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The Birth of the CoolCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1996
Mulligan, GerryGerry Mulligan was a major figures from the formative era of modern jazz. A contemporary of the jazz generation of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, he was one of the key instigators of the style which came to be known as Cool jazz.
The classic image of Gerry Mulligan dates from the 1950s, when he became the tall, reedy, crew-cut figurehead of the so-called Cool school, bent over the unfashionable baritone sax. Along with trumpeter Chet Baker, Mulligan came to exemplify the Cool ethos, and he returned to the roots of that style with his Re-Birth of the Cool recording project in 1992, echoing the famous collaborative session of 1949-50, which later came to be associated primarily with Miles Davis.
Gerald Joseph Mulligan was born in New York City, but was brought up in Philadelphia. He began as an arranger rather than a player, writing for the Johnny Morrington Radio Band while still a teenager. He was inspired by the example of the great swing band arrangers, and cited the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, and Gil Evans as his first real influences.
He returned to New York in 1946, and began writing for the Claude Thornhill band, where he met Gil Evans and drummer Gene Krupa, who introduced him to the textural possibilities of 20th century classical music. Krupa carried a record player on the road, and loved to play Ravel in particular for the musicians in the band. He found an enthusiastic convert in Mulligan.
If swing remained Mulligan's formative influence, he was quick to understand that the era of that music had already all but gone by the end of the war. Instead, he developed a new direction which enabled him to translate the lessons he had absorbed from the swing bands into a more contemporary idiom, retaining elements of the old style, but transformed into a new voice which was very much his own.
That process took shape in his involvement in the Miles Davis Nonet recordings in 1949 and 1950, sessions which later came to be tagged Birth of the Cool (a title said to have been conjured up by Capitol's Pete Rugolo for the LP release). Mulligan played his trademark baritone, but more significantly, provided both compositions -- "Jeru", "Venus De Milo" and "Rocker" -- and ground-breaking arrangements on "Darn That Dream" and George Wallington's "Godchild".
The recordings interested musicians more than fans at the time, and their elevation to the status of jazz classics came rather later, but it set Mulligan off on a different road to that of the bebop and hard bop innovators like Parker and Gillespie. Cool is an inadequate word for their music, but its clarity, control, swing, and rhythmic and harmonic invention, all less frenetic than in the parallel evolution of bop, proved to be the ideal vehicle for Mulligan.
It came to fruition when he turned his attention to a small group in Los Angeles in 1951, and formed the first of his so-called pianoless quartets, featuring the trumpet of the late Chet Baker. Throughout the decade, he explored the contrapuntal possibilities of the two horns, bass and drums format with a number of subsequent brassmen, including trumpeters Jon Eardley and Art Farmer and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, while also expanding the concept into a sextet, with Zoot Sims on tenor saxophone and a permutation of two brass players.
There is a story that the original concept arose from the lack of a decent piano at The Haig, the Los Angeles club in which the band first played, but Mulligan always maintained that the truth is a little less random. He had already experimented with something similar in New York, and although it had been unsuccessful, he decided to try again.
The concept worked, he claimed, because he was fortunate in finding the right musicians at the right time to establish it, particularly the combination of Baker as the second horn, and drummer Chico Hamilton in the engine room of the band. It became one of the most successful of all jazz groups.
In 1960, Mulligan formed his first big band under his own name, and continued to work on and off in that format throughout the rest of his career. His big bands confirmed the emphasis he put on clarity and discipline as well as musical invention, and if he made his greatest impact with his smaller groups, the large ensemble lent itself well to his particular style of writing and arranging. He went on to encompass orchestral composition as well, albeit less convincingly.
Mulligan himself enjoyed the different challenges of both small group playing, where improvisation was the primary element of the music, and the greater textural possibilites which the big band offered. He believed that composition and improvisation drew on the same functions of the brain, but in opposite ways.
"Improvising," he said, "is what happens when you turn the switch and start along the tracks, it is the joy of making something happen in the moment and being able to steer it as you go, making instant choices, snap, snap, snap. In writing you have to make those very same choices, but once it's down it always has to be the same, and it can be very difficult for a jazz improvisor to sustain those choice-making processes through the slow process of getting it on paper."
His interest in 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 available from the baritone register. Although he also played soprano saxophone and piano, he was best known for his finely burnished, beautiful baritone saxophone sound, and undoubtedly stands as one of the small band of players who have evolved a genuinely distinctive soloist's voice on that instrument.
His enthusiasm for both playing with other musicians and joining in impromptu jam sessions around town provoked one New York jazz writer to describe him as "the perennial guest". Given how closely linked Mulligan was with the cool approach, it is a useful corrective to the typecasting impulse to remember that he also collaborated with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and proved himself adaptable to the demands of even these two idiosyncratic giants.
The stamp of the swing era was never eroded in his music, both as player and writer. He favoured a lightly-textured, flowing style, relying on grace rather than volume, with a special liking for the whispered effects which can be achieved by players who understand the virtues of playing pianissimo, but without any sacrifice of intensity.
If Mulligan made his major discoveries early on, and was content to play the way he knew best in the latter part of his career, it remained an impressive sound, and one largely undiluted by recourse to fashionable electronics. Altough he used a synthesizer for writing, he remained suspicious of their influence, arguing that "people have become a little obsessed by the mechanical toys which are going around now. The technology starts to take over from the music, and I care about what's inside the music, not what's outside."
Despite the effects of a lenghty illness, he continued to play up until shortly before his death. His final performances took place on board the cruise liner QE2 in November, 1995.