Saturday, August 1, 2015

William Paterson University and the Influence of Bob Wilber

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved

I woke up today thinking about the William Paterson University lecture I'm giving on Monday, October 19 for David Demsey's class. I've spoken there once before but what can I do that's new and different? William Paterson's students are among the best in the U.S. Its graduates include Alexis Cole and Eric Alexander, to name just two. Thad Jones first established Paterson's program, and subsequent directors include Rufus Reid, James Williams and Mulgrew Miller. That should give you some indication of the program's excellence. Yes, I'd like to do something different for those kids, to try to inspire them to give me some feedback on Pepper so I can learn from them.

At first, it occurred to me that it's still a little strange that so few have heard Pepper's playing. I thought maybe I'd start with the introduction to Charles Mingus' "Moanin'" to remind them that they probably have already heard Pepper, though they might not know it? Pepper's plaintive, iconic intro is undoubtably the most famous, widely heard thing he's ever done. It's been used as theme music on radio and in films such as Bowling for Columbine and Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian.

Since I'm busy writing Pepper's biography, I also thought maybe I could read them part of my Prologue, to share some of my work and use it as a way to introduce Pepper's life and as an organizing principle for the lecture. I could pick a few tunes that I reference, such as Pepper's brilliant performance and arrangement of "That's All" (from Reflectory). I could also play videos of Pepper on "My Centennial," to show him at his time of crisis while edging out of Thad-Mel, and Pepper's triumphant performance on the Grammy Awards telecast.

Then I started listening to some private material from the early '80s, when he played so freely, and, lastly, "Chant" and "Cecile" from Live at the Half Note, just to hear his wonderful sound and that wonderful band. It's been quite a morning of listening! I'm still not sure what I'll pick, but, unlike my usual approach, which is pretty scripted, I think I'll shed the teleprompter and keep the lecture very loose so I can give the students as much space as possible to respond to the music.

Over the last few days I've been thinking a lot about Bob Wilber. I originally thought he came to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York in the Fall of 1946 but I was mistaken. It was actually a year earlier, when Pepper was 14 and in Ninth Grade. Wilber was a huge influence on Pepper and his three-man jazz clique of woodshedding musicians--Pepper, Raymond Murphy and John Huggler--who every weekend got together to play along to the latest Commodores and Blue Notes. 

Pepper met Wilber at the Pied Piper (later renamed the Cafe Bohemia) in Greenwich Village sometime in the summer of 1945. Pepper traveled down from Rochester with his mother to hear Max Kaminsky. Wilber told Pepper at the gig that he'd be coming to Eastman to study that coming Fall. It turns out that Wilber visited with Pepper all the time that semester, staying for dinner and listening to records. Wilber would also sit in with Pepper's practicing threesome every weekend that entire Fall until Wilber quit the program to move to New York City to study and live with Sidney Bechet. (See this great photo of Wilber and Bechet in 1947 at Jimmy Ryan's.)

To give you an indication of how good Wilber was at age 17, just a year after he split Eastman he was recording with Bechet in New York. Wilber has always had tremendous facility on the alto, soprano and clarinet. He blew into Rochester for little more than four months but no doubt shaped Pepper. At that time, Adams was a struggling 14-year-old instrumentalist. Wilber, on the other hand, was already a formed player whose playing, even then, exhibited a playfulness and joyousness along with tremendous momendum and drive. His solos always swung hard, built up logically and exhibited a lot of heat. Adams had never been around a wind player of that quality on a consistent basis for many months in a row and it had to have rubbed off on him as a great example of how to play jazz. I believe that Wilber's example spurred Pepper to continue to develop, and it paved the way for him to improve throughout 1946 and 1947 by playing in the working band at Rochester's Elite Club. 

I don't know if Bob Wilber instructed Pepper to work on specific things or not but I wrote this email to Wilber's wife, Pug Horton, to see if I could learn more from them about that time:

Hi Pug: I got your email from Michael Steinman. I'm Pepper Adams' biographer. I'm currently writing Pepper's biography, the second of two books I'm doing on Pepper. My research this summer has me very involved with the early jazz history of Rochester NY (pre-1948). It's becoming quite clear to me, despite Bob's modesty, that Bob was the single most important influence on Pepper before he moved to Detroit. After all, they practiced together every week for four months in the Fall of 1945. Pepper was a struggling clarinetist at 14-15 and Bob was 18 and very advanced. If he can remember anything they played together with John Huggler and Raymond Murphy, besides playing along to records, I'd like to include that in the book. Perhaps Bob suggested things for Pepper to practice? Certain techniques, etudes, scales, breathing advice, whatever? Please ask him for me?

I'm also writing because I interviewed Bob in 1988 at the Sticky Wicket. He told me he had for a while a saxophone quartet rehearsal band in NYC that he was writing charts for that included Pepper, him, someone I can't remember on tenor, and an alto player whose first name began with Rudy but whose last name he couldn't remember. Please ask Bob if it was Rudy Powell and whether any tapes exist of these rehearsals?

Gary Carner

Hopefully I'll hear back soon. In the meantime, check out Wilber's autobiography, Music Was Not Enough, and his performance at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival with the great Bill Charlap Trio. Wilber still sounds great at age 85!:

                                          (Bob Wilber)