Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pepper and Fish

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

My interview last Sunday with Delaware tenor saxophonist Dave Schiff was absolutely groundbreaking! Much of it will be included in my forthcoming Pepper Adams biography because Schiff goes into great detail about Pepper's approach to playing. Apart from Curtis Fuller and others that Pepper may have mentored in Detroit, it turns out that Schiff was very likely Pepper's only student after Pepper moved to New York at age 29. How Schiff knows so much about Pepper is that his memory is razor-sharp about many of the important things that Pepper taught him when he was an aspiring teenage saxophonist.

Schiff was fifteen when Pepper, Thad Jones, Roland Hanna, Tom McIntosh and a few other top New York-based jazz musicians came to Wilmington, Delaware, beginning in 1968, to do five-day workshops with young students from the area. Pepper was an instructor at the Wilmington Music School each June from 1968 to 1970, then again one last time in 1974. At the School, directed by Schiff's father, Hal Schiff, Pepper had a chance to work with small ensembles and individually with students. Some were very promising inner-city students who couldn't afford tuition. For them, Schiff's father arranged scholarship money, underwritten by the Dupont and Hercules corporations. Dave Schiff was one of the lucky students who studied individually with Pepper.

One year, in the late '60s, after Pepper finished teaching at the Wilmington Music School, he invited Dave Schiff (whom he regarded as a very promising instrumentalist) to New York to study with him for a day. By then, according to Schiff, he had become quite close with Pepper. Schiff and his dad (also a tenor player) took the train early on a Monday morning from Wilmington and were greeted by Pepper at either Penn or Grand Central Station. Pepper assured Hal that he would look after him and all would be fine. Hal went home on the train. Pepper and Dave went back to Pepper's one-bedroom apartment at 84 Jane Street, and they studied together for much of the day. 

That night Pepper brought Dave with him to the Village Vanguard, ostensibly to hear the band. Pepper told Schiff to bring his horn. For the last tune of the last set Pepper asked Schiff to sit in on Back Bone. Schiff was petrified, but Pepper assured him it would be OK. Schiff would only play two choruses after Pepper's solo, he'd first sit next to Pepper on the bandstand and play the chart with him, and he'd do fine. Schiff already knew Thad from his Wilmington experience, but that hardly calmed his nerves. Schiff told me, "I was so scared I thought I was going to vomit." Before they played the tune, Pepper introduced Schiff to Jerry Dodgion, who, as always, was very warm and welcoming. "Very nice meeting you," said Dodgion to Schiff. "I'm looking forward to hearing you play." As it turned out, Schiff got through the experience. Another challenge for the young player was overcome and Pepper's lesson was learned. That is, always play when you're invited.

Schiff, nicknamed "Fish" by Pepper, thought he might move to New York and become a professional musician. He certainly had an important ally in Pepper, he thought, and he would seek out other players his own age and develop that way. But the Vietnam War changed his plans. His father, worried that his son would be drafted and would have to fight overseas, got his son enlisted in the Navy Band in 1972. 

Not entirely unlike Pepper's Korean War experience, I still don't know if Schiff had a tour of duty or, instead, if he stayed mostly at the base at Annapolis, Maryland. Schiff did stay with the Navy's Commodores band for about 20 years and later was also a member of Bill Potts' Big Band that had a long residency two weeks a month at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, Schiff was in Potts' band on 11 October 1979, the night Pepper came in, as a guest soloist, at Frankie Condon's Supper Club in Rockville Maryland. Schiff made corrections to that entry in Pepper Adams' Joy Road (pages 384-85). The changes will be posted in the next few months at "Discographical Updates" at

Obviously, I look forward to transcribing the Schiff interview and following up. Schiff was the first person to describe the inside of Pepper's apartment on Jane Street. Most importantly, of course, was Schiff's extremely important observations about Pepper's approach to playing. Although I've done more than 100 interviews, no one has presented these kinds of insights. 

Why "Fish?" Pepper was a voracious crossword puzzle enthusiast. When Pepper was dying at home, he passed the time doing New York Times crossword puzzles and reading the Flashman Papers, a series of twelve novels written by George MacDonald Fraser. Moreover, as Curtis Fuller put it about Pepper's playing, "Pepper was a speller." My theory is that Pepper heard "Schiff" and amused himself by reversing Schiff's surname as a kind of pseudo- reverse homonym.

So far, I only know of two other summer music camps for whom Pepper taught. One was the National Band Camps, based at Millikin University in Decatur IL and the University of Connecticut in Stoors CT. As such, he was in the forefront of jazz education in the U.S. He enjoyed working with young players, and I understand the compensation for clinicians was quite good. Additionally, Adams enjoyed doing college workshops, where the pay was even better. Two such programs he did late in life were at Eastman in March, 1978 and the University of North Texas in November, 1982. At one National Band Camps residency, one of his young students was Boston-based guitarist Jon Wheatley. In the Eastman jazz program was pianist Dave Loeb (see Joy Road, page 324 and "Discographical Updates.") At UNT was tenor saxophonist Chip McNeill.

About Pepper's disinterest in having private students, I think Pepper really prized his time alone, reading fiction, listening to Ellington and classical music, and nurturing his other hobbies, such as reading about fine art or watching sports on televsion, particularly football and hockey. For the most part, Pepper was busy enough to support himself by playing, and his mother's inheritance allowed him a measure of comfort. He bought his house in Canarsie with cash from her estate, acquired some furniture (his dad's kitchen table, mom's spinet, etc), and he freed up the rent money that he was paying for his flat in Greenwich Village. 

The only other time I know of that Pepper had a private student was when he was already quite ill with cancer. Montreal-based baritone saxophonist Charles Papasoff got a grant from the Province of Quebec to study with Pepper. Unlike with Schiff, the situation was quite different. Pepper needed the subsidy because his medical benefits were dwindling and, with his cancer treatments, he wasn't able to work as much as he needed to support himself. Although I interviewed Papasoff years ago, I don't recall the nature of their interaction. That's just one of many interviews I need to review. I do know they became friends. I can't imagine Papasoff not asking Pepper a million questions about technique and his life in jazz but my recollection is that he and Pepper mostly hung out, and Pepper might not have even pulled out his instrument. Papasoff did help Pepper on his last visit to Montreal--a very poignant experience for all. Check out pages 505-507 of Joy Road regarding Adams' very last performance, with Papasoff and Denny Christianson's commentary.

                                            (Dave Schiff)

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