Arguably the most influential baritone saxophonist in jazz, Gerry Mulligan was also a commanding composer, arranger and bandleader, and played a pivotal role in developing the "cool jazz" sound and the West Coast jazz community. Mulligan extended his unwieldy instrument's vocabulary with his soft tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic brilliance, and established the "bari" sax as a solo instrument in small group settings
Born on April 6, 1927, in Queens, N.Y., Mulligan began playing jazz in high school. He took up tenor saxophone, and by age 17 he was arranging music for WCAU radio in Philadelphia. He soon returned to New York City and studied with innovative big band arrangers such as Bill Finegan, Jimmy Mundy and Sy Oliver.
The sweeping influence of bebop during the 1940s eventually found its way into Mulligan's style. When he was hired as an arranger and saxophonist in drummer Gene Krupa's big band, he began featuring bebop elements in his playing. He later joined pianist Claude Thornhill's band, where he continued to develop his compositional skills.
Mulligan's tenure with Thornhill's group was pivotal: It was then that he decided to play the baritone saxophone exclusively, and he began a solid association with Thornhill's key arranger, Gil Evans. Mulligan's work with Evans planted the seeds for Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool recording sessions. Though initial reactions to the heavily-orchestrated sound was mixed, the recordings are now regarded as some of the most important evolutionary moments in jazz.
Shortly after the Birth of the Cool sessions, Mulligan moved to the West Coast. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, in the early 1950s, he took a writing job for pianist Stan Kenton's orchestra. Although Kenton and Mulligan had a tumultuous working relationship, Mulligan's arrangements proved to be some of Kenton's most memorable recordings.
Mulligan later found work with a piano-less combo that contrasted sharply with the large ensembles he had played in previously. The group consisted of Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker, bassist Carson Smith and drummer Chico Hamilton, and often played at the L.A. jazz club The Haig. Mulligan's piano-less quartet was so successful that the record label Pacific Jazz was launched just to record the band. The group also became a cornerstone for the burgeoning West Coast jazz scene.
The original quartet survived for just one year before Mulligan was arrested on drug charges. Mulligan later put the ensemble back together — with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer replacing Baker, who went on to battle drug addiction for the rest of his tragic life. This effort sparked a lasting and fruitful relationship between Mulligan and Brookmeyer.
Now a certifiable jazz star, Mulligan returned home to New York City and continued actively performing for the remainder of the 1950s. He teamed with with fellow saxophonists Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster in a series of enduring recordings. Toward the end of the 1950s, Mulligan also teamed with Brookmeyer to form the Concert Jazz Band, a small big band modeled in part after the Birth of the Cool sessions.
As the 1960s began, a fatigued Mulligan cut back his recording and performance schedule. By the end of the decade, he was appearing infrequently as a guest soloist in pianist Dave Brubeck's band. Mulligan returned to leading his own bands in 1971 and formed another large ensemble called The Age of Stream, featuring an expanded rhythm section and Mulligan on soprano saxophone.
Gerry Mulligan died in January 1996, at the age of 68.