By the end of World War II, jazz musicians across the board were embracing the bebop innovations that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had shocked the music world with only a few years before. Popular swing big bands dipped their toes into these waters for novelty tunes like Gene Krupa’s Calling Dr. Gillespie (cleverly referring to both Dizzy and Dr. Kildare’s mentor from the movies).
A young white tenor saxophonist (soon to switch to baritone sax) wrote a few arrangements for Krupa at this time, most notably Disc Jockey Jump, which differed greatly from the Parker/Gillespie approach, but nevertheless drew on bebop melodic, harmonic and rhythmic characteristics.
Although composer/arranger Gerry Mulligan was traveling in the New York bebop scene, he never forsook his original love of Lester Young. Young had been dubbed Prez by Billie Holiday a decade before. His groundbreaking solos with the Old Testament Basie band were perhaps the most powerful inspirations for the next generation of jazz musicians. If he didn’t invent cool, he popularized the term while embodying its aesthetic.
Another white big band under the leadership of Woody Herman changed its name from The Band that Plays the Blues to Woody Herman and his Herd, and then a year later, Woody Herman and the Second Herd. Arrangers Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns supplied numerous forward-looking charts to accommodate the modernistic young soloists among its ranks.
The defining characteristic of the Second Herd was the reformation of its sax section. They went from the standard 5-man section of 2 altos, 2 tenors and a bari to 3 tenors and a bari. Jimmy Giuffre’s chart, Four Brothers, gave the section its moniker. Originally tenor saxophonists Herbie Stewart, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and baritonist Serge Chaloff, Stewart was replaced by Al Cohn. Although each had his own distinctive approach, they all shared a common primary influence—Lester Young.
Lester was, in a sense, the Moses of jazz; he led his people to bebop, but he couldn’t enter that territory himself. In the late 1940s and as late as the ’60s, there were a number of transitional players who were more sophisticated than the swing players, but couldn’t make the break to bebop. Among them were Nat Cole, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Don Byas, and of course Prez and his disciples, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan.
When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Getz and Mulligan were household names. Gerry had even been on the cover of TIME magazine. He not only acted in a few movies, but married a couple of movie stars. After 15 years as a jazz headliner, Getz was first to jump on the Bossa Nova and bring it from Brazil to American audiences, and in so doing, made himself a bona fide pop star.
Al and Zoot were less driven to stardom. They were happiest just playing. They remained life-long best friends, working together in a quintet setting on and off until their deaths. Their tenor chases first recorded with Woody’s band became their trademark. While both were ubiquitous in the New York recording and jazz scene, Zoot traveled more (picking up rhythm sections wherever he went), while Al’s playing time was limited by the constant demand for his arranging skills.
Al was not only one of the fastest writers on the scene, but supremely musical in seemingly every kind of musical situation. He wrote thousands of arrangements for hundreds of bands and singers. When other arrangers needed help, Al would jump in at the last minute and write the needed arrangements. Manny Albam once told me that he and his buddies used to watch the Grammies on TV to see which of Al’s ghosted won the awards.
In 1960 Mulligan formed his 13-piece Concert Jazz Band. The repertoire consisted primarily of standards, blues and new big band arrangements of Mulligan’s small group originals. Gerry said that he felt overwhelmed by his band-leading duties, so he only contributed a few charts. Most of the arranging went to Bob Brookmeyer, with contributions from Johnny Mandel, Al Cohn, Bill Holman and Gary McFarland.
Each of these four saxophonists had their strengths. Zoot had uncanny time. Every note he played was swinging. Stan’s saxophone technique and tone were unmatched. Al was at once musical and creative whether with a pencil or tenor in his hands. He was known in the industry as Mr. Music. Gerry was the ultimate romantic. He brought unknown expression to a much-neglected instrument and made it the cello of the jazz orchestra.
In the late ’70s I shared an apartment on 23rd Street with Andy LaVerne, who was Getz’s pianist at that time. Stan used to rehearse his quartet in our living room. I got to do some arranging for him. He used to talk about wanting to lead a big band. I waited for this to happen, but it never came to fruition. I expect that his management explained how this would be financial suicide.
In the meantime, I contemplated what approach I would take if I should be asked to write for such a group. Using Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band as an example, I dreamed of expanding Stan’s small group recordings for the larger group, starting with Stan’s classic 1950s records that I grew up listening to.
It’s now 40 years later, and all four of my early saxophone heroes are long gone, but their music still reverberates within my soul. I decided to create a concert’s-worth of music for my big band based on their small group recordings. I played with Mulligan’s reformation of the Concert Jazz Band briefly in 1978, but never got to write for it. My initial idea was that it might be fun to go after the aesthetic of this music.
Although I’m mostly known as an Ellingtonian, and I can never avoid my love of the Maestro’s music, this project focuses on Lester’s cool aesthetic through the music of his musical children and me (his musical grandchild). The music is at once tuneful and swinging. Gerry and I used to talk about his concept for the Concert Jazz Band. He wanted to keep the intimacy of his small groups, but have the counterpoint and orchestral colors that only a big band can supply.
This begs the question that often arises when discussing jazz: Can we address this music with sincerity and authenticity while expressing our modern selves? I’m not about to present a collection of museum pieces. We approach each arrangement with the freshness of new music that asks us to do as screenwriter William Goldman said. “All the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can, is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to re-illuminate those truths in a hopefully different way.” I’ll add two words: with love.