it — it's got to be played and heard," he said. "That's experimentation, and I don't believe that experimental things are meant to be heard by the public. They're for the composers themselves to hear. I don't want everything I write to be heard. I wrote and rehearsed a number of things for the big band that I still haven't used. We should all be not only professionals but also perpetual amateurs."
A classical composer to whose influence Mulligan submitted himself was Paul Hindemith. Yet this was a case of absorption: Mulligan took from Hindemith precisely what he wanted. He explained:
"When I was writing for Gene Krupa and other big bands in the 1940s, I became involved with the problem of naming some of the chords I was writing. And then I came across the Hindemith technical books, not all of which I had the equipment to understand.
"He was criticizing the formal theories of harmony. They make up rules of harmony that are so loaded with exceptions that the rules don't mean anything. Traditional harmony says that a fourth isn't a chord. And that's ridiculous. It is. Hindemith showed that going up the overtone series you cover everything. I was delighted to see this. I voiced chords in fourths—chords for which there was no name, but which implied the sound of some chord for which there was a name.
"A-D-G-C sounds like a C-chord, but it's not. A C-chord is E-G-C. Through that period, when I was reading the Hindemith books, I learned the lack of importance of naming chords."
A musician whose work Mulligan has lately found stimulating and interesting is Ornette Coleman. At first, he said, he was repelled by Coleman's playing.
"But as soon as I forgot about the mechanics of music as I know them, I was very excited by it," he said.
"Ornette is a very talented writer. He writes very clever and nicely constructed pieces for his group. As a matter of fact, I asked him to write a thing for my quartet, which we unfortunately never could play.
"I'm well aware of the pitfalls of extreme freedom in improvisation. Guys can become just as repetitious in their choruses as when they have restrictions.
"In a group, you have to work inside the limitations of the members, and we all have limitations. We tried to play Ornette's piece, but there were too many tempo changes and key changes. So I can't say we gave it a fair try.
"But, on the other hand, I can't say he wrote a piece for my group."
FOR ALL THAT Mulligan may not be actively writing arrangements now, it seems likely that he will resume doing so for his big band. He had planned to take the band out again this spring but has decided to work out the season with the quartet. He has changed booking agencies, and the bookings in the field he wants to work in — the colleges and small campuses — are starting to roll in. The forthcoming tour appeals to him, he said, especially since there's a tour of Japan in the works at the end of it.
"The big band is far from being ancient history," he added. "We have an unreleased album in the can with Verve, and I'm toying with the idea of taking the band out this fall.
"By the way, while we're on the subject, there's a matter I'd like to get straightened out. Martin Williams said in a record review in Down Beat something to the effect that the big band was a financial failure. That is not so. "The band did not lose money. At a time when one bandleader went $60,000 in debt . . . it's quite remarkable that my band didn't lose money. I don't owe a dime because of it, and the arrangements are all paid for when I want to take it out again. But the reasoning seemed to run: I disbanded, didn't I? Why else would I disband?
"I thought by now I'd established a pattern that the critics would understand. My bands last two years, more or less, and then I take time off to digest what I've been doing. Each band is another experience. I may put the same group back together as I've done lately with the quartet, but I like to take those periods off. I've been doing that for 10 years, and as many times as I've said publicly that this is what I do, no one ever seems to believe it.
"You know, there can be a philosophy of bandleading, as there can be a philosophy of anything. But you're accused of being pretentious and conceited if you state a philosophy.
"I've learned from many things. As you know, I did a few acting roles in films, and I learned a great deal from them — from seeing a whole put together.
"But I'm not an actor, and I don't want to be one." This brought him to a peeve:
"It seems that in this country, you're expected to be a specialist. People get used to you in a certain role in life, and they don't like you to step out of it. In other countries, particularly the Latin countries, it doesn't surprise anyone when a man is an attorney and a jazz musician, or a playwright and a painter. People in this country seem to find it hard to understand that a man can have a deep and abiding interest in one art and a lesser, but still real, interest in another."
One of his greatest current pleasures is writing songs to lyrics by actress Judy Holliday for a Broadway show.
"Who knows what I'll eventually be able to do because of this broadening of experience? When, for example, we're doing something with the quartet on television, it helps to understand the production problems and the nature of the work of the people you're dealing with. Some day I’d like to produce such things, not just play in them."
For the moment, though, it's the quartet and probably the big band in the fall. "And I'll probably get around to doing some writing."”
The following video features the Concert Jazz Band performing Gerry’s Bweebida Bobbida as set to the almost anthropomorphic animal photograph of Mark Laita.