Sep 27, 2023

Book Excerpt: The birth of Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet

The vital ingredient of what would become the Mulligan "pianoless" quartet came about after Erroll Garner finished his run as the headliner at the Haig. The grand piano was put into storage, because the next band to appear there was the trio of vibraphonist Red Norvo, who worked with just guitar and bass. Owner John Bennett offered Mulligan a small upright spinet for the jam sessions, but Mulligan refused. Now was his opportunity to put into practice the idea he had tried in New York of a band with no chordal instrument. And it would also change Monday nights at the Haig from a somewhat random jam session to a group with regular personnel. This would be Mulligan, Baker, bassist Bob Whitlock and drummer Chico Hamilton. Mulligan later observed:

I didn't want to play on a little old tiny upright piano, and I’d heard and played around Los Angeles sessions with Chet Baker, and Chico Hamilton was playing with a little group that Charlie Barnet had, so it gradually jelled and we got it together, and musically it worked out very well. The thing with Chet was really incredible, because some of the things that we would do that were…totally improvised, not worked out ahead of time at all, were seamless in the finished quality that we wound up doing. I never played with anybody, including Brookmeyer, where we had that kind of rapport.

The band rehearsed regularly before appearing in public. Some of these practice sessions were outdoors on the verandah at Baker's home in Lynwood, just East of Watts, where he and his girlfriend Charlene lived with her parents, but for the most part the quartet met at Chico Hamilton's house. Hamilton said:

Gerry tells me one day, "I’m gonna put a group together." So he comes up with Chet. I’d seen Chet when he was with Bird, and he came over with Chet and Bob Whitlock and we met right in my house. Right in my living room. He didn't want me to use a bass drum. So I used the snare and a sock. And one thing I was very proficient at, and could do exceedingly well, was brush. In fact all the good gigs I had gotten was because I could brush well. Playing for Lady, playing for Lena, all the singers. So we started off with the first rehearsal, right there. As a matter of fact the first tune we did was "Bernie's Tune." That was also the first tune we recorded for Pacific Jazz. We did that up in Phil Turetsky's living room. Not in a studio – the living room. And as you know, it became a record label. Pacific Jazz.

In the quartet's recording of "Bernie's Tune," a slightly bigger drum set can be heard than just the snare drum and sock cymbal mentioned by Hamilton, but after the first rehearsals, Mulligan remained adamant that he wanted something less than the conventional full kit that the drummer had been using with Charlie Barnet. Yet Hamilton knew he needed some form of bass drum, not least because he needed to keep using his right foot, which had stayed idle during the band's practice sessions. In the end he found a solution that worked:

I told Gerry, "I want to bring in a bass drum, cos I’m losing my foot." He didn't dig that at all. So I bought a little 16-inch tom-tom, and I converted it into a bass drum. So I had the snare and the sock and this bass drum. No cymbals, just that, and man, it worked! The minute I started kicking Gerry in the ass with it, he dug it — as you can tell on all those first recordings, with the bass drum work that I did, double kicking, and things like that, making the accents with it.

For Hamilton, it was not just his bespoke small bass drum that was important (although when I spoke to him 50 years later, he still owned it), but the snare. By 1952, Chico had the most high profile playing career of any of the musicians in the band, having toured widely (including visiting Britain) with Lena Horne, and worked with Lionel Hampton, as well as recording with Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. He was from a very different background from the three white players in the band, having grown up in the African American community in Los Angeles. He said:

The snare drum was the first drum that I ever owned. I bought that drum when I was in junior high school, by shining shoes. As a kid I had a shoe shine box, and I made myself enough money to buy myself this great big 12-inch snare drum. It was a Leedy. They don't make them any more. It was a classic. It had a dynamite sound, and resonance. You actually could hear the snares well, and feel it in a band. It was a good-sounding drum.

If Hamilton was on the receiving end of Mulligan's strictures as to what he wanted, so too was 21-year-old Bob Whitlock, just starting his career as a freelance bassist. He was sometimes forbidden to leave the rehearsals until he had proven that he had memorized his parts in the arranged ensemble sections of the music. But the hard work paid off.

The sound of this quartet playing live at the Haig on the five Mondays prior to the line-up's first recording session at Phil Turetsky's house on Saturday August 16, 1952, convinced Richard Bock that he had a commercially viable product on his hands. This seemed to be the right moment to set up his own record company to record and release the group's music. He and his business partner, the drummer (and drum shop owner) Richard Harte, borrowed the money ($2,000 each) to set up a new firm, and according to Bock: "We recorded the memorable ‘Bernie's Tune’ and ‘Lullaby of the Leaves.’ That record, released as a single in the fall of 1952, put Pacific Jazz in business. The quartet rapidly became a West Coast sensation."

"Lullaby of the Leaves" had been a staple of the jazz repertoire since Art Tatum's 1941 recording. Mulligan's opening statement of the familiar theme has subtle underpinnings from Baker, and the melody switches between the horns, notably after a brief double time episode, when Mulligan produces a fine countermelody to Baker's lead. Later that year a syndicated record review newspaper column gave it four stars as one of the year's "Commercial Best Records."

Fine and relaxed as this piece is, the number that captured the public imagination, and set a template for much of the quartet's future work was "Bernie's Tune," written by a little-known Washington D.C.-based pianist, Bernie Miller, who had died in 1945. It had found its way into the library for Boyd Raeburn's Orchestra, which made a transcription disc during the AFM record ban in 1944, under the title "Bobby Socks," giving the piece a somewhat Kenton-esque makeover, yet it was otherwise not well-known. Mulligan's record immediately grabs the listener's attention, the catchy opening theme played by the two horns in close harmony being instantly memorable, whereas the solo sequence highlights the group's originality.

Although by 1952 some Jazz at the Philharmonic performers — notably Roy Eldridge — would ask the rhythm section to "stroll" for a chorus or two, in other words, to continue with just bass and drums as the piano dropped out, the idea of an entire medium tempo jazz performance with no explicitly stated harmonic background was highly unusual. The piece finishes with a perfect example of the kind of spontaneous empathy that Mulligan and Baker had. As the trumpet solo ends, Mulligan signals a riff pattern, and immediately he and Baker play the pattern together, but leaving occasional space to create a sense of call-and-response. It is possible that they had rehearsed this, but given the way the cue is picked up, it sounds as if this is just an entirely natural part of the way that the two musicians worked together.

Only a couple of weeks after the quartet's debut session for the newly founded Pacific Jazz label, and before the 78 rpm record's release, the band traveled up to San Francisco, where in early September the group appeared opposite Dave Brubeck's quartet. The pianist was something of a talent scout for the Bay Area's Fantasy record company, and the gossip among musicians had alerted him to the chemistry between the trumpeter and baritone player who had been appearing at the Haig. Brubeck recalled:

I was playing at the Black Hawk in San Francisco and Gerry played one night a week at a club in Hollywood, and I liked what I heard about his group. So I said to Gerry why don't you come to where I’m kinda the house band in San Francisco — and then I got him to record on Fantasy records. My job with that record company was to get good people, and I got Gerry.

From The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets by Alyn Shipton. Copyright © 2023 by Alyn Shipton and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.