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"Sittin' in with Pepper Adams"

Robert Ronzello in conversation with Pepper Adams (Saxophone Journal - Spring 1982)

Four days after Moody's Hartford appearance, baritone star Pepper Adams brought his big horn to Al Casasarita's 580 Club as part of their Thursday night all-star jazz series. Adams, long associated with trumpeter Donald Byrd and one of the original members of the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Jazz Band, is recognized as one of the very best performers on his particular horn, having won numerous polls in recent years. (In the last Down Beat readers poll, he came in second, just behind Gerry Mulligan.) In addition to his reputation as a musician, Pepper is credited with creating an approach to playing barisax which goes back some twenty-five years and is now considered to be the model for most young baritone players.

Thin, modest and slightly introverted, Park "Pepper" Adams is a rather unlikely candidate for being such a powerful player on such a large horn. Nevertheless, he plays it with more vigor and greater facility of technique than just about anyone else in the history of jazz.

His accompaniment in Hartford consisted of the regular Thursday night rhythm section of pianist Don DePalma, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Mike Duquette - three musicians well-known to jazz enthusiasts in the area who gigged with Pepper on his last visit to the city. The show consisted of the expected mixture of standards and Pepper compositions, some of which appear on his two Muse albums, Reflectory and The Master. From Bunny Berigan's theme and trumpet anthem I Can't Get Started and Thad Jones' lovely Quiet Lady to his faster Bossallegro, the mild-mannered Adams came on like Superman with a sax as he moved around the changes, soloing with verve. (Not to mention Blue Note and Riverside!) All The Things You Are, It Could Happen to You and Stella By Starlight were done in a bouncy, medium-swing tempo arid then picked up after the first couple of choruses. Adams' tone seemed to acquire more of that characteristic edge the more his horn warmed up and the faster he blew. On the last set, local vibraphonist Matty Emirzian and alto saxophonist Sue Terry joined Pepper in a half-hour jam which produced fine playing on everyone's part. The baritone player displayed further professionalism and flexibility by letting his guests choose the tunes and keys in which to play them. His quick Muppet Theme interlude delighted those in the audience who recognized the melody.

All in all, another fine performance from the very much respected 51-year-old saxophonist. Here is what he had to say after the show.

RR - When I first heard you solo on a Thad Jones-Mel Lewis album, I was very much impressed with the originality of your tone and overall style, not to mention your impeccable musicianship. Your playing, the tone especially, is different from anything done before you came on the scene.

PA - That's nice to hear because this is more or less what I've tried to do. When I started playing, it was certainly new. Now there are a number of people who have adopted certain facets of my playing. When I started out, it was completely different from any other baritone style, which is one of the reasons I began playing baritone - I saw a way to play it that nobody was utilizing.

RR - Actually, you've created a whole new school of baritone saxophone playing with younger guys like Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber who play basically in your style. You seem to be almost uninfluenced!

PA - Well, I was influenced by just about everyone I ever heard.

RR - Of course, in that general respect, but there is no one sax player or even a school of playing that I can trace your style back to.

PA - Yes. Strangely enough, I think it was the other good players on the other instruments that influenced my approach to the baritone. Just to take a random example, when I was a kid. Rex Stewart had this kind of a bleak harmonic and rhythmic approach that no baritone player had, But hell, that's what I liked, so I adopted some things from Rex. And, of course, there were the piano players who, when I was young, were playing the most interesting harmonies.

RR - Did you listen to Harry Carney a lot?

PA - I loved Harry for his sound on the instrument and the way he played the instrument. His rhythmic ap­proach didn't interest me so much, but his playing was marvelous. When I was quite young, Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins interested me, and then I heard Charlie Parker and that changed a lot of conceptions. What Bird was doing was related to what 20th century classical music was all about in the harmonic sense, and these things I was somewhat familiar with. His rhythmic approach was new. That's so much a part of jazz­ the time feeling and how one ap­proaches it. It's a very basic part which seems to elude a lot of people. it's so rooted in basics that some people just seem to let it slip. I love Louis Armstrong. He could hit just a few notes but hit them so perfectly in such a right place that they couldn't be anywhere else?

RR - It's hard to choose favorite recordings, solos and so on, but one of yours that I find myself playing over and over is Thank You with Thad and Mel on the New Life album. What do you think of that particular solo?

PA - I was happy with the way the solo turned out on that particular take. It think Jerry Dodgion had that kind of a strong contrast in mind when he put my solo in at that point of the tune. On the take that was accepted, I guess I presented an extremely strong contrast! It's not often that I hear a recorded solo and think, "Well, that's about as good as I can do on that tune". In terms of Thank You, perhaps I could have played a better solo, but maybe it would have been difficult to find one that would be more striking to sit at that particular point in relationship to the arrangement that surrounded it. That's a long-winded way of saying I'm happy with it.

RR - When I first slapped an earbone on that album, I was floored. It's truly a fine recording.

PA - Yes, I think that overall the New Life record is about the best that Thad and Mel have done. I'm also partial to their first album, 'Presenting . . . ' but I think New life is probably the most overall successful.

RR - I often ask musicians what they listen to when they have a chance to relax at home and play a record. Do you listen to jazz? Classical music?

PA - That's basically it - jazz and classical. Primarily 20th century classical music. My wife and I are very fond of Debussy's piano music. He's so much fun to learn to play because it teaches you so much about music just by playing it on the keyboard.

RR - Who else do you enjoy In the area of 20th century classical?

PA - I, myself, am very fond of Arthur Honneger, who not too many American people know about.

RR - He was one of Les Six, wasn't he?

PA - Yes, and I really enjoy his works. I was born in 1930 and grew up in the so-called big band era, but I was always a classical fan - and I like Duke Ellington. I had absolutely no interest in Benny Goodman, with whom I later worked, though I thought some of the Sauter arrangements were very good. But basically I had no interest in that band and none at all in Miller, the Dorsey brothers or any of those. Some of Basie's things were O.K. - I liked his trombone soloist Dicky Wells and, of course, Lester Young. But usually I'd listen to Honneger, Stravinsky and Ravel at home when I was a little kid, and to hear them, it was so simplistic. Then to listen to Ellington and hear things like those minor chords with a major seventh on top, like on Chelsea Bridge. I'd feel right at home. I'd think "Oh. yes, that's Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin I've heard that shit before!" (A few bars of the famous Adams chuckle.)

RR - You've undergone a complete change with your horn and mouthpiece in the last year or two, haven't you?

PA - Yes. I had been playing the same Selmer balanced action baritone saxophone that I bought new in 1947. Within four or five months of my buying the Selmer baritone, I had tried three or four different mouthpieces until finally Wardell Gray, the tenor player, came back from a tour of Europe with Benny Goodman and he had bought a Berg Larson mouthpiece for his instru­ment. I tried his tenor and liked the way his Berg played so much that I mail-ordered one.

This was in 1948 before they were being distributed in the United States. I have been playing on that same mouthpiece ever since! It took me about six weeks to get it under control, but once I did, I got so I really enjoyed playing it. I've managed to break it in quite well, having played it for twenty-some years-thirty-some years?! My goodness! I was using Rico five reeds all that time. In May, I was in Detroit playing a concert just at the time the poor mouthpiece expired. What happened was the pitting on the facing of the mouthpiece had become so extreme that the reed would no longer fit tightly upon the mouthpiece. So, the effect you have is one of having a leak in your saxophone but one that oc­curs 3/4 of an inch from the point where the airstream starts! That's a severe problem! It was a hell of a thing. I had to get through this concert and then fly to New York, go home, change clothes in Brooklyn, go into Manhattan and from there get a train for Washington. I had about twenty-five spare minutes.

Fortunately, Jerry Dodgion was on the gig in Detroit. He's very knowledgeable about mouthpieces whereas I'm not at all because I played the same one for so many years and never had to look for one. So. I had this little bit of time in Manhattan to find a new mouthpiece. Jerry suggested that I go to a place called Art Schell in the West forties and said that they had the best selec­tion of mouthpieces and very knowledgeable people, I went in with my old dead Berg and showed it to them. They looked at the facing, and I asked what they had that they thought might be comparable, and they came up with a Dukoff. I tried playing the Dukoff with one of my Rico fives, and it didn't work very well. Someone there suggested putting a plastic reed on it, so I tried one, and It seemed to work very well. By now, it's time for me to get a taxi to Penn. station to get the train to Washington to work the weekend. By the end of the weekend, I was starting to feel a little comfortable with this Dukoff mouthpiece and the plastic reed. That's what I've been playing since, though I'm still doubtful about a couple of things.

One, the Dukoff appears to be so fragile, I'm afraid that if somebody sneezes in its vicinity, it's going to just disintegrate! Two, the plastic reed, well, I don't know. It's very convenient - there are periods of time when I might be in Europe and have four or five days off between concerts, and I don't want to practice baritone sax in a hotel room - that's a quick way to make enemies -  so it's a great convenience to have a reed on there that you haven't touched in a few days and have it play right away. That's a remarkable conve­nience. However, I'm not entirely convinced about its response, and I'm really not sure about the Dukoff either, but to this point, I think they're playing very well.

RR - How about your new horn? Were you having problems with the old one?

PA - The saxophone that I bought new in 1947 was still playing fine but getting rather delicate after having had a very hard life. With many people who own a baritone, it's their fifth saxophone, and it comes out of the closet once a month and therefore will last a good long time. Mine has been played every day for almost thirty-five years and has been over the world many times. Lord knows how many planes and trains and boats and buses it's been on. It still plays but was getting rather delicate, and I was afraid to travel with it much further. I was fortunate enough to have a full two weeks in Paris in December of 1980, and it was then that I contacted the Selmer people.

I prefer playing the baritone without the low A, which is fairly uncommon now. I was shocked when they told me that the baritone without the low A accounts for only five percent of their world-wide sales. But, to me it's an instrument that speaks better, and generally the intonation is better. Certainly, the low A baritone tends to get stuffy on the bottom until you get to the low A. Since I don't have to do much studio work, I can get away with playing the baritone without the low A.

Anyway, the Selmer people were kind enough to send out telexes around France and assemble all nine of the baritones in France at that time without the low A, I took three days to test them all out. A couple of them I found had problems which could be repaired there by their repairmen, so I could return the next day and try them again after their repairmen had a crack at them. I was able to make my selection from all of those, which I think was exceptionally kind. I like the Selmer people very much; I was treated very nicely by their people and am quite happy with the instrument I have.

RR - The last thing I'd like to ask you, Pepper, is do you think younger people are getting more involved with jazz today than, say, five to ten years ago? Is it coming back into vogue?

PA - Well, I think it's definitely a better situation than it was ten years ago. Yes, the basic reason for this is younger people. You, yourself, are a fine example of a young person who's interested in not only what's happening now but in collecting records and researching things. Fifteen years ago and as recently as ten years ago, it seemed very rare to see a young person in a jazz club. They were totally absorbed with the music of the young, which was nothing more than twelve guitars and a cannon.

RR - I used to listen to that type of music when I was nine or ten. Then I started playing alto, and all that changed.

PA - Ten or so years ago, when I was with Thad and Mel's band, I started to see more and more college-age people in the club. Eventually, It got to the point where I would have to mark on my calendar any college days or vacations. If we were playing at the Vanguard on a Monday night, I would plan to get there an hour early because I knew that if I got there when I normally would at ten minutes to ten, the stairway would be crowded with eighteen and twenty year olds! That was a great sign, but it made it difficult for me to get down there with a big instrument. After a while, I'd go in an hour early, stash my horn in the kitchen and then go two blocks away to a friend's bar and hang out for a while, But, that was a strong indication that we were again starting to reach a young audience-which is the most important audience because that's where the future of any music is.

© Robert Ronzello and Saxophone Journal Spring 1982