Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Biography is Done


I’m very proud and excited to report that just this morning, after two and a half years of steady, unrelenting
work, I finished writing Pepper’s biography. Although I’ve completed writing his life, I still have to go back and listen to and write about his recordings from 1956-1977. That will take another year of work to finish.

In anticipation of the release of my Pepper Adams biography early next year, here’s the Prologue. It is also
posted here: https://www.pepperadams.com/Reflectory/Prologue.pdf 


On September 28, 1986, our first wedding anniversary, my wife Nancy and I attended Pepper Adams’
memorial service at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Adams had waged a courageous battle
against an aggressive form of lung cancer that was first diagnosed in March, 1985 while he was on tour in
Sweden. On that somber yet bright Sunday afternoon St. Peter’s ash-paneled, multi-tiered sanctuary, tucked
under the 915-foot-tall Citicorp Center, was packed with friends, musicians and admirers. The Reverend
John Garcia Gensel presided over the service and many jazz greats performed and paid their final respects.
Pepper Adams was a friend of mine but, sadly, I knew him only during the last two tumultuous years of
his life. At that time, still recovering from a horrible leg accident that kept him immobilized for six months,
Adams was separated from his wife and diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. Although it was an
undeniably miserable time for him it was, conversely, quite a fascinating ride for me. I was a 28-year-old
grad student; a passionate jazz fan and record collector who was trying to find a jazz musician interested
enough to participate with me on an oral history to satisfy my thesis requirement. 

Fortunately, because Adams was still recuperating at home, he had time to indulge me. What an
ideal subject! Here was a major soloist who played with virtually everyone in jazz from the late
1940s onward yet hadn’t received the acclaim that he deserved. At our first interview in June, 1984
he was so gracious and prepared, so articulate and engaging, when retelling the events of his life. 
We met several times at his home in Brooklyn that summer. Eventually I amassed eighteen hours of
tape-recorded interview material. Because Pepper’s recollection of his childhood and early career
was so stunning in its depth and historical sweep I strongly felt that I had the makings of a valuable
co-authored autobiography. 

Then, seven months later, Adams’ cancer was diagnosed. I visited him at St. Luke’s Hospital in
Manhattan, when he began his chemotherapy regimen, and I saw him perform whenever he had a gig
in New York. On one occasion, between sets at the Blue Note, I saw him bark at a pianist whom he
misperceived was harassing him for a job. At Far and Away, a club in nearby Cliffside Park, New
Jersey, I heard the sufferingpour out of him during a stunning ballad performance that brought me to
tears. Because his medical treatments and international travel schedule made our autobiographical
project an impossibility, I decided that writing a full-length Pepper Adams biography would be the
more appropriate undertaking. When Adams was home, either convalescing or in between gigs, I
watched football games with him while going through documents and dubbing copies of his tapes.
Although I was trying to gather as much information as I could in the little time that was left, it was
improper for me to pry about the minutiae of his life. Despite my youthful curiosity I had to respect
the fact that his cancer treatments made him feel awful and he was fighting to stay alive.

In the summer of 1985 I moved three hours away to Boston. No longer able to visit with him nor catch
any of his gigs we stayed in touch by telephone. Late that year I somehow learned that he had an
upcoming four-night stint in bitterly cold Minneapolis. Concerned about his well-being, I urged a
friend to attend as a courtesy to me. Thankfully, Dan Olson caught one of the performances and also
taped both sets. During intermission he said hello for me, bought him a beer, and the two had a chance
to chat at the bar.  My final conversation with Pepper took place in August, 1986, only a few weeks
before his death. Bedridden at home and under the watchful eye of a home-health aide, I called to see if
there was anything I could do for him. His hospice caretaker answered and asked me to hold on for a moment. While I paced anxiously for at least five minutes, Adams somehow found the energy to drag himself to the
telephone. In a sentence or two he acknowledged that time was short, thanked me for calling, said a
final goodbye, and hung up. That was right around the time that Dizzy Gillespie called Adams on
Mel Lewis’ behalf to say that one of Pepper’s dearest friends, the trumpeter Thad Jones, had just died
of cancer in Copenhagen.

About a year later, once I began interviewing Adams’ colleagues for this book, I spent a very memorable
afternoon with the pianist Tommy Flanagan, Ella Fitzgerald’s longtime music director. I was meeting him for
the first time and was completely star-struck. One of the last people to see Pepper alive, Flanagan especially
wanted me to know that the transcripts of my Adams interviews were stacked high on Pepper’s nightstand
just days before he died. At one point, while sitting next to Adams on the edge of his bed, Flanagan told me,
Pepper awoke and tried feebly to push my interview materials towards him. As if he was brushing crumbs
off a tabletop with the backside of his fingertips, Flanagan intensified his story by imitating Pepper’s
debilitated attempt to move the heavy pile of papers in Flanagan’s direction. 

As you can imagine I was completely stunned by the many implications of Adams’ gesture. At first
I was astounded, something that I must have readily expressed to Flanagan by my astonished gaze
and frozen expression. Then my heart sagged and my eyes watered as I became increasingly aware
that our months of work together somehow comforted Pepper at the very end of his life. 

During the next few weeks, as Flanagan’s story continued to wash over me, I noticed that I was
taking my role as Pepper’s biographer a lot more seriously. As the proud guardian of Adams’ legacy,
acutely aware of how important it was to Adams that his work carry on after him, my research
acquired renewed vigor. Surely my resolve to do this book and all the other Pepper Adams projects
that have preceded it was strengthened. But truth be told I’ve wanted to tell his story since that
memorable Saturday afternoon when I conducted my first interview with him that completely
changed my life for the better. 

Flanagan’s interview was one of more than 250 that I conducted, mostly in the late 1980s before
my daughter was born. Over and over again my interviewees affirmed Adams as a complex
individual — a hero, a genius, a model of grace, an intellectual, a virtuoso musician and stylist
— yet someone also very hard to calibrate. The contradictions that they depicted equally
fascinated me. Adams, they said, was an unworldly looking sophisticate, a white musician who
sounded like a black one, and a dynamic, commanding saxophonist who was soft-spoken and
mild-mannered off the bandstand.

Many told me of his unprecedented agility on the baritone, how he “played it like an alto.” Before
Adams the baritone sax was a cumbersome, fringe instrument rarely played outside of a big band.
Today, because of his innovations, the baritone with a rhythm section is commonplace and no
longer viewed as a novelty. 

Throughout his career Adams told radio interviewers that the pitch of the baritone was similar to his
speaking voice. He felt that this to a certain extent explained his affinity for the instrument. But much more
about him can be divined from his adoption of the baritone sax. For one thing, he greatly prized originality.
Becoming a baritone saxophonist in the late 1940s gave him an opportunity to create a completely unique
style on an infrequently heard instrument. Like Duke Ellington, whom he greatly admired, Adams could
similarly stand way apart from everyone else.

Paradoxically, despite enhancing the idiom and securing his place in history Adams’ fealty to his instrument
also hurt him. The public’s inherent bias against low-pitched instruments and his status as a sideman stood
in the way of him fronting a band or recording far more albums as a leader, particularly any with widespread
distribution. As the pianist Roland Hanna once asked, Who knows what Pepper might have achieved had he
instead chosen the tenor saxophone? 

Throughout his career Adams was exclusively a baritone saxophonist for hire. Refusing to double
on the bass clarinet disqualified him from studio work that could have helped him immeasurably
during the 1960s, when jazz gigs were sporadic. He never experimented with other instruments
nor taught the saxophone (except an anomalous lesson here and there, or master classes sponsored
by educational institutions). Always the fierce individualist, Adams’ lack of pragmatism interfered
with other aspects of his life.

When I began collaborating with Pepper Adams I knew that he was a superb instrumentalist but I had little
idea of the breadth of his contribution, how much his colleagues adored him, or the degree to which his life
intersected with so many of the greatest poets, writers, painters and musicians of his time. Much to my
delight, because of our working relationship, the door to the international arts community burst open for
me right after his death. I have had the remarkable privilege of speaking with so many of his esteemed
colleagues, all of whom honored my interest in such a deserving artist. 

Undoubtedly, excerpts from my 250 taped interviews with Adams’ associates are the heart and soul of this
book. You will read some of them speaking, at times with surprising tenderness, of their fondness and
profound admiration for Pepper Adams. His death was a significant loss for them, and their remembrances
of his last few years in particular are filled with sentimental accounts, sometimes with them breaking into

It was my interviewees who helped me answer so many of my pressing questions and, ultimately, grasp the
totality of Adams’ character and many achievements. Their thoughtful responses — respectfully given quite
a bit of space throughout Part One — allowed me to fill in many of the gaps left over from my interviews
with Pepper. Despite his eagerness to share many aspects of his life he was reluctant to discuss his personal
relationships, his time in the U.S. Army, or his heartfelt feelings about himself or others. Though Adams’
radio appearances and the magazines articles about him were of some help about his career, they too were
of little use about his private life. For the most part I had to start from scratch. 

Thus, much like a fine Bordeaux, bringing this book to maturity took many years. To unravel the
complexities of such a very private, enigmatic individual, put into perspective a lifetime of work,
conceptualize a narrative structure that suited his life, and then transfer my mountain of data and
personal observations about him into prose took me 36 years. I intentionally waited until I was
finally ready to write the kind of book that I felt he deserved. That began in April, 2017 after I
gave a series of lectures about him in Utah.

Before I began writing, many years of research allowed me to finally comprehend Detroit’s jazz
culture and socio-economic history. I was especially interested in understanding the growth of
its automobile economy, its profound racial problems, and its illustrious jazz history dating back
to the 1920s. As a friend of the underdog, I wanted to exhume some of the Detroit musicians who
contributed significantly to its jazz scene but remain completely unknown. I was most curious
about what it was that produced the extraordinary, postwar “band of brothers”: that clique of
world-class jazz musicians who descended on New York City in the mid-1950s and so thoroughly
reinvigorated the music. 

Regarding Rochester, New York, where Adams grew up, I wanted to know how the city came to
be, how its economy was much better off than the rest of the country during the Great Depression,
and what took place there during World War II when Adams was a teenager. I was equally curious
about its jazz culture and the influence of the Eastman School of Music. The New York City jazz
scene of the 1950s of course intrigued me too. More than just recounting Adams’ gigs and living
arrangements, I wanted to understand how jazz cross-pollinated with the other arts, and define
Pepper’s place within it. 

Mostly, however, I wanted to understand my subject: his personality traits, his strengths and
weaknesses, how he filled a room, how he behaved with others, and what myths he created or believed
about himself. I wanted to penetrate the veil of secrecy about his mother and his time in the army. I
wanted to learn about his childhood, research his genealogy, and get my arms around his relationship
with women. I wanted to grasp why, despite his exceptional musical gifts and the universal respect that
he received from his colleagues, he wasn’t financially successful. Was it mainly because of the
instrument that he played or was it due to the way he conducted himself or other factors? 

Looking back, my journey has been an extraordinary blessing. On one level, Adams’ music has
immeasurably enriched me. Moreover, writing about him has satisfied my inveterate wish to
contribute something tangible to the music that I love more than anything. But on a deeper level,
my work has morphed from a passionate hobby to a raison d’etre. Along the way I’ve gotten to
know so many Pepper Adams admirers, for whom he was a sage and musical beacon. Their
friendship and support have given me a profound sense of interconnectedness with the world for
which I am truly grateful. 

Knowing Adams personally and working on this demanding project has brought me as close to
genius as I’m likely to experience in my lifetime. After researching his life, collecting his recordings,
overseeing pepperadams.com, and unearthing his wonderful compositions for six recording sessions,
in 2012 I produced a five-CD box set of Adams’ entire oeuvre. Featuring newly commissioned lyrics
to his seven magnificent ballads, it was co-branded with my book Pepper Adams’ Joy Road: An
Annotated Discography. Now, with this companion volume I at long last fulfill my promise to him and
Half biography and half musical study, this book is the culmination of more than 45 years of work. I’m
extremely fortunate that John Vana, an alto saxophonist and ardent Pepper Adams fan, agreed to co-author
Part Two. We first met in late 2013 at Western Illinois University, where he invited me to speak. Soon after
my visit I asked him to write a major piece on Pepper’s early style for a proposed anthology. Not long
afterwards John started requesting that I send him, bit by bit, every Pepper Adams LP, cassette and
videotape in my collection. Clearly, listening only to Adams’ early recordings wasn’t enough. He wanted to
examine Pepper’s entire output. Eventually, on a long drive from Atlanta to Orlando it occurred to me that
John’s piece would likely cover some of the same terrain that I’d be exploring. Considering the demands
of my day job, wouldn’t it be better for me to focus exclusively on the biography and have John (with my
input and editorial oversight) write the second half? The anthology might not even happen, I pointed out,
so what better place for his study?

Our twofold aim, dear reader, is to showcase an important person who lived an extraordinary life and
to contextualize his many unique contributions to Twentieth Century music. As you work your way
through the book we urge you to listen to Pepper’s glorious saxophone playing. For the most part
Chapters Five, Seven and Eight discuss what I consider to be Adams’ greatest recorded achievements.
Additionally, a few of his early pre-1956 recordings are covered in Chapter Three. Eventually you
will likely discover that some of my favorites diverge from those covered in Part Two that John Vana
felt best illustrated important aspects of Pepper’s style. This independent approach was designed to
extend the breadth of our study and give both of us a chance to more thoroughly express our points
of view. Whether you are encountering Pepper Adams for the first time or are already hip to his career,
be sure to enable the music links that are embedded throughout the text. Many of these extraordinary
performances have never before been made available to the public. As always, thanks so much for
your interest in Pepper Adams.

Gary Carner
Braselton, Georgia