Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rex Stewart and Young Pepper Adams

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

On March 3-5, 1944 thirteen year old Park Adams skipped school three nights in a row to attend Duke Ellington's entire run at the Temple Theatre in Rochester, New York. Adams was already playing piano, saxophone, clarinet and enjoying jazz programs on the radio. Starting in 1936, six-year-old Adams listened to Fats Waller's daily 15-minute afternoon radio show. In 1938 Adams tuned in to John Kirby's program featuring his sextet. And in 1940 he caught Fletcher Henderson's late night broadcasts originating from Nashville. 

Though Adams' parents didn't play musical instruments, they owned a piano and a broad selection of 78 rpm records. Because of that, Adams was exposed very early to both jazz and classical music. By seventeen he was familiar enough with the history of the classical repertoire to get hired in the Classical Music Record Department of Grinnell's in downtown Detroit. 

Adams was especially drawn to the symphonic music of his era and at a young age developed a taste for dissonant harmonies. Although Adams was still playing in the New Orleans style, his taste in music was already very well developed in 1944. One can imagine how excited Adams must have been to hear the Duke Ellington Orchestra in a concert settting. 

The Temple is a movie palace built in 1909 at 35 Clinton Avenue South in downtown Rochester. On the third and final evening of the Temple engagement, Ellington trumpeter Rex Stewart was curious about the enthusiastic, short-haired white kid with horn-rimmed glasses he noticed sitting by himself each night in the balcony. Intrigued, Stewart made his way upstairs, introduced himself, then brought a no doubt exasperated Adams backstage to meet Ellington's illustrious musicians, including Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. While there Adams overheard Frederick Delius recordings being played by Ellington that commentators have reported Duke was listening to at that time.

                               (Photo by Valerie Wilmer c. 1966)

It's hard to overstate how valuable this encounter was for Adams, or the role Rex Stewart assumed as a lifelong father figure and influential elder. Should we assume Stewart sought out young Park Adams because he was sitting by himself or presumably an anomaly in a mostly black audience? While maybe part of the equation, I believe Stewart was honoring this provocative teenager, who at the time must have been from Stewart's perspective a very special young man for going out of his way to scrape together enough money to attend the Ellington orchestra each night. Stewart was also continuing the important tradition of an elder musician supporting a young aspiring one, something that (to its detriment, I think) has mostly died off in jazz.

Consider for a moment the context. Just a few years earlier, Adams' father had died at the age of 44. Adams, an only child, was already a survivor of the Great Depression like so many who were born after 1929. His father's death, when Adams was nine, only intensified the ordeal.

The Depression had destroyed Adams' parents' way of life. It robbed them of their Detroit home and separated them for nearly four years while his father traveled throughout the U.S., looking for any work he could find. Worn down by the strain of scratching out a living, his father suffered his first heart attack in 1934 in Rome, New York, partly from the excitement of his family finally being reunified. In theory, it was intended to be a time of great joy. Instead, Adams' father lived out the remainder of his life a frail and unfulfilled man. 

At the Temple Theatre, Rex Stewart's profound act of kindness--his mentoring of Pepper and adopting the role of a father figure--must have filled a void in Pepper's life. It was certainly the most transcendent event of his boyhood. Very soon after meeting Stewart, Adams took a few tenor sax lessons with Skippy Williams, the tenor saxophonist in Ellington's band that Stewart introduced Pepper to backstage. Williams was the saxophonist who first replaced Ben Webster, prior to Al Sears. (I interviewed Williams, by the way, and hope to share that with you in a later post.)

That night at the Temple put in motion Adams' lifelong love affair with Ellington and Strayhorn. (Listen to Pepper's original ballads, such as "I Carry Your Heart," and you'll hear Pepper's profound debt: 

Pepper's close friend Gunnar Windahl told me the following about Pepper:

"Every day, I think, he listened to Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington meant a lot to Pepper. I remember we were in Gothenburg. After a gig there we came into my room. I had a half a bottle of whisky and we sat talking. With my blue eyes, and as an overreacting person before such a star as Pepper Adams, I managed, 'Who is the best musician in the world, Pepper? Who do you consider the most interesting and underrated?' He said the most interesting and underrated musician in this business is Rex Stewart.' I was a bit taken aback. Then Pepper said that he seen Rex just before he died and that Rex was very disappointed that he wasn’t more recognized. I think Pepper identified with Rex’s destiny."

Pepper's life mirrored Rex Stewart's. Rex had success in the mid-1930s and '40s as one of Ellington's great soloists, then languished. Adams, according to bassist Percy Heath, was a sensation in New York when he first arrived in early 1956, created a similar stir in California in early 1957, had an influential quintet with Donald Byrd from 1958-1961, then languished. I don't mean "languished" as a pejorative term related to their musical growth or achievements but simply as a term for how much they struggled financially and how little attention they received from record companies and the international press. 

Pepper, for obvious reasons, identified with struggling artists, whether it be Rex Stewart, the painter Lyonel Feininger or the composer Arthur Honegger. For Adams they were all very special because, like himself, they were unique, accomplished, had struggled financially throughout their careers and were overlooked.

Other than his very close bond with Stewart, what is it about Stewart's playing in particular that Pepper Adams admired? His off-the-wall humor, for one thing, with oblique phrases coming seemingly (as Pepper put) "out of left field." You can grasp Stewart's almost wacky sense of humor in his most well-known Ellington feature Boy Meets Horn: 

Stewart was technically brilliant and harmonically adventurous. Listen and watch these three clips:

1. Duke Ellington's 1938 Braggin' in Brass: 

2. Nick Travis and Rex Stewart perform "There'll Never Be Another You" (1958) from the TV show Art Ford's Jazz Party: 

3. Also, from the legendary 1957 CBS TV show "The Sound of Jazz" Rex takes his solo on "Wild Man Blues" just after the 8-minute mark. It's replete with numerous musical paraphrases. Perhaps that's another Rex Stewart influence on Pepper? Rex's irrepressible joy is obvious throughout, especially when he openly laughs after his first four-bar statement:

Also, check out Stewart's book Jazz Masters of the 30s.  It's a collection of his writings that were collected posthumously. Like Pepper, Rex Stewart was very literate:

Pepper Adams was always very guarded with his emotions. According to his widow, Claudette, Pepper used music to get his emotions out and was not one to readily share the intimacies of his feelings with anyone. But Rex Stewart's death in 1967 was too much for him to contain. According to Montreal radio host Len Dobbin, Pepper broke down and wept when Dobbin told him that Stewart had died.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pepper the Amusing Paraphraser

Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Here's a priceless anecdote from Earl McIntyre via Nate Cabana. Nate wrote me 
about Pepper Adams' Joy Road and

"My first job in the city was at a community music school called the
Brooklyn/Queens Conservatory of Music. The head of the jazz division there
is Earl McIntyre, former tuba/bass trombone in the Thad/Mel band. Earl was
a tremendous influence on me and is a wonderful musician who has been on
the scene since the late 60's/early 70's. Whenever I had the chance I would press 

him for information and stories about his experiences. . . . I never got a chance to 
have an in-depth discussion with him in regards to his experiences with Pepper 
Adams, but the one anecdote that he did share with me I have always cherished.  
It went something like this:

'Pepper Adams was a real funny cat.  When the Thad/Mel band would tour the
college circuit they would often visit the Big 10 schools. Usually he would get 

a feature on a tune like "Once Around." Well, every time the band visited a school 
with an intense athletic rivalry, Pepper would make it a point to quote the rival 
school's fight song! So, say they were playing at Indiana University, he would quote 
Purdue's fight song, or if they were at Ohio State University he would find a way to 
work Michigan's alma matter into one of his solos.'"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Circular Breathing and Pepper's Greatest Hits

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

First, my apologies for any repetitive posts. I was doing an overhaul of the blog today and some inadvertent errors occurred. 

Going forward I'll be posting on Friday night. I've got a new day gig and I work on Saturdays.

So, what about that nine-second, beautifully arched, dramatic-as-hell long note that Pepper plays in the opening theme of "I've Just Seen Her?" For those of you who don't know, it's on his great Encounter date for Prestige, with Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. Perhaps this is the only recorded example of Adams employing circular breathing? Can anyone confirm this and tell me if Pepper uses the technique at any other time in his recorded history?

On Pepper's birthday this past Wednesday (8 October), I listened to my "Greatest Hits" CD. In 2012 Motema Music actually asked me to put together a CD of Pepper's greatest commercial recordings for a possible release. You can believe it took me a great deal of time! Below is what I put together, in order of appearance. I tried to get a workable mix of tempos and formats that would showcase his solos and also cohere as a CD. Let me know what you think of the choices.

1. Lotus Blossom   (Jimmy Witherspoon)
2. Chant   Donald Byrd (studio version, with Herbie and Doug Watkins)
3. Bossa Nova Ova  (Thad Jones-Pepper Adams)
4. East of the Sun  (Toots Thielemans)
5. Day Dream  (Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd)
6. Baptismal  (Stanley Turrentine)
7. Three and One  (Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra)
8. I've Just Seen Her  (Pepper Adams)
9. Gone With the Wind  (unreleased: Pepper Adams with Metropol Orkest (+ strings)
10. Salt Peanuts  (Pony Poindexter)
11. Moanin'  (Charles Mingus)
12. Sophisticated Lady  (Donald Byrd)
13. That's All   (Pepper Adams)

Motor City Scene

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Pepper Adams' seventh date as a leader, Motor City Scene, has been reissued on CD and vinyl by Bethlehem. It's great to hear the music again, especially since I only have it on LP and my turntable is broken.

I don't know for sure if the tune order is the same as the original LP release, but it's surely the same as the 1976 LP reissue Stardust. As with Stardust, this date is wrongly billed as co-led by Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams (though their band at that time was indeed co-led). Thankfully, some of the original liner notes have been added, and these comments suggest that the original date was indeed Pepper's. (Not sure why there's a drawing of a baritone horn in the booklet, however.) Pepper's two originals, Libbecio and Philson, further support Adams as leader, since the Byrd-Adams Quintet, throughout its four-year tenure, almost exclusively played only originals by Byrd and Duke Pearson--never Adams--other than a few standards and some notable exceptions (such as two by Walter Davis Jr).

As for the tune order, it's strange to start a date with a 10-minute ballad, especially one in which the leader lays out. Solos on Bitty Ditty are played as blues choruses (something composer Thad Jones himself did on one of his recordings), but not over the tune's changes, as Tommy Flanagan nor Miles Davis recorded it. That's slightly odd, since there's only five tunes and one (Philson) is an 11-minute blues. It suggests that there was additional material recorded, though the label says no alternates or additional material exist.

Those who have read about this session in my book (Pepper Adams' Joy Road, pages 107-108) know that this was a controversial date. For one thing, Adams wasn't paid, probably due to the label going bankrupt. Additionally, Adams wrote dynamics for both horns and guitar as the front line, but the recording engineer evened out the volume level, denuding Pepper's arrangement. Pepper was still annoyed about it 24 years later, when I discussed it with him.

I know Stardust, Bitty Ditty, and Pepper's two originals quite well, but hearing Errol Garner's Trio again
--with Burrell's beautiful comping--is somewhat of a wonderment. This could've made a much better, sprightly opener, and , appropriately enough, Pepper takes the first solo. 

Libeccio is an early Pepper Adams mambo masterpiece that is starting to gain currency among some New York musicians. Louis Hayes' drumming is brilliant here!

This all-Detroit band--Adams, Byrd, Burrell, Flanagan, Paul Chambers, and Louis Hayes--plays beautifully. Pepper Adams was a fully formed, magnificent soloist by 1960, and Byrd's playing is some of the very best of the period. You can hear these top-flight Detroit homies in all their November, 1960 splendor on this wonderful, often overlooked date. The phrasing is just perfect and you can't get a better a rhythm section!

Wardell Gray and Pepper Adams

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

How many have heard Wardell Gray's playing? How many know how big an influence he was on Pepper Adams? For the last year I've been thinking a lot about Gray's influence on Pepper. Last fall I had the opportunity to lecture about Pepper and Gray at a number of colleges while on a second Pepper Adams book tour. The trip took me to the University of Illinois, Western Illinois University, Wayne State University, Humber College, Concordia University, Hunter College, William & Mary, the University of North Carolina, and the North Carolina School of the Arts. I was traveling with eminent UK arranger/composer Tony Faulkner, one of the world's foremost authorities on Duke Ellington and Thad  Jones. As part of the tour Faulkner conducted workshops and rehearsed his Pepper Adams big band charts with college and professional bands. It was a great trip and we made a lot of new friends.

My lecture discussed the effects of Wardell Gray and Art Tatum's playing on Pepper Adams. Wardell Gray, for his part, was Pepper's greatest Detroit mentor. Already a world class player by the time Pepper relocated to Detroit in 1947, Wardell was based in Detroit and he would return after tours with name bands, such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Wardell was one of many great Detroit jazz players that attended Cass Technical High School. Pepper and Wardell Gray played together in Detroit at the Blue Bird Inn and elsewhere and the two would trade horns. Wardell was the first baritone saxophonist that Pepper heard who played with precise articulation. That coupled with Wardell's elegant lyricism and his unparalleled gift for creating beautiful melodic lines ultimately worked its way into Pepper's style.

Accentuating that lyricism was Wardell's penchant for pulling the time back, playing behind the beat. Pepper made it into an art form, often accentuating the swing feel when playing heads, and, when doing so, creating an interesting tension against the rhythm section. Moreover, Pepper often "back phrased" passages of his solos to swing even harder and alternate with his blistering double-time diminished lines. In my lecture I referred to these two things as polar opposites and as the yin and yang of Pepper's solo style.

Besides being a huge early influence on Pepper's saxophone playing, Wardell was also a close friend. Both were very scholarly, well informed and conversant on many topics. Wardell's early and controversial death at age 34 was a personal tragedy for Pepper and for jazz. Wardell died in 1955, two months after Charlie Parker. At the Diggs Funeral Home Pepper served as a pallbearer at Wardell's funeral. For Pepper's take on Wardell, please read my interview excerpt taken from the 1984 interview I did with Pepper. Click "Wardell Gray" at the homepage's link "Reminiscensces."

I write about Wardell not just because I'm spending time listening to his music. Just yesterday I came across a nice overview of Wardell Gray written by New England Public Radio host and blogger Tom Reney. Here's the link:  Within Reney's post was a link to a documentary film on Wardell, Forgotten Tenor, done by Hampshire College professor Abraham Ravett. So delighted to learn about the film, I emailed Ravett and heard right back from him. He had no idea of Pepper's relationship with Wardell, nor was he aware that Pepper carried Wardell's torch and passed it down to virtually every baritone saxophonist playing today. I'm eager to see the film, which Ravett is mailing me to preview. Let me know if you want to see it and I'll put you in touch with him. 

Abraham and I are trying to put together some kind of program at Hampshire College or elsewhere in Western Massachusetts to raise awareness for both Pepper and Wardell and to rekindle an awareness of his film that was first released in 1994. I've also suggested that the film be aired at the Detroit Jazz Festival, hopefully as part of a tribute to Wardell Gray. As Rachel Maddow says, "Watch this space."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Pepper's Dry Sense of Humor

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

This amusing anecdote is from Gunnar Windahl ("Doctor Deep"). He sent it to me in an email on 19 August 2014. The gig he references took place on 26-28 October 1979.

"Dear Gary,

I mentioned Pepper's and my drinking habits way back. I must tell you a story which shows Pepper's kind of humor. In 1979 Pepper played at One Step Down in Washington, DC and I was there with him. Pepper had Eddie Phyfe on drums (had played with Bob Wilber). Before one gig we had dinner at a restaurant and I had to visit the rest room. On my way back to the table I heard at a slight distance the following conversation between Eddie Phyfe and Pepper. Phyfe: "That Swedish friend of yours is a hell of a drinker. He drinks whisky like water." Pepper: "No sane man drinks that amount of water."