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Collection The Gerry Mulligan Collection

Pianoless Quartet

[Gerry's sextet in the 1950s]. [photographer unknown]. The Gerry Mulligan Collection, The Library of Congress Presents: Music, Theater and Dance, Performing Arts Reading Room.

The pianoless quartet, which Gerry formed in 1952 and with which he recorded for the new Pacific Jazz label the same year, was an instant success and received glowing if not fully accurate press concerning its inspirations and aspirations. Gerry clarifies the history of the quartet.

Edited Transcript

After that I met Dick Bock. I guess I knew about him because he had put together some dates for Discovery Records. As it turned out he was booking the room at the Haig, especially the off nights. He would bring in the guys who were to play on the night that the main attraction wasn't playing. He started me playing there on Tuesday nights, and at first I would always be playing rhythm section with Don Trenner, and the main attraction was Erroll Garner. Of course, when Erroll was there they had this beautiful nine-foot concert grand Baldwin on the stage for him and it remained pretty much the same for the couple of months Erroll was there. Then they started to make plans about what to do because Erroll was getting near the end of his stay, and they were bringing in Red Norvo and his trio, who didn't use a piano at all. They were now in a quandary over what to do about the off night because they didn't have a piano and they certainly weren't going to rent a grand piano to play on the one night. John Bennett, who was one of the owners of the place, said, "What they should do is get one of those little sixty-six-key studio uprights for the off night." In the meantime Dick had said that he would like me to put a group together to play the off nights. I said, "Great," but when John said this about the piano I said, "No, I don't think I want a studio upright. Thank you. Let me think of something else." I started to try different things with a bass guitar, drums, and horn–various ways of approaching a rhythm section without a piano.

[Portrait of Erroll Garner, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948]. William P. Gottliebm, photographer. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

One of the things that gave me a lot of confidence to do that was that when we were still in New York and Gail [Madden] and I were organizing some things, we organized a record date with Prestige, but the rhythm section that she had (with maracas that kind of made a swishing sound, that she made go with the cymbal sound) had no piano in it. So, because of the things she had tried, it gave me kind of an idea of what I might try and what not to do and so on. Gail had been enthusiastic about Chico Hamilton's playing. And I had played around at a number of sessions in the Valley at which Chet [Baker] had played, so I played with him a couple of times and was very impressed with his melodic playing, which you don't usually hear in players at jam sessions. People are so busy playing their horn and trying techniques, but Chet was such a melodic player that I thought we could try it with no piano. And we were lucky to get a bass player [Carson Smith] who also had a good sound and good time, but who also thought like an arranger. Each one of us brought something particular to the group; it wasn"t just playing the instrument, it was bringing a point of view to it. And when we put it together it gelled because Carson Smith on bass had a particular feeling for the function that he was doing. He realized that he was doing two things at once; it was like being part of the ensemble plus part of the rhythm section. Because everything was supported by the bass, since you didn't have a piano stating the chords, it had to come from the combination of the bass, bass line, and whatever we were doing with harmonies. Chico had his unique approach.

All the time we rehearsed we only had a small set, maybe a snare drum and high hat, a standing tom-tom, and one top cymbal on a stand–no bass drum, no set of tom-toms–and so it was a minimal set. And I remember the first time we had been rehearsing down at a house that Chet rented in Watts, and we were getting ready after rehearsing to pack up to go up into the city to play the job, and I looked in the back of Chico's car. He had a whole set of drums back there. I asked, "What have you got your drums here for?" He said, "Well, we're going to work tonight." I said, "Yeah, but you're not going to use all that stuff are you?" He said, "Certainly." I said, "No man, you must play with same stuff you’ve been rehearsing with, because this is the sound of group. It's going to be different if you come in with a whole set of drums." He finally gave in, so that's what he played on: the snare, the sock cymbal, the one standing tom, and the one standing cymbal, and he played a good deal of the time on brushes. But he used to do things in solos that put me away. A big factor in the appeal of the group was that Chico had such a good show sense that he brought that out in all of us, and so the group wasn't as introverted as Chet and I were. It was very accessible, what we were doing, and it was clear. You could see through it, and Chico brought this kind of extroverted quality to it that kept the thing alive so that there was noticeable vitality there. Chet had a very melodic sense, and I fell into a natural role of accompanying, being the bridge between the bass line and the solo line, and it worked.

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