Eugene “Jug” Ammons (saxophonist) was born on April 14, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois and passed away on July 23, 1974 in Chicago, Illinois at the age of 49.
Some of Ammons stylistic versatility can undoubtedly be traced to his Chicago home, where he heard the piano stylings of his mother, and perhaps most importantly his father, the celebrated boogie-woogie master Albert Ammons. He also learned from the renowned “Captain” Walter Dyett, the musical director of Chicago’s DuSable High School. Dyett was instrumental in launching the careers of many other DuSable alumni, including the legendary crooner and pianist Nat “King” Cole and fellow saxophonist Johnny Griffin.
Ammons began to gain recognition while still at high school when in 1943, at the age of 18, he went on the road with trumpeter King Kolax’s band. In 1944 he joined the band of Billy Eckstine (who bestowed on him the nickname “Jug” when straw hats ordered for the band did not fit), playing alongside Charlie Parker and later Dexter Gordon. Notable performances from this period include “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” featuring a saxophone duel between Ammons and Gordon. After 1947, when Eckstine became a solo performer, Ammons then led a group, including Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt, that performed at Chicago’s Jumptown Club. In 1949 Ammons replaced Stan Getz as a member of Woody Herman’s Second Herd, and then in 1950 formed a duet with Sonny Stitt.
The 1950s were a prolific period for Ammons and produced some acclaimed recordings such as “The Happy Blues” (1955), featuring Freddie Redd and Lou Donaldson. Musicians who played in his groups, apart from Stitt, included Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Mal Waldron, Art Farmer, and Duke Jordan.
In 1958, Ammons suffered his first career setback when he was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession. He resumed playing at the end of his prison term in 1960, when jazz was in the midst of another sea change. A number of ensembles turned to the Hammond B-3 organ instead of the piano. The rise of unabashedly funky soul-jazz was a natural match for Ammons’ driving, bluesy sound, and he was again able to lend his arresting tone to a number of successful projects.
Unfortunately, Ammons’ drug problems led to a another arrest and conviction in 1962 — though jazz and blues expert Bob Porter says that Ammons was framed. Luckily, thanks to the savvy of Prestige Records producer Bob Weinstock, the label was able to continue releasing new material. Ammons was released from prison in 1969. From then until his death from bone cancer on Aug. 6, 1974, he continued to make new recordings, including the acclaimed collection The Boss Is Back, as well as equally memorable dates with saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Cannonball Adderley.
In the more than 25 years since his death, Ammons’ soulful approach and versatility have continued to touch musicians and fans. The key to his unique influence is found in what Ammons told a journalist in 1961, when asked to offer advice to young musicians: “I would tell them to get a sound. Practice their sound. That’s the most important thing.”