Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pepper Adams Film

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I had a wonderful trip to Utah in late March, early April. It gave me another chance to spread the word about Pepper Adams. On my flight out, my wife and I had the fortunate experience of being able to switch our seats to an exit row and grab some extra legroom. Sitting next to us was Josh Cross, a documentary filmmaker and MIT trained engineer.  (See https://vimeo.com/84245876 and www.GoPlugBags.com.) His passion as a filmaker is exposing injustice, especially in U.S. public schools.

I can’t recall a faster four-hour flight. We chatted the entire time. By the time we landed in Salt Lake City, Josh was really intrigued about Pepper Adams. A few days later, after checking out pepperadams.com, he admitted to being a confirmed Adams fan. Now we’re discussing the possibility of doing a documentary film on Pepper Adams. How about that for serendipity?

Josh asked me about my vision for such a film. I’m curious what you suggest? What themes should an Adams documentary tackle? What’s the argument? What kind of obstacles should be added to the narrative to give it drama? Should it be a triumph? A tragedy? Perhaps both?

Surely, the vibrant Detroit scene of the early 1950s should be covered, just as surely as how Pepper and his gifted Detroit colleagues descended on New York City in the mid-1950s (“The Detroit Invasion”) and affected jazz history. (Dan Morgenstern would be the perfect person to comment on that!) How about Pepper’s time in the Army, on base with Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans; his ill-fated gig with Charlie Parker; or touring the front lines in Korea with the Special Services Company? How about his place in the New York City loft scene and how it intersected with the Abstract Expressionist Movement? How about his contribution to the baritone classical literature (via David Amram), racial issues in general, his place specifically as the only white musician in Blue Note’s stable from 1957 until its dissolution, or his role in important bands led by Mingus, Thad Jones and others? How about Pepper’s early role in jazz education (at the Eastman School of Music, various band camps or Making Music Together (the forerunner of Jazzmobile)? Who should narrate, if anyone? Morgan Freeman, perhaps? Someone told me he’s a Pepper Adams fan. Wouldn’t that be something?

Maybe we should highlight bands that Adams was a part of that died prematurely?-- the Thad Jones/Pepper Adams Quintet; the Thelonious Monk Big Band; and, yes, even the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet--then move to the triumph of his glorious six years (1977-1983) as an international soloist? Should some of the themes from earlier posts be explored?: His unglamorous appearance? The fact that he played a low-pitched instrument? The complexity of his playing style and compositions? Perhaps this is an opportunity to finally include those I haven’t had the chance to interview, such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett and others? Who else should be interviewed? Readers, I need your input here. All ideas, outlines, etc will be shared in a future post.
                                             (Josh Cross)

Once on the ground, my first few days in Salt Lake City were spent visiting with family, doing some sightseeing, and acclimating to the high altitude, new time zone, and cold and rainy weather. I enjoyed visiting the Tracy Aviary and the Natural History Museum. Both really aren’t my thing, I thought, yet how often do you get stared at by owls and witness peacocks strutting around unfettered or with their plume fully extended? At the architecturally dazzling Natural History Museum we saw a rather creepy show on the history of poison, then toured other exhibits. They had a great section devoted to local Native American tribes, including some moving short films with interview material.

Outside, on a back terrace, and also by one of the front entrances, were warning signs about rattlesnakes. The museum is situated right up against the base of one of the mountain ranges surrounding the city. Some folks at the gift shop told me they’ve seen scorpions--or was it tarantulas?
--in the museum, and once a rattlesnake was spotted slithering around under one of the rattlesnake warning signs.

On my fourth day in Salt Lake, I began the first of a handful of scheduled Pepper Adams events. At Westminster College I spent two hours with saxophonist David Halliday’s Jazz Ensemble class. It gave me a chance to test some new ideas. David was a wonderful host and his class enjoyed the videos available at pepperadams.com. Similar to my experience lecturing at saxophonist Kirk MacDonald’s class at Humber College in Toronto and at trumpeter John D’Earth’s class at the University of Virginia, Halliday participated with me in the lecture, highlighting points I made to the students. In that way, the class became more didactic. In Halliday’s case, many of his students hadn’t taken a jazz survey, thus weren’t knowledgeable of many of the musicians I referenced.

Halliday really appreciated many of the musical points I made and didn’t hesitate to politely challenge something that he felt was off-base. About one point I made--regarding Adams’ sound and style being instantly recognizable, and an aesthetic that was once far more important in jazz--he felt my second point was incorrect. He said if you listen to Robert Glasper or Kurt Rosenwinkel, for example, they too have their own thing going, and that jazz musicians still strive to establish their own unique voice. Although my comment may have been heavy-handed, is there today, or in the last thirty years or so, less individuality among players, perhaps due to the legions of college jazz graduates from the ever expanding North American jazz history programs or due to other factors?

Halliday also found it interesting that in my discussion of bandleaders versus sidemen, I included touring as a “single” as one aspect of being a sideman. In thinking more about it, I’ve realized that traveling as a “single” is a kind of middle ground between the two camps. Although a touring soloist doesn't travel with his own group, nor as the leader of a band have the responsibility of running that kind of business, he is still nonetheless the leader of whatever rhythm section they join.

One Westminster student heard back-phrasing in Adams’ playing. When Halliday asked her to explain, she said it’s a common trait in singers, where they pull back the time, then catch up. I first heard the expression used about Pepper’s playing style by trumpeter/bandleader Denny Christianson. I thought he meant only playing behind the beat. What’s your sense of the term and how the practice is used by Pepper and among jazz players?

The following day I taped a 2.5 hour radio program with Steve Williams at KCPW. Williams is the voice of jazz in Utah. Until a few years ago, he was on the air five nights a week. Sometime after his show was cancelled by KUER (NPR Utah), it was scooped up by KCPW, who in turn licensed it back to NPR. Williams’ show first began in June, 1984, the same month I met Pepper Adams. Steve’s father, Murray Williams, was a lead alto saxophonist who, apart from playing with many bands in the 1930s and 40s, recorded with Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall (opposite Mitch Miller with Strings).

Steve is an incredibly warm and gracious host. I can’t recall feeling more comfortable in a similar setting. He played a lot of early Pepper Adams, such as things with Chet Baker, Gene Ammons and Howard McGhee. I was struck by how great Pepper sounded, as if I was hearing them anew. In some ways I was, because I hadn’t heard them in many years. There’s just so much Pepper material! I’m reminded how I need to go back and hear many of these dates again. Williams also played a few things from Pepper’s great date, Encounter

The next day I was a guest of trumpeter Craig Ferrin at one of the campuses of Salt Lake Community College. SLCC has 60,000 students spread throughout the region. Ferrin assembled a spirited group that really enjoyed Adams’ playing. As with Westminster, I had almost two hours to take my time and present many ideas I’m working on related to Adams' biography. Ferrin was a very warm host, just like Halliday and Williams.

We were assisted by percussionist Lynn Brown, also a professor there, who lent his laptop and assisted me throughout the lecture. At one point, after hearing Pepper’s extraordinary solo on “Straight, No Chaser” from a CBC broadcast from Expo ‘67 (at the 6:40 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvJ-WN-Bi3o), Brown asked if there was a transcription of that! He was acknowledging its complexity and just how difficult it would be to transcribe the solo. Taking Brown’s cue, a day or so after the lecture I corresponded with saxophonist Adam Schroeder, whose solo transcriptions posted at pepperadams.com have impressed students in Utah. Afterwards, I wrote Brown a thank you note:

“Thanks again for all your help navigating my website and participating in the lecture. You joked about whether there was a transcription of one of Pepper's more complicated solos. Thanks to you, that may actually come to pass. Adam Schroeder, the guy who did those transcriptions of commercially released recordings, has offered to do more.

Best wishes,
Gary Carner”

My exciting first week in Utah ended with a lecture for the amazing music students at Brigham Young University. I’ve rarely seen a more spirited group of 30-40 musicians. Saxophonist Ray Smith has a great program and he too was really moved by Pepper’s playing. I only had one hour, so had to pare down my comments to 25 minutes of prefatory remarks to contextualize why I was invited and why only 10% of the group had ever heard of Adams before the lecture was announced. That left 35 minutes for Pepper videos/audio on YouTube. I played the following:

  1. Solo excerpt from Flying Home (Lionel Hampton, 1964)
  2. In Love with Night (Montreal, 1978)
  3. My Shining Hour (Grammy Awards, 1982)
  4. Straight, No Chaser (Expo ‘67)
  5. Straight, No Chaser (Sweden, with Clark Terry)

Next week I’ll write about my residency with Jon Gudmundson at Utah State. Again, I’m very grateful to David Halliday, Steve Williams, Craig Ferrin and Ray Smith for such a memorable week in Utah!

                      (Westminster College Jazz Ensemble. Photo c. David Halliday)

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