The many obituaries of Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess correctly note his importance in the record company that that brought attention to blues artists who went on to became famous. Chess died yesterday at 95. The Chicago company owned by Chess and his brother Leonard had on its roster Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Didley and Howlin’ Wolf, among other blues stars. Leonard shepherded the label’s blues operations. He died in 1969.
Phil took primary responsibility for early recordings of Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Gene Ammons, Roland Kirk and other midwestern jazz artists attracted to the label.
Miles Davis credited pianist Jamal, a Chess artist, with inspiring him to make greater use of economy in developing his solo lines. “I live until he makes another record,” Davis once said of Jamal. Here’s the Jamal trio in 1958 at the Spotlite Club in Washington, D.C., with his “Ahmad’s Blues.” Israel Crosby is the bassist, Vernel Fournier the drummer.
Two years earlier Davis, already under Jamal’s spell, had his pianist Red Garland record a trio version of “Ahmad’s Blues” as part of Davis’s Workin’ album. That led to a side career as a leader and many trio recordings for Garland. Here’s Garland with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Davis listens with us.
Many of those Phil Chess obituaries emphasize that neither Chess brother knew much about music. They were “merely” hard-working entrepreneurs who made a difference.