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The Philosophy of Urso

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

With Mulligan that night was young Chet Baker, just back from a tour through Europe. Baker asked if Urso had his horn. He did, and he sat in with Chet for "Stella by Starlight," then played a blues number, then played all night.

Then he was hired.

At that time, Chet Baker was the shit. He would soon be ranked in several magazine polls as the number-one jazz trumpeter in America. He was young, he was good-looking, and he gave boosters a chance to claim with pathetic predictability that he was the music's great white hope.

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.

These days his position in jazz is more uncertain, partly because he has become as much myth as musician. According to the legend, he had a woman in every town ("I'd dig the chicks digging him," says Urso), but his addiction to drugs gradually turned his features gaunt, then decayed-looking. Though he could hold his own playing virtuoso bop-like passages, he is remembered for his spare, affectless singing, a kind of "there's no there there" style that only reinforced his image as a steadily weakening human being. "When he started singing, that's when he started making bread," Urso says.

Urso admits he dabbled in "narco" himself, but mostly to keep up appearances with the musicians he most admired. "A little tiny snort to be company and be around them to learn the music" was the extent of it. "If anybody accuses me of being a junkie, they're full of shit."

Urso won't say how wild the nights were running with Chet Baker, but there was at least one fast time. The group was on its way to a gig in San Diego from Detroit. The band headed off in a '54 Mercury with a trailer hauling the gear, while Urso rode in Baker's '54 Jaguar. In Texas, they blew through a little town at ninety miles per hour. A cop gave chase, but Baker gunned it to 130, 135 -- the tach was in the red zone and the Jaguar sounded like a jet on wheels -- and the lights and sirens faded from view.

But the cop had called ahead for a roadblock, and agents later hauled Baker before a judge who was still wearing his sleeping cap.

"I didn't think I was over 85," Baker explained.

"The limit is 35," the judge replied.

"What's the fine?"

"$50 or two nights in jail."

Baker always had a wad of bills, but tonight the smallest he had was a C-note. Baker waved the bill before the judge and asked if he could make change.

When they got to Los Angeles, the group recorded its first album, Chet Baker & Crew. On the cover, Baker and his band lounge on a boat off the coast of Los Angeles. Urso, with his shirt open and a goofy grin on his face, looks like a kid. He lived in a motel at Hollywood and Western, right around the corner from Bop City, an L.A. nightclub the group frequented, but otherwise he didn't like the city's spread-out jazz scene. Unlike New York, where all the action was easy to reach on foot or by cab or subway, in Los Angeles he always needed a car.

In 1957, the group returned to New York, and Urso signed on for a sixteen-city Birdland All-Star tour, an impressive troupe of jazz singers, players and bands that included Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Lester Young and the Count Basie Band. The following year, Baker returned to Europe. But on the advice of his booking agent, he reduced the band from quintet to quartet, and Urso got the ax.

In 1959 and 1960, Urso lived in Denver off and on, sometimes playing at the Sands in Las Vegas. In 1961 Claude Thornhill and his band rolled through Denver, looking for a sax player for a show at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. In the late Forties, Thornhill's band had been a prototype for the cool jazz Miles Davis would popularize with the album Birth of the Cool and other subsequent recordings with onetime Thornhill arranger Gil Evans. Now Thornhill's group was playing Dixieland, and Urso was playing clarinet. "That's what ruined my teeth," he says.

He returned to New York in 1964 to reteam with Baker for a few more albums, but by this time, Baker's drug habit was about to kick into overdrive. "I knew what was gonna happen," Urso says. "They were all gonna get high. Chet started to self-destruct. I didn't want to try and keep up with him."

Baker returned to Europe, and in 1968 Urso left New York, abandoning any chance to make a larger name for himself -- something he says he didn't care about. "I just wanted to keep playing with Chet. We produced a lot of magic. It's all on record. Chet was my best friend, and it hurts to talk about him."

Joe Keel doesn't like the implication that his friend could have done more. "A lot of people have these really funny perceptions of what 'making it' is," he says. "It's not having a big car or maids or chauffeurs. It's being highly regarded and respected for what you do. Phil was highly regarded.

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