Between 1961 and ’62, tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons was struggling with a menacing heroin habit. His addiction had begun in the mid-1950s, and an arrest for possession in 1958 landed him in prison until 1960.
When he was released, Ammons’s craving for the drug had not been addressed and he soon succumbed to buying bags of the narcotic from dealers who frequented jazz clubs. Ammons’s sizable number of recording sessions between 1961 and ’62 was partly due to his need for cash. In late 1962, Ammons was arrested again. According to Bob Porter, writing in Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community 1945-1975, “The arrest warrant charge was possession with intent to sell. The case against Ammons was built with all the subtlety of an inquisition. In today’s judicial climate, the case would clearly be one of entrapment, but that didn’t help Ammons in the Illinois of 1962. He spent more than seven years behind bars.”
Before Ammons’s career came to a screeching halt in ’62, he furtively recorded three albums for Chicago’s Argo Records while under an exclusive contract for Prestige. Ammons’s motive again was cash, this time while in Chicago. When Prestige found out about the Argo dates after Ammons’s incarceration at Joliet Penitentiary in Illinois in ’62, Prestige’s owner, Bob Weinstock, sued Argo’s parent company, Chess Records, and was awarded Ammons’s Argo tapes and a sizable financial settlement.
Among Argo’s Ammons recordings were tracks that would find their way onto Prestige’s Blue Groove, which wasn’t issued on vinyl until 1982, when it was produced by Bob Porter. The original session was recorded in April 1962 and featured Ammons (ts), Clarence “Sleepy Anderson (org, p) and an unknown guitarist, bassist and drummer. The song titles were Blue Groove, You Better Go Now, It Never Goes Away, Blinky, Yea!, Someone to Watch Over Me, Sleep and The Masquerade Is Over.
When Ammons was released from prison in 1969, he quickly resumed recording for Prestige. To Weinstock’s credit, he had kept Ammons’s name fresh among jazz fans while the tenor saxophonist was away by slowly releasing Ammons albums that had been recorded in 1961 and ’62. But for some reason, Blue Groove wasn’t among them, perhaps because the date’s personnel wasn’t fully known.
The album has a certain rawness, perhaps because Ammons wasn’t in perfect form due to his addiction and because Argo didn’t have Prestige’s skill for capturing Ammons’s warm sound with a solid group of sidemen. But that flinty, halting feel is part of Blue Groove’s charm, as you’ll hear in the clips below.
Gene Ammons died in 1974 at age 49.