Saturday, January 10, 2015

Pepper's Good Groove

A few months ago I came to the conclusion that the best approach to my second volume on Pepper Adams was to write the biography in two separate sections. The first, I explained in a blog entry a few months back, would be a 100-page biography and the second would be a 100-page discussion of his saxophone style and compositions. I still like the way this approach frees me to write a shorter but more focused biography, then get deeply into his playing and composing.

Two days ago, on a long drive from Atlanta to Orlando, however, it occurred to me that it might be quite some time before I'm able to write this book. When would I finish it? I turn sixty this year.

My assessment of the book project has taken sharper focus recently because I've just changed careers. Or, you could say, I've returned to a previous one. Twenty years ago I worked in the financial services industry. I did quite well but left to work with a wellness company and then the wine industry. A few months ago I decided that the wine industry was going through too much of a contraction to ever give me the kind of gig I need. I began getting licenses and I'm now working for three separate insurance agencies in Georgia.

My career shift is taking me farther away from the Pepper book project, with little end in sight. Though I've been busy building out the Instagram page, this blog, and other projects, what about the book? I first conceptualized doing Pepper's biography in the summer of 1984, when I interviewed him at length. The discographical first volume took a little heat off but the biography has always been very dear to my heart and a life-long goal.  When would I do it?

Somewhere after I crossed the Georgia-Florida line I started listening to Pepper's magical playing on Red Garland's Red's Good Groove. It's always been a favorite of mine. How perfect  Pepper's playing is on the date, I thought, and how beautifully the engineer captured his sound! I started thinking about my friend John Vana and I thought I should give him a call to tell him about the recording.

John's an alto player on the faculty at Western Illinois University in Macomb IL (Al Sears' hometown). I first met John when he invited me to speak at WIU in 2013. That's when I toured the Eastern half of the U.S. and Canada for a month with British arranger Tony Faulkner. 

John is a huge Pepper fan. Soon after my visit he agreed to write a major piece on Pepper's early style (to 1960) for a possible Pepper anthology. Soon after that, he started asking me to send him, bit by bit, every tape, LP or videotape of Pepper Adams that I own or that's listed in Pepper Adams' Joy Road. Up to 1960 wasn't enough for him. He's now up to 1977 and he wants to hear it all.

Not only is it my mandate to support anyone's work on Pepper, but it's been a good deal for me too. John has converted (and preserved) so much of my precious Pepper stuff onto CD. It's vitally important to save all my Pepper audience tapes for future generations.

At first I thought I'd just catch up with John on the telephone. I could tell him why the last batch of LPs and cassettes hasn't been mailed out and I could tell him how relaxed and perfect Pepper's playing is on the Garland LP. But before I called him it occurred to me that John's piece on Pepper's style would likely cover much of the same terrain that I'd be exploring in the second half of my Pepper book. Considering the demands of my day job, perhaps it would be better for me to write the bio and have John (with my input, additions and editorial oversight) write the second section? Wouldn't it move up the timetable? Yes, I thought it might.

I got John on the phone and he agreed with me. He thought it was a really good idea. The anthology might not even happen, I pointed out, so what better place than in the "definitive" Pepper biography? 

That's where the Pepper Adams biography stands at the moment. I've yet to see John's work on Pepper in any tangible form but I'm encouraged by his passion for Pepper and the long phone conversations we've already had. I'll let you know how it's going as things move ahead. I think he still has at least six months of listening to go. 

One thing I reiterated to John was my feeling that maybe Pepper went through more than just an early, middle and late period in his stylistic evolution. We're in agreement that everything leading up to the 1960 Live at the Half Note date amounts to the flowering and maturation of him as a soloist. That could be construed as "Early." His playing in the early 1960s is so majestic and soulful. He still has a very bluesy and lyrical style, using a wail as a stylistic element, using space to great effect and pulling back the time. At what point, I asked John, did Pepper move into such a dense way of playing and become such a diminished freak?  Perhaps the transition to that is his "Pre-Late" period? Any thoughts, dear listener?

When things settle down a little for me, I'll start to pull together my thoughts for the biography. Just the other day I thought what a kick it would be to listen again to all those interviews I did about Pepper with so many musicians and friends. Only a fraction of them was transcribed for the first book. I've already decided to start the book with Pepper meeting Rex Stewart in 1944 at the RKO Temple Theater. So I can set the stage, I need info about the theater, particularly its interior. Upward and onward!

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