The Philosophy of Urso

No other jazz player in Denver has Phil Urso's pedigree.

So far, he refuses to change his equipment to speed his return. He plays a La Voz medium reed, a middle-of-the-road reed that helps create his softly driving, rolling-hills style. Thicker reeds generate a stronger sound but require more air pressure. Softer reeds are easier to play but produce a weaker tone.

Sure, Urso could buy a weaker reed or take a razor and shave his mediums down a bit, but then his tone is gone and he can't play the high stuff -- and you need to play the high stuff if you want to get up there with 'Trane, and he likes to do that sometimes.

Phil Urso's life is filled with discord. "It's depressing," he says. "I had to turn down so many jobs this past June." His voice betrays anxiety, but he tries to stay upbeat. "When I get my chops together," he insists, "I'll be playing again."

Pain, and gain: Since he's lost his teeth, Phil Urso has had to learn to play all over again.
John Johnston
Pain, and gain: Since he's lost his teeth, Phil Urso has had to learn to play all over again.
The music was flowing: Phil Urso is in the lower right corner on the cover of this Chet Baker album.
The music was flowing: Phil Urso is in the lower right corner on the cover of this Chet Baker album.

"It's like Michael Jordan playing with a cast on," says his friend Joe Keel. "You're not gonna see him doing Air Jordan. It's frustrating."

Urso was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on October 2, 1925. He and his family moved to Denver in 1935 and opened up a restaurant at 14th and Blake streets. Inside was a jukebox, and Urso used to put his ear right against it and listen to his favorite song, Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction." The bartender noticed and told his parents they ought to get the kid a piano. Urso preferred the trumpet, but he couldn't master the tricky pursed-lips embouchure. In an experience common to frustrated brass players, Urso's band teacher at Horace Mann Junior High told him the band needed clarinets and sent him off to buy his first reeds. Urso took lessons in the neighborhood but largely taught himself. By the time he entered North High School, he had switched to the tenor saxophone and knew that he had talent and good ears.

He never considered not being a musician.

In 1942, the seventeen-year-old left high school and entered the Armed Forces. With World War II brewing, his father didn't want him in the Army, so Urso joined the Navy and played in a six-piece band on an escort carrier that transported supplies from San Diego to Hawaii. He was discharged in 1944 and returned home but never went back to get his high school diploma. Instead, he gigged around town for a few years. Then he began to hear Lester Young and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on the radio. The new music was coming in from New York City, and that's where Urso decided he had to be. His family went with him, back to Elizabeth, New Jersey, south of Newark.

Urso says he arrived there a fully formed player. Work was easy. "I didn't need any practice. I had all the chops I needed," he scoffs.

Before long, Urso moved into the city, and in 1948 he joined the Eliot Lawrence Orchestra, a standard big band that backed singers such as Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan -- who was to make his reputation as a pioneer of the instrument as well as a skilled arranger -- joined the band, and he and Urso became friends and roommates. Mulligan taught Urso how to play the piano and arrange tunes.

By 1950, though, Urso was looking for something new. He was playing a gig at New York's Capitol Theater when he ran into Al Cohn, the arranger and second tenor in the Woody Herman Orchestra. It was Friday afternoon, and they got to talking. Cohn didn't want to go back on the road with Herman's band.

"Phil," he asked, "you want to go out with Woody?"

"I am on the road," Urso told him. He was tired of "riding in the same fucking cars and buses, the monotony of it. I wanted to read and play some fresh music."

But they both knew the Woody Herman band was a tenor sax player's dream, since Herman had a reputation for leading one of jazz's most modern ensembles. And it was a step up from Eliot Lawrence.

The next day, Urso met the band in a basement rehearsal hall at the Capitol. Woody Herman sat in the corner. Cohn pointed to an empty seat in the front row. "Take my chair," he said. There was a chart already laid out on the stand in front of him. A dance tune. Urso read through with the band but botched a difficult run of sixteenth notes at the end. The only sax who made it through was lead tenor Buddy Wise.

No one seemed to care. "I only had to play one tune," Urso says. "I wasn't no ten-year-old or fifteen-year-old."

In back, Herman asked him how much he was making with Lawrence.

"A bill twenty," he said.

Herman offered him a bill forty. "It was easy -- and what a band," Urso says. He met up with Woody's band the following Monday at the Forest Hotel near 48th and Broadway. He had his zipper bag -- a soft case for his horn that he could sling over his shoulder -- and his sax stand. Then it was onto a bus headed for upstate New York.

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