Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band – a history

    To complement Frémeaux's recent issue of the CJB in Paris 1960-62, a new reminder of the band's character and chronology

    The Mulligan Concert Jazz Band in Amsterdam in 1960

    In 1959 Metronome published what it called “The All Time All Star Poll”, which was won by Charlie Parker with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan finishing second and third respectively. That same year Mulligan was the subject of an extensive two-part profile in the New Yorker by Nat Hentoff, proving his fame had moved beyond the narrow confines of jazz. Indeed, his long-time drummer Dave Bailey once summed him up for me saying, “Gerry was hotter than a fire-cracker at the time”.

    A year later Mulligan shocked the jazz world and his own extensive fan base by deciding to form a big band. The big-band era was a distant memory by then, having ended at least a decade earlier, but it represented a return to his musical roots. Prior to his small group success as a performer during the 50s he had proved to be a creative big-band arranger for Elliot Lawrence, Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. In 1949 he was the principal writer for Miles Davis’s nonet, contributing no less than seven of the 12 scores recorded by that hugely influential ensemble.

    Leaving New York in 1951, Mulligan settled in Los Angeles, where Kenton recorded several of his innovative charts, including Young Blood, Limelight and Swing House, before he formed his first pianoless quartet with Chet Baker. Time magazine enthusiastically reviewed the group, hinting at “Bach-like counterpoint . . . with a little tailgate polyphony”.

    When Baker left in 1953 Mulligan found ready replacements in Tony Fruscella, Jon Eardley, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer. For a while in the mid-50s he enlarged to a sextet with Zoot Sims, Eardley and Brookmeyer, recording with them some of the finest small-group material from the era. By now a virtuoso soloist he was also a consummate accompanist on the baritone – an instrument ideally suited to the role. Contrapuntal interplay became a defining feature of his groups and this stimulating device – almost totally ignored by the boppers – created some of the most arresting ensemble sounds in small-group jazz.

    In the late 50s Mulligan enjoyed a brief career in Hollywood films, appearing in I Want To Live, The Rat Race and The Subterraneans and if the latter isn’t the worst film ever made it will do until the real thing comes along. He also had a non-playing acting role with his long-time partner the delightful Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing. The money he made with these movies allowed him to organise the CJB, even though $30,000 was needed to get the project off the ground (approximately $500,000 in today’s money). He didn’t want the band to have an “angel” although Norman Granz’s financial input was quite considerable for a time.

    He also didn’t want an all-white band for musical and social reasons, so Blue Mitchell, Charlie Rouse and Dave Bailey were all hired. Mitchell and Rouse didn’t stay too long and Bailey, who was not really a big-band drummer, was soon replaced by Mel Lewis. This eventually led to a controversial moment on the Mike Wallace television show. During a live transmission he said to Gerry: “I see a lot of white faces. How come there are no black faces in the band?” Always ready with a quick retort, Brookmeyer pointed to Lewis, saying: “We’ve got a Jewish drummer. Is that a help?” Gerry’s groups of course had never been chosen according to race. In 1958 he was the only Caucasian in a quartet with Art Farmer, Henry Grimes and Dave Bailey.

    Mel Lewis, whom Connie Kay once described as the greatest of all big-band drummers, had a relaxed, laid-back sense of swing that was an essential element in the success of the CJB. Although he had a wife and family in California and the security of regular studio work there, he was happy commuting to New York to work with Mulligan. In a review of the band’s Birdland performance that Simon Spillett kindly sent me years ago, he was quoted as saying: “The CJB might one day compare to Basie or Duke’s band.” Along with Conte Candoli and Buddy Clark he had been recruited from LA by Brookmeyer – the strawboss – to join an essentially East Coast band that included Don Ferrara, Phil Sunkel, Nick Travis, Jim Reider and Gene Allen, all of whom had previously worked with Mulligan.

    Gene Quill – one of the finest New York-based lead alto and clarinet players – was well versed in Gerry’s music, as was Willie Dennis. Unfortunately Willie’s unique trombone conception was not heard often enough. He excelled at what is called “crossing the grain”, which allowed him to add overtones to any note without actually tonguing when moving the slide quickly between positions. Good examples of his artistry with the CJB can be heard on Bridgehampton Strut, Blueport and especially Chuggin’.

    Bob Donovan and Alan Raph made their recording debuts with the CJB. Bob played second alto and Alan was there because of a change in instrumentation. Gerry had wanted to include a tuba as he had with his tentette but he told me in a JJ interview (May/June 1995): “There was nobody I could count on who could cut the book to go on the road with us.” Raph, who had been working at the Metropolitan Opera for the Bolshoi, was selected on bass trombone and he remained with the CJB, occasionally sending Benny Powell as a sub. When not appearing with the band he often worked with Leopold Stokowski. With his classical background he was obviously a consummate reader but he told me Brookmeyer always gave the definitive reading to any chart: “He could read me under the table.”

    Before opening at Basin Street East in January 1960, the band rehearsed for about three months at Lynn Oliver’s Studio on West 89th Street. Most of the early book, which was based on Gerry’s small group repertoire, was written by Al Cohn, Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer. The leader later told Nat Hentoff: “So far as my own participation is concerned, my stamp is on the band but up to now I’ve been more of a supervisor of the writing than a very active contributor.” This often involved editing some of the arrangements, prompting the witty Mr. Brookmeyer to say on more than one occasion: “We’re having a rehearsal tomorrow – bring your erasers!” Gerry’s reaction to Al Cohn’s Lady Chatterley’s Mother was a little different. Feeling that it needed something extra he asked Al to look at it again. The next week fresh parts were handed out which included a thrilling shout chorus creating what Phil Woods called “The chart of charts”.

    Norman Granz released a single to promote the launching of the new band and Bill Holman’s driving 6/8 arrangement of Ellington’s I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ achieved considerable airplay. Never one to undersell, he took out a whole page spread in Downbeat, announcing “1960 Belongs To Gerry Mulligan” when the band’s first LP became available. The album received five stars in the magazine from Don De Michael, who said: “I feel this is the most important big band in jazz today.”

    The CJB thrilled a packed audience at the Newport Jazz Festival that year during a drenching rainstorm. The event was videotaped by the US Information Service. In September they undertook a 17-city tour of the West and Midwest, including a concert at Santa Monica with guest soloist Zoot Sims. Some of that evening’s performances have been released by Mosaic but two titles have been heavily edited – The Red Door and Go Home.

    Luckily Fresh Sound released the entire concert in 2012 restoring the missing parts. Zoot’s dancing tenor lines add an infectious joie de vivre whenever he is centre stage but his contribution to Apple Core, especially during a thrilling stop-time chorus where he pulls out all the stops, is stunning. Even after all these years I want to give him a standing ovation every time I hear it. It was based on Love Me Or Leave Me and he had introduced it with Mulligan on a 1950 Chubby Jackson date when it was called So What.

    The CJB then embarked on three weeks of concerts in Europe performing in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Trumpeter Nick Travis had a loose tooth right under the mouthpiece throughout the tour but the brilliance of his lead work was unaffected. He had played with the Sauter-Finegan orchestra and when he died in 1964 Gerry and Bill Finegan’s wife established a trust fund to pay for his children’s college education.

    Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village almost became the band’s spiritual home with four standing-room only engagements within a six-month period. Their recording of Blueport from the club climaxes with an exciting series of exchanges between Clark Terry (who had replaced Candoli) and Mulligan which develop into an orgy of humorous quotations. Terry was interviewed in Joe Goldberg’s book Jazz Masters Of The 50s, saying: “Gerry’s a real leader. He respects all the guys and knows how much they contribute and you feel that you’re part of things. He pays well too. He’s not like one leader I worked for who used to say: ‘I want you guys to remember it’s me they’re paying to see’.”

    Judy Holliday had made her debut at the Vanguard in 1938 with Adolph Green and Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein occasionally accompanied them on piano. She was often at the club to hear the CJB, sitting with Don Ferrara’s wife and whistling loudly after solos and at the end of every tune. On one occasion she gave a party for the entire band at her luxurious seven-room apartment in the Dakota Building on Central Park West. It is unknown whether her neighbours Lauren Bacall, Boris Karloff, Jason Robards and Rosemary Clooney attended.

    In 1961 the band recorded several ambitious new pieces by George Russell and Gary McFarland. Wayne Shorter too contributed his Mama G which became part of the repertoire but was not recorded. By now Mulligan and Granz had apparently had a disagreement and it became increasingly difficult to keep the band on the road. He and Brookmeyer went back to the quartet format, which is when Duke Ellington asked Bob to join his orchestra. Brookmeyer told me in a JJ interview (November/ December 1995) that he would have loved to play with Ellington but Duke could not afford to pay him what he was earning with Mulligan.

    The CJB occasionally played Birdland and on a January 1964 booking at the club there had been some significant changes to the personnel. Thad Jones, Phil Woods and Richie Kamuca were the featured soloists and in a Downbeat review Ira Gitler said: “If this band cannot work when it wants to, there is something very wrong with the state of music in the United States.”

    It was clearly a prophetic statement. In December 1964 the CJB played its final engagement at Birdland, on the night the club closed for business. Brookmeyer, somewhat tongue in cheek, summed it up years later: “We closed the original Birdland in grand style – scotch, cocaine and Santa Claus!”

    Complete Verve Sessions – Mosaic MD4-221
    Newport 1960 – Solar Records 4569890
    Zurich 1960 – TCB Records TCB 02122
    Live At The Olympia Paris 1960 (two CDs)– Gambit Records 69249
    Gerry Mulligan + Concert Jazz Band 1960-1962: Live In Paris (three CDs) – Frémeaux FA 5796
    Santa Monica 1960 (two CDs) – Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 710
    Judy Holliday – Gerry Mulligan – DRG Records CDSL 5191
    Provocative Tones – Alto Records AL 717