Saturday, March 18, 2017

Reader Responses

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I want to thank Jon Wheatley and Kevin Goss for their perceptive Facebook replies last week. I hope others feel free to reply to future posts, if only on Facebook. I'm happy to cut and paste, understanding it's often easier for folks to respond on Facebook while they're there. Can someone please tell me if it's hard to post replies directly on Blogspot? Thanks again to the intrepid Peter Landsdowne for doing so.

So often I think of Adams as a complex soloist and forget how difficult his tunes are to play. Other than playing a few of his lead sheets on piano, the only Pepper tune I've ever played on my instrument is "Rue Serpente." I did that in the mid-1980s, while working on my Pepper Adams thesis at Tufts. I put together my own arrangement for solo guitar. It sure took me a long time to work it out.

During that time, I studied briefly with guitarist Jon Wheatley. His perception of Pepper's original tunes having melodies that are not easily singable is interesting and certainly deserves more scrutiny. Is that unusual in the jazz canon? Is that a reason to exclude his (or anyone's) tunes from the standard repertoire? It seems that "Muezzin'" and "Freddie Froo" are the only Adams compositions to ever make it into a fakebook. Please let me know what you think about this.

As for Wheatley's claim that Pepper played his own, difficult material, yes, that's true chiefly once he went out as a single in 1977, after leaving Thad/Mel. As drummer Ron Marabuto told me, after Pepper made the move he focused on organizing a book he could take around with him. His wife, Claudette, said Pepper at that time spent a lot of time composing at the piano. Fortunately, Pepper's two dates for Muse (Reflectory and The Master) gave him an outlet to record some of his new tunes, as did two subsequent dates on Uptown and recordings as a sideman with Bill Perkins and Hod O'Brien.

Even though by 1977 Pepper had already written and recorded more than twenty original compositions, he didn't play many of them on his own gigs. For those, he might pull one out from time to time, answer a request, or chose a favorite Thad Jones tune. More often, though, Adams played standards. 

Adams was careful with his repertoire. Let's not forget that non-American rhythm sections really varied in terms of quality before the 1980s or '90s.  As he put it, Pepper didn't "want to show distain for the audience" and downgrade a performance by calling a tune that a rhythm section couldn't handle.

As for Pepper's tunes being difficult to play, trumpeter Red Rodney said in my interview with him that Valse Celtique was "tough" and he would have appreciated some rehearsal time with it before a Barry Harris concert, when Pepper pulled it out to play. More recently, drummer Mike Melito, between tunes at a 2015 Rochester, New York concert he led of Pepper's music, said to the Bop Shop audience, "This music is really hard." Melito's superb band of Eastman guys (including pianist Harold Danko) played the music impeccably, by the way. I wish I had a tape of it. Many years ago, bassist Rufus Reid told me that some of Pepper's tunes were "too intellectual." Did he in part mean they were tough to play?

I thought I'd shoot an email to Mike Melito and ask him to elaborate on why he feels Pepper's music is hard to play. He wrote right back with the following:

"Hey Gary:
Here are some thoughts on why I think Pepper's tunes were difficult from the drums' standpoint.
Pepper Adams' compositions were masterpieces but posed many challenges for musicians to play them. As a drummer, you need to be able to play the ensembles of tunes but not just play generic time. You need to know how to make the melodies of compositions come alive, otherwise everything will sound the same. Pepper's tunes can not be played by a chump drummer who doesn't know how to deal with the ensembles. Pepper wrote certain tunes that were hard rhythmically. You need to be able to deal with that in a musical way. For instance, you need to know how to make short sounds for short notes in the melodies. But you also have to know how to make longer notes in the melody BUT also play around the rhythms without clashing with the ensembles, and knowing when to leave space. Developing this is not an easy task! 

One of my favorite Pepper tunes is "Cindy's Tune," originally recorded on his record Encounter with Zoot Sims. First off, the melody of this tune is tricky for the horns so you can't get in the way. When you come across a composition like this, you can orchestrate it in different ways. Elvin Jones, the drummer on Encounter, brought his brillant organic thing to the melody. He played around the melody, outlining it but having such a wide beat. Being Elvin, it worked great. There is only one Elvin Jones, though, so as a drummer we have to come up with our own way of playing the difficult melodies Pepper wrote. What works for one guy may not work for another. That is one of the biggest challenges as a drummer when playing Pepper's music: knowing how to make the melodies come alive."

Great stuff from Mike Melito! Thanks so much for your insights. Aside from the various comments about Pepper's tunes being difficult, I found Kevin Goss' comments about audiences "listening with their eyes" really fascinating. For one thing, Pepper just didn't care that much about how he dressed. Some musicians, like Bobby Timmons, would get on his case in the late 1950 and 60s for his raggedy sport coat (possibly the one worn in the photo on's homepage), or how indifferent Pepper was to dressing up for a gig. Even later in life, when his wife and step-son tried to get him au courant by wearing a leather vest and dress shirt (see the cover to Live at Fat Tuesday's below), Pepper's white tee shirt always seemed to peek out of his wide-open collar. To see another one of Pepper's informal outfits, see this performance with Clark Terry in Sweden. Pepper, with his flannel shirt, almost looks like he could have just milked a cow: 

There were some notable exceptions when Pepper did show some concern for appearance on the bandstand. In 1960, Pepper came to his gig at Montreal's Little Vienna wearing a bow tie and criticized pianist Keith White for not wearing socks. The Little Vienna had a completely unpretentious coffee house like vibe that in no way approximated a white-table cloth supper club, nor was it a place where the audience would dress up. White's response to Pepper's criticism was, "This is the Little Vienna, not the Waldorf Astoria."

Regarding Pepper's looks, if you check out some of the photos of Adams as a child on my Instagram page (, you might agree with me that Pepper was quite a cute kid. Somewhere along the way, he was stigmatized about being ugly. Being branded with the nickname of "Pepper" in the Seventh Grade certainly didn't help. He said repeatedly over the years that Pepper Martin (to whom he was compared by his schoolmates, and nicknamed after) was "an ugly son-of-a-gun." 

In one interview I did, I was told that Pepper was quite sensitive about his looks. His Princeton haircut of the 1950s and 60s--close on the sides and almost a Mohawk on top--certainly made him look rather eccentric in some photographs. In 1985, during intermission at a gig in New Jersey, Pepper joked about his crooked front teeth (that he couldn't afford to fix), that were damaged by playing hockey in Rochester. About them, he said to me with a twinkle in his eye, "Do you think they grow that way?" Despite his misgivings about his looks, from what I can tell there never seemed to be any shortage of groupies and women around him. Musicians really have it made, don't they?

This past week I also heard from saxophonist/arranger Frank Griffith and saxophonist Frank Basile. Both wrote me about how much they enjoyed what Tony Inzalaco had to say a few weeks back. Tony is a really special person. Anyone in the Anaheim area should try to catch his group, hear him while he's still going strong, and get to know him.

Saxophonist Aaron Lington also emailed me about the first 50 Years at the Village Vanguard post, saying it's a great book. My review of the book's contents is still forthcoming. I want to give it the attention it deserves. Unlike many jazz picture books, there's a considerable amount of text. Lington, by the way, is in the midst of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Please help put him way over the top:

A few other things of interest took place this week. I got a wonderful email from tenor saxophonist Osian Roberts. He said he was enjoying the blog. I immediately wrote back telling him how much I appreciated he and others giving me feedback, that intermittent reinforcement from readers is so important to my psyche to keep all this Pepper work going. 

In part, too, Osian was consoling me for not getting my Detroit proposal approved for the 2017 Darmstadt conference. Looking back, I was a tad naive. I should have first asked around about what kind of language they usually look for in these proposals. I was just too excited about the prospect of traveling abroad and presenting my research on 1950s Detroit. In turns out that they give preference to those with academically germane jargon. Not being a member of "the club," I wrote it in plain English. No big deal. It helped me get some Detroit work done. But I wanted to get to Prague and hear Osian play some Pepper tunes with his small group and big band.

In Osian's email, he told me about his recent tour with Detroit pianist Kirk Lightsey. I'm hoping to interview Lightsey by Skype sometime soon. Lightsey currently lives in Paris and he knew Pepper as an elder on the scene. I'm especially interested in Kirk's remembrances of growing up in Detroit.  

Roberts wrote that Lightsey on their tour spoke of "how smartly dressed Doug Watkins was," and "the picture he painted of the music scene [in Detroit] when he was growing up and the standard of the musicians was vivid and impressive. What struck me was the fact that all the musicians he mentioned were studying classical music to a very advanced level (enthusiastically I should add!), whereas jazz was mainly learnt at friends' houses such as Barry Harris' and so forth. The fact that [Lightsey] majored on oboe (which he played in the symphony orchestra with Paul Chambers), but could play all the woodwind instruments from clarinet to bassoon, gives you an idea of how thoroughly trained and accomplished these guys were. Apparently, [Lightsey] was in an Army band with Joe Henderson on bass (and he was excellent)!"

As I'll be traveling for the next few weeks, lecturing about Pepper Adams in Utah, this post will be my last in March. The next installment will be on April 16. I hope everybody in the U.S. gets their income taxes done. 

I'm going to close with the stunning discovery that the webmaster of, Dan Olson, made just three days ago. A few months ago some of you marveled at the discovery of the triumphant and previously unseen 1982 Pepper Adams TV performance on the Grammy Awards telecast. Amazingly, Olson just found a much better YouTube version. It has better resolution, includes John Denver's introduction for context, and most importantly has a completely unsulllied version of Adams' cadenza. All known versions beforehand had a defect on Pepper's concluding "funny note." We now have a complete two-minute take of the entire thing with the rhythm section, and how it then dovetails into his two-minute version of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" with Al Jarreau. As Pepper told me, his uptempo arrangement of (appropriately enough) "My Shining Hour" allowed him to at least get a chance to improvise. Finally seeing his complete comedic routine, beginning with the "Muppets Theme" and ending with him looking into the bell of his horn, is something I've waited over thirty years to see. As Pepper told me about that experience, a limo picked him up at the airport, everything was first-class. "Two minutes in the big time," he said.

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