Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pepper Gets His Selmer and Berg Larsen

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Welcome back to the Pepper Adams blog. The reason I moved to a once-a-month posting schedule is because I started a new gig in early July with a steep learning curve that demanded a great deal of my time. It's a challenging sales job that requires quite a bit of travel. Now that my acclimation process is over, I'm happy to be back in the saddle, writing about Pepper Adams again. I hope this new schedule hasn't inconvenienced anyone. Again, postings will be the first Sunday of each month for the foreseeable future.

With the little free time I had left over this month I did manage to get some Pepper Adams work done. Just last night I finished a new draft of Chapter Two of Pepper's biography. It basically covers the period 1930-1947. I say "basically" because I jump around thematically, not adhering to a chronological narrative.

It's now time to turn my attention to Chapter Three, Pepper's experience in the U.S. Army. From June, 1951 until June, 1953 Adams was in the Special Services, a group of musicians that performed nearly every day for troops in Korea to improve morale. Although it sounds like a cushy gig, it was fraught with danger. Typically, they performed near the front lines. Traveling around in convoys in some sense made them a moving target. At least once, Adams' jeep was strafed, flipping his vehicle over on its side. Adams found the entire war experience to be harrowing and wouldn't generally talk with interviewers about his time in Korea. When I interviewed him he did explain some aspects of it. Most of my research is with his  fellow soldiers. I'll report on my progress in September's post.

I had a fascinating email exchange a few weeks ago with a baritone saxophonist friend of mine. He told me that he had done some research on his horn at the Selmer office in Paris, getting a copy of the production log that showed when his horn was built. Some time after that he went to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University to take a look at Pepper's Selmer, the instrument that Pepper's widow asked me to deliver soon after his death. It turns out that the serial number of Pepper's horn is nearly identical to his, only seven numbers away, meaning that both were produced within a few weeks of each other.

Due to their near identical production date, information about Pepper's horn was on the log sheet that  he was given! It turns out that production on Pepper's horn began on October 14, 1949 and finished four days later. Knowing this necessitated me to go back and change around a few parts of Chapter One of the biography (and it's going to require me making some changes to the Chronology at I originally thought that Pepper got his horn about a half year after he first started playing the baritone sax in December, 1947 because that's the way Pepper remembered it. That led me to research Ellington's Detroit gigs in 1948 because Pepper brought Harry Carney with him to the shop to vet the instrument. My friend's startling discovery changed the timeline that all of this happened and shows how a person with a crystal clear memory can still very easily reorder facts 35 years later.

It now looks like Pepper bought his horn sometime in the period January 20-28, 1950, when Ellington played Detroit's Paradise Theater. The instrument was already destined for the USA upon its completion and it would have taken about six weeks by boat. Adams had almost twice that time to get it and that would have given some extra time for it to move from the distributor, probably on the East Coast, to Detroit. The reason it wasn't purchased later in the year at two other Ellington gigs (Sept 1-3 or Nov 30-Dec 6) is because my co-author, alto saxophonist John Vana, doesn't think that a Bundy could have given Pepper the warm sound that he gets on a recording he made in the summer of 1950.

Once I put all of that in order, I then had to figure out when Adams got his Berg Larsen mouthpiece. Pepper told me that Wardell Gray returned to Detroit with the mouthpiece after his European tour with Benny Goodman. According to research done by Leif Bo Peterson, that tour (BG's only one when Gray was in the band) was cancelled due to labor issues in England. Gray still went east with the presumption that a tour of Europe was in place. I suspect BG's band got stranded in NY; only Goodman, it turned out, went on to London. While Goodman went to London, Gray returned to Detroit and recorded live at the Blue Bird on July 20, 1949. I can only assume that around this time Pepper sat in with Wardell and fell in love with Gray's Berg Larsen when they switched horns on the bandstand. If he ordered it around August 1, then he might have gotten it as early as mid-September, 1949, some four months before the Selmer. Maybe getting the Berg Larsen impelled him to get the new horn? Could it be that he wasn't able to get as good a sound as he wanted on the Bundy that he heard on Gray's tenor and that finally compelled him to buy a new horn?

The end result is that Pepper played his Bundy for two full years before he fully committed to the instrument by purchasing a professional model. Moreover, he did get his Berg Larsen within only a few months of getting his new horn. Learning that Adams got his new horn and mouthpiece by early 1950 makes sense in light of my interview with Detroit baritone saxophonist Bean Bowles. He told me that Pepper came to him a few months later, still struggling to get a big sound on the instrument. Bowles advised him to change his reed set-up and a few other things you'll discover when you read my book.

                (Where Pepper Adams bought his Selmer.)