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Interview: Bob Whitlock (Part 3)

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In the history of post-war jazz, Gerry Mulligan may well have been one of the finest all-around musicians, leaders and arrangers. But he wasn't the nicest guy in the world. Which is easy to understand. Constantly creating a vision, finding musicians to execute that vision and making a success of it—is akin to being the CEO of a start-up. A lot of courage is needed along with high standards and an ego the size of a house. [Photo above of pianist Forrest Westbrook and bassist Bob Whitlock courtesy of Leslie Westbrook]

Bob Whitlock saw that up-close as the original bassist in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952 and '53. Bob was the one who introduced Chet Baker to Mulligan, and from the start, no one in the group appreciated Mulligan's landlord-like approach to bandleading. But they all dug the concept of the group and the learning curve it offered.

In Part 3 of my interview with Bob, he talks about the conflicts and joys of playing in the quartet and starts to address the drug epidemic going on in Los Angeles at the time...

JazzWax: The absence of a piano in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet let Chet Baker stand out, yes?

Bob Whitlock: That's true. You know, Chet was 10 times the soloist that Gerry was. Gerry had done so much writing and arranging by then that he had developed a lot of formulas for soloing. Chet was different. With Chet, it was always a free-fall. He could read music but he wasn't a great reader. Instead, he had very highly developed taste and an appreciation for simplicity. From a musician's perspective, he was always more exciting to listen to because you never knew where his lines were going to go.

JW: Spoken like a true Chet Baker fan.

BW: I guess I am one of Chet's biggest fans. Listening to what came out of that horn each night and the challenge of putting a line up against what he played was so wonderful. Chet gave you this terrific opportunity each time he soloed. He wasn't in your way and his playing was so clear and his sense of direction so evident that it was of enormous assistance to me as a bassist.

JW: Was Baker's approach different than other soloists?

BW: So many guys bulldog their way through, sometimes with an attitude of “To hell with what you're doing—I'm here now." Not with Chet [pictured]. The best moments of my career were as Chet's wingman. He listened carefully to you and played something to flatter and support it. When he let you know he was there, it was a great feeling. You felt confident about going out on a limb without feeling you were going to be trapped. You always knew that Chet would be with you. I think Chet had a much higher skill level than Gerry.

JW: Was Mulligan aware of Baker's natural abilities? Was it a source of friction?

BW: Gerry and Chet didn't get along too well. Gerry was an egomaniac. He loved to picture himself as Chet's mentor, that he had discovered Chet. He didn't hesitate to let Chet know that. And naturally Chet resented it. Chet rightfully was a hell of a lot better soloist than Gerry and felt it was presumptuous for Gerry to say he discovered him.

JW: How would this antagonism play out?

BW: Whenever Gerry would make the slightest reference to being his mentor or the one who discovered him, Chet would get right in his face and make an ass of him. He'd call him right down on it. He'd say, “Hey Gerry, I'm me and you're you. Don't get too carried away with yourself."

JW: Ouch. How did Mulligan respond?

BW: Gerry's responses always reflected his disappointment that Chet didn't fall in line with his line. Gerry really loved playing that role of being the godfather. Everything had to be “Gerry Mulligan and...." With Chet, Chet was always about what was going on. Chet had a facility that's almost unimaginable. You had to be there playing behind him to fully appreciate the sound, the imagination and the beauty. Not to mention his ability to hook onto what was going on around him and add to it.

JW: What did you think of Chico Hamilton's drumming in the quartet?

BW: It was terrific. At first, Chico could get a little bombastic, as any drummer would. Gerry used to climb all over him for it. Eventually, Chico brought down the volume of his playing. In the beginning, he was a bit too loud and too busy. Everything he played was “Dig me." Gerry would just eat him alive. [Pictured above at bottom]

JW: How so?

BW: Gerry had an ability to wade in on you pretty good but at the same time make it clear that it wasn't vindictive, that he did actually have something musical in mind. But it's a painful way to hear from someone trying to help you.

JW: For example?

BW: Gerry wouldn't allow Chico [pictured] to set up his whole drum set. I remember the first night Chico did, Gerry had him tear it down—the tom-tom and all the other drums. Eventually, Chico had a set up where he had a foot pedal attached to a tom-tom to use as a bass drum, for a lighter touch. Gerry wanted everything light as a feather. People used to call us the Chamber Music Society of Lower Wilshire Boulevard [laughs].

JW: What did that mean?

BW: A nice airy sound, clear and clean, that we kept the extraneous bullshit away. The beauty was the counterpoint. You can't have intelligent sounding counterpoint if everyone is loud and banging away. But when everyone is listening closely to one another, then you hear where the other guys are going, and the other guys are going to feed off of you.

JW: So what was the bottom-line criteria for being in the quartet?

BW: What Gerry needed in that group was everyone listening carefully to each other and to be willing to be second fiddle to him. And to be an interesting musical conversationalist among the other members of the group. At most jam sessions, it's you and the rhythm section. In the setting where you have two horns and a bassist and drummer trying to make something happen, you're always functioning as a single unit. You have to be careful. You have to be inside the other person's notes. We all felt lucky to be in that group.

JW: The drug scene was pretty hairy out in L.A. in the early '50s. Why? 

BW: There were very few places in the country where drugs were more accessible. Los Angeles was close to the Mexican border, and there were large poor communities close by that bought and sold drugs.

JW: And for musicians?

BW: For musicians, that was the nature of using. You didn't worry about the addiction until you were hooked. And by then, worrying about it was the least of your worries. In some perverse way that was the attraction of taking drugs—flirting with that kind of excitement.

JW: How did so many great L.A. players become hooked?

BW: In my case, my favorite musician at that time was Charlie Parker—in terms of sheer inventiveness, night after night. I just couldn't imagine anyone else ever coming close to him in that regard. And then there was Billie Holiday and all these wonderful people who were junkies. I was a youngster and there was something mysterious and illogical about it. But there also was a mystique—that maybe I need to explore it to find myself as a person and artist. [Pictured above, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker]

JW: It seemed as though drugs were everywhere in the jazz scene then.

BW: It was a challenging period. Everyone you knew was using. You wanted to recreate the immortality of it. Gerry, of course, had been a heavy user. And yet he was so out there musically. He was very clever about his addiction though. He was one of the smarter addicts.

JW: How so?

BW: He kept it undercover very well. He didn't advertise that he was using. There were a lot of guys who were so obvious that they were junkies. Gerry [pictured] never had the need to project that kind of image, possibly because his reputation was already established.

JazzWax tracks: You can hear Bob Whitlock on Stan Getz and the Cool Sounds from January 1954 and with the Jack Sheldon Quintet in April 1955. The Getz tracks (Nobody Else But Me, With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair, I Hadn't Anyone 'Til You and Down by the Sycamore Tree) can be found here. The latter album's can be found on Jack Sheldon: Quartet & Quintet here.

A special JazzWax thanks to Leslie Westbrook.

JazzWax clip: Here's the Jack Sheldon Quartet in 1955—Sheldon (tp), Walter Norris (p), Bob Whitlock (b) and Larance Marable (d)—playing What Is There to Say...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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