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Collection The Gerry Mulligan Collection

On Counterpoint

[Mulligan and Art Farmer]. Franca R. Mulligan, photographer, [n.d.]. The Gerry Mulligan Collection, Performing Arts Reading Room, The Library of Congress .

Aware of the oversimplifications and distortions that have arisen in the lore surrounding the quartet, Gerry discusses some of the ideas about counterpoint that were in the air at the time he arrived on the West Coast.

Edited Transcript

There was a kind of a general movement to do more obvious things with counterpoint. The contrapuntal idea had always been there. It existed in the early days, especially with New Orleans music, with each one of the lines, each one of the instruments, having its own function in the ensemble, so they’re playing separate lines, and that’s counterpoint. And what we were doing was merely another application of the functions of the instruments. In the Dixieland kind of thing you had the clarinet riding on the top, embellishing chords, the trumpet playing around the melody so he's establishing the lead line, and the trombone playing in an accompanying way that's establishing a chord relationship that connects it with the rhythm section and with the trumpet or cornet line.

[Portrait of Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Tricky Sam Nanton(?), Johnny Hodges(?), Ben Webster(?), Otto Toby Hardwick(e), Harry Carney, Rex William Stewart, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, Fred Guy(?), and Sonny Greer, Howard Theater, Washington, D.C., early 1940]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Ours was different because it was a different kind of rhythmic approach, and the horns we were combining were different. We did not have the clarinet riding high. It was another function. The trumpet was playing different kinds of melody. He's still playing the lead line, so that function remains the same. I was still playing the harmony line in place of the trombone, but the kinds of lines I was playing were structured differently because the rhythm was different. We weren't playing Dixieland two-beat, we were playing a much smoother kind of four-beat.

My whole job, because I had left the piano off, was to establish always the sound of the chord progression that was moving through the piece, and to do that with my harmony line in relation to the bass line which always had to be able to state something basic about the way the rhythm line moved. You didn't have to just play roots of the chords so that you always had the root on the bottom, but you could move through them in such a way that the implication of the chord was always there, so that even though it wasn't obvious to the ear and it wasn't spelled out, the impression was there. And that's what we were doing–giving the impression of the chord progression because of the ways that we were touching on those notes. So we were even doing the same kinds of relationships as far as the counterpoint was concerned; what we were doing was changing the actual function of those lines.

[Portrait of Count Basie, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

So the counterpoint had always been there, and there was this period in writing for the big band where (in fact this was something I was talking to Bill Holman about the other day) a lot of us were working from different directions: ways of making a smoother kind of counterpoint, and making counterpoint a more important element in band writing instead of it being up and down ensemble stuff. Now Duke's writing incorporated a lot of contrapuntal ideas, because he didn't write so much straight up and down ensemble things you associate with most of the bands or Count Basie, especially Count's later bands. There was more counterpoint in Count's earlier bands, like a lot of the unison saxophones against the punctuation of the brass, or the unison sax as the punctuation to the trumpets, and the trombones doing another function. That's all contrapuntal. So, Bill was saying that this was why he, and I think Graettinger too, were taken with the first arrangements that I brought in to Kenton’s band. Bill said he had already been leaning in that direction, trying to open up these contrapuntal ways of approaching it. And so when I brought my things in, he said he really liked what I had done because I had achieved that counterpoint in these charts.

So it was probably more talk about counterpoint at that point. There was also the problem that when journalists write about something they write about it in a certain way. The quartet was a new thing, so they harped on the fact it had no piano, and harped on the fact of the counterpoint. Well, neither of these ideas was necessarily an original idea of mine. It wasn't as if nobody had ever thought of it before. But it was a point of interest and something that they could use to identify the music in words, and it was also something that all of us as arrangers were conscious of in orchestrating for a big band. I think many of us were working on the idea of making the big band more orchestral, rather than bandlike.

  1. Four-beat refers to a measure with four beats, instead of the more march-like two-beats to a measure characteristic of the traditional, or Dixieland, style of New Orleans. (back to transcript)
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