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Art Farmer: Every Note Means Something

Remembering one of the great unsung trumpeters

Art Farmer

Art Farmer holds a special place in my heart. The trumpeter was the first musician I ever interviewed on the radio, and he proved to be as gracious and responsive as one could wish. Farmer had just finished an engagement in Boston and was visiting friends in Worcester when his host, a stranger to me, phoned in the middle of my morning jazz show on WCUW and asked, “How about if I bring Art Farmer by the studio?” Before I’d got a nervous reply like “When?” out of my mouth, they were on their way. Farmer arrived minutes later in sport coat and tie with a Burberry trench coat draped over his arm and proceeded to answer my questions about the famous associates of his that I could quickly call to mind: Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Jim Hall and Benny Golson among them. He seemed particularly impressed that I knew McCoy Tyner had played with Farmer and Golson’s Jazztet before he joined John Coltrane, and said, “Thanks for knowing something about my music.” A month later, when I took him up on his offer to be his guest at the Blue Note, he invited me to his table and introduced me to the Rev. John Gensel, the pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and the first official minister to New York’s jazz community.

Farmer came to prominence in the ’50s. He worked with Lionel Hampton in 1953, making his first date as a leader for Prestige with members of Hamp’s orchestra, and then played with Lester Young at Birdland. He told Whitney Balliett for a New Yorker profile that Lester called him “Pres,” and taught him “That every note meant something. When I followed him, I felt like a fool if I didn’t make sense. He made me tighten up and tell a ‘story’ in each solo.” He then spent two years with Horace Silver’s first quintet followed by two more with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Farmer said that going from a player as propulsive as Silver to Mulligan’s piano-less group “was a shock…like walking down the street naked.”

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