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Gene Ammons Helped Fuse Bebop and Chicago Blues

Perhaps nothing is as soothing and peaceful as cool saxophone music, and Gene Ammons was a master. Ammons, known as “The Boss” decades before Springsteen came along, played with all the greats. That should be no surprise, since he was one of them.

Ammons lived from April 14, 1925 to August 6, 1974. Wikipedia starts its profile with the point that his music was rooted in soul and R&B, which made it accessible. It makes sense that this would be so considering that Ammons’ father was Albert Ammons, a well-known boogie-woogie piano player. Few jazz forms are as accessible (and, as a bonus, exhilarating) as boogie-woogie piano.

Ammons was born in Chicago. As with almost all of the giants, the names scattered through the bio become familiar very early on. In 1944, Ammons joined Billy Eckstine’s band, which also featured Charlie Parker and, later, Dexter Gordon. Three years later, he was leading a group at the Jumptown Club featured Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt. In 1949, Ammons replaces Stan Getz in Woody Herman’s Second Herd. The next year, Ammons and Stitt formed a duet. Eckstine, by the way, gave Ammons his other nickname, “Jug,” when straw hats ordered for the band did not fit.

The bio goes on to note the other greats Ammons played with as his career progressed. The dark side of the tale, however, is two stints in prison for narcotics violations. That apparently didn’t slow down his commercial success, however. Ammons, fresh out of Joliet in 1969, signed a big contract with Prestige.

The Wikipedia profile does a nice job of describing what differentiated Ammons. He, along with Von Freeman, founded the Chicago school of tenor sax. The style was influenced by Ben Webster and Lester Young and therefore was expressive. At the same time, it incorporated the changes that the bebop movement brought to jazz. Thus, he was instrumental in integrating the new techniques with the essential sound that audiences prize in tenor sax.

It’s interesting to see an individual artist such as Ammons in the context of his environment. In his case, that environment is Chicago. At the Encyclopedia of Chicago, William Howland Kenney posted an extremely interesting essay on the musical legacy of the city.

A key event was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which attracted ragtime pianists to Chicago.

The city’s central location and industrial heritage has made it a magnet for people in general and musicians in particular. The greatest example of this was the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south between 1916 and 1970. This influx led to an increase in venues in which music is played. These establishments – cafes, restaurants and so forth – were particularly dense on the South Side. Kenney points out that New York City specialized in songwriters; Chicago in performers. Both had plenty of each, of course.

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Gene Ammons (Photo: Gene Ammons Website)

There is a special connection between Chicago and New Orleans and the surrounding Delta region. Countless great musicians – including Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most important musician in American history – took the trek northward. Many stayed. Indeed, Wikipedia goes so far as to say that Chicago blues simply augments Delta blues with electrified instruments.

It would take the rest of this website to name all the great musicians that call or called Chicago home (and that’s quite a feat since websites are by definition endless). Some of the most recognizable musicians and bands: Chicago (go figure), Paul Butterfield, Kanye West, Muddy Waters, Benny Goodman, Willie Dixon, Gene Krupa, Common, Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock, Little Walter, The Impressions, Otis Rush, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison, Curtis Mayfield and Mike Bloomfield. There are of course many, many others – and the stream shows no signs of stopping. (And, by the way, virtually all of those folks are highlight at The Daily Music Break. It seemed silly to stick in hyperlink after hyperlink.)

Clearly, all genres are well represented in Chicago. If anything, the real heart and soul of Chicago may be the blues. It’s interesting and Ammons took jazz’s newest incantation at that point, bebop, and bent it toward the blues.

Above is “The Happy Blues,” which is the title track from a 1956 Prestige album. In addition to Ammons, the players are Art Farmer (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto sax), Duke Jordan (piano), Art Taylor (drums) and Candido (congas). This is not Richard Smith’s “Happy Blues,” which also is worth a listen. I couldn’t find any information about “Confirmation,” which is below. The song was written by Charlie Parker.

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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