The Stern, Cheeky Genius of Gerry Mulligan

“The sound that Gerry Mulligan produced in the early ’50s, with the quintet that featured Chet Baker, is well known now, but you can imagine hearing it for the first time back then. The music had humor and drive, and made me smile whenever I heard it. I was so excited that I contacted Harper’s Bazaar to photograph a recording session in Los Angeles for them.

Profile of Mulligan's rumbling baritone sax in action

Profile of Mulligan’s rumbling baritone sax in action, 1953

It was really a treat to be there. Gerry was in complete control. He knew exactly what he wanted; he heard his arrangements in his head. He sat at the piano, playing out chords for his sidemen, stopping them midstream when it didn’t please him. Mulligan’s resonating baritone sax rumbled like rude words said in Italian, something a little like his own temperament.

I once saw the group perform at The Haig in Los Angeles. If the patrons were not paying attention, as was the case the night I was there, he simply stopped the music, stood with his big hands folded over the sax, and waited. Saying nothing, just standing there. When the noisy ones noticed that the music had stopped, they knew why, for he was looking right at them. Then he would resume, having gotten their attention.”

 

Chet Baker, Before the World Weighed Him Down

“In person, Chet Baker was quiet, and seemed rather shy. At least that’s what I felt when I covered one of his first recording sessions. His playing then was coming from somewhere inside of him, and his music stopped me short. I found it very hard to concentrate with the plaintive sound of his trumpet in my ear. Looking around the recording studio, it seemed to also touch everyone there. It was the only recording session that I’ve photographed where the other musicians applauded after a take. It was on My Funny Valentine.

As I was leaving I saw him sitting alone after the session was over. Most of the other musicians had left, and I had put away my cameras and was about to leave. The image of him sitting there like a lost child seemed to sum up my first impression about this talented young man from Oklahoma… alone within himself.

Chet’s life was one self-inflicted wound after another, and to see that haunted face in his later years was tragic. Here is the way I like to remember him, before the world weighed him down.”