Jazz Profiles from NPR
Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996)
Produced by Tim Owens

Gerry Mulligan  

Regarded as the most influential baritone saxophonist in jazz -- perhaps just edging out the great Harry Carney -- Gerry Mulligan was also a commanding composer, arranger and bandleader who played a pivotal role in developing the "cool jazz" sound and the West Coast jazz scene.

Listen to jazz writer Gene Lees, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and drummer Chico Hamilton talk about Gerry Mulligan

Mulligan's technique on baritone sax helped make the big horn a solo instrument in small group settings. After Carney, who played with Duke Ellington's big band, Mulligan became the scene's top "bari" player, extending the unwieldy instrument's vocabulary with his soft tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic brilliance.

Listen to pianist Dave Brubeck, writer Gene Lee, and Mulligan explain his innovations with the baritone sax

Born on April 6, 1927, in Queens, New York, as Gerald Joseph Mulligan, Gerry was awestruck early on by the sounds of big band jazz he heard played on the radio, even then beginning to analyze the mechanics of music.

Mulligan began playing jazz himself in high school. His first choice was the trumpet, but because one wasn't available, he settled for the clarinet. He eventually switched to tenor saxophone, and by age 17, he was arranging music for WCAU radio in Philadelphia. He soon returned to New York City and got in the music mix with innovative arrangers like Bill Finnegan, Gil Evans, Jimmy Munday 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 to incorporate bebop elements into his playing. He later joined pianist Claude Thornhill's band, where he continued to work on his burgeoning writing skills.

Birth of the Cool  

Mulligan's tenure with Thornhill's group was pivotal -- it was there 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' historic Birth of the Cool.

Listen to Mulligan talk about his participation on the Birth of the Cool sessions

The music that came out of these "cool" sessions are now regarded as some of the most important evolutionary moments in jazz. However, the general public's initial reactions towards the heavily orchestrated sound wasn't quite as cool.

Listen to Mulligan and Gene Lees discuss the initial reaction Birth of the Cool received from the general jazz public

After the Birth of the Cool sessions, Mulligan continued to work in New York, but shortly afterwards fled 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 rather tumultuous working relationship, Gerry's arrangements proved to be some of Kenton's most memorable recordings.

Chico Hamilton  

Mulligan later found work with a piano-less ensemble that contrasted sharply with the large bands he'd been playing with. The group consisted of Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker, bassist Carson Smith, and drummer Chico Hamilton (left), often played at L.A. jazz club The Haig.

Listen to Mulligan and Hamilton recall the origins of the group

The Gerry Mulligan piano-less quartet was such a success that the now-famous label, Pacific Jazz, was launched just so it could record the band. The quartet also became a cornerstone for the burgeoning West Coast jazz scene.

The original quartet survived for just a year -- Mulligan was arrested on drug charges, and Baker would battle drug addiction for the rest of his tragic life -- but Mulligan later regrouped the ensemble with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer replacing Baker. This period also sparked a lasting and fruitful relationship between Mulligan and Brookmeyer.

Now a certifiable jazz star, Mulligan returned home to New York City and continued an active career throughout the rest of the 1950s. One of the more enduring moments during this period were several Verve recordings he made with fellow saxophonists Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster.

Bob Brookmeyer  

By the end of the 1950s, Mulligan revisited both the big band setting and cool jazz by assembling an extended version of the Birth of the Cool nonet. With the help of Brookmeyer (left), Mulligan started the Concert Jazz Band.

Listen to Brookmeyer discuss the goals of the Concert Jazz Band

At the beginning of the 1960s, a fatigued Mulligan cut back his recording and performance schedule and by the end of the decade, he was appearing infrequently as a guest soloist in pianist Dave Brubeck's band. But Mulligan did return to leading his own bands in 1971, forming another large ensemble called The Age of Stream, which featured an expanded rhythm section and Mulligan on soprano saxophone.

Mulligan died in January, 1996, at the age of 68.


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Gerry Mulligan's Night Lights

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org