If Miles Davis ('45, trumpet) can be said to have birthed the “cool school” of jazz, baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan was among its important midwives. Easily one the most famous baritone sax players in jazz history, Mulligan spent much of his career in demand as a bandleader and soloist, roles that often obscured his immense skills as a composer and arranger. He contributed three compositions (and orchestrated three others) to Davis's highly influential Birth of the Cool nonet sessions in 1949–50, filling out a lineup of like-minded jazz modernists that also included Gil Evans, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, and the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis and Kenny Clarke. On October 14, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra will address the baritonist's legacy as a composer-arranger with a namesake program called The Music of Gerry Mulligan.
Bill Charlap, the piano star and former Mulligan sideman who now runs the jazz program at William Paterson College in New Jersey, will be the evening's guest conductor. Reached recently via Skype, Charlap recounted the roundabout tale of Mulligan's rise to stardom with Davis and the nascent beboppers. “You have to remember that they were all hanging out in Gil Evans's apartment on West 55th Street, thinking about Stravinsky, Debussy, Ellington, Charlie Parker, and all kinds of other stuff,” Charlap said. “It's somewhat ironic that those sessions, which were so important to Gerry's compositional reputation, also launched his career as a baritone saxist in earnest. What made Gerry's playing distinctive is that he played the baritone in the cello range with the lyricism of [tenor sax icon] Lester Young.
“But Gerry came on the scene in the '40s as an arranger who could play somewhat anonymously in the reed sections of bands,” Charlap continued. “He'd done charts for the orchestras of Claude Thornhill—where he met Gil Evans—and Gene Krupa, and [he] both wrote and played alto with another popular band of the time led by Elliot Lawrence. Gerry used to joke that as a composer-arranger he was initially shooting for work on 42nd Street—in a more Broadway type situation—but overshot and ended up on 52nd Street with Miles, Gil, and the beboppers.”
The Juilliard concert, however, will focus on the more orchestral facets of Mulligan’s work rather than the Davis nonet. “We’ve got five reeds, five trumpets, five trombones, and rhythm section, ” Charlap explained. Mulligan's rearrangement of the Birth of the Cool;standard “Jeru” is on the agenda, as are two compositions, “Young Blood” and “Walkin' Shoes,” from the next phase of Mulligan's career, when he took the sound of 52nd Street west;settling in Los Angeles as an arranger-instrumentalist working for contrapuntal orchestra stylist Stan Kenton. Wielding a pen by day and a baritone by night, Mulligan registered the small-group triumph that would make him an international star. “At a club called the Haig, he hired [trumpeter] Chet Baker, [drummer] Chico Hamilton, and a bassist for a gig opposite the vibra-phonist Red Norvo's band,” Charlap said. “The club didn't have a piano that week; instead of finding one, Mulligan just had himself and the other chordal instruments improvise in three-part counterpoint, sort of like a Bach Sinfonia. Voilà!—we have the ‘pianoless quartet,' as it was called. [At Juilliard], we're doing a later arrangement of ‘Line for Lyons,' one of the pieces that Gerry and Chet made famous.”
Mulligan led ensembles of various sizes for the rest of his life, but the Concert Jazz Band he started at the turn of the '60s in collaboration with trombonist-arranger Bob Brookmeyer has direct links to a working group of the present day. “We're doing a tune called ‘Bweebida Bobbida' from that period,” Charlap said and then expounded on the connection. “The Concert Band with& Mel Lewis on drums was the seminal creative force that ultimately turned into the Monday-night orchestra that still plays every single week at the Village Vanguard. That's some run, and it's a signification of how broad Gerry's legacy is. As I pull all these threads together to create as wide a range of Gerry as a writer, composer, and orchestrator as possible, I'm realizing that he's been so prolific that it's all actually nothing but a snapshot.”