Gerry Mulligan has placed first in countless music polls since the early 1950s, including a 30-year consecutive win in down beat magazine's Readers Poll, but the category perhaps most fitting for his wide-ranging talents has yet to be devised. He would face few serious contemporary contenders for Renaissance Man of Jazz.
Coming up in the 1940s, Mulligan had already been arranging for big band when he joined the Gene Krupa orchestra as a 19-year-old in 1946. Remaining in his native New York until the early 1950s, he was as likely to turn up with his baritone saxophone at Eddie Condon's for an after-hours session with Dixieland musicians as he was to sit in with boppers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He contributed tunes to and performed on Miles Davis' 1950 "Birth of the Cool" album, which virtually launched the Cool Jazz Era, formed his own innovative pianoless quartet upon relocating in California in 1951, and since 1960 has maintained a big band as a vehicle for his compositional efforts, which have been prodigious and widely acclaimed.
He has scored for Broadway, Hollywood and TV, appeared in films and performed as both jazz and classical soloist with symphony orchestras. In November he was awarded Italy's prestigious Viotti Prize, previous recipients of which have included Igor Stravinsky and Artur Rubinstein. And that's a very abbreviated summary of this polymath's accomplishments.
"Last winter I took off from playing and wrote a piece for symphony," says Mulligan, who is at Charlie's through tomorrow with Bill Mays at the piano, Mike Formenak on bass and Richie deRosa at the drums. "Anybody that's got the proper number of instruments can play it, especially if they've got a good sense of rhythm. I'm working on more things to play with symphony, and at the same time I'm writing new things for my big band and trying to come up with new things for the quartet as well."
He puts in long hours at the piano, but tries to "avoid the trap of the keyboard. A lot of times you find yourself restricting yourself to what your fingers can do. When you're dealing with orchestrations and with specific instruments, they're things you're more likely to think about away from the keyboard."
Noting that some composers rely on tape recorders and that "Bach would improvise a piece on the organ and go home and write it down," Mulligan admits failure on this score. And although he says he's interested in computer techniques, he's "only at the curiosity stage." As for beginning any writing project, he says, "I cry a lot and roll around under the piano."