“What I try to do with a song,” said Art Farmer, “is to get as much enjoyment out of playing 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.”
For 50 years, Art Farmer made good on all counts. He made over a hundred recordings and the pleasure in his playing is palpable on all of them. His facility and emotional depth is unmatched on the trumpet, the flugelhorn and finally a combination of both: the “flumpet”. A curiously named, but beautiful sounding instrument with the dark, lustrous sound quality of the flugelhorn incorporated with the bright edge of the trumpet specially developed for Art by the American master brass craftsman, David Monette.
Art was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1928 (August 21), into a musical family that included his twin brother, the respected bassist Addison Farmer, who died in 1963. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he studied piano and violin in grammar school. Soldiered into playing the bugle for flag-raising ceremonies, young Art was assigned the sousaphone in the school marching band and was soon handed the cornet. At the age of 15 he joined a dance band that played stock arrangements from the Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford bands. Art 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 the big bands 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, Art made his first trip to New York and stayed long enough to take some music lessons and win a job in Jay McShann’s band. Landing back in Los Angeles, Farmer took various day jobs when necessary in order to play with musicians from whom he could learn, including Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson and Dexter Gordon. He recorded his first sides, including his heralded original “Farmer’s Market” with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. By 1953, Art was settled in New York and playing in the Lionel Hampton band, alongside Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce, among others. He learned unerasable lessons during that period, especially when he played with tenor giant, Lester Young. Other musicians with whom Art played during the mid-fifties included Coleman Hawkins, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey.
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 of being able to play anything. Greater fame came in the brief flourishing of the Jazztet, the legendary sextet that he co-led with saxophonist Benny Golson from 1959 to 1962. In the sixties, Art formed a quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, but by the middle of the decade, he notes, “the bottom was falling our of jazz in New York.” He had toured Europe several times and in 1968, after being invited to join a radio orchestra in Vienna, Art emigrated to Austria.
Over the last several years, his impressive musical accomplishments were recognized. In June 1994, Art was awarded “das Goldene Verdienstzeichen des Landes Wien”…”The Austrian Gold Medal of Merit.” In August of that same year a concert honoring his lifetime musical achievements was held at Lincoln Center. Among the musicians who participated were his contemporaries Gerry Mulligan, Benny Golson, Slide Hampton, Ron Carter, Jim Hall and Jerome Richardson. Wynton Marsalis, Geoff Keezer and Lewis Nash also performed. In honor of Farmer’s 70th birthday, the President of Austria presented Art with the highest Award for Arts and Sciences that is granted. In the United States, in January 1999 at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference, Art Farmer was awarded the American Jazz Masters Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Art maintained a full schedule with concerts, club dates, clinics and festivals throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. He played and recorded with large orchestras; Art recorded the Brandenburg Concertos with the New York Jazz Orchestra and in September 1994 he performed Haydn’s First Trumpet Concerto with the Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1998 and 1999, he toured with his Quintet in celebration of the Academy Award nominated film “A Great Day in Harlem,” which documents the historic photograph of jazz musicians taken for Esquire Magazine in 1958.
Art’s last performances included an intimate concert on April 28, 1999 at the American Embassy in Vienna, Austria where he performed with his long time Austrian pianist, Fritz Pauer, in celebration of the 100th Birthday Anniversary of Art’s favorite composer, Duke Ellington.
Art Farmer died of cardiac arrest on October 4, 1999. A memorial tribute in his honor was held at St. Peter’s Church in New York City on November 7, 1999.