Sunday, July 4, 2021

Pepper Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio


Here’s my original draft for liner notes to Pepper Adams 

with the Tommy Banks Trio: Live at Room at the Top, 

Reel to Reel’s forthcoming release. 

That cat was something else on that horn! 


Judging from the many accolades that he received from his 

colleagues before and after his death, Pepper Adams was 

equally esteemed by his elders, contemporaries, and younger 

musicians. Among the old guard, Coleman Hawkins was one 

of his biggest fans. “Hawkins admired Pepper,” said drummer 

Eddie Locke. “He said, ‘That cat is something else on that 

horn!’ . . . He didn’t say that about many people; he didn’t talk 

about many guys.” According to Gunnar Windahl, Adams’s 

close friend, Don Byas also adored Adams’s playing, and Milt 

Hinton, out of respect for Pepper’s intellect, dubbed him “The 

Master.” About Adams, Dizzy Gillespie once rhetorically asked 

David Amram, “Man, that guy’s phenomenal, isn’t he?” And 

backstage at a 1985 Adams benefit in New York City, Gillespie 

told Cecil Bridgewater how much he admired what Pepper had 

done harmonically with the instrument; how he had utilized the 

baritone sax in a completely different way from other baritone 

players. “His playing was unbelievable,” agreed Clark Terry, 

“just fantastic! I never heard him jump into anything that 

stymied him: any tune, any tempo, any key. He was a 

phenomenal musician, one that could do anything. His 

rhythmic sense wassuperb, his melodic sense was fantastic. 

He was just a marvelous person and a marvelous musician.” 

Adams’s contemporaries were just as effusive in their praise. 

“He is one of my heroes,” said Bill Perkins. He’s one of the 

true giants of jazz. He stood out in that rare group of jazz 

soloists, the great giants of all time, people like Bird and Prez

—and John Coltrane has become that. I think Pepper was that

on his instrument—and Diz. They’re in an area where very 

few have done the creative work that they’ve done. Nobody 

is equal: There are some great young players around and they 

owe a great debt to him, but Pepper was monolithic in his 

playing. Bob Cranshaw concurred with Perkins. “Everyone 

knew he was a superstar,” declared Cranshaw. “The rest of 

the baritone saxophonists: They know! . . . In my book he’s 

the Number One baritone saxophonist. I don’t even think of 

anybody else.” Phil Woods heartily agreed: “Any baritone 

player that’s around today,” he avowed in 1988, “knows that 

he was Number One. It’s that simple. He was the best we 

had.” Both Curtis Fuller and Don Friedman felt similarly: 

“He was the greatest who ever played the baritone saxo-

phone,” proclaimed Fuller. Pepper, asserted Friedman, 

“should be considered the number-one-of-all-time baritone 

player. Nobody ever played as many years at that level that I 

ever heard. There’s no question about it.” 

According to Horace Silver, Adams “was an excellent jazz 

soloist. He could handle any of the chord changes that you’d 

throw up in front of him. That’s the mark of a true, great impro-

viser. In my opinion, this is why any of the great jazz soloists 

get their reputation; because they’re consistent.” Bill Watrous 

said about Adams, “Every time he played it was an adventure. 

His ideas and his conception of the stuff that he was trying to 

play was totally original.” Bassist Nabi Totah confessed, “I just

idolized Pepper. Every chorus, you’d think he’d be getting tired, 

he’d play stronger than the one before. There seemed to be no 

end to his ideas. He just forged ahead swinging.” Adams “gave 

a personality to the baritone sax,” attested trumpeter Denny 

Christianson, “that nobody else ever even came close to. No-

body could do what he did on his instrument. He could handle a 

melody just like a great singer, but his improvisation was brilliant 

and he had blinding speed.” Pepper, asserted Junior Cook, “was a 

virtuoso, without a doubt. He exemplified all the best things that

any musician – jazz or otherwise–should aspire to: He had great 

tone, he had great time, and he had great taste.” 

For the younger generation, Adams was a paragon of individuality. 

“There’s very few stylists, real heavyweights,” bassist Todd 

Coolman once told drummer Ron Marabuto about Pepper. 

“Maybe five of them. They’re really rare. He’s one of them.” 

Adams was “a true master of his craft,” said Bennie Maupin, “and 

absolutely one of the finest musicians of his generation.” 

Saxophonist Kirk MacDonald agreed: “He really owned the music 

on a very high level.” As bassist Andy McCloud pointed out, 

Pepper “recorded with all the cats. He was an unknown genius. He 

was like Dexter [Gordon] and one of them.” Guitarist Peter Leitch 

said, “When I started to play, I realized that here’s a white person

who really played this music authentically and was still able to be 

himself.” And Gary Smulyan acknowledged that Pepper “inspired 

me to make a life-long study of the instrument”: It kind of made 

me realize why I got into music. It was not to be a doubler. It was 

not to play all these instruments and get a Broadway show. It 

was to try to find a voice, and to express your life through an 

instrument. That was it. Pepper was the inspiration for that. 

* * * 

It was Pepper’s blistering, spellbinding solo on “Three and 

One” from this date that reminded me of Coleman Hawkins’s 

comment and made me think of including the above excerpt 

from my forthcoming Adams biography. You see, musicians 

have always sung Adams’s praises, yet even to this day he’s 

mostly overlooked, even by jazz historians, as one the great 

postwar virtuosos. Just check the index of any jazz history 

and you’ll see what I mean. Fortunately, with his extraordi-

nary playing on this marvelous release, Adams’s place among 

the greatest of all jazz soloists should finally be irrefutable. 

And it’s no surprise at all that it took Cory Weeds, a working 

musician, to recognize this radio broadcast’s intrinsic value. 

Besides revealing Adams’s brilliance as a soloist, this perfor-

mance is a vitally important document because virtually 

nothing exists of his small-group work from this period. Be-

tween Encounter (Prestige, 1968), his terrific solo date with 

Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, 

and Ephemera (Spotlite, 1973), his equally superb quartet 

session with Roland Hanna, George Mraz, and Mel Lewis, 

there’s barely a handful of recordings in which Pepper takes 

a solo. Furthermore, just a few obscure Adams audience re-

cordings exist from this five-year span that only a few col-

lectors have heard. What I found especially fascinating was 

hearing both “Patrice” and “Civilization and Its Discontents,” 

two very special Adams originals, performed a full year 

before he recorded them for Spotlite. This indicates that even 

at this stage of his career, five years before he left the Thad 

Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra to go out on his own as a “single,” 

he was composing new tunes not solely for record dates, as I 

previously believed. “Patrice,” it turns out, was registered at 

the Library of Congress on October 29, 1970, but might this 

be the world premiere of “Civ?” For this show, Adams’s select-

ion of tunes was highly representative of what he often chose to 

play. With a competent band, he usually selected a few originals, 

a few Thad Jones tunes, a standard or two, and he’d customarily 

close his sets with “’Tis.” He especially liked old show tunes, 

such as “Time on My Hands” (1930). “Stella by Starlight, of 

course, was by 1972 a very well-known standard. “’Tis” was 

Thad’s brief, uptempo out-theme that since 1954 Pepper almost 

always utilized. “Oleo” served a similar function, though typical-

ly to both conclude a concert and stretch out a bit. And “Three 

and One?” One of Thad Jones’s great compositions, it was an 

Adams feature while he was a member of Jones/Lewis, and a 

tune that he often called in small-group settings. Adams was a 

musician who lived to play, yet whose lust for life was eroded 

by his long-simmering disappointment at being defined by pro-

moters as a big-band baritonist not available for hire, ignored as

a true innovator for much of his career, and barely recorded as a 

leader for most of the 1960s and ’70s. Part of his uniqueness 

was due to his pedigree as a “jazz man.” As Eddie Locke explain-

ed it to me during my 1988 interview with him, “A real jazz man 

will play his instrument no matter what”: He’s gonna play. He’s 

not gonna make an excuse for not playing by saying, “Something 

is going wrong, I can’t play.” If you love it so much, it doesn’t 

make any difference. No dollars, bad musicians, good musicians, 

mediocre musicians: You’re gonna blow! Pepper just happened to 

also be a great player. But he was a real jazz man. . . . A real jazz 

man is rare. That’s a lifestyle. That’s not just going to school. And 

that’s what Pepper was about. In Detroit, you played in the joints: 

slop jobs in those old, funky places. That’s a jazz man. He wasn’t 

trying to play in Carnegie Hall every night. He was just going to 

play some music because he loved to play. . . . People wanted to 

play with him because he was a jazz man. . . . I don’t care who he 

was playing with; he’s gonna sound good because he’s gonna 

blow! He doesn’t give a shit about the other cats. If they play the 

wrong change, he’ll play the wrong one. That’s a true jazz musician. 

Bird was like that. Coleman Hawkins was like that. I put him in 

some heavy company there but that’s what I’m talking about. 


Gary Carner Author of Pepper Adams’ Joy Road and Reflectory: 

The Life and Music of Pepper Adams