"What I try to do with a song," says Art Farmer, "is to get as much enjoyment out of playing it as I can. It's hard to verbalize but the degree of enjoyment that I get out of it depends on just how natural it seems to me, and the natural feeling of playing this horn comes from really losing yourself in it, getting to the place where the song is second nature and you don't have to think about it."
Over 40 years into his professional career, Art Farmer has made good on all counts. On his new Contemporary album, Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (the latest of over 100 recordings), the pleasure in his playing is palpable. His facility and emotional depth are unmatched on the flugelhorn (which most trumpeters relegate to a second instrument but which Farmer adopted as his primary vehicle over 20 years ago). And he sails through the complex harmonic schemes of the great Ellington collaborator as if they are indeed ingrained in his own character.
Farmer was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1928, into a musical family that included a twin brother, the respected bassist Addison Farmer who died suddenly in 1963. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he studied piano and violin in grammar school. Soldiered into playing bugles for flag-raising ceremonies, young Art was assigned the sousaphone in the school marching band and soon after was handed the cornet. During high school, at the age of 15, he joined a dance band that played stock arrangements from the Count Basle, Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford bands. Farmer was completely won over to jazz by the sound of a trumpet in a big band and the excitement of jam sessions, both of which he heard when such musicians as Tiny Bradshaw, Erskine Hawkins, Artie Shaw, or Jimmie Lunceford came through town.
During the summer before their last year in high school, Art and Addison ventured west to Los Angeles and were soon immersed in the thriving jazz scene around Central Avenue. They met such greats as Hampton Hawes, Sonny Criss, Eric Dolphy, and Charlie Parker, and soon Art was playing in the bands of Horace Henderson, Floyd Ray, and Jimmy Mundy. With bandleader Johnny Otis, Farmer made his first trip to New York and stayed long enough to take music lessons and win a job in Jay McShann's band. Landing back in Los Angeles, Farmer took various day jobs while gigging at night with Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson, and Dexter Gordon, and he recorded his first sides, including his heralded original "Farmer's Market" with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray.
By 1953, Farmer was settled in New York and playing in the Lionel Hampton band, alongside Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, and Gigi Gryce among others. He learned indelible lessons during that period, especially when he played with tenor giant Lester Young. "He was still playing beautifully," Farmer told Whitney Balliett in a 1985 New Yorker profile. "Every note meant something. . . . He made me tighten up and tell a 'story' in each solo." Other musicians with whom Farmer played in the mid-Fifties included Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Oscar Pettiford, and Lucky Thompson. He even rented his horn for ten dollars a night to a young, temporarily trumpetless Miles Davis.
After organizing a quintet with Gigi Gryce, playing in the Horace Silver Quintet and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, as well as mastering "avant-garde" experiments with Teddy Charles, Teo Macero, and George Russell, Farmer earned a reputation for being able to play anything. He could be heard on the Blue Note, Savoy, Columbia, Prestige, and ABC-Paramount labels. But his greatest fame came in the brief flourishing of the Jazztet, the legendary sextet that he and saxophonist Benny Golson founded in November 1959. Featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Addison Farmer, and drummer Dave Bailey, the band thrived for three years. Nearly 20 years later, in 1982, Farmer and Golson revived the Jazztet which now plays three or four times a year and last year recorded Back to the City for Contemporary.
Also in the Sixties, Farmer formed a quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, but by the middle of the decade, he notes, "the bottom was falling out of jazz in New York." He had toured Europe several times and in 1968, after he was invited to join a radio jazz orchestra in Austria, assuring ten days work a month, nine months a year, Art emigrated to Vienna, But he has never been totally absent from the jazz scene in the United States, continuing to tour, record, and participate in educational workshops, seminars, and clinics. In the past decade, especially, Farmer has found the American climate warming to jazz. "It's bigger every year," he says, "and since I've been around quite a while, my reputation has grown. I would guess that about 50 percent of my time is spent in the . There's still a lot of room for improvement, there are still a lot of gaps, but there is an enormous difference in the 20 years since I started living over there."
For now, though, Farmer is content to live in Vienna, practicing four or five hours a day in a special soundproof room in the house he built near the Vienna Woods. "When I'm there I'm glad to be home, it's a chance to learn some new music and spend some time with my family. My social life is limited to going out to work in a club there a few times a year." In Europe, Farmer sometimes plays in large orchestras but his favorite format remains the small group. So he reunites with the Jazztet and works most often with his own quartet or with a quintet featuring tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan.
No matter what the context, Farmer approaches a tune with the same meticulous attention to melody and harmony, the elements that he finds most appealing and challenging in Billy Strayhorn’s compositions. "The melody is what sets up the whole feeling of the song," he explains, "so it has to have an attractive melody to begin with, and the harmonic framework is usually what my improvisation comes from. I, along with many of the players of my generation, have always been very fond of Billy Strayhorn's music. It was a challenge to everyone to do the music justice. His music is not something to take lightly, because it's very rich." The same could easily be said about the career and music of Art Farmer.
Art Farmer died October 4, 1999.
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