© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
Norwegian pianist Per Husby worked with Pepper Adams from 1975 until 1984 and stayed in touch with him until the end of Pepper's life in 1986. In 1988, while on vacation in Australia, Husby tape recorded his recollections of Adams and mailed me a copy. Below is a transcription I did of Husby's account. While typing it up I could hear the Pacific ebbing and flowing behind Husby's narration. As you will read, Husby has a excellent memory for detail and his observations offer a very special glimpse into Pepper Adams as a musician and person.
The first time I met Pepper was probably in 1975 when he came to Trondheim where I worked at that time. He was actually the first American soloist that I ever played with, which was a good man to start with because Pepper had an extremely friendly way of handling people. I remember he had a few pieces of penciled sheet music with him, not really the average, professional copyist way of writing things.
When I wrote out music for him later he always played his parts in C. It’s funny: I never met another baritone player that liked to have the chords in concert, as they would be written for a piano rather than transposed for the baritone. I don’t know why he did this but it was always the case.
I think he sensed that we were pretty “green.” He was putting his baritone together, an old baritone which was almost green in places. I said, “Oh, that’s a very old baritone.” He looked at me. He hadn’t put the top end on so I said, “Oh, it’s not complete yet.” I’m not quite sure if he thought that I was even greener, that I thought the horn was supposed to be like that, with a big hole on the top! But he was very friendly.
We were playing a blues at the concert and I remember quoting “C Jam Blues.” All the time we were soloing he would go down to the first row and sit listening to us. He came up and whispered in my ear, “Yeah, ‘C Jam Blues,’ yeah,” something that I thought was very encouraging, even if I knew it was a silly quote.
Much later he did the “Muppet’s Show” as a favorite quote. The first time he did that was in Norway at a concert where we played “I Got Rhythm.” For the out chorus he suddenly dived into the Muppet’s Show tune and did the whole tune on rhythm changes, complete with that very last low note and that curious look into his horn that he does. He had never done that before. It was just a spur of the moment thing that he did as a comedy act. It went over very well with the audience.
Just before Trondheim he had been playing in Oslo with Sture Nordin, a bass player that I know quite well. Pepper had been invited to his home to have Lutefisk, a traditional Norwegian dish. Pepper was talking about that all the time afterwards, that he wanted to have Lutefisk again. Actually, he came to like both Sture and his wife very much. When I met Pepper later, if he didn’t meet him beforehand, he always asked, “How’s Sture?”
While he was there, Sture had a crisis in his marriage. Sture told Pepper about the difficulties, that they planned to split up. Soon after Pepper went back to the States, Sture’s wife got a long letter from Pepper in which Pepper wrote about the way he felt by meeting the two of them; that he thought it was a shame that they should split because he certainly felt that there was something there to cherish, which actually resulted in Sture and his wife not splitting up.
We were playing this gig somewhere in Norway. We had done the last number and I think Pepper wanted to go to bed. He actually started packing his horn. I think the bass player started playing a riff because people were crying out for an encore. Pepper looked a bit cross at that because, when he was packing his horn, that was it. But Pepper had to unpack his horn and I saw that he didn’t really like this. The bass player was stupid enough to say, “Maybe we should play a blues in a different key?” Pepper said, “OK, D-flat,” and went into a horrendous tempo. He could cut it but none of us could. He didn’t do it for long, just for a couple of choruses, then, bang!, ended. The audience didn’t notice that we just played nonsense but the lesson came off. It wasn’t the thing to do for the rhythm section to start setting up an encore when he was very actively signaling that he didn’t want to play.
After that we did a tour in Norway with myself, Bjorn Alterhaug on bass and Espen Rud on drums. I think we did eight or ten gigs around the country. We never recorded anything for radio. As for money, Pepper wasn’t really an expensive guy to hire. He used to say, “If I can go home with a $1,000 per week in my pocket, I’m happy.” The Finnish piano player Esko Linnavalli once said to me when we talked about Pepper, “You know, Pepper doesn’t know anything about money. He’s one of the few people that we can still hire.” What he meant was that Pepper wasn’t trying to pull more money from people than he needed, that he was one of the few who were still in it for the music.
The tour started in Stavanger. Pepper came in, jet lag and all, and was not in a very good mood. We said, “OK, let’s just have a short rehearsal of tunes that we know and then tomorrow we’ll have a rehearsal for the tour.” That’s what we did. I don’t know if he even picked up his horn. He said, “Do you know this tune, do you know this tune?” and so on. He said, “Do you know ‘Embraceable You?’” I hadn’t played that for a while but I thought the bass player had, so I said, “Oh, Yes” and the bass player said, “Oh, Yes.” We didn’t think more about it. We all went out for dinner, slept a little after that and we went right to the gig. For the second tune Pepper called “Embraceable You.” It turned out that the bass player had thought that I knew the tune, and I had thought the bass player knew the tune, so we didn’t know it well enough to play it. Pepper was very angry about that. He said, “You said that you knew it!” He was mumbling and swearing to himself. He hated any kind of conceit; people that tried to lay on him something that they weren’t or couldn’t. I think he was very much after honesty, people that were straight.
The thing he never forgot was that I promised him this salary of maybe $1,200 a week. I said, “I don’t think it’s very much but we haven’t got everything set just now, so, if there is any extra money when we do the books at the end I’ll send you some after you come home.” That actually happened. I sent him about $1,000 about a month after the tour had ended. I don’t think Pepper ever forgot that because apparently he had heard this from so many people—people saying that maybe we can get you some more and it never materialized—and suddenly he got $1,000 out of the blue from Norway. I think that’s one of the reasons he liked playing with us. The other reason: I think he stated in that Down Beat interview that we were nice to travel with. We didn’t get drunk on stage and we didn’t apply the American superego or anything like that. We just wanted to make a good job out of it.
I know he sort of took a liking to us. This must have been in ’77 or ’78 because I remember visiting him in the States in ’78 after that tour. I came over to his house in Brooklyn and Claudette and Pepper served dinner. A curious thing about Pepper: he would talk to you for a while and then suddenly fall silent. He would look straight-ahead and you wouldn’t quite know what to say to him. I didn’t know if he was just thinking or if he thought I was boring or whatever. He suddenly seemed to drop off in thought.
We did quite a bit of sightseeing on the next tour with Arild Andersen on bass, Espen Rud on drums and Kenny Wheeler on trumpet for some of the gigs. I asked Pepper, “How do you like Kenny Wheeler?” Pepper said, “I really like his playing.” I said, “Have you ever played together?” Pepper said, “No, but I’d like to.” I said, “It sounds to me that it would be an interesting combination.” Then I asked Kenny and he said the same thing about Pepper so I got the gig together.
Pepper was very strong musically in all respects but I think he needed to be within the confines of the type of jazz that he was brought up with. Kenny Wheeler brought out some ballads and things that he had written that are based on quite different chord progressions from what would be your normal bebop chord progressions and, to be honest about it, Pepper played some awful choruses—really wrong notes—on some of these things. The funny thing is that he played them with vigor and there was no hesitation or anything. It was just wrong. I was very surprised that Pepper couldn’t handle some of Kenny’s ballads. He really didn’t find out how to play them.
He had a new horn at the time. I don’t know what happened to his old one. Particularly in the upper register he would play as vigorously and strong as ever but incredibly out of tune. We never quite figured out the mechanics behind this because he was very wary of things like that under other circumstances. He would repeatedly play these high notes, and they would be so awfully out of tune but he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he was trying out his new horn and wasn’t used to it but it wasn’t natural for him to do the easy solution or play soft just to try it out. He just went for it. He did it full blast and ugly rather than hesitating. I don’t think Pepper would ever hesitate about anything musically. I think this goes together with his opinionated way of thinking about other musicians and other types of music. Very much black and white.
Pepper had a way of being uncompromising about things. Things were either good or bad. Some players couldn’t play. I talked to him about Serge Chaloff and Pepper just turned around to me and said, “Are we talking about baritone saxophonists or are we not?” I asked him about it and he said, “Did you ever hear Serge Chaloff swing?” He posed the question in such a way that it was impossible to say, “Yes.” In his mind Serge Chaloff didn’t swing and nobody with any sense of jazz could think differently. That’s the way he put it. To him it was basically Harry Carney. I don’t think he was too fond of Mulligan either.
Sometimes Pepper was very cocksure about things. For the tour with Kenny Wheeler, which we did some years later, I had written out some charts. Some were tunes from a couple of Pepper’s earliest albums and there were a couple of others. I had written out a Mingus thing, “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk.” I remember I gave him and Kenny these parts. Pepper just had a glance at them and sort of discarded them one by one. About the Mingus tune he said, “We’d spend two days rehearsing this.” I don’t think we would have; we’d probably spend ten minutes and have it down but he obviously didn’t like to play it. As for the others, he said, “We’ll never get a job with—” and then he mentioned the name of some copyist agency in New York, meaning that my music was not really legible, that my writing wasn’t pretty. I don’t think it has ever been pretty but it hasn’t been illegible either. Probably he didn’t want to play them but he didn’t want to say that. He didn’t say this in an unfriendly way. Sometimes he would say these things in a gruff, not-really-unfriendly way but very much decided on.
Pepper always brought his camera along. On the tour with Kenny we did about thirty one-nighters all around Norway. We had beautiful weather. We were passing through some of Norway’s most beautiful parts, some of the most beautiful parts of the world. Pepper would take his camera out and he would never take one single picture of the scenery. He would always take a picture of details, like a part of a boat’s hull or maybe a window in an old building. Arild, Espun and I were amused at this. Watching Pepper taking his camera out became a game. We sat there and would always say, “He has to take a picture of the scenery.” Then he would go over and take a picture of something incomprehensible: a flower or maybe the corner of a bridge.
We were in Svolvaer in northern Norway. It was not Midnight Sun but it was a very red sunset, with these incredible peaks and stuff all around us. We had seen it all before but we came out of one of these small planes and said, “Wow!” Pepper came after us and he stood there on the runway looking around. He said, “Yeah!” took out his camera, and we said, “Finally he’ll take a scenery shot.” He didn’t. He went over and took a picture of a fire hydrant. We never asked him about this.
I didn’t talk too much to Pepper about music. We spoke a little bit about various other forms of music and life in general. I remember one musical discussion I had with him was whether melody or rhythm was the basic part of jazz. I said, “Melody” and Pepper just gave up on me. He said, “You can play a bad melody with great rhythm and it sounds great but a good melody with bad rhythm is always horrible.” I think he sung Ellington’s “Johnny Come Lately” to me, snapping his fingers, demonstrating how the tune itself was ridiculous without the rhythm. I still don’t know if I agree with him but, again, he was just cutting me off. Rhythm was the most important part, then melody. There was no question about it.
Many times on the tour when Espen and I would go out for a nightcap somewhere, or to a party, Arild and Pepper would get together in somebody’s room over a bottle of Aquavit and sit discussing Ellington, music, whatever. I think they got along very well. Pepper loved Aquavit and got awfully drunk on it.
Arild came in instead of Bjorn Alterhaug, who had done the first tour. Bjorn is a very accomplished “straight” bass player. Ben Webster used to love playing with him and I know Pepper loved to play with him too. Arild is slightly more modern so it took Arild a little while to get used to playing more bebop stuff. Pepper came over to me after the first gig and said, ”I think I would have preferred Bjorn but he’ll come along.” I could see that he sort of took Arild under his wing, tried to get to know him, tried to be personal and nice to him, which made Arild feel very good. After some gigs, Arild was right there with it.
It was also on one of these gigs that Pepper told me his philosophy about encores. I think he got this from Thad Jones. He said, “Never, ever play a fast encore. You should always play an encore that’s sort of medium tempo so that after you finish they will never want to hear another one.” He always played “Three And One” or something like that.
He also did this thing, I think in Voss, that he said he also had picked up from Thad. Pepper came over to us, just after the first set one night, looking very stern and said, “Men, I’ll have to see you. There’s a meeting in my room in five minutes.” Then he just disappeared. We were all a bit scared. We hurried up to his room and there he was, with a big smile, sitting with a whole bottle of bourbon and glasses for the whole band. “Sit down, have a drink,” he said.
When Pepper wanted to have a drink with the band—to be nice to the band or celebrate—he would call a “band conference.” That was the whole point of it. Apparently this was code that Thad and he had used for many years. Everybody in the band would know, and it was just an excuse for having a drink and saying, “This is good.” We didn’t know that so we were a bit scared the first time he did it.
We played “Bye Bye Blackbird” in Vadsö, far north, just by the Russian border. I know Red Garland’s piano introduction from the Miles version so I did that. Pepper played his solo and, when we got to my solo, I sort of did my Red Garland impersonation, Espen started playing the rim shot on every fourth beat and Arild took out his bow and did a bowed chorus à la Paul Chambers. We all had a gas. Pepper came over to us afterward and said, “Guys, that was great. Don’t do that again.” He was probably right. It was good there and then, as an on-the-spur-of-the-moment thing, but nothing else.
After that I didn’t see Pepper for a while. I wrote him a card or letter every now and then. We had a little bit of correspondence going, mostly postcards from all over the world. Pepper would always write these postcards. At the end he always wrote the Norwegian word “Skol!”
I asked him to be a guest soloist on one or two tunes on an album that I eventually did some years ago. I remember he was very vague about what he would charge. I think he knew that I didn’t have too much money, and he wanted to help out and not charge too much, but it never materialized.
I think the last time I saw him must have been in ’84. We did six or seven gigs. This was after he was run over by his own car. He had this old Volvo that, when I saw it, had been driven about 500,000 kilometers. He said, “This car is good. Why should I change it?” He had parked the car up on the driveway and he had gone down to the cellar to open the garage door. His car came after him because he hadn’t done the hand-braking properly. He got pinned against the garage door and the bumper broke both his legs. He was stuck there for so long because the only guy who came by couldn’t help him because he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
So when he came to Norway he was not really looking too good. Physically he was about the same. He was never your Johnny Weissmuller type. He stayed at my house. Once, when we were playing in Trondheim, I saw him at 11am standing there looking drowsy in slightly-oversized white underpants with not too many muscles in his body. I thought, “This is really bizarre. This guy is one of the most powerful baritone players in the world.” It didn’t really rhyme with the figure standing there.
I remember playing Sonny Rollins’ latest album for him. I asked him, “How do you like that?” He said, “I don’t like Sonny Rollins ‘Superstar.’” He never approved of Rollins’ way of coming back and, in his mind, playing to a wider audience. Pepper would never dream of doing that.
I don’t think Pepper was very happy about things in general. I didn’t speak to him too much about it but I could feel that he was thin-skinned. I remember we played one place where the sound was all right but I couldn’t hear the piano too well and the baritone was a little too high in the monitors. I asked the sound engineer, “Could you please turn the piano a bit up and the baritone a little down?” which he did. Unfortunately, I didn’t tell Pepper about this. When we started playing the second half, he played about twelve bars of the first tune and then started swearing into the mike, “Where’s the fucking engineer? Hell, everything sounded great. The fucking engineer. . .” He was really going on about it. I couldn’t understand why he reacted so vehemently. He was really blowing his top. There was nothing that happened before that night that should have inaugurated that sort of thing.
I don’t think he knew that he was ill at the time. Physically he was quite shattered from the breaking of the two legs. This was in winter, so he was sliding about with these old-time galoshes on. Again, he looked very far from being your hip baritone player; rather like some office clerk around sixty, looking older than he was, staggering around on ice and snow. He was still playing very well, though this thing about playing out of tune on ballads was still there. I can’t remember having heard that on albums.
He was in great pain and didn’t sleep at night because of his legs. I have a friend in Oslo who works with acupuncture and she tried to help him. She did acupuncture on him and he said it helped. He told me that he had asked Frida, who he got very fond of, to write everything down in “acupuncture language,” as he called it, so he could take it home to New York and see somebody there to follow up with the same thing. Acupuncture was a revelation to Pepper because I don’t think he believed in that sort of stuff, if it was acupuncture or Taro cards or whatever.
He knew about all these things. He was probably one of the most informed people I’ve ever met—on any topic. I remember we once were in a very desolate train station in Norway waiting for a connecting train. We were bored, sitting reading the paper. There was just a waiting room with nothing that we could find to do. But Pepper was going around, having a great time. He was trying to identify four or five very bad reproductions on the walls that had been there for thirty years. Pepper came over and said, “Come on over and dig that beautiful, bleached-out half Velazquez.”
The last Norwegian guy I know that was in contact with him was Sture. That was after he was in for treatment of cancer. Sture was in New York and Pepper was very sick. He didn’t want Sture to come out to his house but he said he’d drive him to the airport when he left. But then Pepper contacted Sture and said he wasn’t feeling too good, that he didn’t want to see anybody at all.