Gene Ammons, who had a huge and immediately recognizable and captivating tone on tenor, had the natural ability to take a tune and make it his own. He was a flexible and technically proficient player who could play in many musical idioms as well as being an incredible balladeer. He proved to be very much his own man, developing a distinctive, warm sound that nevertheless fitted well into the hard-edged playing of his colleagues. Some of his ballad renditions became hits and, despite two unfortunate interruptions in his career, Ammons remained a popular attraction for 25 years.
A Chicago native, Ammons had an ability to infuse originals and standards with preachy yet elegant clouds of sound, contributing to what became known as “soul jazz”. A pioneering tenor saxophonist in bebop jazz, cool school jazz, and, later, soul jazz, Gene “Jug” Ammons played alongside several of the bebop and postbop eras’ most noted players, including Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro and Sonny Stitt to name a few.
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. Ammons played a rich, soulful music overlaid with an aggressive attack – a style that moved him towards the outer edges of the bop tradition yet never quite slipped over into fully fledged soul or R&B. Ammons enjoyed considerable success thanks in part to his enthusiastic playing and the concurrent popularity of jazz soul music throughout the 60s.
Besides co-leading a two tenor group in the early ’50s with Sonny Stitt, Ammons worked as a single throughout his career, recording frequently in settings ranging from quartets and organ combos to all-star jam sessions. Drug problems kept him in prison during much of 1958-1960 and, due to a particularly stiff sentence, 1962-1969.
When Ammons returned to the scene in 1969, he opened up his style a bit, including some of the emotional cries of the avant-garde while utilizing funky rhythm sections, but he was still able to battle Sonny Stitt on his own terms. Ironically, the last song that he ever recorded (just a short time before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1974) was “Goodbye.”