Even though baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is a native of New York City and has lived in Darien, Conn., for close to 20 years, when he travels to Southern California, as he does this weekend for two performances, it's always a little like going home.
Mulligan first came to California in 1951 at the tender age of 23. He had written arrangements for the big bands of Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill and served as composer, arranger and saxophonist on trumpeter Miles Davis' revolutionary "Birth of the Cool" sessions. At that time, his resume was in good shape but his bankbook was, like his physique, mighty slim.
In California, though, Mulligan began to bloom. (He appears Friday with his quartet at the Hyatt Newporter Resort in Newport Beach, and Saturday with an 11-piece band at the John Anson Ford Theater in Hollywood.)
He wrote a series of originals for the Stan Kenton band that drew favor from the leader and his listeners and influenced such soon-to-be-composing-greats as Bill Holman. He also recorded a 10-piece band that revealed traces of the Davis ensemble.
But nothing succeeded for Mulligan as did the piano-less quartet he formed with then-unknown trumpeter Chet Baker in the fall of 1952. Mulligan thought that eliminating the piano opened up a world of new possibilities for creativity within a small ensemble.
Heard in a series of engagements at the Haig nightclub in L.A.'s mid-Wilshire district and on recordings that put the fledgling Pacific Jazz Records label on the map, Mulligan's band became a national sensation--he was written up in Time magazine in 1953--and ushered in a cool, sophisticated variety of jazz that was to be known as "The West Coast Sound." Eventually, Mulligan became an international jazz superstar.
Mulligan gives a lot of credit for the band's response to the musical connection he had with Baker, with whom he played but a single year and whose life, marked by periods of drug addiction, ended in 1988.
"Between us, we had a conception that enabled us to sound like an ensemble and not just two horns playing counterpoint," Mulligan said in a recent phone interview from Chicago, where he was serving as artistic director of the "Jazz in June" segment of the summer-long Ravinia Festival, held in Highland Park, Ill.
"And with the bass, we had sometimes three melody instruments, and three that could also play the harmony."
He also pointed to the Davis sessions as being central to the style of the Baker quartet. The music was characterized by a light, airy feeling while still advocating a hard swinging drive, and it featured such greats as trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, drummers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist John Lewis.
"There was a clarity to the Miles sessions, and a clarity to the quartet," he said. Has that extended to the rest of his work? "God, I hope so," he quipped.
Another aspect of his experience with Davis that grew to fruition with his quartet was that Mulligan, who previously had focused on arranging and composing, now was headed toward becoming a top improviser.
"I think I became a soloist out of self-protection, because if I wanted to play in that ensemble, I had to solo," he said. "It was like chamber music where you are putting together a group of all soloists. Those were the requirements of the music, whereas in a symphony or big band, you submerge yourself into the section."
Mulligan's career has taken a long and winding road since those '50s salad days. He has led quartets that have included trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Art Farmer and pianists Bill Mays and Ted Rosenthal. The latter will appear with him at the Hyatt, as will bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Ron Vincent.
Still bitten by the large ensemble bug, Mulligan has, since 1960, occasionally toured and recorded with his Concert Jazz Band. He's also been a featured artist at jazz festivals worldwide, and has been a part of Dave Brubeck's quartet.
In recent years, the saxophonist, who also plays soprano, has made numerous appearances with orchestras. These range from playing the soprano sax solo part in Ravel's "Bolero" with the New York Philharmonic to performing "The Sax Chronicles," a group of Mulligan compositions arranged in classical style by Canadian Harry Freedman, with such ensembles as the London and Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras.
Amid all this activity, Mulligan has long wanted to re-investigate the "Birth of the Cool" material, originally released on the Capitol label and available as a CD reissue. He had been an integral part of the sessions, having composed three originals and arranged two other selections. Last summer, Mulligan finally found a spot in his schedule to undertake the project. The results can be heard on "Re-Birth of the Cool," recorded earlier this year by Mulligan and 10 associates and just released by GRP Records.