When it comes to the beginnings of west coast jazz (cool jazz, if you prefer), there was probably no more influential pairing than Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Their short-lived quartet gave the jazz world of the early 1950’s an exit ramp from an increasingly hard and edgy bebop scene, where listeners could refresh with music that was like a warm breeze and a cool drink. Even all these decades later it has that same effect.
The world of classic jazz consists of two kinds of players – The first (and most common) are those players who are known purely on their own merit. They may go through periods or a series of ad-hoc associations, but when you name a name – let’s go with Coleman Hawkins or Louis Armstrong as examples – your first thought is of a long series of great performances by that artist. The second are players who almost always make you think of a second player, because together, the two make for the kind of pairing that to name only one seems incomplete.
We have dealt with several of that second kind here. Early examples are Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang, as well as Bix Beiderbecke & Frank Trumbauer, from the pre-swing era of the late 1920’s. Later versions of this Laurel & Hardy syndrome are Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker from the early days of bebop in the second half of the 1940s. Well, today we have another such pairing – Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker from the early 1950’s and the flowering of cool jazz.
We previously touched on Gerry Mulligan who, as a fresh-faced kid, became part of Miles Davis’ 1949-50 nonet. Mulligan’s family moved frequently due to his father’s job but he managed to wring a lot of musical ability out of his high school years when he began to both play and write arrangements for established bands. After writing for several big bands (such as that of Claude Thornhill) it was Mulligan’s writing that got him an invitation to Miles’ Davis’ select group of 1949-50, which would become remembered as a pioneer of the cool jazz or west coast jazz movement of the early 1950’s. And it is hard to forget a tall, lanky redhead playing a baritone sax in the jazz world of that time.
After the Davis group packed it in, Mulligan began a gig writing arrangements for Stan Kenton and performing informally in a New York club called The Hague. It was there that he met a young trumpet player named Chesley (Chet) Baker.
Baker was much less formed as a musician than was Mulligan and played largely by ear, but the two of them soon began playing regularly together. When the piano was taken out of the club to accommodate a new headline act, the two decided on the unusual form of a quartet with no piano, just Mulligan and Baker backed by a bass and drums (Bob Whitlock and the versatile Chico Hamilton). With the two horns doing 100% of the actual music (although I may get some bass and drum players upset by this characterization) the two had their hands full without a piano to help set the chords. But as you will see, they managed quite nicely.
Baker had been in a group led by Charlie Parker for a short time around 1951-52, but found in Mulligan the polar stylistic opposite of Parker. Parker was an acrobat on his alto saxophone and played frenetic rips and runs where a thousand notes somehow worked themselves out just the way they were supposed to. Mulligan’s style was more of an old-school lyricism that was as reminiscent of the great Lester Young as it was of anyone. Baker, as it turns out, had a style that meshed almost perfectly with that of his new bandmate. The two developed a style in which each weaved around the other in a way that almost anticipated where the other would go in his playing. Mulligan later said that he never had that kind of musical fit with anyone else during his long career.
We have two samples of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet to give you a feel for what they were about. Both of these selections were on the group’s debut record, a ten inch LP that was recorded between August and October of 1952 and released later that year by the Pacific Jazz label. This record, incidentally, came very early in the era when magnetic tape replaced individually cut discs as a recording medium. In fact, not every selection was recorded in an actual studio. Some (including our second sample) were actually recorded in the producer’s home – such was the miracle of the newfangled reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The first is a Mulligan composition called Walkin’ Shoes. Mulligan may be the player most associated with the use of a baritone saxophone in jazz. I personally cannot get enough baritone sax in my life, so almost anything by Gerry Mulligan scratches me where I itch. Much of the theme for this track is the then-common way of the saxophone and trumpet playing in unison but Mulligan’s instrument gives that sound a unique flavor. And note how every little slide or bend in a note is played as one, to the point where it is sometimes difficult for listeners to separate the two instruments. The pace is relaxed and nobody is in a hurry, but the song has always seemed to me much shorter than its 3:13 on the clock. I guess time flies when you’re having fun. We must not ignore Baker’s mellow trumpet, which was so different from the hard-charging young players in New York at that time.
Next up is another of the groups most famous recordings, Bernie’s Tune. It is here that the tempo gets a little faster and the solos become the featured attraction. Listen to the way the two horn players riff in a kind of counterpoint with one another, all because the two “got” each other in a way that rarely happens. Unfortunately, the magic would not last.
In what may have been one of the most momentous arrests in history, Mulligan was nabbed on a drug charge in 1953 and spent almost a year on the “Sheriff’s Honor Farm”. Baker, left at loose ends, put together his own group, which parlayed his soft, gentle horn, his even gentler voice and his Hollywood good looks into a solo career that blossomed for the next several years. After his release, Mulligan tried to re-assemble the quartet. But Baker’s newfound stardom (however temporary) made the old arrangement impractical, causing him to turn down a re-unification.
Mulligan went on to a long career of small groups, the occasional big band, and even some orchestral work in addition to his always-good musical writing. He eventually kicked his drug habit and continued to perform until his death in 1996 at the age of 68, following complications from a knee surgery – which got him out of the suffering that would have gone along with the liver cancer which had also gotten ahold of him.
Baker’s later career was not as rosy. His heroine addiction became a lifelong problem which made for a scattered and messy life, including getting some teeth broken during a beating he suffered in the mid 1960’s – one which hurt his ability to pay trumpet until he was forced to develop a new technique following being fitted for dentures. In 1988 Baker was found dead on a sidewalk below the window of an Amsterdam hotel room that contained heroine and cocaine, making one more name on that long list of jazzmen whose lives were ruined by substance abuse. He was 58 years old.
Maybe these guys are only half of one of those ham & eggs sets of players because each had long careers that did not involve the other. But like another pairing of Lester Young and Billie Holiday from fifteen years earlier, everybody who listens to Mulligan or Baker will soon end up right back here in that brief period where each player seemed to complete the other in a way that begs you to listen again and again. Soooo, pardon me while I go do just that.
Both musical selections from the YouTube page for Gerry Mulligan as supplied by Universal Music Group
All photos are from commercially sold album cover art or from promotional photographs without copyright markings and thus subject to non-commercial and educational use.