While in his teens, Gerry worked as an arranger and band member for Elliot Lawrence. Gerry's genius, particularly as an arranger, led to work with Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill. Settling in New York around 1948, Gerry spent most of his time at Gil Evans' apartment with Miles Davis and others, leading to the legendary Birth of the Cool album.
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I was over at Gil's place most of the time. It finally got to the point where Gil and I were taking turns using the piano and taking turns sleeping, and there were people in and out of the place all the time. Day and night we’d have people over there, and so there was no schedule like with normal people. When guys would come, we would be up and have breakfast or eat something if we felt like it, and one of us would be using the piano. This went on winter and summer. It got really cold down there, so we were bundled up in overcoats and blankets sitting at the piano taking turns writing. More than anything, it was just an outgrowth of these endless or open-ended conversations that were always going on. The guys that came down were George Russell, John Lewis, John Benson Brooks, [John] Carisi, and occasionally [Johnny] Mandel and the guys from the Thornhill Band when they were in town. Dave Lambert usually had his little daughter Dee in tow with him; and for a while Dave and his wife at that time--Hortie, Hortense--were kind of living here and there out of their suitcase, trying to make ends meet, the pair of them with a baby on their hands. So for all of us it felt like a transient existence. We were all trying to find some place for ourselves, and the theorizing was a natural result of that. We lived much more in our ideas than we did in our physical reality. We'd taken an exaggerated Bohemian attitude toward life, while living in the middle of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street. It was so out of place . . . it was funny. Miles and I would walk down the street and people would stare at us, at how peculiar we looked. Miles would get mad at people staring, but I’d say to him, "Well, you've got to admit, man, we’re a pretty strange-looking pair wandering around here."
And that's when we finally wound up with this thing with the six horns, because it seemed to offer a lot of possibilities. Our original thought was that we wanted Danny Polo with the thing on clarinet. And we realized that was impractical because Danny was always on the road with the Thornhill Band and there wasn’t anybody else that we wanted on clarinet. Part of it was that Danny's sound was so much that wood sound that I always loved--talk about [Irving] Fazola and [Barney] Bigard and the New Orleans players--because he played Albert system. And it was that particular sound that would really have been good in that band. We wound up holding it down to one trumpet because if Miles were to be the trumpet his sound was so personal that we didn’t really want to have to blend it with another trumpet sound. Let the trumpet sound be his; and it really fit. It became an easy thing for me to write for because I could hear Miles melodically much more easily than I could hear a trumpet player who was really playing an open trumpet sound. We tried to have enough low horns to be able to use the tuba. In some ways, I've always felt that maybe the tuba was extraneous, especially when you realize that the amplified bass gives the bass another presence in the band and a lot of the times the tuba lines get in the way of the bass lines and vice versa, because even though the bass line is walking, it can still serve the same function in the ensemble. However, we wanted to have the tuba because we wanted a continuous chromatic scale for the band that could go from the very bottom to the very top. It also offered lots of possibilities, which we didn't explore to any great extent. We didn't write that much for it. There were probably only fifteen or twenty charts that we contributed. That's from all of us who wrote for it.
Miles was really the practical one. It's a little hard for some people to realize that, but Miles always wanted something of his own and he really had the desire to have his own band and make a place for himself in the music scene. He loved the sound of the Thornhill Band and when he heard this idea we were talking about with the instrumentation, he thought that could be it. So he was the one who started making the phone calls, getting the guys together, picking out the players, reserving the rehearsal studios, and generally assuming the role of a leader. And that’s how we started actually playing together, because I think if it had been left to the rest of us we probably would have kept on theorizing and writing and never have gotten around to doing anything.
- The Birth of the Cool was the enduring title given to the classic jazz album released by Capitol as a 12" LP (T-762) in 1957. It brought together on one disk eleven pieces recorded and previously released as singles between 1949 and 1950 by the innovative and even then legendary nonet under Miles Davis’s leadership.
Writing a note in May 1971 about the group that gathered around Gil Evans’s New York apartment when the nonet was in its gestation period, Gerry recalled... "Some of the more-or-less regulars at Gil's I remember:
"John Carisi, almost as hot-headed in an argument as I am. Anyone who writes a piece like 'Israel' can’t be all bad, right?
"John Lewis, our resident classicist.
"George Russell, our resident innovator. (Wrote a couple of fine, interesting charts for Claude Thornhill’s band that I suppose there’s no trace of now.)
"John Benson Brooks, our dreamer of impossible dreams.
"Dave Lambert, our itinerant practical Yankee.
"Billy Exiner, drummer with Thornhill and our home philosopher, with his beautiful attitude towards life and music.
"Joe Shulman, bassist with Thornhill; he believed Count Basie had the only rhythm section.
"Barry Galbraith, the Freddy Greene [guitarist with the early Count Basie band] of the Thornhill rhythm section and an altogether beautiful musician.
"Specs Goldberg, blithe spirit. A fantastic intuitive musician who had a tough time trying to channel his free-wheeling imagination.
"Sylvia Goldberg (no relation), piano student and whirlwind.
"Blossom Dearie, blossom is blossom.
"And Miles, the bandleader. He took the initiative and put the theories to work. He called the rehearsals, hired the halls, called the players, and generally cracked the whip.
"Max Roach, genius. I can't say enough about his playing with the band. His melodic approach to my charts was a revelation to me. He was fantastic and for me the perfect drummer for the band. (No small statement in view of the fact that Miles brought in Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke on the later dates.)
"Lee Konitz, genius. Lee had joined Claude's band in Chicago and knocked us all out (including Bird) with his originality.
"For the rest of the band, J. J. [Johnson] and Kai [Winding] alternated on trombone. It wasn’t too easy to find French horn players who were trying to play jazz phraseology but among those at our rehearsals were Sandy Siegelstein (from Thornhill), Junior Collins (who could play some good blues) and probably Jim Buffington. [Gunther Schuller played French horn on the March 1950 sessions.] And Bill Barber on tuba. He used to transcribe Lester Young tenor choruses and play them on tuba. What a great player. As I recall, Gil and I wanted Danny Polo on clarinet but he was out with Claud's band all the time and there was nobody to take his place. Not long before Danny died we had some jam sessions at which he played the best modern clarinet jazz I've ever heard." (back to transcript)
- Albert system, named after Eugène Albert (b 1816; d 1890) See the Library's web page for the Dayton C. Miller Collection for a discussion of nomenclature by Robert E. Sheldon, Curator of Musical Instruments. The so-called "Albert" key system generally refers to a variety of non-Boehm-system clarinets that incorporate improvements on the early 19th-century system of Iwan Müller. It is not a specific kind of system, and there is no evidence that the instruments produced by the factory of Eugène Albert in Bruxelles, the most esteemed of many manufacturers of simple system clarinets employed original inventions by Albert. (back to transcript)