From The Independent, 22 December 2006
By Steve Vose
“Mick Mulligan,” wrote Eddie Condon, king of the jazz boozers, “is known as The Eddie Condon of England. Someday I hope he’ll beat that rap.”
Mulligan, onetime trumpeter and bandleader, sometime bon viveur and grocer, was one of the most attractive characters in British jazz. He had a fey charm that disarmed landladies and publicans across the country but his irresistible smile held both mischief and danger for its recipients. He had a no nonsense honesty that swiftly pricked cant or dissemblance amongst his fellow musicians and, whilst he was prepared to forgive outrages against himself he often held grudges for life over insignificant matters. He had once provided a container of cider for pianist Dill Jones and his friends that Jones had undertaken to pay for. Jones never did and whenever they met across the years Mulligan would ask “Enjoy that cider, did you?”
His glory days were in the Fifties when he led his own band and became friends with Condon, Louis Armstrong and Wild Bill Davison, American musician who had been his idols since the Forties.
Max Jones described him as -
“a traditional trumpet player of essentially amateur outlook who turned professional with immediate and remarkable success. He has a Rabelaisian tongue, the generosity of a public relations officer, the mimic power of an Al Read and the wit of an Irish playwright. His honesty matches his disrespectfulness and sociability.”
It was in Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band that the young and equally outrageous George Melly came to fame. Comrades who burnt the candle at both ends and in the middle they were in some ways opposites – despite his outrageous behaviour Mick was essentially shy, carefully sidestepping Melly’s exotic and profligate flamboyance. In their day the two men burned a trail of scorched earth through the pubs and virgins of Britain and, as their admiring colleagues would say, neither has anything to come back for (Melly is of course very much alive). The word “raver” was coined to describe them because of their ceaseless roistering.
Educated at Merchant Taylor’s’ School he was subsequently an officer in the Rifle Brigade.
Shortly after his discharge he worked in the family wine importing business. To accomplish the seduction of its leading lady, Mulligan used the company’s money to finance a show that ran for about three nights in London. He later referred to the event as “The most expensive screw I ever had.” His cousins took over the business and became alarmed by the fact that when he later formed a band, he used to bring his musicians to the company’s regular wine tastings. Mulligan was eventually paid the opposite of a retainer, eight pounds a week, to stay away.
Always keen on jazz, he decided in 1948 that he would form a band. He held an audition for musicians. Melly, who had never met the trumpeter, turned up uninvited and Mulligan was too shy to tell him that he didn’t intend to have a vocalist.
“Mick peered at me short-sightedly,” wrote Melly later. “He looked like an exhausted faun. I had a bad dose of impetigo contracted by shaving with a very old blade I had found stuck to its own rust on the bathroom mantelpiece, and half my face was unshaven and smeared with bright blue ointment.
‘What a lecherous looking bastard,’ Mulligan said, and offered me a cigarette.”
The two became inseparable for many years and friends for life. Melly recalled their exploits together in “Owning Up” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965) a dazzling and hilarious account so well written that it has not dated one bit.
“George owned up about everyone but himself,” Mulligan sniffed.
The band pre-dated the Trad Boom and was second only to but a long way behind the Humphrey Lyttelton Band. It was at first based roughly on the music of Louis Armstrong with Melly singing Bessie Smith songs. The fact that it was pretty awful and driven only by enthusiasm was because of the ineptitude of the musicians and Mulligan’s hatred of any rehearsal. Its style was persistently inconsistent due to the fact that it changed when new musicians joined so that by the time that it included such comparative sophisticates as Roy Crimmins, Ian Christie and Archie Semple, the music was firmly in the Condon Chicago style.
When they first lived together Mick and Pam Walker had a flat underneath that of Sinclair Traill, a seedy ex-RAF officer with bulging eyes who edited “Jazz Journal”. Mulligan had been aware for some time that Traill had been stealing his coal from their shared coal-shed, but was too shy to do anything about it. Eventually he steeled himself to broach the matter and knocked on Traill’s door. Traill opened it and, vigorously stroking his moustache and bulging his eyes, said “Ah, Mulligan! I wanted to see you. Have you been stealing my coal?”
Mick and Pam had four children and then finally decided to get married.
“Why d’you want to do that after all this time?” asked one of Mick’s friends.
“We thought it would make a nice day out for the kids,” answered Mulligan.
Success brought an abrasive routine of cross-country one-nighters and an unwavering series of disasters in pubs, halls and bed and breakfasts across the country.
One of their more spectacular lodgings was at the home of Mrs Flanagan in Sheffield. The lady kept a display in the hall of postcards sent by satisfied guests. In the middle of them was one bearing a portrait of the Queen and signed “Lovely digs, Mrs Flanagan. Liz and Phil.”
The band’s performances were invariably affected by drink and the attendant disasters were often enormous. On one occasion when playing a solo Mulligan was so drunk that his head was empty of ideas and his lips kept sliding from the trumpet’s mouthpiece. All he could do to get control was to blow hard and very loudly. The result was 32 bars of frightening cacophony. At its end he stepped back sweating heavily.
“All the noise and vulgarity of Freddy Randall,” he said to clarinettist Ian Christie, “with none of the technique.”
It was in 1956 when, not long married, I lived in a flat in Colwyn Bay. Mulligan, Melly and the ex-Lancashire wicket keeper Frank Parr who was their trombonist stayed the night there when they played in nearby Rhyl.
We returned to the flat drunk in the small hours and I put the trio to sleep in the small living room. I joined my wife in bed and fell deeply asleep. I was awakened some time later when my head began moving involuntarily up and down. My wife sat up and pulled the cord over the bed that turned on the light. Mulligan the predator was revealed naked. He had come into the bedroom and had managed to round the cot by the bed that held my sleeping daughter. He had pulled up the sheets at the bottom of the bed and slid into it feet first. It was his foot under my chin that was moving my head up and down.
The band officially broke up in 1962 but came together for occasional dates. Mulligan continued to manage George Melly, who now worked as a solo artist, but. before Mulligan gave up full time music and moved to Pagham in Sussex. He continued to play occasional jobs into the Seventies.
In later years when Mulligan had given up playing his son Guy remarked that, although he had often read about his father’s trumpet work, he had never heard him play. Mulligan began practicing the instrument in secret and, when Guy got married in 1987, his father was able to sit in on trumpet with the late Campbell Burnap’s band, which was playing at the wedding. But it was the last time Mulligan played.
Calmed down and settled down, he changed in later years and became almost respectable. He and his second wife Tessa ran a successful off-licence and grocery in Pagham and he came to London to attend regular lunches held by the Codgers, a loose organisation of friends that included many of his ex-sidemen and sympathisers like Cameron Mackintosh, at the Concert Artists Association. He and Tessa joined a syndicate racing horses and had the ex-footballer Mick Channon as their trainer. They travelled to the Kentucky Derby and to Dubai to follow their interest in flat racing and latterly wanted to move into steeple chasing.
“Mick” Peter Sidney Mulligan, trumpeter, bandleader, grocer: born Harrow, 24 January 1928; married 1955 Pamela Walker (died 1976; two sons, two daughters); married 1980 Tessa Howard (three step-daughters); died Chichester 20 December 2006.