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"Pepper Adams"

By Lee Jeske (Down Beat - August 1982)

I'm not sure why I watch the Grammy Awards every year. I rarely like the music they present, and I usually spend most of the endless three hours just clucking my tongue at the lack of any real presentation of jazz on the show. Oh sure, there is always a token jazz performance, but it is usually by an established icon - Basie, Fitzgerald - or a jazz/pop star - Mangione, Jarreau. It usually receives a large, gratuitous ovation and has as much to do with the real state of the music as Luciano Pavarotti singing Sorrento or Placido Domingo dueting with a porky puppet has to do with the current state of classical music.

I checked the TV Guide in advance: it was going to be Jarreau. So I slumped down in the chair, flicked on the show and sat bolt upright as the alphabetical guest list began. Was that Pepper Adams' name I heard? Pepper Adams - the skinny, rumpled, owlish master of the baritone sax - was on the Grammy Awards?

"Heh-heh-heh," laughs Pepper Adams on a couch in his Brooklyn home. "It started as a grass roots movement within the various chapters: 'Why don't we have any jazz on this damn show?' So the representatives of the governors met with the producers and were adamant. How it came to evolve to me, I suppose, is that it was my third consecutive year of being nominated, and I think there was something like, 'Well, as long as we're going to have a little jazz, we might as well make it somebody a little obscure!' Pepper lost the Grammy to a recording by the late John Coltrane, but he did manage to get in two blistering minutes of My Shining Hour - played at a super-fast tempo to allow for an improvised chorus or two. He also got a chance to trade some licks with Al Jarreau.

If Pepper Adams is "obscure" it is only by the standards of such big name entertainment as the Grammy Awards. Certainly, the jazz world is well aware of his talents. As a matter of fact, Adams is currently at a peak of recognition and popularity that is higher than at any other point in his career. Since leaving the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra in late '76, he has recorded a number of albums, toured the world as a leader and, beginning in 1979, unseated Gerry Mulligan as the annual winner of the baritone category in the db Critics Poll. His gruff, authoritative style on the baritone - he plays like a man who won't take no for an answer - has made him one of the most distinctive voices in mainstream jazz.

Indeed, Pepper Adams has one of the most distinctive speaking voices in mainstream jazz as well-it is a gruff, authoritative baritone voice that is frequently punctuated with a gasping laugh. It is a voice that tells me to take the Brooklyn-bound LL subway train as far as it will go and call from the station. It is a voice that then tells me to walk two blocks and stand next to "the store that sells stuffed animals and plants, and I'll be there in a green Volvo." Then, once settled in the book-filled living room, it is the voice that tells me about a life that begins in Detroit, Michigan in 1930.

"At the time I was conceived, my parents were considered fairly well-to-do; by the time I was sentient, we were desperately poor. My parents were both college graduates from the University of Michigan, and my father had a very responsible position managing Pringles, a major furniture store. By 1931 he hadn't drawn any salary in eight months and the store was bankrupt."

The young Park Adams III (the name is "a family curse," he says) was on the road at an early age, the family living with various relatives sprinkled around the country before landing in Rochester, New York, where Park was to end up with a clarinet and a new moniker, both acquired in grade school. The clarinet was learned fairly easily - Park's grandparents had some jazz records and a piano, both of which were of considerable interest to their grandson. He recalls listening to radio broadcasts by Fats Waller and the John Kirby Sextet, and being rapt in music from the start.

"I was quite absorbed in the process of learning," he says, "and Ellington's band was far and away my favorite of all of them. When the band played a whole week at a theater in Rochester, I was there every day. After a while, [trumpeter] Rex Stewart noticed that this same kid was there all the goddamn time so he invited me backstage, and I met the whole band when I was 12. Rex was my favorite soloist in the band - because he was the most inventive harmonically - and I remember enjoying the sound of [baritonist] Harry Carney's playing. Carney was such an obvious foundation of that band."

However, he continued to play clarinet and tenor sax in school, and wasn't to play his first baritone until several years later, when the family returned to Detroit. The nickname he picked up while still in Rochester. "Pepper Martin had been a third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals and was an extremely skillful player and an extremely colorful man," says his namesake. "He had been a major hero in the World Series of 1934, when the Cardinals beat Detroit. Near the end of his career he was sent from the Cardinals to their AAA farm club, the Rochester Red Wings. The morning that he arrived the paper naturally had a large photograph of this celebrity who was coming in to play local baseball. And he was an ugly looking son-of-a-bitch - crooked teeth, beetling brow. I arrived at school that day and the kids claimed he looked just like me. And they started to call me Pepper."

When the Adams family arrived back in Detroit, Pepper was 16 years old and proficient on several reeds. He was also smack in the middle of one of the most thriving jazz scenes in the country. There were also very few baritone saxophonists. "I had an opportunity to buy a baritone very reasonably," he says, "and I developed such a quick affinity for it that in four months I traded that in for a brand new Selmer. I saw a wide open field ahead of me - I listened to the other styles of playing and I thought, 'My goodness, there's a whole different way to play this instrument that hasn't even been begun to be exploited. Wow!'"

"I met Tommy Flanagan almost immediately and through him quite a number of other people, all around the same age. I was just a kid and I was learning to play. I eventually gravitated more towards playing with the black players, because I was accepted better on at least two counts. The white players were basically fans of Stan Getz, the 'cool school,' that sort of thing, and several of them gave me sincere advice about how I was going about things all wrong. First, you're not supposed to get a big sound on the baritone - you're supposed to disguise it and play it as much like a tenor as possible. I was told, 'You play too many wrong notes, you play all those funny harmonic things. And you should learn your changes better.'"

"What I was doing, of course, was playing changes in a more sophisticated manner, which gave me a hell of a lot more flexibility and took me out of sort of the cliche-ridden style. To them, bop was a sequence of cliches, and since I consciously tried not to play cliches, I was therefore not a bebopper and not in their mold. The other point on which I was not accepted was quite simple: I didn't use drugs. There was a fair amount of drug usage in the black area as well, but it was never pressed upon me there."

Adams calls "one of the minor triumphs of my life" the night Stan Getz showed up at a Detroit jam session and found himself jamming with a half-dozen Getz clones. Getz was impressed by only one musician - the baritone player who was, obviously, his own man. You can imagine the chagrin," Pepper says with a wide smile.

Pepper spent his teens playing wherever he could-it was impossible for anyone under 21 years old to play in bars - in order to earn enough money to send himself to college in preparation for a career as a writer - a 'literary type" as he puts it. The Korean War put the kibosh on the college education, though. Oddly, Pepper's stay in the army helped convince him to make music his career.

"I spent about four months in the band on the post before being shipped overseas. The basic component of the band was players who were considerably older than myself because they had been a national guard unit from Chicago that had been called up intact when the war broke out. There were people 26-28 years old who had been on the road with bands. There was a good level of musicianship in the band, but when it came to playing jazz-and there were quite a few of them who considered themselves jazz players - I discovered to my surprise that I was far, far more knowledgeable than they. This is my 'enclave theory': in Detroit the level of musicianship was so goddamn high that you really had to know what you were doing and be able to do it well, in order to even have a chance of surviving and getting any kind of work. I think it was this discovery that caused me, when I got out of the army, to have no intention of doing anything else but getting out there and playing."

After leaving the service, Pepper spent a number of years in Detroit housebands, including one that played back-up for tenorist Wardell Gray. The two men used to trade horns and, surprisingly, Pepper refers to Wardell as "one of the finest baritone players I've ever heard." In the mid-'50s, Adams joined the general exodus of jazz players from Detroit, although he's quick to point out that "things were still very good, musically, there. And there are still good players there who never left."

Pepper arrived by himself and, to tide him over while his six-month musician's union transfer was taking place, took a job doing statistical work for an insurance agency. His first gig was a five-month stint with Stan Kenton, a job which landed him in California. He spent five months in Los Angeles, doing studio work, but soon got the itch to play in clubs again. Maynard Ferguson was looking for a baritonist to make a tour east, and Pepper signed on "as a vehicle to get myself back to New York."

The years of '57 and '58 found Pepper in various sideman situations-including a tour with Benny Goodman. He also copped db's 1957 New Star award on the baritone. This recognition helped get him booked into the Five Spot as a leader for the summer of 1958. "I worked the whole summer with my own band-Donald Byrd, Bobby Timmons, Doug Watkins, and Elvin Jones. Then a while later Donald made a contact with a booking agency, he decided to put together a band and have it under our co-leadership, although it was just a courtesy to me to put my name on the other side of the hyphen because it was very much Donald's band in that he conducted all the business aspects. I was just there as a player primarily. I think we had a hell of a band."

That band lasted, in various forms, for close to three years, garnering good notices and introducing to the world a young pianist named Herbie Hancock. "What finally did us in was the booking agency. It was a large agency and we were somewhere on the bottom of their priority list. We would frequently spend as much money in transportation costs to get to the gig as the gig was going to profit us. It was a very disillusioning thing. Perhaps that experience might explain some of Donald's aberrations since then."

The band broke up when the club they were appearing in in Kansas City folded out from under them. Adams and Byrd had to pool their money to send the various players back home. "I arrived back in New York with no money at all. I had come east with a fair amount of money saved up, and when I was living in New York in the late '50s, I was doing a fair amount of recording, and I had a decent bank account. Then the band with Donald absorbed all of that and left me absolutely flat broke. So there I am, starting all over again. And the early '60s were catch-as-catch-can. I had some nice things happen, and some very depressing and very bad things going on, too.

"I never took a day job, though. I worked with Mingus for a little while, but I also managed to do things that I did not particularly enjoy. I spent about a year with Lionel Hampton's big band. Lionel is a charming man and I like him very much, but musically it was a shambles - a circus. You know what a standard Lionel Hampton rehearsal is? Lionel practicing his solo on Flying Home while the band sits around."

There was also some work in a quintet with Thad Jones. When Thad decided to form a rehearsal band with drummer Mel Lewis, Pepper was given the baritone chair. The rehearsal band blossomed into the most widely praised and influential big band of the '60s and '70s. "I enjoyed the hell out of it," says Pepper about his decade with the band. "I love Thad's writing and he's a marvelous arranger. The way that band could sound when it was playing his stuff and playing it right. With big bands, I tend to love the rehearsals, because that's when you're seeing the music and learning to play it correctly, and you're getting together with the section, getting the sound right. The first couple of gigs are great - it's a chance to go out and show off what you learned at rehearsal. Then the rewards start diminishing rapidly: 'We're doing this again?' With Thad's band there was sufficient challenge and reward involved that I could enjoy it over a long period of time. And, of course, it was not an every-night situation. It was every Monday night and an occasional trip here and there.

"And after a year or so of the big band, I started to get more and more record dates because of the forum I had there at the Vanguard - obviously you had to be able to read pretty well to work in the band. People would know that I was in New York, so I started getting a whole lot of record dates - sideman dates, overdubbing for rock bands, that kind of thing. So I kind of drifted right into a New York studio scene. And for four or five years there I started once again to have a healthy income after several years of virtually none.

"Then as the band started traveling to Europe, I started getting Europeans coming up and saying, 'I have this club; when the band goes back can you stay a couple of weeks?' 'Yeah, great - this was exactly what I wanted, a chance to play. And as that built up, the calls for record dates started dropping off because if a contractor calls you two or three times and you're not available, the name goes out of the book. So as casually as I drifted into the studios, I drifted out of them again." Since then Pepper has avoided the studios completely; he refuses to play anything but the baritone; and if somebody tries to cajole him to pick up the clarinet or soprano, he can answer them with "A baritone is all I own."

Certainly a baritone saxophone is not the only instrument heard at the Adams' Brooklyn home. Early on, as Pepper and I speak, there is classical piano being played somewhere in the house, which is soon joined by a thumping rock & roll recording from a different room. Later in the conversation, someone vigorously practices some solo cello pieces. What's going on here? "That's my wife Claudette playing the piano," explains Pepper, "and my 12-year-old stepson playing the cello."

Adams has been a family man for all of six years which, not coincidentally, is the amount of time he's been out of the Jones/Lewis band (now, of course, the Lewis band). "At that period of time the band was starting to work more and I wanted more control over my own life - to travel more when I wanted. I like small group conditions and I like to play reasonably steadily. The way things have been going, I have been able to keep a pretty decent balance. I like to divide my time at home with my wife and son with a certain amount of traveling."

Currently Pepper Adams is a baritonist for hire - he spends most of his time on the road playing with whatever local rhythm he's provided with. On the day we speak, he's right between gigs in Toronto and Miami. It may seem arduous to have to schlep a baritone saxophone all over the world, but multi-instrumentalists have it harder. Sometimes Pepper comes across a job that he finds particularly rewarding - he speaks with fondness of a Norwegian tour he did not long ago with a local rhythm section and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, somebody he says, "I'd love to record with, although I've had a very negative response [from record producers] to this suggestion."

He also takes the odd sideman job if it's offered. Some, like a Don Friedman record, he has kind words for - "Although it was a somewhat hasty date, there's some good playing on it." Others, like a two-baritone album with Nick Brignola, he has less than kind words for - "We skirted disaster; the best I can say for it is it's much better than it should have been, and it is still not good at all." He is, however, quite happy with the albums he's made recently as a leader - albums that have led to due recognition in the jazz field and, oh yes, have been nominated for Grammys.

As the cadenza to My Shining Hour, as played on the Grammys, Pepper Adams - who looks something like a Muppet - played the closing bars of the Muppet Show Theme. Like the sax-playing Muppet Zoot; Pepper looked. Down into the bell of his horn when he was finished playing as if to say, 'Where the hell did those crazy sounds come from?" I'm afraid that a good percentage of the Grammy audience was wondering the same thing. Perhaps some of them dug it. "Those who have seen me said they enjoyed that portion," says Pepper Adams with a grin. "Some even got the joke "

© Lee Jeske and Down Beat Magazine August 1982


Pepper Adams' Equipment

"My old Berg-Larsen mouthpiece fell apart after playing it for about 16 years. It finally got so pitted, the reed no longer fit snugly so I wound up with a major leak. I tried to find something that was similar to the old Berg. I found one and I've been playing it ever since, but I'm not sure I'll stick with it. It's a Dukoff D-5 and the reed is a Bari - which is not specifically involved with baritones. I used a #5 reed when I was using cane reeds, but these are in gradations of soft, medium, and hard, and I use hard. Sometimes I have to go through a few of them to find one that is hard enough."

"My sax is a Selmer I got in Paris in 1980 - it is without the low A, which I prefer because without it the instrument speaks much better. I don't think it has a model number - it may well be a hybrid"


Pepper Adams Selected Discography

As a leader

Urban Dreams - Palo Alto 8009

The Master - Muse 5213

Reflectory - Muse 5182

Ephemera - Zim 2000

Julian - Inner City 3014

Plays Charles Mingus - Workshop 2195

Twelfth & Pingree - Enja 2074

10-4 At The 5-Spot - Riverside 12-266

Encounter - Prestige 7677

With the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band

Consummation - Blue Nate 84346

Live In Munich - Horizon 724

New Life - Horizon 707

Suite For Pops - Horizon 701

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis - Blue Note LA-392

Potpourri - Philly lnt 33152

Live At The Village Vanguard - Solid State 18016

Big Band Sound Of . . . - Solid State 18041

Presenting Joe Williams And . . . - Solid State 18008

With Donald Byrd

Young Bird - Milestone 47044

Stardust - Bethlehem BCP - 6029

Off To The Races - Blue Note 84007

Royal Flush - Blue Note 84101

The Creeper - Blue Note 17-1096

Out Of This World - Warwick 2041

With Thad Jones

Mean What You Say - Milestone 9001

With Nick Brignola

Baritone Madness - Bee Hive 7000

With Thelonious Monk

In Person - Milestone M-4703

With Don Friedman

Hot Knepper And Pepper - Progressive 7036

© Lee Jeske and Down Beat Magazine August 1982