No one who loves the sound of the tenor saxophone doesn’t love Gene Ammons (1925-1974) who first entered public consciousness playing alongside Dexter Gordon in Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-’40s, and had the first of his many instrumental single hits in 1947 with “Red Top”. An unparalleled balladeer and blues practitioner who could more than hold his own in any cutting contest (his solo starts at 7:32—rhythm section is Hampton Hawes, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke!), as evidenced on a series of recorded ‘jam sessions’ that he recorded for Prestige in the second half of the ’50s, including the 1958 date, Groove Blues, on which John Coltrane played alto saxophone. Ammons spent 7 of his prime years in jail on a trumped-up narcotics charge, which is perhaps why he’s less remembered than he ought to be. He came out of the penitentiary with powers undiminished and a raw edge, recording jazz funk classics, expressionistic ballads, and straight-up swing. He was state-of-the-art; the tunes sound better with time’s passage.
In any event, ten years ago or so, I had an opportunity to document my feelings about the maestro in a liner note for a reissue of the proceedings of three 1972 sessions that were released contemporaneously on the LPs Get My Own and Big Bad Jug, which I’ve posted below.
Gene Ammons, “Fine and Mellow” (Liner Notes):
No tenor saxophonist of his generation understood melody more profoundly than Gene Ammons, whose ability to make his metal instrument emulate the human voice with unparalleled presence and dramatic weight gave him great stature among his peer group.
“Jug’s one of my heroes of all time,” says tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, referring to Ammons by his nickname. Now 81 and saying more on the tenor than just about anyone alive, Freeman met Ammons, two years his junior, in the middle 1930s at South Side Chicago’s DuSable High School, where both studied under the famous taskmaster Walter Dyett. “I give him a lot of credit, because he sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. Then again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.”
Freeman is referring to the way individualistic tenormen like himself and Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Frank Wess — ’20s-born musicians who assimilated Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before Charlie Parker entered the picture — blended Hawkins’ charging, arpeggiated, straight-up-and-down attack and thick operatic tone with Young’s relaxed, fluid, float-like-a-butterfly, bel canto conjurations. Ammons played economically, and he could accent his lines with stirring blues vocalizations, like Muddy Waters playing bebop saxophone. He had an unerring inner metronome, honed during an Art Blakey-booted two-year stint in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra; one Ammons note would launch the beat and the swing, and that note would permeate the room — or speaker. Plus, the ladies dug him; Ammons could bleed you to death with a ballad, smooth with quiet fire, like his idol Nat King Cole, or, a la Mario Lanza, oozing vibrato to maximize the melodrama.
Ammons possessed an incredibly powerful embouchure (Freeman recalls once seeing him snap off a saxophone neck while blowing), and in certain ways, his larger-than-life sound, which projected pain and jubilation in equal measure and seemed to emanate from deep in his innards, disguised his extreme musical sophistication. He inherited his rawer musical chromosomes from his father, Albert Ammons, the legendary boogie-woogie pianist-church deacon. He got the finesse from his mother, a music teacher and classical pianist.
“I used to go by Jug’s house,” Freeman recalls: ” They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything, but I didn’t know what I was doing. One day when I was about 14, his mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you.’ She’d been on her son about that years earlier. She said, ‘The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords. Come over here.’ Then she sat down at the piano and started playing chords. She started me out.”
On the three autumn 1972 sessions that comprise “Fine and Mellow,” the 47-year-old, three years out of his second stint in jail, enters Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a cohort of New York A-list studio pros, quickly comprehends the form and the texture of the songs and arrangements – here a melange of Billie Holiday material chosen to exploit the release of “Lady Sings The Blues,” MOR pop, and a few elemental originals suffused with funk-tinged blues sensibility – and lays down a succession of declamations that contain a surfeit of heart and soul, with the occasional wild edge, as he had done for the previous quarter-century on a series of jukebox staples like “My Foolish Heart” and “Canadian Sunset.”
It’s the sound and approach that made Ammons the people’s choice in Chicago from 1947, when he formed his own unit after Eckstine disbanded, until his death in 1974. “One night we had five gigs, all dances,” recalls pianist Junior Mance, who joined Ammons not long after he departed from Mercury Records, for which he recorded ‘Red Top,’ his first big hit. “In Gary, Indiana, which was our third gig, Jug’s car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth. The club-owner took Jug to the union, and they called us down. We’re all sitting there, and Harry Gray, the local president, said: ‘You guys know better; why did you follow him in doing five gigs?’ Which was a stupid question. If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it… Anyway, our drummer, Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band and who was very quick, said, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.’ They all laughed, and that got us off the hook.”
Musicians as diverse as Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill were hooked on Ammons. “Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine,” Rollins told me a few years ago. “He was out there doing it when I was still in school, and he was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal. When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.”
Threadgill recalls a memorable week in 1961 or 1962 when Ammons guested with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at McKie’s, a popular 63rd Street club that Rollins immortalized in a song. “You can often hear things live that will never get on record,” Threadgill stated on WKCR in 1996. “On Sunday night, they locked the doors around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until morning. I had no idea Gene Ammons could play like that. He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was quite a lesson.”
Tenor players at all levels will find lessons aplenty in these sessions. Listen to Ammons bellow out his statement on “Lucille,” an impassioned love cry penned by Harold Vick. He imparts maximum blues impact with a minimum of notes on the downhome “Tin Shack Out Back” and on “Lady Mama,” the latter an elemental vamp on the chords of “Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by fellow DuSable alumnus Eddie Harris, who as a youngster subbed for pianist James Craig on Ammons dances at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom. He squeezes every bit of melodic juice from “Can’t Help Myself” and “God Bless The Child,” and, in the company of maestros Hank Jones and Ron Carter, evokes the surreal ambiance of “Strange Fruit.”
For all his personal problems, Ammons played with remarkable consistency, and these statements, like so much of his finest work, transcend the particulars of time and place and genre. With the reissue of “Fine and Mellow” another piece of his career mosaic falls into place, and we are the richer for it.