Psychology professor Ron Ley was one of Pepper’s closest friends. They were neighbors in New York City in the mid-1960s and they stayed in touch throughout the years after Ley first relocated to Puerto Rico and then Albany, New York. These comments are taken from emails Ley wrote to me after I interviewed him and his wife, Cindy, in Maine in c. 1988. Pepper's composition “Cindy’s Tune” is named for Cindy Ley.
Pepper said, “Thad was just born smart.” He had respect for Thad and admiration both for his music and as a person as well. I had the good fortune of riding with the band on their tour through Scandanavia for a few days in ’77. I happened to be at the airport at the same time in Copenhagen. I was doing research for my book and I had a subject I had to interview in Edsvalla, which is outside of Karlstad. The band was going to Karlstad and Pepper knew this beforehand.
I met the band at the airport. Our flights arrived at the same time. As I went through customs there was the band. I went into town and stayed at the same hotel and from there Thad and Mel invited me to join them on the bus and travel up through Sweden to Stockholm and then to Karlstad. It was an exciting trip—not for the guys in the band who were kind of worn by all the travel. But it was a very insightful trip because I had a chance to see Thad in a light which I had never seen him before: the day-to-day, minute-to-minute kinds of ways in which he dealt with the musicians in the band. He was very relaxed and unlike many of the classic bandleaders of the ’40s who were strict taskmasters. He was very loose with the guys. He would make a lot of jokes. They all liked him. It was a very convivial relationship. He was one of the guys. But you knew he was the man, the boss of the scene. They all had the utmost respect for Thad. They knew him as a musician who knew about what it’s like to be a sideman in the band because he had done it for so many years.
He was more like the big brother rather than the master and his interpersonal relationships were awfully skillful. He was very good at managing people. With musicians you have a lot of temperamental people, all of whom aspire to be stars in their own right. Then, of course, you have to keep all these folks on time, get them here, get them there and so forth. Of course you had Mel there too to help out. Do you know what it’s like to be on the road? It’s very, very tiresome. Long rides on a rotten bus and then you suddenly have to go on the ’stand and perform. They might have skipped dinner or stay at a rotten place.
Thad sat in the front of the bus. Mel sat on one side, Thad on the other. Thad had a “box” on his lap and he’d be listening to music. He might do something like, “Hey, listen to this!” and he’d lift the box up and play something for the guys. He might pull out some food that he had tucked away in a bag and pass some cheese around. Little things that indicated some concern about their well-being.
In the sense that they shared responsibilities, Mel simply didn’t have the authority. Mel had more of the management role: finding the gigs for the band, doing interviews with people who would be making financial arrangements and accommodations, financial arrangements. Thad never touched that. Thad did the musical part and Mel took care of the business is essentially the way the band was arranged and I suspect this is the reason that Thad and Mel became partners in the first place. Mel had a lot of connections in California as well as New York. Thad would say, “Give me a ‘yard,’” and the band boy, who was the manager of the band, would reach in his pocket and pull out a wad of bills and give Thad a hundred bucks.
Thad and Pepper had the quintet before the band and some of the things that Thad had written for the quintet in fact became classics that the band played. One of them especially that sticks in my memory that I like very much is “Mean What You Say.” There was the Quintet and then suddenly Mel came on the scene. It was curious.
Pepper had told Thad and Mel that he was going to leave the band at the end of the tour. This was the summer of ’77. Claudette was with him. In fact, that was the problem!
My impression is that Claudette had ambitions for Pepper. She saw that he was a talent who was not getting the recognition that he should and she was going to do something by way of promoting it. I think that she saw that there wasn’t much future by way of being the baritone saxophone player with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. This is something that bothered Pepper for a long time too because he didn’t get any feature status. It wasn’t “Thad Jones-Mel Lewis featuring Pepper Adams on Baritone Sax,” which it could have been.
[Claudette] saw that there wasn’t a future there by way of his receiving the recognition that he deserved, as long as he was playing with the band, and I think that she may have told him that what he needs to do is break from the band. But I think what happened was that Pepper would have stayed with the band, but what he wanted them to do was to call it “Thad Jones-Mel Lewis featuring Pepper Adams.” They wouldn’t do it. I think Mel told me this: that they had made a policy when they first began the band that they wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t have anybody in the band that would be a featured soloist. It was an all-star band in every sense. Jerry Dodgion was the only one who was left from the original band when Pepper left.
Pepper was rather bitter at this point. I’m sure he had a terrible conflict in his own hands because he liked and admired Thad so much. He couldn’t possibly say a word to Thad about this. In fact there was nothing said between the two of them about any of this. It wasn’t discussed and Mel bore the brunt of Pepper’s hostility at this point because he was doing more of the business management aspects.
So Claudette decided she wanted to go home. The band was traveling as a group. I guess they had special group rates, probably APEX tickets or something like that for their arrivals and departures from Europe. I think they picked up their money along the way. They didn’t get very much by the way of advance money and the money was all in the hands of the band manager. Claudette wanted to go back to the States and Pepper wanted her ticket. The argument was, “We can’t give you her ticket because she has to go back when the band is scheduled to leave Europe. And then he lost the argument about, “Well give us the amount of money equal to the price of the ticket.” Then there was this great concern because, “We can’t just trade the ticket in and get the money for it.” It was a terrible scene. I think she was going to leave from Stockholm. This was just a lie (“layover” better?) The band went from Stockholm up to practically the Arctic Circle and then I think they went as far south as Italy. It wasn’t near the end of the tour.