The Birth of Jeru

Back in the mid 1980s, I walked into ‘Alberto’s,’ my barber of choice with a cutting from a copy of The Face magazine. The article had a photograph of the ‘crop’ haircut of saxophonist Gerry Mulligan from back in the mid 1950s. The piece claimed that to get the exact cut that Gerry had, had and for it to look fantastic on you,  you had to get the barber to cut your hair with scissors only, with no clippers involved. So, as I sat down, I said to Alberto ‘do me one of these’ and held up the photo. He smiled at me of course and then laughed out loud as I said I only wanted it cut with scissors. ‘Sure, sure, they know best…’ he kindly said and off he chopped. In the end, I came out looking more like Gerry of the Gerry and his Pacemakers, but Alberto, had had a good go, bless him.

I was going through my first Ivy League phase back then, and to my eye Mulligan looked double smart. Other influences at the time were the actor Steve McQueen, the look of the Suedeheads, and early Style Council, so the crop haircut seemed very appropriate and it was one I adopted for years to come. Mulligan fascinated me on a musical level too, as I had just seen him on a dodgy VHS of an old US TV programme called ‘The Sound of Jazz ‘ from 1957, where the best performers of that era, both old and young played on the show. At one-point Gerry stood up and blew his baritone sax swingingly hard to approving looks and nods from the greats, sitting nearby, such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. It was obvious, he was most certainly accepted.

But hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to his beginning. He was born Gerald Joseph Mulligan in April 1927 in Queens, New York, the youngest of four sons to dad George and mum Louise, both of Irish heritage. The family followed George’s engineering work and they moved to Ohio within a year of Gerry’s birth . The family had a nanny called Lily Rose, with whom the young Gerry formed a strong bond .  She took in black musicians who were struggling to find digs elsewhere and so a young Gerry met many a jazz player at a formative age.

When the family then landed in Michigan, the young Mulligan took up the clarinet in his school orchestra, before picking up on the saxophone, when performing  in dance bands in Philadelphia. He was into arranging musical compositions and aged just 16 he sold some of his work to the house band of the local radio station WCAU. Dropping out of school early, he then worked on the road as arranger for the band of Tommy Tucker, earning the sum of $100 a week.

New York was calling, and he was soon working in the same capacity for drummer Gene Krupa, alongside the great Gil Evans with whom Gerry flat shared in an apartment, which became a well-known hangout for fellow jazzers. In 1948, Miles Davis began putting together a nonet line up (nine piece to you madam) using compositions and arrangements by Mulligan and Evans amongst others, including ‘Jeru’ which was Mulligan’s nickname. The line-up of the band included John Lewis on Piano, Max Roach on drums and Lee Konitz on alto, with Gerry on baritone . This was the ‘Birth of the Cool’ movement and they recorded in early 1949, with recordings gathered up on an the ‘Birth of the Cool’ album, which finally saw the light of day a few years later in 1957.

Shortly after the recording with Miles, Gerry headed West.  In 1952, he began writing for bandleader Stan Kenton and came up with one of his most famous compositions, namely ‘Walking Shoes.’ Mulligan also took part in jam sessions on a Monday evening at Haig’s, a jazz club on Wilshire Boulevard. There he set up a piano-less quartet, with Chico Hamilton on drums, Bob Whitlock on bass and Chet Baker on trumpet. They were recording together soon after. Baker and Mulligan had a telepathic understanding.

‘I had never experienced anything like that before and not really since.’ said Gerry later.

Their gigs sold out and the recordings they made, became significant sellers under the name of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Chet Baker. However, both Baker and Mulligan were addicted to heroin, which resulted in Gerry getting  busted and receiving a 6-month jail sentence. Whilst he was away, and with Stan Getz depping, Chet cashed in on his good looks and oh so gentle voice and became a major solo performer in his own right .

Upon his release from jail, Mulligan continued with his quartet and had a succession of big names work with the band, including Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Annie Ross. He also became a father in 1957 when he and his wife Arlyne, had a son Reed. Gerry was now part of the wider accepted jazz scene and as such, is one of the faces in the wonderful photograph ‘A Great Day In Harlem’ by Art Kane. He was also a featured artist in the film ‘Jazz on a Summers Day’ with footage captured at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, being released a year later.

Later Mulligan and Baker would occasionally play and record together again, but it was always a strained relationship, with Mulligan desperately trying to stay away from the junk, whilst Baker eagerly continued his addiction. Mulligan was also a tough task master, and this not only drove Chet mad, but many of the musicians Mulligan worked with later.

He later realised  this too. ‘I think I managed not to be an adult in just about every imaginable area. A band is most fun when you’re in rehearsals. When you’re working you have no time to enjoy it.’

After the break-up of his marriage, tragedy struck in 1965, when he lost his new partner, the actress, singer and comedienne Judy Holiday, to cancer.

He worked with pianist Dave Brubeck from the late 60s and into the 1970s,  and he worked many times with the legendary bassist Charles Mingus. Throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s, he composed for and played his baritone with, orchestras, including the London Symphony line up.

In June 1984, Mulligan completed and performed his first orchestral commission ‘Entente for Baritone Saxophone and Orchestra’  with the Filarmonia Veneta and in the October, he performed ‘Entente and The Sax Chronicles’ with, once again,  the London Symphony Orchestra.

He later toured a line up called ‘Re-Birth of the Cool’ in the early 1990s, with Art Farmer replacing the recently departed Miles Davis.

Gerry himself died aged 68 in January 1996, following complications after surgery and the effects of liver cancer.

Last word to his pal, Dave Brubeck.

‘With Gerry Mulligan you feel as if you’re listening to the past, present and future of jazz all at one time.’ 

Good legacy that.

The Mumper of SE5

Gerry Mulligan’s ‘Night Lights’ is out now on New Land Records

Available to order here



THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Gary Crowley

We sold out of the 1st print in just 3 days however the 2nd print is in production.

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The Autumn / Winter 2021 collection is now available in our shop

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