Born: October 2, 1925 | Died: April 7, 2008 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Subtlety and restraint defined the playing of Phil Urso, a member of the 1950s' cool school who owed a strong artistic debt to Lester Pres Young but never came across as a clone of him. Urso started out on clarinet, but the tenor sax became his primary instrument after he studied it in high school. Though not that well-known, Urso was a solid and expressive jazzman who played with Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Miles Davis, Terry Gibbs, Oscar Pettiford and others in the 1950s. In 1954, he co-led a quintet with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer that recorded for Savoy, but Urso's best-known association came in 1955 and 1956, when he was a sideman for Chet Baker....
No other jazz player in Denver has Phil Urso's pedigree.
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.