The Philosophy of Urso

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

The band's repertoire included hundreds of songs. Each player kept his charts in an iron box. Herman called a number -- say, 24 or 168 or 299 -- and the players would shuffle through their music until they had the right tune. Eventually, Urso had the tunes in his head.

Herman and the band played in 72 towns across the country, making their way west. They even stopped for a month at the Peabody Hotel in Chicago to back a touring show of Guys and Dolls. By the fiftieth night, most of the bandmembers were fried; at some point, the same 300 tunes start to get old. Urso kept it fresh by monkeying around with the bandleader. On stage he would do an ape bit -- hunched shoulder, scratching his armpits, the whole nine -- when Herman sang "Somebody Loves Me."

But after fifteen months, Urso says, "it was time for a change, time to move on." The 26-year-old returned to New York and became a regular at Birdland, one of jazz's most famous haunts. Bebop, the harmonically expansive and technically demanding music of Parker and Gillespie, was the law of the land, and Urso mixed it up with some of the young players who were transforming it from revolution to institution: "Bad mothers" like Horace Silver, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke.

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.

Anything could happen there. You might be hanging out in the club, having just played a set, waiting for Miles Davis to go on, and saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins might come up and tell you he wanted to sit in with Davis but he didn't have his horn and would you mind if he borrowed yours? You'd hand your ax over as fast as you could, and then Sonny would get up there and blow the shit out of it.

"I never heard my horn sound like that," says Urso, still amazed.

In 1954 Urso cut his own album, The Philosophy of Urso, a Savoy release featuring Silver and Clarke along with bassist Percy Heath and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.

"This has hardly been played," Urso says as he fires up the scratch-free album. "I'm keeping it 'cause it's a collector's item." He enjoys his bandmates' playing more than his own -- especially that of Silver, whom Urso hums along with. If he doesn't like his playing on a certain tune or doesn't like the tune itself, he'll exclaim, "Don't pay attention to that shit!" He never named most of the tunes he wrote (so, as with a track on the B side called "Chiketa," someone else named them for him), and the standards were included, he says, merely to sell albums.

"The rest of the shit, I'm not gonna let you hear," Urso says after only a few cuts. "It's crummy." And it's out of print.

When Urso talks about a performance or album, he runs through the whole lineup of players, passing the credit to his colleagues. But an occasional self-aggrandizing Ursoism will slip through. On the ride home from a gig in Fort Collins some years ago, a bandmate congratulated Urso on how well he played.

"You know something?" Urso told him with a straight face, "I don't think I can play bad."

His style of playing is like hard-bop -- the funky offshoot of bebop -- without the fierce edge. When Sonny Rollins plays, you can feel the notes attack you, tease you, fuck you up. When Urso plays, his tone eases gently through you. He plays like he's happiest in the role of sideman: a versatile professional lending solid support to more charismatic leaders.

Urso says his two major influences are Rollins and Lester Young, who are both black. But Urso believes that he sounded black. In fact, he says, because of that, he was one of the few white musicians Miles Davis could accept. "I played a little more dark," Urso says. "Miles liked that."

The jazz world certainly appeared to be far less segregated than mainstream society was in the Forties and Fifties. True, Count Basie's band couldn't tour everywhere Woody Herman's band could, but musicians largely respected other musicians, race aside. White musicians, Urso notes, were not afraid to play clubs in Harlem.

Davis hired Urso for a month-long gig in Boston after his regular sax player was thrown in jail. The two were roommates as well. Urso recalls a moment when Davis emerged from the shower and casually toweled himself off in front of him. "What do you think of me being black?" Davis inquired suddenly.

"I didn't have much of an answer," Urso says now, but he told Miles something like this: "I don't know too much about that. I just know you're the greatest trumpet player I ever heard."

Miles nodded as if to say, "You're damn right" and returned to the bathroom.

Urso's most meaningful musical relationship began one night in 1956 at Birdland, where he ran into his old friend Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan had moved to California and been at the forefront of a lighter, airier style that had come to be known as cool jazz, or West Coast jazz. Ironically, though it was largely influenced by Davis's minimal stylings, the new music was regarded then (and now) as mainly a white thing, a contrast to the hotter sounds of black musicians from the East Coast.

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