Jeru: In the Words of Gerry Mulligan
An Oral Autobiography
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Gerry describes his upbringing in Marion, Ohio, where his father worked for the railroad. He also recalls his African-American nanny, Lily Rowan; his Catholic school in Kalamazoo; his lifelong fascination with trains; and his first efforts as an arranger while a schoolboy.
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Starting at the beginning, I was born in Queens Village, Long Island, New York. Depending on which bio you read about me, I was born in 1926, 1927, and 1928, simultaneously presumably; also in Philadelphia and Reading, Pennsylvania. I've got home towns in various places mentioned in various publications all over the East actually, but the truth of the matter is I was born in Queens Village, Long Island. My father’s family had worked on the Baltimore and Ohio, and Chesapeake and Ohio. In fact, his family--his father I guess and probably his uncle as well--was working on building the B&O that goes through Kayser, West Virginia, which, according to my brother, was a rail head for the construction of that branch of the system, and that was where my father was born. But my mother was from Philadelphia, my father was from Wilmington, and they married and had three sons in Chester, Pennsylvania, which is just south of Philadelphia. Then I guess my father took a job with the Maritime Company, the Merritt Chapman & Scott, that had floating dry docks for rebuilding boats and ships and they had the kind of dredging equipment used for ports and harbors. In fact I remember very well some of my favorite reading as a child in my father’s library was a book called "Canadian Ports and Harbors for 1924", and another book I liked a lot was--oh, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was about municipal accessories, like traffic light systems and sewage systems. I thought they were great; better than a good novel. Anyway, my father took another job and moved the family to New York, and I was born in Queens Village, Long Island, on April the 6th, 1927. One of my mother’s favorite stories was that the day I was born, since I was her fourth child, she felt she knew pretty well what was going on. One morning when he was getting ready to go to work, she said to my father, "I think today is the day." So they called the doctor, and he came over and examined her and said, "Well, I don’t think so, I think it’s alright for today and you just go about your business," and he took off. Well, the doctor no more than got in his car and took off down the road than I started to be born, So my father chased down the street after the doctor but couldn’t reach him. There was a midwife in the neighborhood, so he got her, and I was born in the kitchen. My mother said the midwife told her that after I was born and was dried off a little bit, they laid me down on the floor and I lifted my head and looked around. She loved that! And I amended that story by adding to it that I took a look around and decided to try to get back in. I’ve tried to get back in all my life.
I was less than a year old when my family moved to Marion, Ohio. My father took a job as a vice- president and general manager--well, something like that, something important sounding--at Marion Steam Shovel. I guess they called it Marion Power Shovel Company by that time. And so my first memories are of Marion. That was all the town that I knew. When we got out there of course my mother had her hands full by this time with a big house and four boys to take care of and so she got someone to help her. She hired an African-American woman named Lily Rowan. Her first job was really supposed to be kind of a nanny to me. I became her baby and she was very protective of me. When I got older I remembered some of these things, but apparently they happened early on. My father could be a pretty stern fellow not given much to a sense of humor and had some very authoritarian kind of rules, and even as a small kid if I wasn’t eating something I should have been eating he’d say, "By God you’re supposed to eat everything on your plate." I don’t know if he would smack me or what, but Lily would come flying in from the kitchen and say, "Don’t you hit"–what did she call me?–"Don’t you hit my Bonzo!" I was her baby. And it’s funny because in that way my relationship with Lily is the thing that was so different about my childhood and my brothers’. She literally adopted me, and as I got older I used to go over to her house and spend days over there with her and her husband. Her husband was the head waiter at the hotel in town. Maybe it’s hard for people today to picture a city like Marion. It was a city of about 30,000, but it was a very successful city industrially because it had a big power shovel plant and another plant that made power shovels, diesel engines, and all kinds of road equipment, kind of like the Caterpillar people. And publishing and all sorts of things went on there. So it was a very prosperous town. It had a big luxury hotel that had a very nice restaurant and a big theater done in the kind of Moorish style they were doing the grand palaces in the twenties. When I was a kid they still had an orchestra playing in the pit before and after the movies. There was a lot of music around in those days in places that you wouldn’t expect it. The movies didn’t just displace live entertainment overnight. It was a long, slow downward process and of course was hurried along its way by the Depression. But still my earliest recollection of going to the big Palace Theater was the band in the pit, and that was where they had all the best movies. We had three or four other theaters that we’d go to on Saturdays to see all the cowboy shoot-em-ups.
As a child I spent a lot of time at Lily’s house. She had a player piano and I used to love that. She used to have all kinds of things, like Fats Waller rolls, so I used to lean against the piano bench with my nose at keyboard height pumping away, playing the stuff. There were things that happened that I just thought were the normal way things were. I didn’t know any different, so I spent lots of time in the black part of town and learned things about the community there that was totally different from the rest of the town, but I didn’t know it. It just seemed perfectly natural. For instance, when the musicians would come through, and the various black bands would come through, there were no hotels for them. And I suppose if there were any hotels they weren’t very good. So what would happen when a black band came through was that the community would put them up. So often there would be musicians staying at Lily’s house. She’d let them use a couple of her bedrooms while they were there, and this is how the black bands traveled around. They would go into a town and the community kind of absorbed them.
Well the next year, I went to downtown Kalamazoo to the Catholic school. It was in a very old building. The recess yard was bordered by a big brick wall, behind which ran the main line of the Michigan Central Railroad. The Michigan Central and New York Central luxury trains would go by there. Every day at morning recess I’d go out back, and there would be the Wolverine pulling out of the station, and I’d see people sitting in the dining car with white tablecloths and silverware and I’d say to myself, "Man, what am I doing here?" That was my idea of heaven, to be sitting in the restaurant cars instead of being out in the cold and messy school yard.
The next year the school moved into a new building and established some music courses. They brought in a man to teach music; he was a trumpet player, but he taught all the instruments. I decided to play clarinet. We tried to start an orchestra with all of us beginners. It was a fairly ungodly instrumentation: one clarinet, one violin, one drum, one piano player–seven or eight of us. I had the desire to write something for us, so that was my first arrangement. I was fascinated with the tune "Lover," with its chromatic progression that I felt was beautiful. So I tried to write out an arrangement of "Lover," very simple with a lot of whole notes and quarter notes, and I tried to get the moving parts and all that stuff for our little instrumentation. Well, I ultimately never heard it because the school was taught by nuns, and like a fool I put on top of each sheet the title "Lover." A nun took one look at the title and that was the end of that. We never even played the thing. So that was the abrupt end of my burgeoning writing career.