Sunday, May 6, 2018

Bob Cornfoot Remembers Pepper Adams

In the last month I've worked my way through two lengthy and significant interviews that I conducted in 1988. The first one is with Pepper's college roommate, Bob Cornfoot. The others is with the Detroit-born drummer Eddie Locke, who worked for four years with Coleman Hawkins. The only interviews yet to be heard before I'm officially done with Part I of Pepper's biography (1930-1955) are those with the singer Lodi Carr, the saxophonist Doc Holladay, the bassist Major Holley, and the pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Listening to, and taking notes about these last handful of interviews will help me finish Chapter 3, which covers Pepper's stint in the US Army and his time in Detroit from 1953 through the end of 1955.

Additionally, I finally located my interview with the saxophonist Bob Wilber. I'll listen to that one, too, to also see, as I do with all the others, if I've missed or misrepresented any important facts. In Wilber's case, I want to determine if I've overlooked anything important about Pepper's early days in Rochester, New York. Wilber attended the Eastman School of Music for one semester in the mid-1940s. While there, he, Pepper, Raymond Murphy and Bob Huggler spent a lot of time together, listening to jazz records and playing along on their instruments.

As it only relates to Pepper's time in Detroit before he moved to New York City in early 1956, the thrust of Cornfoot's interview was recalling a number of interesting facts about his time knowing Pepper at Wayne University (now Wayne State) and when they worked together at several record stores in Detroit. Cornfoot mentioned that Pepper liked Leo Parker's early work with Fats Navarro. They both adored Gilbert & Sullivan, and, apart from that, they listened together to recordings of Honegger's Pacific 231, and by Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. Pepper also liked Benny Bailey's trumpet playing. There was a lot of knocking on the walls at 3am, said Cornfoot, because of the late-night listening. The great Detroit pianist Bu Bu Turner used to come to their dorm a lot to listen to 78s at half speed and learn solos. In the dorm, Pepper practiced soprano sax.

While rooming together, he and Pepper in the middle of the week used to go to the Center Theater, about six blocks from Wayne, to catch matinees of older films that were made during the twenties and thirties. At all-night theaters they would catch comedies at the Mayfair Theater. They enjoyed shorts by Laurel and Hardy (with Charlie Chase), Bobby Clark, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.

About Pepper's sense of humor, he said, "His humor seemed to be based more on human foibles, and bringing up short the pompous, the powerful. A tremendous punster. A lot of word play at times." When Pepper told a story, he would wait a few seconds, with a deadpan expression or a half-smile on his face, before laughing with his characteristic chuckle.

Cornfoot introduced Pepper to the works of Anthony Burgess. "He got all wrapped up in him," said Cornfoot. "When he got interested in something, he went thoroughly, all across the board."

Regarding classes at Wayne: "He used to use my notebooks because I was on the GI Bill. So they paid for my paper, and my notebooks, and that. So I'd come back from a class. Pepper would take the notebook and go to his class and make his notes. I remember he had a music appreciation class. They were covering Haydn. He had a marginal note that said, 'No wonder the guy write 104 symphonies. The son of a bitch only scored in octaves!'" Pepper did his term paper on Stravinsky. Pepper's favorite class was a film history course taught by Fran Striker. Striker wrote radio scripts for the Lone Ranger show.

Pepper told Cornfoot that he studied with Sidney Bechet. I've written Bob Wilber about that, because if true, it would have been when Wilber was living with Bechet.

"Hellure" is how Pepper answered the telephone, and "Cheers" is how he signed off on his correspondence.

Next month I'll tell you about the Eddie Locke interview and other things I've learned.