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A Lyrical Voice from the Bebop EraCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Farmer, ArtArt Farmer was one of the most respected survivors of the generation of musicians weaned on bebop, and one of its most subtle and distinguished practitioners. He developed a very individual stylistic approach to his music, initially on trumpet, later on flugelhorn, and ultimately on a hybrid of both horns which he and its maker, David Monette, christened the "flumpet".
The instrument shares characteristics of both trumpet and flugelhorn, but has a rich, firmly focused sonority which is very much its own. It was a sound which proved ideally suited to Farmer's economic but highly lyrical style. The trumpet is often a showy horn, but he was never a player who sprayed notes around in profligate displays of technical proficiency. He adhered to a credo which valued the ability to say a lot in a few notes, and to tell a coherent "story".
He was renowned for his mastery of the ballad, but was equally adept at a biting attack on faster tempos, where his articulation and control were exemplary, but with no sacrifice of emotional content. On stage, he was a dapper, physically undemonstrative player who produced quietly remarkable things on his instrument. He recognised the value of developing a personal voice in his music, and also of the need to extract as much personal satisfaction as possible from playing a music which did not always bring material rewards commensurate with the artistry which its practitioners brought to it.
He said: "I always tried to widen the range of my playing. When I started out I wanted to play like Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie -- I put Dizzy third because it was just too difficult even to hear what he was at sometimes, far less play it. But as time goes on and your own ideas get stronger, you don't do that -- it all goes into the mixer and comes out, you hope, sounding like Art Farmer. In this music, you really need to get satisfaction from what you play, because sometimes that's all you're going to get."
He was born Arthur Stewart Farmer into a musical family in Iowa, but moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with his family at the age of four, where he studied piano and violin at school. He played the sousaphone and then cornet in the school band, and performed in a dance band playing stock arrangements from the Basie, Ellington and Lunceford books as a teenager.
He was an assiduous attender of both concerts and jam sessions whenever a swing band passed through Phoenix, and later recalled that he and his twin brother, the bassist Addison Farmer, who died in 1963, would invite musicians to come to their house and jam with them, picking up a valuable grounding in the process.
Having first promised their mother that they would finish high school, the brothers moved to Los Angeles as 16 year olds in 1945. They attended the celebrated Jefferson High in the city, where they received further musical polishing from Samuel Browne, the respected music teacher who taught many aspiring jazz musicians.
The brothers found work on the thriving jazz and black music scene on Central Avenue in the immediate post-war years, and worked with bands led by Johnny Otis, Jay McShann, Roy Porter, Benny Carter and Gerald Wilson, among others. The trumpeter worked with saxophonist Wardell Gray in 1951-2, during which time he made the first recording of a tune which became a staple of the bop repertory, 'Farmer's Market'.
He toured Europe with Lionel Hampton in 1953, in a band which also included fellow trumpeters Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones, and saxophonist Gigi Gryce. When he moved to New York in 1954, he formed a productive two year alliance with Gryce. He joined pianist Horace Silver's Quintet in 1956, also for two years, then worked in Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet for a year from 1958.
As well as these more fixed collaborations, he played with several other giants of the music in the mid-Fifties, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, and also worked in more experimental settings with Teddy Charles (in his New Directions group which also included Charles Mingus and Teo Macero) and George Russell.
In 1959, he co-founded one of the significant groups of the era with saxophonist Benny Golson. The Jazztet was a sextet with a trombonist (initially Curtis Fuller and later Grachan Moncur) and rhythm section, and featured arrangements which were more sophisticated than much of the free-wheeling hard bop of the era, while still leaving plenty of space for improvisation.
They recorded six albums between their formation and their break-up in 1962, one of which was dedicated entirely to the music of John Lewis, the pianist with the Modern Jazz Quartet and a significant jazz composer. Farmer later revealed that he had sometimes chaffed against the level of arrangement which characterised the band's music, but their legacy is an important one in bop history.
Farmer had gradually been moving to a greater emphasis on the gentler and more lyrical qualities of the flugelhorn, and, along with Clark Terry, was one of the first musicians to really establish that horn as a major instrument in jazz, rather than a provider of alternative colouration.
Following the break-up of The Jazztet, he formed his own group with guitarist Jim Hall in 1962, a setting which provided a perfect context for flugelhorn. He worked as both a leader and a sideman in New York until 1968, when an invitation to join a radio jazz orchestra in Vienna brought him to Europe, where he was called upon to play on a regular basis with the celebrated Paris-based Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band as well.
He settled in Vienna and brought up a family, but was often on the road. The Jazztet reformed in 1982, and convened on an occasional basis through much of the decade, but most of his work in the last three decades of his life was as a soloist in a variety of contexts, most characteristically playing with local rhythm sections in Europe, America and Japan. In the early 90s, he established a second home in New York again, and divided his time between the two cities.
He left a generous discography, both as a leader and as a guest soloist or sideman. It encompasses both small group and big band music, and his later work shows no falling away in invention or capacity. He recorded for many important labels over his career, including Prestige, Contemporary, United Artists, Argo, Mercury, Atlantic, Columbia, CTI, Soul Note, Concord, Enja, Sweet Basil, and most recently, Arabesque.
He ventured into classical music on occasion as well, including recording Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with the New York Jazz Orchestra, and performing Haydn's Trumpet Concerto No 1 with the Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994. In that same year, he was awarded the Austrian Gold Medal of Merit in Vienna, and a concert honoring his lifetime musical achievements was held at the Lincoln Center in New York, which featured the participation of several of his distinguished contemporaries, including Gerry Mulligan, Benny Golson, Slide Hampton, and Jim Hall, as well as younger luminaries like Wynton Marsalis.
Art Farmer died following a heart attack. He is survived by his partner, Lynne Mueller; his sister, Mauvolene Thomas; and a son, Georg.