Gerry Mulligan, dean of the baritone saxophone, has been one of the most influential figures in jazz for more than 30 years. Arranger, composer, pianist, clarinetist, soprano saxophonist, and, more recently singer, Mulligan is about to embark on a national tour with singer Mel Torme and pianist George Shearing. The three have developed a show that begins with a salute to the American song that Mel and Gerry did at the Newport Festival several years ago.
In a recent interview at his home in Connecticut, Mulligan talked freely about how the three jazz greats got the show together:
''Mel and I did the salute to the American song for a couple of years, then last year we got it into a format that we really liked -- just the three of us working together. In doing that American-song night, instead of each performer doing a segment of the show, I wanted to integrate the whole show.''
So now the three jazz veterans mix it up, doing some numbers together, and others alone, in a delightful presentation. Both Shearing and Mulligan now do some singing, and last year at Carnegie Hall as the show opened, the three tuxedoed gentlemen walked out on stage arm in arm, and then each sang a song that he had written. Mulligan sometimes brings along a quartet for these occasions, and at other times his big band.
Getting Mulligan, Torme, and Shearing together was not a difficult task, since, as Mulligan puts it, ''Mel and I have been friends for years and years. We've always had a lot of common musical ground. And when George had his quintet and I had my quartet, we often toured together in the '50s.'' But he added, ''Oddly enough, though, when we did the show at Carnegie Hall, it was the first time we'd ever performed together.''
Mulligan got his start as an arranger for the radio studio orchestra of Johnny Warrington at WCAU in Philadelphia. Later on he arranged and played in the bands of Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill. At that time he studied arranging with Gil Evans, who remains to this day one of his favorite arrangers, and whose influence can still be heard in Mulligan's writing. In 1951 he formed what was at the time a revolutionary kind of musical group: a jazz quartet with no piano. The instrumentation was baritone sax, trumpet, bass, and drums, and featured Chet Baker on trumpet.
Why did Mulligan choose to eliminate the piano?
''You can make an ensemble sound with a combination of three voices. As it happens, the trumpet, the baritone, and the bass make logical three voices because of the registers that they're in. I've always enjoyed doing a kind of accompaniment thing against a solo line. And having a piano got in my way to do that. I would always find myself having to defer to the piano.''
He went on to tell how that first group was formed:
''I had arrived in Los Angeles, I ended up playing in a club on the off night. The regular group was Red Norvo's trio -- Red didn't use any piano, so they said for the off night they'd bring in a little studio upright, you know, 66 keys, or something. I said, no you won't! I figured if they weren't going to have a good piano, better I should put this together, because I'd already been experimenting with a rhythm section without piano. So everything came together without even thinking about it.''
During the 1950s he also led his famous Tentette, which grew out of the ''Birth of the Cool'' sessions with Miles Davis. Some of his best compositions were written at that time -- ''Walkin' Shoes,'' ''Venus de Milo,'' ''Simbah,'' ''Westwood Walk,'' ''A Ballad,'' and others.
In 1960 Mulligan started a larger band, the Concert Jazz Band. He toured extensively with the group and recorded five albums for the Verve label. He re-formed the big band in 1978.
''A friend of mine, Jimmy Maxwell, a fine trumpet player, was always after me to get a rehearsal band together to play the charts from the Concert Jazz Band. So I told him, if you want to do the organizing, make the phone calls, and get the studio, I'll bring the charts and rehearse the band. So we had some rehearsals, had a good time, and I enjoyed it. ''I was scheduled to play a concert at Carnegie Hall -- it was the 20th anniversary of the Newport Festival -- with a quartet that I was using at the time. When it came time to do this concert, I decided since it was the big 20th anniversary of the festival, that I would surprise George Wein (promoter of the festival), and make him a present of the big band. So we did. We came in with the the big band instead of the quartet -- George was knocked out!''
Mulligan and his music have survived the years, and while the music scene has changed around him, he continues to create his own sound. Does he feel he has been influenced by the changing musical times?
''The music around me has changed and it has had some influence on what I do, '' mused Mulligan. ''Most of the kids today have grown up on rock. From the '20s on there's been a close relationship between pop music and jazz. For those of us who like jazz as it is, we may be disgruntled and disheartened to see that happen, but I think the future generations will adapt it to their own rhythmic needs. The main thing that's happened is the adaptation of the rock rhythm section, which I find exceedingly limited. But, the young players growing up on rock are going to gravitate toward it.''
But what about young jazz players, like some of the ones in his own band -- can't they learn about jazz by listening to records?
''Records are not really that good an indication when it comes to jazz. Records are terrific -- it's great that we have examples of men who are no longer with us, to hear how they played. But there's a great deal missing from a record. To be in a room where one of these people was playing is not the same thing as listening to it on a record . . . you don't get the impact of the whole person.
''Now what's happening is that the kids are growing up on records alone. They're so totally geared to their ears that they forget that there's the rest of a body out there. There's the visual thing, and there's the impact.''
But, then again, if records are the only way young musicians can get a sense of tradition, then that's certainly better than nothing. The members of Mulligan's current band have proven that point, displaying excellent soloing ability well-grounded in jazz tradition and fine melodic sense. It's more than evident on his latest album, ''Walk on the Water,'' which, incidentally just won a Grammy in the big-band category. Of course, they've learned plenty from Mulligan himself, too.
''I think, if anything, over the years, I've become more melodic,'' he commented. ''But I always thought that way, anyway -- it was always my first priority.
''Mulligan will be touring the United States with George Shearing and Mel Torme, as well as singly with his quartet and big band throughout the next few months. Among his appearances with Shearing and Torme will be ones at the Kennedy Center on May 29, and Carnegia Hall on June 29.