© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
My introduction to the music of Pepper Adams came as a complete surprise one evening around 1962 or '63 while I was a jazz obsessed high school student in Brooklyn. I began playing alto sax in Fifth Grade but a couple of years later in Junior High I fell in love with the baritone. Since the school owned one and I didn’t I would use every spare moment in the school day to sneak into the band room and mess around with it. At that point the only baritone soloist I was familiar with was Gerry Mulligan. I especially dug his playing on the first Concert Jazz Band album, though I longed to take my own playing in a harder-swinging direction.
There was plenty of jazz on the radio in New York in those days. One evening, while listening to the Alan Grant Show on WABC-FM, I heard a track from a recent Donald Byrd album called The Cat Walk. Following Byrd’s trumpet solo came a baritone solo which approached the instrument in a manner that, until that moment, I had perhaps only dreamed was possible but had never actually heard anyone attempt. The tone was hard-edged but deep and resonant, the ideas poured forth in powerful torrents, the sense of swing was irresistible and it felt as though the player was literally eating up the changes. Here, finally, was someone playing the instrument that was to become my voice--and absolutely tearing it up, backed by a relentless Philly Joe Jones-led rhythm section. The player of course was none other than Park “Pepper Adams.
I don’t recall precisely the first time I heard Pepper play live, but with Manhattan just a subway ride away I had plenty of chances to do so. All the qualities I had admired in his recorded work were of course present in his live playing. But hearing Pepper in person brought out some qualities in his playing that records failed to capture. The very presence of his sound and rhythmic energy right there in the room was something that no recording could fully capture, which is true of all great musicians regardless of style or context. The other outstanding quality was his ability to play extremely long solos that built logically and never let up in terms of invention or rhythmic drive.
After I made the switch to being a full-time baritone player, and as my knowledge and understanding of music increased--I later attended a classical conservatory as a bassoon major, though I remain a proudly self-taught improviser, a dying breed if ever there was one--I began to appreciate other notable qualities in Pepper’s playing. It seemed to me that the playing of almost all the other well known jazz baritone players sounded in some way or other to be an application of ideas and general approaches to the horn that would sound equally appropriate on alto or tenor, whereas Pepper seemed to have developed a distinctive style that I could not imagine being used on any other instrument. Unlike almost all the other influential baritone players, Pepper employed the entire range of the horn, really enjoying all the noise it could make and refused to either dance around or totally avoid the lower register as almost everyone else did. This was no mean feat, as the register the baritone is in scares many players away from employing all but the most basic harmonic and melodic ideas and forces others to approach the horn as though they wished it were a tenor or alto, using only the upper register and/or employing an inappropriately bright and edgy sound. Pepper’s style was a good deal more harmonically and rhythmically complex than those of his peers while maintaining a true baritone sound. For proof of this, check out my personal favorite of all his recorded solos on Reflectory from the album of the same name on the Muse label. The solo unfolds logically, swings like mad and builds to an intense climax that he plays in the bottom register. Listen to this solo and try to imagine it having the same impact played on any other instrument and you’ll hear what I mean. He used to say that the baritone required more use of articulation than the higher saxes and if you played a complex run on the baritone without slightly tonguing every note it would sound like someone playing a glissando on a piano with the sustain pedal held down.
As far as the actual musical content of Pepper’s playing, it reflected his intelligence, open-mindedness and diverse listening habits. His harmonic ear, understanding of motivic development and complete command of devices such as diminished scales was on a par with those of the greatest soloists in jazz, period. His concept of sound was rooted in Harry Carney and his harmonic and rhythmic approaches were heavily influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. In typically unpredictable Adams fashion, his favorite soloist among the Ellingtonians was not Carney but the great cornetist Rex Stewart, whose quirky, idiosyncratic style (a term Pepper used to describe his own style) appealed to Pepper’s sense of humor and appreciation for players who spoke in a personal voice. This may help to explain his affinity for and compatibility with his old Detroit homey Thad Jones, whose only detectable influences to my ears were Rex and Dizzy. Pepper was also quite well versed in Twentieth Century classical music and was especially partial to the symphonies of Arthur Honegger. This, combined with a storehouse of knowledge of older jazz and pop tunes, as well as songs and themes from film scores and all sorts of corny operettas, plus works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich and others, provided Pepper with a huge database to draw on for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical quotes (speaking of lost arts) that allowed his incomparable sense of humor to express itself through his music. More on Pepper Adams the man in Part Two.