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The Happy Blues

Gene Ammons

 
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"Jug" Ammons


Taken from "The Happy Blues" album, Prestige, 1956. Recorded at RVG studio, Hackensack, New Jersey, 4/23/1956 with the following personnel: Gene Ammons (tenor sax), Art Farmer (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto sax), Duke Jordan (piano), Addison Farmer (bass), Art Taylor (drums), and Candido Camero (congas).

Eugene Ammons was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 14, 1925, the son of boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons. He began to gain recognition while still at high school when in 1943, at the age of 18, he went on the road with trumpeter King Kolax's band. In 1944 Eugene joined the band of Billy Eckstine (who bestowed on him the nickname "Jug" when straw hats ordered for the band did not fit), playing alongside Charlie Parker and later Dexter Gordon. Notable performances from this period include "Blowin' the Blues Away," featuring a saxophone duel between Ammons and Gordon. After 1947, when Eckstine became a solo performer, Ammons then led a group, including Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt, that performed at Chicago's Jumptown Club. In 1949 Ammons replaced Stan Getz as a member of Woody Herman's Second Herd, and then in 1950 formed a duet with Sonny Stitt.

The 1950s were a prolific period for Ammons and produced some acclaimed recordings such as "The Happy Blues." Gene Ammons and Von Freeman were the founders of the Chicago school of tenor saxophone. Ammons's style of playing showed influences from Lester Young as well as Ben Webster. These artists had helped develop the sound of the tenor saxophone to higher levels of expressiveness. Ammons, together with Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, helped integrate their developments with the emerging "vernacular" of the bebop movement, and the chromatic and rhythmic variety of Charlie Parker is evident in his playing.

While adept at the technical aspects of bebop, in particular its love of harmonic substitutions, Ammons more than Young, Webster or Parker, stayed in touch with the commercial blues and R&B of his day. For example, in 1950 the saxophonist's recording of "My Foolish Heart" made Billboard Magazine's black pop charts. The soul jazz movement of the mid-1960s, often using the combination of tenor saxophone and Hammond B3 electric organ, counts him as a founder. With a thicker, warmer tone than Stitt or Gordon, Ammons could at will exploit a vast range of textures on the instrument, vocalizing it in ways that look forward to later artists like Stanley Turrentine, Houston Person, and even Archie Shepp. Ammons showed little interest, however, in the modal jazz of John Coltrane, Joe Henderson or Wayne Shorter that was emerging at the same time.

His later career was interrupted by two prison sentences for narcotics possession, the first from 1958 to 1960, the second from 1962 to 1969. He recorded as a leader for Mercury (1947-1949), Aristocrat (1948-1950), Chess (1950-1951), Prestige (1950-1952), Decca (1952), and United (1952-1953). For the rest of his career, he was affiliated with Prestige. After his release from prison in 1969, having served a seven-year sentence at Joliet penitentiary, he signed the largest contract ever offered at that time by Prestige's Bob Weinstock.

Ammons died from cancer in Chicago on July 23, 1974, at the age of 49. His music had a major influence on the style of popular jazz tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.



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