The Philosophy of Urso

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

"Everybody can't be a general in the Army," Keel adds. "You have to be a foot soldier. Everybody can't be famous. Who was the piano player who played on The Tonight Show when Steve Allen was the host? Just to be on the scene, you had to be highly respected."

Besides, the jazz world was changing. Rock and roll was the big thing now. Phil Urso hates rock and roll. "It doesn't make any sense. The lyrics don't make any sense," he says. "The rhythms don't make any sense. It's the same thing all over. Where's the improvisation?"

He returned to Denver in 1969, married Bruna, who had recently come over from Italy, and stayed.

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.

By 1971, Phil Urso was off the map. He had a baby girl, Stephanie. He'd cut a few more albums, but largely he played exclusively on the local scene. Sometimes he played Dixieland or dance music or country and Western -- anything that required a saxophone and paid a decent wage. And "local" meant the whole state: Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Aspen, Vail, Black Hawk.

Urso is practical about whether playing Dixieland was a step backward for a modern jazz musician. "It was easy," he admits, "but it couldn't be helped. If you wanted to stay alive and play music, you played Dixieland." He played gigs in Black Hawk that paid $500 a week, money that was hard to refuse.

And amazingly, in the 1970s, there was a popular jazz club in Broomfield that put on jazz six nights a week: The Inbetween Club. Drummer John Arcotta had just moved to Colorado from Houston, and he knew a friend of the club's owner; in 1973 he found himself a regular gig playing there.

He didn't know many musicians here, but he had a large collection of West Coast jazz albums, and Urso had played as sideman on many of them. "Shit, man, Phil Urso is living out here?" he remembers thinking. "That's beautiful."

Arcotta invited Urso to join his group, and Urso accepted. The two became friends. "I'm Italian. Best of all, I'm Sicilian," Arcotta explains. "My family came from Palermo; so did his. I had a strong blood bond with Phil."

Urso needed it. Not too long into the band's engagement at the Inbetween, someone started calling regularly and accusing the club of employing a drug abuser -- Urso. This went on for months. Arcotta says he never really told Urso about it, but pressure from the club owners to get rid of Urso finally came to a head, and the whole band quit.

"To this day, I still try to figure out who would have done that to him," Arcotta says.

Urso kept playing. The Jazz Cellar in Fort Collins, an old club called Surfs on Wazee Street, the Tally-Ho at Wadsworth and Alameda (since torn down), the Primavera at 15th and California. A bagel shop in Boulder, a Ramada Inn at Colfax and Simms. Gigs that supported him and his family. Birdland grew further away, another man's history rather than his own.

In the late '80s, Arcotta and Urso played some Dixieland dates on Colorado Boulevard with a group called the Solar Energy Jazz Band.

"I hate Dixieland," says Arcotta. "How the fuck could Phil, the guy who plays so great, be playing this bullshit? One night I just got nauseous...everybody soloing at the same time, like a Charles Ives thing. I just quit. But he stayed with that band."

"One time we played the Parade of Homes," says Dave Rucker. "That wasn't too cool. But we went where the money was."

These days, Arcotta wonders whether Urso is living in the past. "He'll talk to me about a lot of things over and over again. I don't like to say senility, but he'll call and tell stories about Chet."

Bruna says that sometimes, when he's downstairs listening to Baker albums, he'll get depressed.

"If he'd have stayed out there," Rucker says, "he'd have been recording with everybody."

Urso suffered a heart attack in 1981; his pacemaker broke down in 1984 and again in 1997. But he's never stopped playing. Four years ago local club owner Vartan Tonoian hired him for a month of Thursdays, then Saturdays. But that eventually fell through -- Urso says he wasn't being paid on time. Then there was a gig he and Gene Bass got at the Hornet, starting in 1997.

"Phil wasn't working a lot. He wasn't getting a lot of phone calls," says Arcotta. "He had some bullshit gigs, but the Hornet was his steady gig."

But when he'd get on stage, Urso wouldn't play for as long as he used to. He could still play, but he'd take minimal choruses on solos, then want to sit down. Arcotta says he tried to get his friend a gig with him at El Chapultepec, but "Jerry didn't like him sitting down."

And just before Urso had his teeth removed, new ownership came to the Hornet, and he and Bass were out. It's just as well. The Hornet is a singles place. No one goes there to listen to jazz (the place is too loud, for one); they go there to meet people.

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