Born Eugene Ammons on April 14, 1925, in Chicago, IL; died on August 6, 1974, in Chicago, IL; son of jazz pianist Albert Ammons; married Geraldine; two children.

A pioneering tenor saxophonist in bebop jazz, cool school jazz, and, later, soul jazz, Gene "Jug" Ammons played alongside several of the bebop and post-bop eras' most noted players, including Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, Woody Herman, James Moody, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and Billy Eckstine. Ammons developed a playing style that was initially inspired by Lester Young. This style alternately featured strong powerful playing punctuated with sharp bursts or "honks" and low, deep notes while playing ballads. The fact that Ammons is not as well known or highly regarded as such contemporaries as Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane may be attributed to the diversity of styles that Ammons embraced. According to Robert Levin in a 1965 essay included in the liner notes to the Ammons compact disc Angel Eyes: "It may be that one reason for Ammons's lack of critical acclaim is that he is not so easily categorizable. He learned and borrowed from both of the major, and disparate, tenor saxophone sources, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and thus cannot be relegated exclusively to either camp of followers."

Despite an ongoing dependency on heroin beginning in the mid-1950s and several subsequent arrests and two prison sentences that together totaled nearly ten years, Ammons was a tremendously prolific recording and touring artist, a fact worth noting because many of his recordings remain in print or were remastered and reissued decades after his death. Critics have noted that Ammons maintained consistently high standards over his many recordings.

Ammons was born on April 14, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois. His father was Albert Ammons, generally considered one of the top players of jazz boogie-woogie piano. The elder Ammons introduced boogie-woogie to an audience at New York City's Carnegie Hall as well as playing at President Harry Truman's inauguration in 1949. His son, however, chose to play the tenor saxophone rather than piano after hearing Lester Young play. Gene Ammons studied music with instructor Captain Walter Dyett at Du Sable High School in Chicago. While still in high school, Ammons performed and recorded with his famous father and later did a cross-country tour with King Kolax. With Ammons, the King Kolax Band played such important jazz venues of the 1940s as the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. When he was 19, he joined the Billy Eckstine band, where he played alongside Charlie Parker and, later, Dexter Gordon. Considered by many jazz historians and critics as the first bebop big band, Eckstine's group was the training ground for some of the most important and progressive jazz musicians of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, including Ammons, Parker, and Gordon, as well as Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Howard McGhee, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan.

Among the most admired songs of this period is "Blowin' the Blues Away," an improvised piece featuring a saxophone duel between Ammons and Gordon that is considered a classic of bebop music, as well as such other critically appreciated recordings of 1945 as "I Love the Rhythm in a Riff," "Second Balcony Jump," "Cool Breeze," and "Oop Bob Sh'Bam." Ammons appeared with the Eckstine band in the 1946 film Rhythm in a Riff. During this period, Ammons acquired the nickname "Jug" from Eckstine, who, according to American National Biography, told Ammons, "'You have a head like a jug,'" when straw hats ordered for the band did not fit Ammons. Eckstine disbanded the group in 1947, and Ammons then led a group, including Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt, that performed at Chicago's Jumptown Club. He also played several dates as a member of Stitt's group. He led several different jazz combos until 1949, when he replaced Stan Getz in Woody Herman's Second Herd. After six months as a member of Herman's group, Ammons formed a quintet featuring Stitt.

The 1950s were the most consistent and prolific of Ammons's career. He began the decade by leading a band that featured Stitt on tenor and baritone saxophone. This group performed together regularly from 1949 to 1951 and sporadically until 1955. They were featured frequently at the famed jazz venue Birdland in New York City. The band cut the song "Blues Up and Down," a wildly played competition between the tenor saxophones of Ammons and Stitt that became a hit when it was released on the Prestige label. They also recorded the Jimmy Mundy song "Gravy," which later became better known as the song "Walkin'," recorded by Miles Davis in 1954. In 1954 Ammons had moved to Washington, D.C., from Chicago and became increasingly dependent on heroin. He continued to perform and record, however, and led several all-star jazz musician recordings that were released as a Prestige series entitled Hi Fi Jam Sessions. "The Happy Blues," a 1955 recording featuring Freddie Redd and Lou Donaldson, is among the most acclaimed performances from this era. Other musicians who played in Ammons's bands of the 1950s include Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Mal Waldron, Art Farmer, and Duke Jordan.

Ammons's drug habit resulted in his arrest for possession of heroin in 1958. He served a two-year stint in the Statesville Penitentiary near Joliet, Illinois. Released in 1960, he was found in violation of parole for playing in nightclubs, something the terms of his parole prohibited. He was imprisoned again and released in 1961. He then fronted bands that featured Gordon, Stitt, and James Moody. During this period, critics detect an evolution from improvisatory bop to the more gospel-influenced sound of 1960s soul music. In this new style, dubbed "soul jazz," Ammons recorded the acclaimed albums Boss Tenor, which featured his rendition of "Canadian Sunset," and Bad! Bossa Nova (alternately titled Jungle Soul), which featured the single "Ca' Purange."

Ammons was arrested again in 1962 for drug possession and sentenced to seven years in Joliet. He continued to play and compose every day, while Bob Weinstock, president of Prestige Records, continued to release the wealth of material that Ammons had recorded prior to his incarceration. When he was released from prison in 1969, Ammons signed the largest contract ever offered at that time by Prestige Records. Upon his release he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and emphysema, but in spite of his health problems, he recorded a bulk of material for the label. That material included such ballads as "Long Long Time," which had been a popular recording by Linda Ronstadt; the Paul Anka-composed Frank Sinatra signature song "My Way"; an album of Nat "King" Cole songs; as well as the self-composed ballad "Didn't We" and the instrumental "Jungle Strut," which was later covered by the San Francisco rock band Santana.

Because of his criminal record, Ammons was prevented from playing in New York by the New York State Liquor Board, but he continued to play in Chicago with such artists as Gordon and Davis. In 1974 he played at the Ahus Jazz Festival in Sweden. Upon his return from Europe, Ammons entered the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, where he died from bone cancer and pneumonia on August 6, 1974.

by Bruce Walker

Gene Ammons's Career

Joined King Kolax band, early 1940s; joined Billy Eckstine big band, 1944; appeared with Eckstine band in film Rhythm in a Riff, 1946; played for first time with trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Sonny Stitt, 1947; recorded jazz hit "Red Top," 1947; replaced Stan Getz in Woody Herman's Second Herd, 1949; formed quintet with Sonny Stitt, 1950; sentenced to seven years in prison for narcotics possession, 1962; directed prison band, recorded several albums while in prison, 1963-69; released from prison, 1969; denied permission to play in New York City by New York State Liquor Board, 1970; played with saxophonists Don Byas and Dexter Gordon in Chicago, 1970; performed with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in Chicago, 1973; performed at Ahus Jazz Festival in Sweden, 1974.

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Gene Ammons is in my opinion one of the greatest to ever pick up a tenor sax!!! I wish that someone would do a book on his life, it would be good to know more about him!