Hollywood Cool Jazz
In 1952, a myth was born in Hollywood, and it had nothing to do with the movies. Its birthplace, a little bungalow with a white picket fence and some trees, could have passed for a scene out of Father Knows Best -- except for the neon sign on top that read: THE HAIG DINNER COCKTAILS. And the white banner printed with the words GERRY MULLIGAN QUARTET.Onstage were saxophonist Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker: two white boys, one from New York and the other from Oklahoma, who captured all that was smart and cool about L.A. in the '50s. At a time when modern jazz was too forbidding for the average listener, the Mulligan quartet played music that sounded as clean and breezy as the California landscape. But underneath that wholesome surface, Mulligan and Baker had a bad-boy aura that set off sparks in those pre-James Dean, Eisenhower '50s. More sparks flew between the two partners, who shared an almost psychic musical connection yet grew to loathe each other. According to Chico Hamilton, the group's first drummer: "Some nights we'd be on the bandstand, and Gerry would be facing south and Chet would be facing north. But we made music, man. We didn't play music, we made music."Forty-plus years later, little of the sound known as West Coast jazz has endured. But the Mulligan-Baker "pianoless quartet" lives on: Blue Note has announced a four-CD set of the quartet's entire Pacific Jazz catalogue; a single "best of" disc remains a strong seller. The Baker cult is more ravenous than ever, judging by the success of Young Chet (also Blue Note), a floor-sweeping of unissued scraps from the mid '50s.The 40-or-so standards and Mulligan originals that Baker recorded with the saxophonist all follow a similar pattern. The two players duet in counterpoint, trading off melody and harmony lines, feeding each other the changes a pianist would have supplied. Baker's trumpet sounds agile and pristine, Mulligan's baritone sax has a grainy swagger, but their rapport is strong. And Mulligan let nothing disturb it: he directed drummer Hamilton (and Larry Bunker, his successor) to tiptoe behind them on brushes; bassist Bob Whitlock (later Carson Smith) anchored the harmony with a minimum of notes. The performances end, usually, in 32 bars: tidy three-minute packages of modern jazz, ideal for airplay.Emotionally, the records are reticent. Yet watching the music unfold at the Haig, it was easy to read in all sorts of mystery. Mulligan exuded arrogance and vision: "He thought he had the voice of God in his horn," says actress-singer Joyce Night Tucker, with whom Baker was having his first extramarital affair. Circles showed under the saxophonist's half-closed eyes, while his head nodded sleepily to the beat -- a look that suggested either the brainy hipster or the jazz junkie.Baker stood by his side, angelically handsome but distant, inscrutable. He played with his horn pointed down, avoiding eye contact. The trumpeter still hadn't touched heroin, but his addiction to danger was no secret. He smoked pot almost hourly, at a time when the L.A. narcs were out for blood; drove so fast that his passengers, even Mulligan, feared for their lives; stole a catamaran off Hermosa Beach and sailed 26 miles to Catalina. That craving for quick rewards, with no eye to the future, harked back to Yale, Oklahoma, his hometown, which he denounced as the ultimate dead-end street. The trumpet became his ticket to greater things, including a few weeks with Charlie Parker's West Coast band in the spring of 1952.Around that time Baker met Mulligan at a jam session in the Valley. The saxophonist had just arrived from New York, dead broke but with a plum credit as arranger and player on Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool album. Dick Bock, who booked Mondays at the Haig, hired him to come in with his own group. Mulligan had concocted the idea of a quartet with no piano, where he and another horn player would call the shots harmonically. He remembered Baker's quick reflexes: "It seemed like a direct line between what he could hear and what he could execute."They shared a reverence for melody. Baker resculpted a song in the purest, most caressing tones, while Mulligan kept preaching the importance of line. It shows on their earliest recordings. Baker plays the theme of "Moonlight in Vermont" in long, open phrases, while Mulligan fills the spaces with his own gentle accents. At the bridge he takes over the lead, playing with a bit more ornamentation, while Baker weaves a spare countermelody. Even in a boppish "All the Things You Are," where they discard the original melody entirely, their solos and an intricate counterpoint tag are full of tuneful phrases. "People thought, what a highly arranged group this is," said Mulligan. "We were making it up as we went along."The quartet's Pacific Jazz album covers turned heads, thanks to the cover photos by William Claxton: shots of a winsome Baker, looking more 16 than 22, and a provocatively surly Mulligan. As the group took off, the two players built their own folklore. In an interview with Time magazine, Mulligan named Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bach as his influences. "As early as he can remember," the piece stated, "he was inventing tunes of his own on the piano. 'I hate to play other people's."' Baker talked about quitting music in a couple of years and buying a 50-foot sailboat, where he could "see things I've never seen."With two stars in the same quartet, but only one nominal leader, the ego clash was inevitable. Mulligan complained that Baker cared more about living the life of a California beach bum than he did about his performances. Baker dissed Mulligan's ego in the British jazz journal Melody Maker: "Gerry walks around thinking he's the greatest thing that ever happened in jazz. I've told him what I think of his attitude." The tension peaked in April 1953, when the Los Angeles Mirror blared: HOT LIPS BOPSTER, AIDE AND 2 WIVES JAILED; NAB DOPE. In fact, only Mulligan, the sole junkie of the four, landed in jail. When he got out six months later he tried to restart the group. A bored Baker asked for a raise from $125 to $300 a week. Mulligan laughed in his face, and that was that.He and Baker set off on opposite paths. The saxophonist headed back to New York, where he became as serious as a pedagogue, setting his sights on the concert hall and on a series of ambitious projects, including his sextet with three other horn players (Jon Eardley, Zoot Sims, and Bob Brookmeyer), the Concert Jazz Band, and eventually the touring quartet with Dave Brubeck. Baker sank into his own myth: aping the heroin habit that had killed Charlie Parker and pianist Richard Twardzik, his two great friends and influences, he began a career dominated by the need for quick bread. But his playing certainly got hotter: the ballad album Chet, recorded for Riverside in 1958 with Bill Evans, Philly Joe Jones, and other East Coast giants, burns with languid eroticism. From then on, for all the self-abuse and inconsistency, his playing grew deeper and sparer every year.After 1953, Mulligan and Baker tried a few more collaborations: a mini-package tour in 1955, the 1957 Pacific Jazz album Reunion, a 1974 concert at Carnegie Hall. The magic between them was mostly gone, the friction worse than ever. They had far outgrown their early-'50s formula, with its immaculate musicianship and expressive reticence. But the pose they perfected at the Haig keeps getting reinvented by young white males in other media, who crave that suggestion of dark, hidden depths. Consider Jack Kerouac, the early Warren Beatty, Jim Morrison, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp -- then turn back to the originals, Mulligan and Baker, who made the California nights seem bracingly cool and just a little dangerous.