Ford, James Martin [Jimmy] (1927–1994)

By: Dave Oliphant

Type: Biography

Published: November 22, 2006

Updated: February 9, 2017

Alto saxophonist James Martin (Jimmy) Ford was born in Houston on June 16, 1927. He was the first Caucasian to join the jazz band of Houston native Milt Larkin. He played with the orchestra in 1947 and 1948 and was referred to as the "white Bird" because his performance style was patterned on that of Charlie Parker.

Ford toured with trombonist Kai Winding's group in 1948 and later worked at the Royal Roost in New York with pianist-composer-arranger Tadd Dameron, whose band included bebop giants Fats Navarro and Kenny Clarke. For much of 1951 Ford played in New York with Parker's former trumpeter, Red Rodney, with whom he recorded on tenor. In 1951–52 he also worked at times with another outstanding bebop musician, pianist Bud Powell. Soon afterward Ford returned to Houston, but by 1957 he was back in New York, where he joined the Maynard Ferguson big band, with which he played until 1960.

During his tenure with the Ferguson band, which appeared frequently at Birdland, Ford was the featured altoist and "one of the band's most impassioned improvisers." He recorded "breakneck," "searing," and "passionate" solos on such tunes as "Humbug," "Ol' Man River," "Stella by Starlight," "Newport," "Oleo," and "Back in the Satellite Again." While with Ferguson, Ford also served on occasion as a "boy singer."

After returning to Houston in 1961 he participated in the local jazz scene, which included such musicians as Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Arnett Cobb, the latter a former sideman with the Larkin band and the Lionel Hampton orchestra. In 1971 Ford recorded on alto with Cobb for the tenorist's album The Wild Man from Texas, which was not released until 1989, the year of Cobb's death. Ford solos on Cobb's original tune "I Stand Alone," as well as on "Doxy" and "Mr. T." His performances on these last two exhibit his "fiery form" and his "fluent, exciting" execution. One of Ford's rare outings at a slower tempo can be heard in "You Stepped Out of a Dream," where his solo work is beautifully flowing. Ford's final public appearance came in the year of his death, when he joined trumpeter Clark Terry for a February performance in his hometown. Ford died in Houston on March 13, 1994.

Arnett Cobb, The Wild Man from Texas (Home Cooking Records, HCS-114, 1989). The Complete Roulette Recordings of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra (Mosaic Records, S210-17683, 1994). Jimmy Ford Collection. Collection Number MSS 345. Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (London: Macmillan, 1988; 2d ed., New York: Grove's Dictionaries, 2002). Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).


  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II


  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Dave Oliphant, “Ford, James Martin [Jimmy],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 24, 2021,

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November 22, 2006
February 9, 2017

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