Gerry Mulligan: A Modern Jazz Artist Who Respected Tradition

When I interviewed Gerry Mulligan in 1981, he told me that his dream was to have a television show patterned after Lawrence Welk’s. An odd aspiration for a modern jazz musician. But, he explained that, for years, he wanted “to do a variety show based around a band. I would have guests— singers and comics—and present things in a grown up way. Probably the most successful musical show on television was The Lawrence Welk Show. I don’t see why a show like that can’t be done based around another kind of music.”

That ambition, never realized, is a clue to Mulligan’s musical philosophy. He exploded on the jazz scene in the early 1950s with his pianoless quartet. The music was considered modern or “cool” jazz, but, as a 1991 review for Amazon.co.uk pointed out, “The quartet’s music was that rare kind of jazz which appeals to everyone, all kinds of jazz fans and a broad section of the general public as well.”

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It’s been said that Mulligan “aimed for 42nd Street and ended up on 52nd Street.” That’s because he would have been just as comfortable composing music for the Broadway stage as he was writing and arranging for jazz bands and orchestras. He respected the history of the music and was as comfortable playing with a Dixieland band as with a bebop or other modern jazz group.

In my book, Jeru’s Journey: The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan (Hal Leonard Books: 2015) pianist Bill Charlap told me Mulligan, “loved the songwriters. He loved the architecture of the songs. Yet, he’s a jazz composer. You hear those influences. You also hear Ellington, of course, and Lester Young in a big way.” Mulligan’s last pianist, Ted Rosenthal, believes Mulligan would have liked to have written a Broadway show. “Melody,” he said, “was clearly paramount to him.” The Broadway side of Mulligan, according to Rosenthal, “really came through in some of his later songs. They were unabashedly very melodic and very romantic, almost much more like Broadway show tunes than jazz tunes. We did a couple of things with Wynton Marsalis, and I would hear Wynton comment, ‘Oh, those melodies,’ kind of like he couldn’t shake them out of his head . . . So, that melodic characteristic in his writing and his playing was indispensable to his style.”

The success of the pianoless quartet—with Mulligan on baritone saxophone, Chet Baker on trumpet, Chico Hamilton on drums, and Bob Whitlock on bass—was based on what Mulligan described as “improvised counterpoint—having the two horns operate over the bass line.” That concept was expanded when Mulligan formed his Concert Jazz Band in 1960, and he explained it as sort of an updating of Dixieland.

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“The contrapuntal idea had always been there,” he said. “It certainly existed in the early days with New Orleans music . . . In Dixieland, you had the clarinet riding on the top; the trumpet playing around the melody, establishing the lead line; and the trombone playing in an accompanying way, establishing the chord relationship that connects it with the rhythm section and with the trumpet/cornet line.

“Ours was different because it was a different kind of rhythmic approach. And the horns that we were relating were different. We didn’t have the clarinet riding high. The trumpet was playing different kinds of melodies. I was still playing the harmony line, but the kinds of lines I was playing were structured differently . . .”

In April 1996, shortly after Mulligan’s death, Down Beat’s John McDonough reminisced about Mulligan’s compulsiveness when it came to sitting in with any style of musical group. “My most vivid recollection of Mulligan,” he wrote, “goes back to a memorable White House jazz concert in 1978. Jazz was still young enough that its entire history could be gathered on one stage. Musicians from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor were there. Some played and some were asked to make introductions. Among the latter was Mulligan, who left his bari in Connecticut. But, as dusk settled over the South Lawn, Lionel Hampton started calling everyone up on stage for the final jam session.

Mulligan suddenly seemed to grow mad with frustration at the thought of sitting this one out. Without his baritone and desperate, he cast about for a horn, any horn. Finally, he managed to persuade the clarinetist of a New Orleans brass band to loan him his instrument, then bounded up on stage just in time to join in ‘Flying Home’ and ‘In the Good Old Summertime’.”

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Composer-conductor-multi-instrumentalist David Amram probably did the best job of putting Mulligan’s music into perspective. “With all the things he did,” Amram said, “he was still able to maintain a sense of the swing era, the dance band era. And Dixieland, that sense of the New Orleans concept of everybody playing together. That almost disappeared when the intellectuals hung onto jazz and said, ‘What’s the next thing going to be?’ Gerry never went for that. In a sense, he was a true old-fashioned artist . . .”


Sanford Josephson is the author of Jeru’s Journey: The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan (Hal Leonard Books: 2015) and Jazz Notes: Interviews Across the Generations (Praeger/ABC-Clio: 2009). He has written jazz articles for several publications ranging from American Way to the New York Daily News. A resident of Manchester, NJ, he is vice president, publicity, for the New Jersey Jazz Society and a contributing editor to Jersey Jazz Magazine.


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