Monday, June 1, 2020

The Homestretch

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I’m only a few weeks away from finishing Chapter Ten of the Pepper Adams
biography. It’s the last one that I still have to complete, Chapter Eleven, already
written, is my summation of his life and accomplishments. Ten includes my lengthy
discussion of the ByrdAdams Quintet, plus a section about Adams's post-West
Coast work in late 1957. I've recently updated subchapters on Monk, Mingus,
Bobby Timmons, critics, heroin use, and living with Elvin Jones, among other
topics. All that's left is to polish what’s written, discuss Pepper's only known original
poem, write about his time on the West Coast and with Stan Kenton, and then
finish up my concluding comments about Adams’s first months in NYC. I have tons
of notes, so it should move quickly. I hope in a month’s time I can report to you that
the book is finished.

Considering all of the anxiety and anguish that’s being experienced all over the
world, here’s an excerpt from Chapter Eight regarding Pepper’s sense of humor:

Although Pepper Adams at root was a very private person, his friends knew him
as a funny guy with an extremely wry sense of humor. “That cat had one of the
keenest and quickest wits,” said the bassist Ray Drummond. The first time that
Adams met the young baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson was in Boston in
1962, when he and the drummer Tony Williams asked Adams to sit in at his gig
at Connolly’s. At the time, Howard Johnson’s was a well-known U.S. restaurant
chain, noted for its ice cream that was widely sold in supermarkets throughout
the country. When it came time for Johnson to step up to the bandstand and play
a number, Adams ad-libbed his brief introduction: “Here’s Howard Johnson,
who is responsible for the ice cream flavor mint clam.” 

Kenny Burrell felt that Pepper’s sense of humor was indicative of his “keen
intellect and a great awareness of current events. “He was a funny guy,” said
Burrell, “but it wasn’t just funny in terms of old wisecracks. He was right up to
date on what was happening.” Bob Wilber agreed that Adams was an amusing
guy. “He had a marvelous sense of humor,” said Wilber. “He could see the funny
things, the ironic things.” One such example took place at a saxophone clinic,
when a student asked members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis reed section who
they suggested aspiring players like himself should copy. When it was Pepper’s
turn to respond, he broke up everyone in attendance by responding, “If you copy
from one person, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from everybody, it’s research.”

The saxophonist Bob Mover remembered a hilarious moment in Cambridge,
Massachusetts at Adams’s early April, 1982 gig at the Hasty Pudding Club.
When he, Pepper, and the guitarist Joe Cohn were trying to decide what tune
to play, Pepper said, “Let’s do one everybody knows, like Death and
Transfiguration.” Another time, before a concert in New York and very ill
with cancer, the photographer Mitchell Seidel asked Adams if he felt good
enough to play. “It beats staying at home pondering the term ‘life expectancy,’”
was his mordant response. 

Adams liked using puns and one-liners. On the birth of Bess Bonnier’s child,
Adams called her with congratulations, leaving on her answering machine the
concluding quip, “We all knew you had it in you.” Occasionally, rather than
use profanity, Pepper enjoyed using silly euphemisms a la the comedian W.C.
Fields, such as “mother of pearl” or “Godfrey Daniels.” When he told an
amusing story, he would wait a few seconds, with a deadpan expression or a
half-smile on his face, before breaking into laughter.

“He always had me in stitches,” said Frank Foster. “I saw him as a great
American humorist.” Foster spent a lot of time laughing at Pepper’s comments
while they were members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis reed section. He felt
that Adams, much like the Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge, could
have very successfully combined music and humor if he had chosen that route. 

In the right setting, Adams enjoyed doing physical comedy bits on stage. In 1960,
at Montreal’s Little Vienna, the guitarist and harmonica player Toots Thielemans
dropped by to sit in with Pepper. Thielemans was in town, working with the singer
and actor Yves Montand. “Toots was playing harmonica,” wrote Keith White,
“and Pepper was doing some bits with his cigarette. He would put it in his mouth
by manipulating his lips, as if to swallow it, and then he would pop it out again.
During one of these episodes, he inhaled deeply, the cigarette was flipped back into
his mouth by his lips maneuvering it, and then he just looked at the audience for a
moment, who didn’t know what exactly to expect, when, suddenly, smoke seemed
to shoot out of both of his ears! Everybody started to break up. Toots even had to
stop playing for a moment.” 

Sometimes he would try to amuse himself. “He was a very warm, outgoing person,”
remembered Ron Kolber, “misunderstood because some people did not appreciate
his sense of humor. They didn’t know what to make of it. They always thought he
was putting them on. If a friend of his would say, ‘I’ll see you later, Pepper,’ he
would say, ‘Thanks for the warning’ or ‘Don’t threaten me,’” and then utter his
customary, idiosyncratic chortle. Adams had a great smile, recalled Ray Mosca, and
Pepper’s ears would stick up like an elf. 

Plenty of musicians admired the droll wit that Adams exuded in his saxophone
solos. One time, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was playing for a large group
of jazz fans in Belgium, who rented space for their get-togethers above a police
station. “Pepper’s right in the middle of “Once Around,” remembered John Mosca,
“which is a fast, minor solo for him. He’s burning away, really tearing it up, and a
police car comes with a siren on, and he goes right into “I Don’t Want to Set the
World on Fire.” I swear, right in the middle of this solo, and it broke everybody up.
It was very funny!” Another time, when Jones/Lewis was performing a concert at
an amphitheater in Italy, the venue had also been presenting Verdi’s Aida. “Most of
the stage had been cleared,” wrote Lucinda Chodan, “but the props for the opera –
Egyptian-style artifacts – cluttered one side, in full view of the audience. When it
came to Adams’s first solo, his big baritone blasted out a couple of bars of Celeste
Aida, one of the opera’s arias. The crowd was impassive. Thad Jones was laughing
so hard he had to stop playing.”