Saturday, April 11, 2015

Prologue Anew

I started a new full-time job this week but somehow fit in some editing work on the Prologue to my Pepper Adams biography. I took a few weeks off from it and I think it helped me to look at it anew. John Gennari, the very fine cultural historian who is functioning as one of my readers, suggested that I add two things. One is some kind of contextualization about the late 1970s and early 1980s and what was going on in jazz as Pepper's life changed so dramatically. The other was a mention of Pepper's place in ithe baritone saxophone lineage, particularly in light of the fact that, historically speaking, it's not a typical jazz solo instrument. That alone has implications, Gennari pointed out. Pepper's choice of the baritone sax would signal certain aspects of Pepper's personality that should be hinted at in the Prologue.

Here's the updated Prologue that I'll be sending to Gennari. If you notice anything that needs amending, please comment below. It's not likely perfect but at least good enough so I can at last move on to Chapter One.


In the Summer of 1977 Pepper Adams was at a crossroads. For twelve years he had anchored the reed section of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, one of jazz’s greatest big bands, but at age 46 desperately needed to reinvent himself. Adams never wanted to be in the group in the first place. After too many years of accepting section work with big bands, he was eager to break free and work exclusively with small ensembles so he could stretch as a soloist. But Thad Jones—one of his dearest friends, whom he admired more than anyone—needed him in his newly formed orchestra, leaned on him, reminded him of all the things his mother did for him back in Pontiac, Michigan in the early 1950s and convinced him to stay. That was in 1966. Now, after hundreds of Monday nights at the Village Vanguard and countless tours of the U.S., Europe and Japan, Adams was more restive than ever. 

Pepper had voiced his frustration at least a year prior to the ’77 summer tour. He told Thad and Mel that he was unhappy with his lack of solos, citing the baseball expression, “Play me or trade me!” as some indication of his discontentment. Pepper’s clever use of the phrase, so characteristic of his understated sense of humor, has since become part of the band’s mythology. When it was uttered, they laughed and ignored it. This time around Adams wasn’t joking.

Pepper’s situation came to a head in Stockholm at the midpoint of the band’s two-month European tour. Before their August 1 evening performance at Tivoli Gardens, Adams met privately with Jones and Lewis. He told them that he wanted a pay raise and star billing as a featured soloist. Adams, though, was unaware that it was band policy to never give inordinate solo space, nor pay any musician, more than anyone else. Even if he had known, Pepper still would’ve felt entitled to it because of his twelve-year participation in the band and his longstanding relationship with both Thad and Mel dating back to the early 1950s. As things turned out, neither his tenure or rapport mattered. Much to Pepper’s surprise, Thad and Mel declined his request, steadfastly adhering to band protocol. An aggrieved Pepper Adams, left with no alternative, said he’d be leaving the band at the end of the month when the tour concluded. The news of Pepper’s imminent departure saddened everyone in the band, but none more than Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. That night at Tivoli, Adams again had no solos to play. Adams had sublimated his feelings by getting so drunk before the gig that he could barely comport himself onstage.

Adams’ close friend Ron Ley traveled with the orchestra part of the way through Scandinavia that summer and witnessed Pepper’s transition out of the band. A day or so after Adams submitted his resignation, Ley and Thad Jones had a moment alone. Jones reminded Ley that Pepper was jazz’s greatest living baritone saxophonist. Later on, said Ley, “Mel shared Thad’s opinion of Pepper’s playing and added that his opinion was shared by all fellow musicians of the period. It may have been that Thad and Mel made a point of telling me this because they knew that Pepper and I were close, and wanted to express their feelings so that I wouldn’t be left with an impression that they were indifferent to Pepper’s feelings of disappointment.”

After the tour concluded, Adams returned to New York and began forging his identity as an itinerant soloist. He already possessed an international reputation based on more than twenty years of commercial recordings with many of the greatest musicians, including Phil Woods, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers, Chet Baker, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and so many others. In no time Pepper found himself in demand throughout Europe and North America. Then, in 1978 and 1980 he recorded two of his greatest albums, Reflectory and The Master, featuring his original compositions. Both were nominated for Grammy Awards as the best instrumental albums of the year by a jazz soloist. Building a book of originals he could perform had finally pushed him to put his mind to composition. Between 1977 and 1983 Adams wrote nearly half his oeuvre of 42 tunes. 

At last, success was coming his way from all directions. His 1979 project with singer Helen Merrill, Chasin’ the Bird/Gershwin, was nominated for a Grammy Award (his third in three years) as the best jazz recording of the year by a vocalist. He received yet another Grammy nomination for his 1983 album Live at Fat Tuesday’s and, clad in a tuxedo, Adams appeared on the 1982 nationally broadcast Grammy Awards telecast, performing (appropriately enough) the jazz standard “My Shining Hour.”

Besides being a personal triumph for Adams, his high-profile television performance was less overtly some indication of cultural and political forces that were sweeping the globe. Just a few years earlier, radical Islam had toppled the Shah of Iran and, in the West, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were elected to dismantle “progressive” social programs. In the jazz world, as in politics, a return to conservative values would become a fact of life. In the early 1980s large American record companies, led by Columbia, concocted a media campaign (lasting a decade and penetrating even the mainstream press) that a new movement was afoot. Central to their argument was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Columbia first signed Marsalis as a double-threat jazz and classical recording artist. Then, while showering Marsalis with publicity, it anointed him as the leader of a new wave of fledgling African-American jazz musicians chosen in his image. These neoclassicist “Young Lions,” it was said, abhorred rock rhythms and electronic instruments. Instead, they yearned for the “nobility” of late 1950’s jazz, the post-Charlie Parker style of music that Pepper Adams never abandoned.

The altered landscape, that suddenly favored hard-swinging acoustic jazz more than at any time since the early ’60s, helped Pepper Adams. He was working steadily, winning all the readers and critics polls as the world’s premier baritone saxophonist, and had the ongoing support of a record company. A younger generation of musicians was seeking him out for their gigs and, due to numerous radio and television appearances, the public was becoming familiar with this soft-spoken gentle man who let his big horn and bigger sound speak for him.

Then, like a sand castle at high tide, it all washed away. With so much forward momentum propelling him, in December, 1983 Adams had a bizarre car accident that forced him to cancel seven months of work, including a week at Lush Life, his first prominent New York City club date in years. His marriage, already on shaky ground, ended during his convalescence, then lung cancer was discovered half a year later, leaving him with only eighteen months to live. 

Adams’ career can be measured by a long, slowly ascending arc of success that increased exponentially once he left the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Without a doubt, his first six years as a traveling soloist were triumphant—a time when he burnished his legacy as a virtuoso performer and composer—making his dramatic three-year fall that much more lamentable. Nonetheless, Adams had a rich, very influential forty-year run. Consider for a moment the most notable jazz musicians of Adams’ generation. How many bonafide stylists are there among them who are instantaneously identifiable on their instrument and have had a profound effect on the art form? John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery spring to mind. Clifford Brown? Cannonball Adderley and Phineas Newborn perhaps? Equally noteworthy in his own way is Pepper Adams, the father of modern baritone sax playing. Just like Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and other stylists on their instruments, Pepper’s unique sound and innovative melodic and harmonic concept, just as surely as his dazzling technical mastery, have shaped all baritone saxophonists to follow. This book is an attempt to contextualize Pepper Adams’ accomplishments and reveal the man who revolutionized the baritone saxophone.


On September 28, 1986, our first wedding anniversary, my wife and I attended Pepper Adams’ memorial service at St. Peter’s Church. Adams had waged a courageous battle against an aggressive form of lung cancer that was first diagnosed in early March, 1985 while touring in northern Sweden. St. Peter’s, with its modern ash-paneled interior and large multi-tiered sanctuary, is tucked under the enormous 915-foot-tall Citicorp Center at East 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. On that somber but bright Sunday afternoon, St. Peter’s chapel was packed with musicians, friends and admirers. Reverend John Garcia Gensel presided over the service and many jazz greats—George Mraz, Elvin Jones, Frank Foster, Louis Hayes, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris, Sheila Jordan, Tommy Flanagan, Gerry Mulligan and others—performed and paid their final respects. 

For over a year Adams’ plight had galvanized the jazz community, who heard varying stories about his wife leaving him, his declining health and his dire financial situation. Between September, 1985 and March, 1986 two benefits were organized to raise funds for Pepper’s medical care. One at the 880 Club in Hartford, Connecticut was organized by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and Adams was able to attend. The other took place at the Universal Jazz Coalition on Lafayette Street in New York and featured performances by Milt Jackson, Louis Hayes, Frank Foster, Kenny Burrell, Jerry Dodgion, Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Flanagan and the entire Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Pepper, gaunt and bald from chemotherapy treatments, was out of town for that one, working a weekend gig in Memphis. He sent a letter of gratitude that was read to the audience by singer Lodi Carr.

Pepper Adams was a friend of mine, but, sadly, I knew him only during the last two tumultuous years of his life. During that time, only partly recovered from a horrible leg accident that had kept him immobilized 22 hours a day for six months, Adams was separated from his wife and had been diagnosed with the cancer that would in short order kill him. Although it was an utterly miserable time for him, it was a fascinating and complex ride for me. I was a 28-year-old grad student; a passionate jazz fan and record collector who was trying to interest a jazz musician just enough to work with me on his memoir. As fate would have it, because of his leg injury Pepper had some time on his hands. He was so gracious, so prepared, so articulate and engaging.

Then, seven months later his cancer was diagnosed. I visited him at St. Luke’s Hospital when he started his medical treatments. I saw him perform whenever he had a gig around New York. On one occasion, between sets at the Blue Note, I saw him bark at a pianist whom he misperceived was harassing him for a gig. Another time, in New Jersey, I heard the pain pour out of him during a magnificent ballad performance that brought me to tears. I spent time with Pepper at his home in Canarsie, eating pizza, watching football games and dubbing copies of his tapes. Although I was trying to gather as much information as I could in the little time that was left, I always had to reign in my curiosity and not push too hard. Things had changed drastically since the summer and I had to make the shift with him. Mostly, I had to respect that he was fighting for his life and that the cancer treatments made him feel awful. It was simply inappropriate to think that every time we got together Pepper would feel like analyzing aspects of his life.

In January, 1986, Pepper worked a four-night stint in bitterly cold Minneapolis. I urged a friend of mine to attend as some show of support. During intermission Dan Olson said hello for me, bought Pepper a beer and the two had a chance to talk at the bar. Dan told me that my gesture meant a lot to Pepper, that he was obviously quite fond of me. My final experience with Pepper was equally poignant. A month before his death, bedridden at home and under the care of a hospice nurse, I called to see if there was anything I could do for him. His nurse asked me to hold on. I waited anxiously for at least five minutes while Pepper somehow found the energy to drag himself to the telephone. In a sentence or two he acknowledged that time was short, thanked me for calling, said a final goodbye and hung up the phone. That would’ve been in August, 1986, right around the time that Dizzy Gillespie called him to say that Thad Jones had died in Copenhagen.

About a year later, once I began interviewing Adams’ colleagues, I spent a very memorable afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Tommy Flanagan. I was meeting him for the first time and was completely starstruck. Flanagan was one of the last people to see Pepper alive. He wanted me to know that transcripts of my interviews were stacked high on Pepper’s nightstand just before he died. At one point, while sitting next to Pepper on the edge of his bed, Flanagan explained, Pepper awoke and tried feebly to push my manuscript towards him. As you can imagine, I was completely stunned by this story. At first I was touched that my work comforted Pepper at the end of his life. Then I began to take my role a lot more seriously, knowing how important it was to Pepper that his work carry on after him. Of course my resolve to do this book and all the other work that’s preceded it was strengthened. But, truth be told, I’ve wanted to tell Pepper’s story since June 28, 1984, the memorable day I conducted the first of several lengthy interviews with him. His recollections of his childhood and early career (see were stunning in their depth and historical sweep. I knew right away that I had something very special.

Flanagan’s interview was one of more than 100 I conducted, mostly in the late 1980s before my daughter was born. Those I interviewed portrayed Adams as a complex figure: a hero, a genius, an intellectual, a model of grace, a virtuoso musician and stylist, yet someone also very hard to calibrate. Their remembrances revealed a brilliant artist full of interesting ambiguities and contradictions; an unworldly looking sophisticate, a white musician often mistaken for a black one, a engaging raconteur in public who was emotionally guarded in private, and a full-throated exuberant saxophonist who was mild-mannered and soft-spoken.

Many spoke of Adams’ unprecedented agility on his instrument, how he “played it like an alto.” Before Adams, the baritone sax was a cumbersome low-pitched fringe instrument rarely played outside of big bands. Because of his innovations, a baritone saxophonist with a rhythm section or as part of a small jazz ensemble is now commonplace and no longer viewed as a novelty. 

Pepper Adams was fond of saying that the range of the instrument was similar to his speaking voice. But much more about him can be divined from his adoption of the baritone sax. For one thing, Adams prized individuality above all else and scorned cliche. Becoming a baritone saxophonist in the late 1940s gave him an opportunity to create something completely unique on a little heard instrument. Like Duke Ellington, who he greatly admired, Adams could similarly stand apart from everyone else. 

Paradoxically, despite enhancing the idiom and securing his place in jazz history, Adams’ fealty to his instrument also hurt him. The public’s bias against low-pitched instruments forever stood in the way of him fronting a band or recording far more albums as a leader. Furthermore, stubbornly refusing to double on bass clarinet disqualified him from studio work that would’ve helped him immeasurably, especially during the early 1960s when work was sporadic. Throughout his career, Adams was exclusively a baritone saxophonist for hire. He never taught saxophone on the side or experimented here and there with other instruments. Always the fierce individualist, Adams lack of pragmatism was a constant and it interfered with other aspects of his life.

Part biography and part musical study, this book is the culmination of more than forty years of research on Pepper Adams. When I began working with him in 1984 I knew he was a fine saxophonist but I had little idea of the extent of his contribution or how much his colleagues admired him. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have known Pepper Adams. After so many years of researching his life and living with his music, in 2012 I produced a five-volume box set of Adams’ complete compositions that was co-branded with my book Pepper Adams’ Joy Road: An Annotated Discography. Now, with this companion work, I at long last fulfill my promise to him and myself. 

I’m especially pleased that John Vana agreed to co-author the book. John’s an alto player on the faculty at Western Illinois University. We first met when he invited me to speak at WIU in late 2013. John’s an ardent Pepper Adams fan. Soon after my visit he agreed to write a major piece on Pepper’s early style (to 1960) for a possible Adams anthology. Not long after that, John started asking me to send him, bit by bit, every Pepper Adams LP, cassette and videotape in my collection. Clearly, listening only to Adams’ early work wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to consider Pepper’s entire oeuvre. Eventually, it occurred to me that John’s piece would likely cover much of the same terrain I’d be exploring in the second half of this book. Considering the demands of my day job, wouldn’t it be better for me to write the biography and have John (with my input, additions and editorial oversight) write the second section? John thought it was a really good idea. The anthology might not even happen, I pointed out, so what better place for his study? For those either already hip to Adams’ life and recordings or encountering him for the first time, it’s our sincere hope that we convey his extraordinary contribution to the history of Twentieth Century music and inspire readers everywhere to listen anew to his glorious work.

Gary Carner
Braselton GA

Ron Ley, email to the author, 2013.

                                                                 (John Gennari)

No comments:

Post a Comment