The Book Cooks
FUNERALS ARE FOR THE LIVING; and to soloist Floyd Overall, who sang “Precious Lord,” or Rev. Marion H. Hall, who read scripture and a prayer, it was business as usual. For some people, funerals are a livelihood. For the one hundred fifty odd souls who gathered at the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago on Saturday, August 10, 1974, it was a distinctly gloomy day. Rain started at 9:30 am and would last until late afternoon.
The Reverend Edsel Ammons gave a brief tribute to his brother; Reverend Gatemouth Moore spoke; and the eulogy was delivered by the pastor, Dr. Louis Rawls, father of the singer Lou Rawls. The front pews were arranged in a unique fashion: the left front was occupied by the de facto family, including longtime companion Geraldine Marshall, while the right front contained the family de jure headed by wife Mildred Ammons. Front row center was empty-functioning as a kind of DMZ.
There was music: Chicago tenor man Prince James played “The Lord’s Prayer” while Sonny Stitt, on tenor, did “My Buddy.” The recessional was, appropriately, “Red Top,” the longtime Ammons theme, with James joining Stitt and the rhythm section of Amina Claudine Myers, Pete Cosey, and Ajaramu Joseph Shelton.
If press releases are the publicity for personal appearances, obituaries serve the same function for funerals. The New York Times obit was incredibly bungled and contained a good deal of wrong information.
The date of birth was incorrect on the funeral program, and two of the pallbearers were not present. There were floral bouquets from Ray Charles and Miles Davis, among many others, but the size of the crowd seemed slim for such a favorite son of the Windy City. No doubt it was still the middle of the night for his professional associates, but if there is to be an epitaph for Gene Ammons, it would surely be the old blues refrain: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
Gene Ammons was born in Chicago on April 14, 1925. His father, Albert Ammons, was the finest of all the boogie-woogie pianists; and his mother was also a pianist. Gene began on C-melody saxophone and took up tenor at Du Sable High School where he studied under Captain Walter Dyett, the legendary educator who helped so many Chicago musicians during this time. Prior to graduation, he left school to join the band of another Chicago legend, trumpeter King Kolax.
In 1944, he joined the big band of Billy Eckstine. The Eckstine band was an incubator for the burgeoning bebop movement; and stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, and Art Blakey were a part of it. Charlie Parker was with the band briefly while Wardell Gray recorded with it. During the time Ammons was with the band, he sat in the same reed section with future associates Leo Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt. This was a band filled with “tempestuous youth,” in Gordon’s phrase, and there are dozens of stories involving the personal excesses of its members. It was also about this time that he acquired a nickname that would stay with him throughout his life. Some members of the band had visited a store in order to check out new hats. When Eckstine discovered what Ammons’s hat size was, he blurted out, “You jug-head motherfucker!” It wasn’t long before the nickname became, simply, Jug.
Ammons was one of the few who stayed straight during this period. Perhaps because of this, Eckstine rewarded him with the lion’s share of the saxophone solos on the band’s recordings. Among the earliest Eckstine jazz favorites was “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” a tenor sax battle involving Ammons and Gordon. Ammons, always a listener, had battled Gordon by throwing some of Dexter’s phrases back at him. When Lester Young heard the record, he told Gordon that “Lady Jug copped your shit.”
Ammons stayed with the band until its early 1947 breakup. Returning to Chicago, he made his first records, for Mercury, and had an immediate hit with “Red Top.” The performance, in which Ammons begins his solo with an audacious quotation of “Alice Blue Gown,” is a memorable one; and the saxophone solo was given words (by King Pleasure) that resulted in a rebirth of popularity six years later. The theme is still a popular one among jazz and blues groups, and it is not uncommon for a blues pianist or guitarist to remember Ammons’s solo when performing the song. He recorded for Mercury from 1947 to 1949 with time-out for the recording ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians during 1948. He also recorded for Chess during this period. During much of 1948, he was involved in the tenor battles that had become a growing part of Chicago nightlife. He took on Tom Archia, Dick Davis, Eddie Chamblee, and Eddie Johnson, among others, in local contests (often run by DJ Al Benson) and never lost a match. The late 1940s was the era when the legend of Gene Ammons grew in his own hometown.
He spent six months with Woody Herman beginning in the spring of 1949. This was an unusual step since the only other black musicians were trumpeter Ernie Royal and bassist Oscar Pettiford – who didn’t stay very long. The band was a good one with lots of talent but also lots of heroin addicts. Ammons wasn’t used to a great extent on Herman’s Capitol recordings. He had a short bit on “Not Really the Blues,” but his work on “More Moon” contained another memorable solo. During his stay, the band had a lengthy tour with the Nat “King” Cole Trio that generated several radio broadcasts. Hearing Ammons play solos that were once given to Stan Getz shows how much influence he had on players in the band in a very short time.
Listening to the early recordings of Gene Ammons is instructive since his style seems fully formed. While he was very conversant with the harmonic intricacies of bebop, that was not the only music he played. Illinois Jacquet played a part in his conception. The hard-driving honking of Jacquet was absorbed and filtered through his own persona to be used in his way when needed. Possessor of an enormous tone, Ammons would use it to full advantage on ballads (“My Foolish Heart,” the first hit of Chess Records, is a standout from this period). At other times, especially in these early years, he would modify his sound to emulate the style of Lester Young. Yet the single most important quality of a jazz soloist is evident in Ammons’s work from the beginning: he is a master storyteller. His solos have a beginning, a middle, and an end. He was a deft interpreter and a great communicator.
In 1950, Ammons began an association with Sonny Stitt. The Ammons group, which also featured pianist Junior Mance, was assembled and managed by Richard Carpenter throughout its entire existence. The unit featured the tenor sax battle as a part of the act. In some arrangements, Ammons would play baritone sax in the seven-piece band; and on others, Stitt would play it. At the time of the group’s formation, each man had a recording deal with Prestige, so the billing was equal on the records. Ammons, because of his popularity, was a bit more than a senior partner when the group first got started; but in time, it became more balanced, and the group was a successful one at a time when there were not a lot of popular jazz groups. From their earliest session came “Blues Up and Down,” a staple in Ammons’s repertoire for the rest of his life. It was first recorded for Birdland, a label co-owned by Morris Levy and Bob Weinstock. Within a few short months, Weinstock bought out Levy; and the music was reissued on Prestige, the label that Ammons would call home for most of his career.
About the time of the 1952 breakup of the Ammons-Stitt group, Ammons began his long battle with heroin addiction. This coincided with recording done for Decca and United that still featured the seven-piece group. By the end of 1954, he was living in Washington, D.C., and would work as a single, picking up local rhythm sections in his travels. He rejoined Prestige Records that year, and for the next five years, he would be recorded in a context best described as the Hi-Fi Jam Session.
Prestige would hire six or seven players to make an album. With liberal allowances for solos, most of the albums would have only four very long songs. The playing on these Jam Sessions was variable. When good, as on “The Happy Blues,” a tune from the album of the same name, it was quite good and featured a fine, relaxed groove; yet just as often it missed the mark. One thing for certain: being one of four or five horns in a blowing session context was not the best way to showcase Gene Ammons as Gene Ammons.
Ammons’s first major brush with narcotics violations happened in 1958. A conviction for possession resulted in a two- to three-year sentence. Released on parole in June 1960, Ammons immediately came east to record for Prestige. In the two albums recorded on that occasion, we meet the mature Gene Ammons at his very best.
Boss Tenor, the album recorded by Ammons on June 16, 1960, is generally considered to be his masterpiece. For the first time in an album setting, Ammons is the only horn; and his gifts for bluesy, melodic playing are on full display. “Canadian Sunset” from this session was a jukebox favorite, and the album was a best seller. The rhythm section assembled for this album was made up of Prestige regulars: pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Art Taylor. Some additional spice was added with the presence of conguero Ray Barretto. Apart from Flanagan, the other players had been a part of the last Ammons album, Blue Gene, done two years earlier.
The album that was recorded on the following day yielded Angel Eyes, another enormous hit, even though it wasn’t released until four years later! This would be the first Ammons album with organ accompaniment. Frank Wess, an old colleague from the Billy Eckstine band, was on hand playing tenor sax and flute; Johnny “Hammond” Smith was the organist while Watkins and Taylor reprised their roles of the day before.
Shortly after the recording sessions, Ammons was returned to prison for a parole violation. It wasn’t until January of 1961 that he was able to resume playing full-time. By then, based on the success of Boss Tenor, he was a certified star.
It is during the period 1961–1962 that the Ammons legend begins to build nationally. A listen to almost any of his recordings from that time will find him in top form. Outstanding among them were Jug, which was similar in concept to Boss Tenor and contained another jukebox favorite, “Exactly Like You.” The album also produced two other 45 singles. The day before recording Jug, Ammons recorded Nice ’N’ Cool, the first of his three all-ballad albums for the Prestige subsidiary, Moodsville.
There were reunions with Sonny Stitt as well: Boss Tenors and Boss Tenors in Orbit for Verve, Dig Him for Argo, and Soul Summit for Prestige. In addition to these albums, he had developed a fine rapport with organist Jack McDuff, and they appeared on record together on three occasions during this time.
Throughout this 1961–1962 period, Gene Ammons was dealing with an out-of-control heroin habit, yet his playing is invariably satisfying. Classics seemed to roll out of the Prestige pressing plant with regularity, and much of the sub-rosa recording done for Pacific Jazz and Chess was also of top quality. Black people began to plan their vacation schedules around his personal appearances.
Ammons recorded an album, Bad Bossa Nova, in September 1962 that became an important musical landmark. This is the first example of some great funk grooves that would prove so enticing to the next generation of musicians. On tunes such as “Ca’purange” and “Moito Mato Grosso,” the group would show the way for artists such as James Brown who would provide the next development in funk. It was also the last Gene Ammons album for many years. His addiction problem had caught up with him again.
The arrest warrant charge, this time, was possession with intent to sell. The case against Ammons was built with all the subtlety of an inquisition. In today’s judicial climate, the case would clearly be one of entrapment, but that didn’t help Ammons in the Illinois of 1962. He spent more than seven years behind bars.
In another aspect of the Gene Ammons–Prestige Records relationship, the company had sued Chess for recording Ammons while Prestige had an exclusive contract for his services. Prestige was awarded ownership of the Chess Ammons recordings in addition to a hefty financial settlement.
Some of the sessions acquired from Chess were unreleased. Bob Weinstock would carefully parcel these albums out. Combined with his own sessions and reissues, there would be a steady flow of Ammons albums until the end of the decade. When the Bad Bossa Nova album was reissued as Jungle Soul with a new cover, sales took off once again. Upon his release from prison, Ammons praised Weinstock for keeping his name alive all those years.
Summing up this period of Ammons’ recording career, it seems clear that producer Esmond Edwards knew exactly how to get the best out of Ammons. No other period in Ammons’ career is quite as creative. Edwards used to talk about a “light groove” feeling for tenor sax soloists that might bring out some of the players’ best work. He recorded a number of tenor players for Prestige: Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Buddy Tate, and Jimmy Forrest, among others. Ozzie Cadena produced Bad Bossa Nova, and there is no telling what that combination might have delivered long term under different circumstances.
When Ammons emerged from prison in 1969, he was not a well man. An enlarged heart and emphysema were two problems he carried with him as he returned to the jazz scene. But the old fire was still there. He had his horn with him in prison and composed a number of original tunes that were used on his first new recordings. His return gave a new lift to jazz in general; and his first new Prestige album, The Boss Is Back, leaped immediately onto the Billboard magazine popularity charts.
He formed a new band, his first since the ‘50s, including guitarist George Freeman, which quickly became one of the most popular attractions on the road. Ammons, the bandleader, was something to watch. He was a master at making his audience feel relaxed. A typical set might start with something very fast in order to get the players properly warmed up. He would then take the microphone and begin talking to the audience and introducing his sidemen. He might comment on something in the news or perhaps the weather, but all the time he was talking, his organist would be playing soft chords behind him that would gradually swell to the point that he’d introduce one of his hit ballads, and the club would go wild. Saxophonists as diverse as Houston Person and Pharaoh Sanders would appear at his gigs, watching all this very closely.
More hit albums followed: The Boss Is Back featured a reunion with Junior Mance while Brother Jug contained the jukebox hit “Didn’t We.” The Black Cat featured strings for the first time, and My Way had a full orchestra. Reunions with Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt were also recorded. He toured Europe for the first time and found eager listeners all over the world. Despite doctors’ orders to stop smoking, he smoked heavily. His recordings from 1972 onward began to show a diminishing of his talent. The tone had lost some of its fullness, and his improvisational flow became more fragmented. He had lost a considerable amount of weight and looked old beyond his years. What ultimately claimed him was diagnosed as bone cancer compounded by pneumonia. He was forty-nine years old.
In terms of popularity as a jazz saxophonist, Gene Ammons was second to none in his era. He had chart records in four different decades. He sold 78s, 45s, LPs, tapes, and, eventually, CDs. He did it with ballads, blues, bebop, and funk. He had hits with big bands, small groups, Latin bands, organ combos, or straight-ahead rhythm sections.
This final period of Gene Ammons’s life should be looked on as a “last hurrah.” Writers who previously had paid little attention to him or his work were falling all over themselves to say kind things, pop stars were trying to get close to him, and international celebrity would surely have been his had he lived longer. But he ran out of time. If it wasn’t for the bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all.
As an addendum, the story of Howard Cohen should be included. Cohen was a CD retailer in Atlanta, the owner of International Records. When two of Ammons’s Moodsville albums (Nice an’ Cool and The Soulful Moods) were packaged on a single CD (Gentle Jug) in 1992, he took to playing it in-store and over time had sold more than five thousand copies – from one location! And there was no press to celebrate this, no personal appearance, no special record label promotion. The communicative power of Gene Ammons had simply survived his death eighteen years earlier.