KSDS GM Ken Poston Guests on Jazz Journalists’ Association Podcast to Discuss New Book on Gerry Mulligan

On The Air
Now Playing

KSDS GM Ken Poston Guests on Jazz Journalists’ Association Podcast to Discuss New Book on Gerry Mulligan

The New Autobiography as-told-to Poston Reveals Much without Telling All, Poston Tells Pod


Gerry Mulligan’s autobiography, as told to KSDS GM Ken Poston, was published in November 2022 by Rowman & Littlefield.

By Matt Silver

KSDS General Manager Ken Poston joined the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s (JJA) monthly podcast — “The Buzz” — this week for an authors’ panel discussing the three books published on and about Gerry Mulligan in the past year. One of those books—Being Gerry Mulligan: My Life in Music, the late baritone saxophonist’s autobiography as-told-to Poston—was a project thirty years in the making.

Joining two other authors who’ve also recently written books on Mulligan — Alyn Shipton (The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets) and Steve Cerra (A Gerry Mulligan Reader: Writings on a Jazz Original)—Poston recounted first getting to know Mulligan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, Poston was a leading producer of live jazz events and festivals in the Los Angeles area, producing several high-profile events headlined by Mulligan-led ensembles, including a famous program dubbed “Re-birth of the Cool,” which saw Mulligan—at the head of a tentet—revive the arrangements he and Gil Evans had written for Miles Davis’s landmark 1957 album Birth of the Cool and reframe them using the same tempos with new and re-worked solos.

KSDS GM Ken Poston was a longtime admirer of Mulligan as an instrumentalist and a writer before getting to know him professionally in the 1980s and personally in the 1990s, spending weeks at a time recording interviews with the saxophonist at his home in Darien, CT.

Even as Poston was getting to know Mulligan professionally, his admiration for Mulligan’s conceptual approach to writing music was nothing new.

“I was a trumpet player through college,” Poston told “The Buzz” host Rick Mitchell and his fellow Mulligan chroniclers and historians. “When I was still learning everything early on, I discovered Chet Baker and [the original Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet]. Not too long after that, I started to get very, very interested in Gerry’s writing and his harmonic approach because it was so different than most everything else.

“The counterpoint within the quartet was really interesting to me. And as I started to study more to find out where that came from, I heard [Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band] and the [Gerry Mulligan Sextet]. And I started to hear how Gerry used a different approach [to writing] than everyone else. And I started trying to take all that apart to figure out what it was and why it was different.

“And then with Birth of the Cool… I was fascinated by hearing how [Mulligan and Gil Evans were] creating chords and harmony as all these different lines intersected.”

Of course, no matter how visionary a man’s approach to counterpoint and harmonics, his autobiography will be of limited interest and import unless it’s relatable—and interesting—to those less steeped in the abstractions of music theory. And after spending enough time with the guy the world knew as a brilliant musician, Poston would come to learn there were things about Mulligan, the bandleader— even Mulligan, the man—that could more than make for a compelling autobiography.

For one, Mulligan took the managerial aspect of being a bandleader seriously. His approach pours cold water—or stinging acid—on the romantic ideal that a jazz band is the embodiment of unfettered democracy.

“To watch Gerry as a leader was eye-opening for me,” Poston said. “I had always been a little bit nervous about pushing things within rehearsals, and Gerry told me: ‘There has to be a leader. It’s not a democracy.’ Gerry was very capable of not worrying about whose feelings he hurt.”

To illustrate, Poston shared a story that he considers to be the funniest to not make it into the book.

“Gerry actually subbed for (vibraphonist and bandleader) Terry Gibbs when Terry had to go back East. And Gerry fired [famed trumpeter/actor/singer/raconteur] Jack Sheldon from Terry’s band while Terry was gone,” Poston said. “So, Terry gets back and shows up to lead the band, and Jack’s not there—because Gerry had fired him!”

It was a story that typified Mulligan and elicited a chuckle from Poston, as if to communicate that was Gerry.

But to Poston, Mulligan was much more substantial than the antagonist behind a set of amusing anecdotes; he was someone to admire—first from afar, later as a friend.

“I learned a lot [from Mulligan], he said “about the difference that a good leader makes within a band.”

Which is why it’s not surprising that not everything Poston knows of Mulligan—his life, his work, and his relationships—made the book. Some of the more titillating, salacious bits—about drug use, personal details of his relationship with actresses Judy Holliday and Sandy Dennis, for instance—are between Poston, Mulligan, and the universe’s scorekeeper of last resort.

“I learned tons of things [about Mulligan] that none of us knew before,” Poston said on the podcast. “He’d tell me things where I’d have to shut the tape recorder off, and then he would tell me.

“So, I got an even fuller picture. I would never betray that trust and talk about the details he told me privately, but he told me about the drug situation and the different relationships.”

The thing important to remember, Poston communicated to Mitchell and his fellow authors, is that autobiography is a fundamentally different medium from biography or any other type of reportage or non-fiction. Even, and perhaps especially, in an “as-told-to” situation — because the writer is tasked with sublimating his own instincts as a storyteller in favor of the subject’s, in this case Mulligan’s.

“With an autobiography, it’s different than any other approach in that you’re getting just the one perspective from the person themselves,” Poston said, speaking of the inherent limitations but also the purpose of the form. “Gerry wanted it to be the way he wanted it to be.”

Which might suggest that Mulligan fit the “control freak” stereotype that certain bandleaders—especially those who are also composers and arrangers—are saddled with.

But that shouldn’t lead you to believe that Mulligan can be categorized neatly—or with a whole lot of company. On whether we might see the likes of another Gerry Mulligan, Poston expressed skepticism.

“As a baritone saxophone player, you could certainly make an argument that he’s the most influential and significant,” Poston told the podcast. “But, having said ‘influential,’ nobody sounds like Gerry!

“And that’s the other thing—that individualism. He was extremely unique—both as a player and as a writer. The way that he played the baritone didn’t sound like anyone before, or since…. [He] set some standards and contributed something pretty unique to the overall canon.”

To hear Poston and his fellow Mulligan scribes on the most recent episode of "The Buzz," the JJA's monthly podcast, click here.

Login to add to your bookmarks.
Bruce Silva:12/22/2023 4:24:46 PM
Hi Matt, enjoyed this article very much. And thanks for posting the link to the JJA podcast which I really liked. Bruce Silva