No baritone saxophonist even achieved such a high degree of visibility—nor played that cumbersome horn with as much grace—as did Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996). Born in New York City and raised in Philadelphia, Mulligan made his initial marks in the jazz world as an arranger, for the Gene Krupa, Elliott Lawrence, and Claude Thornhill orchestras, as well as Miles Davis’s legendary Birth of the Cool sessions, on which the saxophonist also soloed.
Wide fame came to Mulligan for his 1952-1953 quartet featuring trumpeter Chet Baker and its recordings on the Pacific Jazz and Fantasy labels, of which “My Funny Valentine” on Fantasy was an especially strong seller. The group epitomized the then-emerging “cool” sound associated with the West Coast and was unique because it contained no pianist. The idea of not having a piano was, Mulligan recalled, “a happy accident” that occurred because he found the 66-key mini-piano at a Los Angeles club where he’d been booked to be unsuitable. “It worked because Chet was such a lyrical player,” the saxophonist explained. “I played counter lines on the baritone, and it gave the illusion of an ensemble.”
Sidemen in later editions of Mulligan’s combo included valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, and trumpeters Jon Eardley and Art Farmer. Between 1960 and ’63, the no-piano small-group concept was expanded into a unit of 13-15 musicians known as the Concert Jazz Band, though he or Brookmeyer played piano on some selections. The baritone titan made a number of albums on which he was co-billed with other jazz greats, including Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Thelonious Monk, and Ben Webster, and from 1968 to ’72 was a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.