Phil Urso, a tenor saxophonist with honey-dipped phrasing who played with top jazz musicians on both coasts in the 1950s, including Miles Davis and Chet Baker, died on April 7th after a long illness. He was 83.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Phil's brother Joe, who remembered an easy-going player consumed by music and jazz at an early age and was heavily influenced by tenor giants Chu Berry and Sonny Rollins. But first, some background:
Born in Jersey City, N.J. in 1925, Phil started on the clarinet at age 13. After the family moved to Denver in the mid-1930s, Phil joined the navy during World War II and was sent to the Pacific. When a Japanese dive-bomber crashed onto the deck of his aircraft carrier near Saipan in 1943, Phil was hurled into the ocean, managing to avoid burning fuel and wreckage. After recuperating from trauma in California, Phil resumed his passion for jazz, and in 1948 recorded his first 78-rpm sides with Bob Karch, Tom O'Neil and Howie Mann.
Between 1947 and 1951, Phil played tenor in the bands of Elliot Lawrence and Woody Herman [pictured]. In February 1952, he recorded four significant sides with trumpeter Tony Fruscella, Herb Geller, Gene Allen, Bill Triglia, Red Mitchell and Howie Mann. The records, recorded in New York, featured Phil's advanced harmonic writing skills and a smooth, assertive playing style that would soon sway the phrasing of West Coast tenor saxophonists.
Phil led his first date for Savoy Records in April 1953, recording The Philosophy of Urso with Walter Bishop Jr., Clyde Lombardi and Howie Mann. Recording sessions with Kai Winding followed, along with a key Debut Records date with Oscar Pettiford on cello and Charles Mingus on bass. In late 1953 and early 1954, he played and toured with Miles Davis.
His association with Miles led to an off-and-on association with Chet Baker that started in 1954 and lasted nearly 16 years. During that period, Phil recorded as a member of Baker's quintet and big band as well as other Baker-led ensembles. Phil recorded Playboys (now known as Picture of Heath) with Baker, Art Pepper, Carl Perkins, Curtis Counce and Lawrence Marable. It was a session that demonstrated how effortlessly he was able to out-harmonize two of the West Coast's leading cool jazz ensemble artists.
In 1956, Phil appeared on the Tonight Show with Baker, Francy Boland, Scott LaFaro and Lawrence Marable. The group played two tunes, C.T.A. and Phil's Extra Mild.
From the mid-1960s onward, Phil played mostly in the Denver area, recording only occasionally and usually captured live in a club setting. Then in 2002, Phil returned to the studio for the first time in 16 years to record Salute to Chet Baker, a stunning date with trumpeter Carl Saunders. It would be his last session.
Despite rapidly declining health over the past few months while residing at the home of his daughter, Stephanie, Phil's memory remained intact. When I spoke to him about six weeks ago, Phil was clearly ill, but his spirits climbed quickly as we talked about his 1952 Tony Fruscella date. Within seconds, Phil clicked off every player on the recording and talked about his Mulligan-inspired composition, P.U. Stomp. "I wrote great harmonies for the arrangements on that one," he said before fatigue forced him to say goodbye.
This week, I called Joe Urso, Phil's 78-year-old brother. Joe idolized his brother and reminisced about Phil's career, pausing from time to time to gain his composure:
"Phil was a studious guy. The music got to him early on and stayed with him his entire life.
During World War II, he drove the commanding officer around on an aircraft carrier and played clarinet in the ship's band. In my swimming pool, when I lived in Florida, Phil showed me what he had to do to stay alive after being thrown overboard after that Japanese plane smashed into the ship. He said after he hit the water, there were flames everywhere on the surface from the fuel. He showed me in the pool how he went under and hoped that when he came up he wouldn't emerge in the middle of burning oil. I think his whole life flashed before him that day.
He was hospitalized with shock in Napa California. When my mother and first cousin visited him in the hospital, he couldn't even recognize them. When he came back home afterward, I didn't feel as close to him as when we were kids. That experience in the water stayed with him for a long, long time.
Phil joined Elliot Lawrence in 1949. Gerry Mulligan joined the band soon after, and the two of them became so close that some of the guys in the band were jealous. Gerry taught my brother how to play the piano and arrange. The drummer was Howie Mann, a family friend. Most people don't know that they had a quintet within the Elliot Lawrence band. It was Gerry, Phil and the rhythm section—with Bob Karch on piano. It's a shame they never recorded.
Phil joined Woody's band in 1951. Woody had a habit of playing old-fashioned tunes with a small group to give the larger band a rest. One day at the Hollywood Palladium, Woody was playing one of those corny tunes, and my brother started imitating an ape behind him. Woody heard the audience start to laugh. When Woody whipped around, he caught my brother. After the show, Woody went right up to my brother. Phil thought he was going to get canned for sure. Woody says, "The next time I play that song, I want you to do it again—and keep doing it until I tell you to stop. The audience seems to like it."
My brother and Conte Candoli [pictured] were tight. Phil loved Conte's playing more than any other trumpet player. They were both in Woody's band. In late 1953 and early 1954, Phil was with Miles Davis for six months. They started out at Birdland. By the way, Phil said Miles hated Symphony Sid, the radio disc jockey and a fixture at Birdland—couldn't stand him. Any way, the group went to Philadelphia and then out on the road. J.J. Johnson and Milt Jackson joined the group at different points. It was a sextet. My brother said the group got a great response. He roomed with Miles on the road. One time Miles came out of the shower and said, "Phil, what do you think about me being black?" My brother was taken aback, he was such a gentle guy. He said, "Aw, Miles, that stuff doesn't matter to me. All I know is you're the greatest trumpeter that ever lived." But that, of course, was tongue in cheek. Phil loved Conte most of all and told me so.
Miles liked my brother because he was easy to get along with and because he had a black sound on his horn. It was like Sonny's [Rollins]. Also, my brother's harmonies were unbeatable. Chet loved him, too. Chet couldn't harmonize with him so he played songs straight, preferring to have Phil harmonize behind him.
My brother was very congenial. He was never a loner but he wasn't a follower. If he liked someone he'd go out of his way to say hello. He didn't fight. He lived in his own head with the music. Recently he told me he had a hard time falling asleep because the music was playing continually in his head. Sometimes it was the same tune, but always his stuff. When you spend your life in music like Phil did, the music gets so far inside your head that you can't kick songs out. One song that played over and over in his head, he said, was a song he wrote called Extra Mild. Art Pepper's wife claims Art wrote it, but that's bull.
Phil [pictured] said Tony Fruscella was a sensational trumpet player. Phil said that Herbie Steward came up with the title for his song, P.U. Stomp. I asked my brother if Herbie meant that as a joke, like, "You stink?" My brother said, no, it was just his initials. I was always very protective of Phil.
Phil liked Tony very much but Tony was an extreme user. When my mother sent me to New York with Phil, my job was to keep her informed. I was supposed to be the tattletale, and I let Phil know it so he stayed in line. If the offense was light, I'd never tell.
At the Paramount Theater in 1947, we were upstairs. I put down two telephone books on the chair so I'd seem taller than I was. But every time another musician would come in, Phil would introduce me as his "little brother." I hated that. They'd smoke grass and drink up there, but that was a light infraction so I'd never tell.
Chet Baker took advantage of my brother. In the early 1960s they played at the Banker's Club across the Hudson River in West New York, N.J. It had a big round vault door in the wall. I went out there with a buddy to hear Phil play. When I got there, Chet was playing but my brother wasn't. My friend noticed Phil sitting at the end of the bar. I got up and went over to Phil and asked him, "Why aren't you playing?" He told me not to make a scene. I said, "What do you mean? I brought my friend over here to see you. What's the matter?"
Phil says, "Chet needed some money. He got $50 for my horn." I grew furious and said I was going to level Chet. Phil said to forget about it. Chet had sold Phil's horn, he couldn't play and there he is siding with Chet! My friend came over and told me not to let it bother me. Then Chet came over. I asked him why he had done that. My brother leaned up to my ear and told me not to get too close. "Chet's like a cat, Joe, he's fast." My buddy had to hold me back. Chet didn't say a word. I told Phil that if that happened again, I would tell momma and that would be it. [photo by Jean-Pierre Leloir]
Now you got me crying. Hold on [pause].
When Phil played with Art and Chet on Playboys, you know what they did? They let my brother solo first so they could build their solos off of what he played. If you listen to Chet and Art on that record, they were playing what my brother played before them.
Gerry Mulligan also took advantage of Phil. I remember being in the bedroom listening in on the other phone when Phil called Gerry up in the 1960s. The line rings and Gerry answers. Phil says hi, and Gerry says, "Yeah, Phil, what do you want?" Yeah, Phil, what do you want? Screw you. Is that any way to treat Phil Urso when he calls?
This is where me and Phil differed. That stuff just went right over his head. I'd say, "Can't you hear that the guy didn't want to talk to you? You can't let people use you like that." Phil would just tell me I was over-reacting or that I heard things wrong. Phil was a beautiful guy. I loved him very much. We used to talk three days a week about everything, as recently as a couple of weeks ago. I miss him.
JazzWax tracks: Phil's recordings with Elliot Lawrence are out of print and most of his Woody Herman recordings are on an out-of-print Mosaic Records box, The Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman available here used from independent sellers.
Phil's December 1953 recordings with Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus can be found on The New Oscar Pettiford Sextet here.
One of Phil's best recordings with Chet Baker is Picture of Heath, which is available here or at iTunes.
But for my money, Phil's 2002 recording, Salute to Chet Baker, is one of his best, primarily because you get so much of him. Joining Phil was trumpeter Carl Saunders. Two musicians have never been better matched.
Salute to Chet Baker is available at iTunes for $9.99 or at Amazon here. Do yourself a favor and download one of the brightest lights of the tenor saxophone, a guy who was so deeply involved with the music that he never played a bad note or line. I've been listening to it relentlessly all week.
Dig Phil's blowing on Halema, for example. You can hear Chu and Sonny coming right through his horn. There isn't a bad tune on the album, and all of his ideas are strong and beautiful. It's five stars all the way. Phil, we all miss you.