Massimo Urbani was born in Primavalle, Rome on May 8, 1957. He was the eldest of five sons from a lower middle class family. Urbani's interest in music emerged when he was six, when he attended concerts presented by local bands appearing in his neighborhood. The young Urbani was also amply exposed to a variety of music on frequent visits to his father's hometown of Camerata.
In 1968, Urbani took up his first musical instrument, the clarinet. He played in Monte Mario's band under the direction of Gino Tommassetti, who eventually suggested to Urbani that he should consider playing the alto saxophone. A year later, at age 14, a teenaged Urbani performed regularly in local R&B and pop groups. Saxophonist Tony Formichella invited him to his first jam sessions at the Folk Studio, where Urbani gained the attention of one Mario Schiano who helped broadened the young altoist's musical palette and professional opportunities.
The year 1972 saw a maturing Urbani studying jazz with Giorgio Gaslini at Santa Cecilia Conservatoire in Rome. Tony Formichella, Maurizio Giammarco, Tommaso Vittorini, and Bruno Tommaso were among his fellow students at the conservatoire. A year later, in 1973, Gaslini asks Urbani to join his quartet. This year would prove pivotal to the rapidly emerging Urbani. At age 16, Urbani was jettisoned in to the world of recording, taking part in no less than four recording sessions in 1973 alone. Gaslini took his new group on the road, appearing at the Bergamo Jazz Festival, where Urbani was enthusiastically received. Urbani filled the alto chair on Gaslini's recordings Message and Favola Pop and Schiano's Sud, as well as taking part in Giancarlo Schiaffini's Jazz a Confronto No. 5 (Jazz Comparisons No. 5). Shortly thereafter, Urbani moved to Parma joining the exploding jazz-rock movement occurring there. No recordings exist documenting this period in Urbani's professional career.
In early 1974, Urbani joined forces with trumpet Enrico Rava (with whom he would work through 1978). In the summer of 1974, Urbani appeared at the Second Annual Umbria Jazz Festival. In the Fall and Winter, Urbani went on the road with Rava, the resulting stint including a two-week stand and television appearance in New York City. It was also during this period that Urbani is thought to have acquired his dependence on heroin. While in New York with Rava, Urbani became progressively more moody and unreliable. Recording equipment loaned Rava came up missing while Urbani spent two freezing nights sleeping on a Central Park bench, sick with fever. He was 17 years old and this episode would gravely foretell the rest of Urbani's short life.
In late 1974, Urbani recorded his first session as a leader on Volume 13 of the Jazz a Confronto (Jazz Comparisons) series. He then moved to Milan in 1977 shortly after his mother's death; and the following year was busy playing in bands led by Larry Nocella, Luigi Bonafede, Furio Di Castri and Paolo Pellegatti. In 1979, Urbani released his second album as a leader, 360° Aeutopia. For the recording, Urbani used an American rhythm section and the recording won the 1979 Italian Critics' Referendum.
Later that year, Urbani performed with Chet Baker and Nicola Stilo, while in 1980 he joined Enrico Pieranunzi and Art Farmer for the recording of Isis. Following the Isis sessions, Urbani entered the studio for his next recording, Dedications to Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, with pianist Luigi Bonafede. This recording was a break out of sorts for Urbani, proving that he was greater than the sum of his Be Bop chops. On this album Urbani plays with the same freedom and spirituality as the dedicatees.
In 1983 Urbani won Top Jazz honors, the most important Italian jazz prize and in 1985 he received the Charlie Parker prize, which was also granted to Phil Woods in the same year. The following year, Urbani joined legendary bassist Giovanni Tommaso for his excellent Via G.T.. The recording also features Paolo Fresu on trumpet and the band is invited to perform in the United States the following year, when Urbani records Easy to Love, perhaps the most well-received of his albums. Urbani also recorded Duet Improvisations for Yardbird with pianist Michael Miello and Where Extremes Meet with Luca Flores.