The Philosophy of Urso
Phil Urso holds a letter that trumpeter Chet Baker wrote to him in 1971.
"I have always felt you were and are the most underrated of America's jazz players and composers," Baker begins. His letter continues for a few pages, telling Urso about his experiences abroad, and then concludes, "Well, Phil, we'll say goodbye for now with one more reminder that we love you and wish you all good things, and when anyone asks me about my favorite tenor player, the answer is always Phil Urso."
Urso puts the letter away with a smile and says, "He's layin' it on kind of thick."
But Urso never heard from Baker again. In 1988, the once-handsome trumpeter was a wreck of a man who capped off his difficult life by falling (or being tossed), trumpet still in hand, out of the second-story window of the Prins Hendrick Hotel in Amsterdam. (For those who speculate that Baker was helped to his death, the usual explanation is a drug deal gone bad, but no one seems to know for sure.) Urso's face clouds over when talk turns toward Baker's years of drug abuse. Three decades ago his friend's ongoing self-destruction was one of the reasons he fled from New York City, the center of the jazz world, back home to Denver and the jazz bush leagues.
At 74, Urso is not a rich man, but he and his wife, Bruna, are comfortable. They've lived in the same pleasant Lakewood home for almost thirty years. Their daughter, Stephanie, lives just down the street and recently had a baby of her own.
But still, he ails.
If there's a general though unspoken rule of playing the saxophone, it is this: You cannot play with no teeth.
Urso used to have teeth. For the half-century he has been playing the saxophone, he has had teeth, and in those years, he's not only made a living as a jazz musician, which is no small feat, he has also witnessed the birth of modern jazz. He's played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Nat Cole, Woody Herman, Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan. With the exception of Rollins, who at 68 still performs with ferocity, the rest are dead. "I'm surprised I beat 'em out and I'm still alive," Urso says.
Though he recorded albums under his own name, chances are you've never heard of Phil Urso. But surely you've heard of the pianist on Urso's debut album: the great Horace Silver, pioneer of funky, hard-bop piano playing -- a cat with a dozen albums at any well-stocked music store.
In some encyclopedias of the genre, Urso earns a paragraph, a footnote. In others, nothing. Which is not to say he wasn't a good musician. You don't play in the major leagues if you don't have plenty of game.
"He's never been a real high-profile kind of guy," says musician Dave Rucker, a friend of Urso's. "He dedicated himself to having a home life. But everyone knew him." However, Rucker adds, even in Denver, "I can't really say he was the top dog."
It's a common refrain. No one in Denver in the last forty years has had anything approaching Urso's pedigree, yet he's regarded by local musicians with a mix of indifference and outright resentment. Musicians who were in the audience at El Chapultepec would talk more loudly on nights when Urso was on the bandstand, says owner Jerry Krantz.
"Even today, I see a lot of animosity toward Phil," says drummer John Arcotta. "I think people take Phil for granted. The guy was a monster -- he'd come out on the bandstand and kick everybody's ass, even his own. Knowing musically what he knows, I think people get a little intimidated."
Urso knows he is -- or was -- better than his critics, so he doesn't really care what they say. What he cares about are his teeth.
Earlier this year, they began to weaken. In late spring, he had his bottom teeth removed; a month later, the tops followed. Blowing through a saxophone mouthpiece creates a lot of air pressure, and Fixodent is not strong enough to keep his dentures stuck firmly to his gums. He has hopes for another adhesive called SeaBond, which uses strips made from some kind of seaweed/kelp extract to make it super-sticky. But he continues to have other problems. A protruding bone in his lower gums hurt like a son of a bitch when he tried to play, so a few weeks ago he had the bone filed down. Tenderness and stitches remain.
One day in August, Urso pulls out his horn, a Selmer Mark VII, and tries to blow through the mouthpiece and neck of the horn. He gets out a little squeaky sound, which is normal, but he can only blow for a few seconds before he stops. "I can't do it," he says, "but I will."
He does this every day, and every day he can hold the sound longer. He has a Dixieland gig that pays $500 this New Year's Eve, and he wants to be ready for it. He thinks he will be on the tenor sax, not on the clarinet, whose tighter embouchure puts even more pressure on his dentures.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Urso shrugs off whatever the locals may think of him. "There aren't many good players. The rest of them are all garbage. They don't play up to a level I'm used to hearing. They're all jealous of me because I can play and because of who I've played with. I'm not braggin' or anything, but I can back it up.
"Only now I can't."
A couple of weeks ago, Urso got new dentures, and while he still feels some discomfort, he says he's starting to play again. His musical career is done, he says, if these dentures don't turn out to be the right pair. He dreams of implants, but they are too expensive.
There are not many recordings of Phil Urso out there. You have to read the personnel lineups on other players' albums. Still, this much is true: He may have spent his life making music under the radar, but he has spent it making music.
"I've been playin' over fifty years," says Urso. "That's all I know."
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