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.
Urso was prominently featured on some of the trumpeter's Pacific Jazz recordings of 1956, which make one wish he had become more visible instead of less so. But after the '50s, very little was heard about Urso on a national level, although he did remain active in the jazz scene of his adopted home of Denver well into the 1990s. Phil recorded an album with Carl Saunders Salute Chet Baker for Colorado's own Jazzed Media label a few years ago. Phil was part of the all-star big band that was part of the performoing artists that played for jazz89KUVO's 20th Anniversary Concert in 2005 that was headlined by Marian McPartland. Urso had been ill for the past year.
The Philosophy of Urso
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 puts the letter away with a smile and says, He's layin'
it on kind of thick.
But Urso never heard from Baker again