Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet (1958-61)

Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved. 

Here's the piece I wrote for Wayne State University Press. It will be published in their forthcoming anthology about Detroit's musical history. The piece is posted here:

Although they certainly knew each other in Detroit, trumpeter Donald Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams never played together until both moved to New York City. Their first gig toas probably at the Cafe Bohemia in early February, 1958. Later that month, Byrd and Adams were paired as the front line for a Thelonious Monk studio recording, just as they began a residency at the Five Spot that lasted until June. Already in demand as a dynamic front-line duo, their four-month run (with Detroiters Doug Watkins and Elvin Jones) gave them the opportunity to launch the Byrd-Adams Quintet. Riverside Records recorded the group live in April. Six months later the band would record Off to the Races, its first of a series of recordings for Blue Note Records that cemented the band’s place in jazz history.

In the Summer of 1958, however, directly after the lengthy Five Spot engagement, Donald Byrd toured Europe with Watkins and Belgian tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. Adams, for his part, accepted a six-week engagement with Benny Goodman. Again, in early 1959 the Byrd-Adams Quintet would be shelved in favor of Byrd and Adams’ four-month commitment to the Thelonious Monk Big Band (culminating with the influential Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall date for Riverside). This on-again/off-again schedule would characterize the early history of the Quintet, from mid-1958 well into 1960. Because steady work wasn’t available for the group’s first two-and-a-half years as a unit, Byrd and Adams continued to take gigs as sidemen while also maintaining active careers as solo artists.

From 1958-1961, Byrd and Adams were busy indeed, working and recording in many settings. Besides their membership in Monk’s orchestra in early 1959, Adams did two tours with Benny Goodman and another with Chet Baker before May, 1959, when the Byrd-Adams Quintet recorded Byrd in Hand, their second date for Blue Note. By then the Quintet had already worked two weeks at New York’s Village Vanguard. In October, 1959 the band was touring again, this time playing gigs in Toronto and Pittsburgh.

In the Spring of 1960 the Byrd-Adams Quintet (including Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and  Philly Joe Jones) recorded three tunes for a stereophonic sampler project for Warwick Records. Before that, Byrd without Adams had worked his way from New York to San Francisco and back while Adams formed a short-lived quintet with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose. But by July, 1960 the Quintet’s superb rhythm section of Duke Pearson, Laymon Jackson and Lex Humphries had coalesced. And with Adams back in the group, the Quintet began its incarnation as a steadily working ensemble. A three month tour took the band to Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, then back to Chicago and Detroit before returning to New York in late October.

During the group’s two-month stint in Chicago (that would extend into January, 1961), pianist Herbie Hancock was hired to replace Duke Pearson. This was Hancock’s first gig outside of Chicago with a touring band. Hancock moved from Chicago to New York to join the group.

Back in New York, the Quintet recorded again for Warwick, then toured for most of the year before disbanding in October. In February and March, 1961 the group gigged throughout the Eastern United States and Canada, working at the New Showboat in Philadelphia, then Montreal and Toronto and back to the Bird House in Chicago before working in Indianapolis and Rochester, New York. Returning to New York in April, the group recorded two more dates for Blue Note (Chant and The Cat Walk) within a two week period.

Looking back at the group’s history, there seems to be a direct relationship between the amount of recordings the Byrd-Adams duo made and the frequency of Quintet gigs. Stated another way, the more recordings Byrd-Adams made, the more they created demand for their Quintet to be heard live in performance. Their first recording, 10 to 4 at the Five Spot, released in mid-1958, was followed by the release of the Quintet’s first two Blue Note recordings in 1959, Off to the Races and Byrd in Hand. Those were followed in turn by a double-LP recorded in November, 1960 (Live at the Half Note) and five studio sessions (Motor City Scene, Out of This World, Chant, The Cat Walk and Royal Flush) all recorded before October, 1961. This upward arc of activity in the studios was equally true for their dense club-date calendar. Band itineraries, magazine articles and advertisements in the jazz and lay press all demonstrate that 1960 and 1961 were, indeed, the glory days for the working quintet, when the band was performing regularly and functioning at its peak. This is the main reason why I find the Quintet’s cluster of six recordings made in less than a year’s time to be their finest work. Working steadily for only a year also explains why the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet remains to this day not nearly as well-known as some of other similarly constituted great small bands of its time, such as those led by Max Roach, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver or Cannonball Adderley.

What other conclusions can we make about the Quintet’s three early recordings leading up to their great body of work done in late 1960 and 1961? First, it’s clear that Byrd and Adams favored Detroit musicians in their group whenever possible. The live 1958 Riverside date, for example, was an all-Detroit group except for pianist Bobby Timmons, though I suspect they tried to hire Tommy Flanagan. 

For their second and third dates—the Quintet’s first two for Blue Note—commercial pressures dictated that Byrd, as leader, feature some of the musicians in Blue Note’s stable. It also necessitated expanding the front line to three horns. These all-star sessions would soon be phased out in favor of showcasing the working Quintet. That’s because the group started touring steadily in mid-1960, congealing as a unit, and attracting attention as a unique band with its own sound. 

Two other things that characterize the Quintet’s recordings is their inclusion of original compositions and the use of the ballad feature. Both Byrd and pianist Duke Pearson used these recording dates as opportunities to write original tunes and arrangements for small group. The ballad feature, a convention of jazz performance, and something Byrd would’ve been asked to perform as a member of Art Blakey’s band a la trumpeter Clifford Brown, is something Byrd and Adams would always do in club dates and on several of their recordings. They used ballads as solo features for either Byrd or Adams, typically undergirded by the rhythm section, and as a way to affect variety within each set of music. Additionally, having one of the horn players drop out on a slow-tempo number was sensible in another way. It would by necessity abbreviate the duration of the tune and not unduly disrupt the set’s momentum.

In retrospect, there’s no question that Byrd’s exclusive recording contract with Blue Note catalyzed the Byrd-Adams Quintet. Their increasing popularity, due to the wide distribution and overall excellence of their first two Blue Note recordings, also led to them eventually being picked up by the Shaw Agency, who booked tours for the group throughout North America. 

Fortuitously, too, a brief lapse in Byrd’s Blue Note contract allowed Byrd and Adams the opportunity to fit in two additional recording dates. One, Out of This World for Warwick, was for the working group. The other, Motor City Scene (under Adams’ leadership for Bethlehem), was for sextet, with the addition of Detroiter Kenny Burrell on guitar. 

Listen to Bitty Ditty here: 

Despite all their recordings, steady work on the road, and critical acclaim, the Shaw Agency’s predilection for booking the Quintet on very long road trips spelled disaster for the band. Exhausting car rides (Minneapolis to Dallas, Salt Lake City, Denver, then Detroit, for example) were already booked by Shaw in October, 1960. In July and August, 1961 the group was back at it, driving from New York to Cleveland, then St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit, leading up to Royal Flush, their last New York studio date in September. In October the band returned to St. Louis, then played Kansas City, where the club folded and the group wasn’t paid. Years later Adams cited transportation costs relative to what they were earning as the main reason for ending the four year collaboration. But the Kansas City experience must have functioned as a telling metaphor and as an embodiment of the group’s pent-up frustrations. It was the Quintet’s final gig.

Despite their all-too brief time together, three outstanding recordings were made in the late 1950s and six superb dates were made in a ten-month stretch beginning on November 11, 1960 with the Blue Note double-LP Live at the Half Note. The Half Note date is the only Quintet recording to have never gone out of print in the U.S., some measure of its enduring value. From it, Duke Pearson’s composition “Jeanine” is the Quintet’s only tune that has became a standard in the jazz repertoire. Live at the Half Note reveals the band at the height of its power and remains the best example of what the band sounded like at the time. 

Listen to Jeannine here: 

Just after the Half Note recording, the Quintet, in a burst of activity, recorded four more dates in New York. First was the Bethlehem session, led by Adams, that returned to the favored all-Detroit formula (with Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers and Louis Hayes). A January date for Warwick, Out of This World, featured the working group, now with young Herbie Hancock on his very first record session, but with drummer Jimmy Cobb in place of Lex Humphries. In April and early May, the Quintet’s two Blue Note studio dates used other drummers entirely: Philly Joe Jones on The Cat Walk, because they couldn’t locate Humphries, and Teddy Robinson on Chant because he was already touring with the band at the time. One final Quintet date, Royal Flush, was done in September, 1961. It’s just as excellent as the others. It features Byrd, Adams and Hancock, with bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins.

Summing up the totality of band’s output, what is it about this group that made it unique? First and foremost, of course, the Quintet featured two great instrumental stylists backed by a terrific, interactive, hard-swinging rhythm section. Their repertoire was fresh and compelling, comprised of a blend of unusual standards, interesting originals, and cleverly adapted tunes, such as an uptempo version of “I’m an Old Cowhand” or Henry Mancini’s “Theme from Mr. Lucky.”

Listen to Im an Old Cowhand here: 

Sonically, trumpet with baritone sax is an exquisite pairing, even more aurally spread than the customary trumpet/tenor sax pairing of its time. A trumpet/baritone front line was still rather unusual in 1958, especially one playing this brand of intense post-Charlie Parker small group jazz. But, more than that, Byrd and Adams meshed so well because their styles were so complementary. Byrd, at root, was a very melodic, soulful, lyrical player who used nuance, space and blues inflections in his solos. Adams did too, though he was more of a rhapsodic player, who delighted in double-time playing and exhibiting other technical flourishes. Byrd, it could be said, was more of a “horizontal” soloist, Adams more “vertical.” What a perfect counterbalance! And when Byrd and Adams stated each tune’s theme, their phrasing—often using impressive dynamics or provocative counterpoint lines—was always so beautifully rendered.

All told, during the four year stretch that reached its quintessence in 1960-61, the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet recorded eleven dates—seven studio albums, one sampler, and three live LPs—assuring their place as one of the great jazz groups of its time. The band launched the career of Herbie Hancock and it gave Byrd, Duke Pearson and, to a lesser extent, Adams and Hancock, a forum to write original compositions. Some of the tunes in their book (“Curro’s,” “Bird House” and “Jorgie’s”) immortalized jazz clubs. The Quintet surely helped Adams’ career too. He was heard widely in clubs throughout North America and the Blue Note dates in particular were well distributed in the U.S. and abroad during his lifetime.

With the exception of Live at the Half Note, all of the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet’s Blue Note recordings have been collected in a Mosaic Records box set. 10 to 4 at the Five Spot and Motor City Scene have been reissued on CD. Out of This World has been reissued on CD too, but beware of cannibalized recordings from bootlegs that cut and paste some of the tunes almost beyond recognition. Most of the Quintet sessions were under Byrd’s name because Blue Note’s contract was with him. The dates on other labels fall under Pepper Adams’ leadership or Adams-Byrd. 

No film or videotape footage of the Byrd-Adams Quintet has been uncovered as yet but a terrific clip from the 1958 Cannes Jazz Festival, featuring the Bobby Jaspar-Donald Byrd Quintet is listed below. Each member of that rhythm section (Walter Davis Jr., Doug Watkins and Arthur Taylor) recorded with the Byrd-Adams Quintet on Blue Note.  

Pepper Adams, Motor City Scene, Bethlehem BCP-6056.
____________, 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot, Original Jazz Classics CD: OJCCD-031-2.
Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd, Out of This World, Fresh Sound CD: FSR-335.
Donald Byrd, At the Half Note Cafe (Vol. 1), Blue Note CD: CDP-7-46539-2.
__________, At the Half Note Cafe (Vol. 2), Blue Note CD: CDP-7-46540-2.                                        
Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams, The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Studio  Sessions, CD: CDBN-7-46540-2. 
Bobby Jaspar-Donald Byrd, INA videotape (France),
Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, Original Jazz Classics CD: OJCCD-135-2.

Gary Carner is the author of Pepper Adams’ Joy Road, The Miles Davis Companion and Jazz Performers. From 1984 until Adams’ death in 1986, Carner collaborated with Pepper Adams on his memoirs. Carner’s research on Adams’ career, collected at, spans four decades. Carner blogs about Adams at and has also produced all 42 of Adams’ compositions for Motema Music.