Jimmy Ford

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Provocative bassist and composer Charles Mingus may have subtitled one of his pieces "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There Would Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats," but in reality the innovative Parker…
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Provocative bassist and composer Charles Mingus may have subtitled one of his pieces "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There Would Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats," but in reality the innovative Parker was too busy destroying himself to hunt down players such as Jimmy Ford. The Texan alto and tenor saxophonist was absolutely brilliant when it came to reeling off variations on the established Parker phraseology. Although Ford's career certainly had more ups, downs, and downright gaps in terms of spreading the "Bird word," he was right up there with Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, and Davey Schildkraut. The latter player, incidentally, was someone Mingus himself was unable to tell apart from Parker in a Down Beat blindfold test.

Ford started out studying the alto saxophone in his hometown of Houston but was blowing tenor in his first important bebop engagement, a stint with the marvelous pianist and composer Tadd Dameron in 1948. A few years later some of the best recorded documentation of this saxophonist was created when trumpeter Red Rodney, a young protégé from Parker's later groups, convened a small group for tracks originally issued as Prestige and Fantasy 78s. On this session as well as one led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, listeners can also hopefully enjoy Ford's vocal efforts. This voice and the sound of his horn were then silenced for about a half a decade, as if this Ford had been parked in a garage somewhere with no license plates, covered by a tarp.

His creative engine turned again in 1957. Ford turned up in the reed section of trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's expanded combo, expanded in sound as well as size and ultimately an excellent opportunity for the saxophonist to reestablish his reputation. He stayed with Ferguson through 1960 and is featured on several swinging Roulette sides from that period. Ford -- described by critic Leonard Feather as "erratic but potentially brilliant" -- eventually returned to Houston, where he remained a creative force as well as a respected teacher. In 1994, the same year as his death, Ford was featured in an outstanding concert with trumpeter Clark Terry in Houston.