Nov 24, 2014
Forty years ago today, two old friends reunited on stage in New York’s Carnegie Hall for a memorable evening of music. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker had been instrumental in changing the world of jazz together in 1952 with a new approach that helped create the West Coast Cool Jazz Sound:
While arranging for (Stan)Kenton, Mulligan began performing on off-nights at The Haig, a small jazz club on Wilshire Boulevard at Kenmore Street. During the Monday night jam sessions, a young trumpeter named Chet Baker began sitting in with Mulligan. Mulligan and Baker began recording together, although they were unsatisfied with the results. Around that time, vibraphonist Red Norvo's trio began headlining at The Haig, thus leaving no need to keep the grand piano that had been brought in for Erroll Garner's stay at the club.
Faced with a dilemma of what to do for a rhythm section, Mulligan decided to build on earlier experiments and perform as a pianoless quartet with Baker on trumpet, Bob Whitlock on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums (later Mulligan himself would occasionally double on piano). Baker's melodic style fit well with Mulligan's, leading them to create improvised contrapuntal textures free from the rigid confines of a piano-enforced chordal structure. While novel at the time in sound and style, this ethos of contrapuntal group improvisation hearkened back to the formative days of jazz. Despite their very different backgrounds, Mulligan a classically-trained New Yorker and Baker from Oklahoma and a much more instinctive player, they had an almost psychic rapport and Mulligan later remarked that, "I had never experienced anything like that before and not really since." Their dates at the Haig became sell-outs and the recordings they made in the fall of 1952 became major sellers that led to significant acclaim for Mulligan and Baker.
Mulligan’s drug arrest in 1953 broke up the band, and Baker became the “Great White Hope” of jazz. They only played together for one major performance after the breakup, at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, and recorded sporadically together over the years.
On November 24, 1974, CTI Records president Creed Taylor brought the pair together at Carnegie Hall in New York City. By accounts, the reunion was contentious. Mulligan had refused to reunite the pianoless quartet, so Taylor supplied a larger CTI backing group (Ron Carter (bass); John Scofield (guitar); Harvey Mason (drums); Ed Byrne (trombone); Bob James (keyboards) and Dave Samuels (vibes and percussion)). Mulligan ‘s tunes dominated the set list (and hence the future royalties), but Baker drew the biggest applause of his night for his solo on “My Funny Valentine.”
Baker’s his best days were far behind him that night, and he argued both onstage and off with his side men. The music is top notch however, perhaps because young Turks like Scofield and James pushed the pair to try new approaches to old tunes. Mulligan and Baker never played together again.
Baker was gone to Europe shortly thereafter, and never returned, dying in a drug-fueled accidental fall in 1988. He was 58 years old. Mulligan spent much of the next two decades writing and arranging orchestral and large-group jazz pieces. In 1991 he released Re-Birth of the Cool, revisiting his seminal 1949 recordings with the original charts. He died in 1996 from complications after knee surgery at the age of 68.