Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pepper Adams - Part 1

“The baritone sax was as unpopular with hard-bop musicians as it was with the original boppers, and, come to that, with the swing-era saxophonists. Pepper Adams, more than anyone, came close to making it a congenial instrument in the hot-house environment of hard-bop.”
Cook & Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. [p. 10].

“Unlike other young instrumentalists who had a variety of idols to chose from, Pepper and his baritone playing colleagues single out Harry Carney as the only salient standard in the entire jazz realm who gave form and definition to the role of the baritone in music. Although Harry was at one time virtually alone in the field, his strong leadership paved the way to startling innovations by his latter-day admirers.” – Joe Quinn

[c] Steven A. Cerra - Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Frankly, the first time I heard Pepper Adams on baritone sax, I didn’t care for his playing very much. Pity me, but fortunately, like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, I, too, got a second chance [and used it well, I might add].

Through my listening of his piano-less quartet and sextet, I was more accustomed to the legato, lighter, more airy sound that Gerry Mulligan produced on the instrument. Other than this exception, I thought that the baritone sax, like the bass trombone, was played by someone who sat off to the end of a section in a big band and loudly blurted out pedal tones to anchor some introductory fanfare or the closing chord of a tune.

With his gruff, growling and grumbling sound, Pepper Adams was an altogether different proposition. I didn’t know what to make of the flurry of notes that came out of his horn; my mind simply wasn’t able to absorb the creative inventions of someone whom alto saxophonist Phil Woods lovingly termed: “A be-bopper down to his socks!.”

The occasion for my first experience with Pepper’s playing occurred when he sat-in with a trio led by pianist Pete Jolly at Sherry’s, a small club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Ralph Pena was the bassist and Larry Bunker was the drummer [one of my drum teachers and a lifelong friend, who was the reason I had gone down to the club]. Pepper’s playing that night was for me, just a miasma; a muddled enigma.

That all changed a few months later when a friend brought over the Mode LP [#112]- Pepper Adams Quintet [VSOP #5CD]. I’m not certain of the reason why, but Pepper broke through and spoke to me on this record – boy, did he ever.
I gather that in the months preceding this 1957 LP, Pepper and drummer Mel Lewis had been trying to keep a group together and the one on this record was a beauty with Stu Williamson’s on trumpet, Carl Perkins on piano and Leroy Vinnegar on bass.

In the mid-1950’s, along with Mel Lewis, Pepper had been on the Kenton Orchestra with its West Coast base at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa/Newport Beach, CA and subsequently with the Maynard Ferguson’s big band. Maynard was preparing to take his band back to the East Coast which was also the direction that Pepper wanted to go so he signed on.

However, while still on the West Coast, the band that Pepper and Mel had put together was very reminiscent of the one led around the same time by bassist Curtis Counce that featured a front-line of Jack Sheldon on trumpet and Harold Land on tenor saxophone. Carl Perkins was the pianist in both groups. Using the relevant pages about it in Robert Gordon’s Jazz West Coast, the Curtis Counce group was featured on JazzProfiles on June 24, 2008.

Adams and Lewis also had recorded together a year earlier in 1956 with a sextet that was primarily made up of members of the Kenton band. . This one had appeared under the album of name of Got’Cha on something called the San Francisco Jazz Records label [reissued as Fresh Sound FSR-CD 73].
Listening to these two recordings, I was able to understand what Cook & Morton meant when they stated that Pepper: “… had a dry, unsentimental tone – very different from either Serge Chaloff or Gerry Mulligan – and a penchant for full-tilt solos that gave no shred of concession to the horn’s ‘cumbersome’ reputation.” [Loc. Cit.]

Writing in, Ron Wynn had this to say about Pepper Adams Quintet [Mode LP-112; VSOP CD-5]:

“Pepper Adams ranked among modern jazz's finest baritone saxophonists. His mastery of the middle and lower registers and technical acumen enabled him to play the cumbersome baritone with a speed, facility, and style usually restricted to smaller horns. This '57 quintet date featured him in a more relaxed context with West Coast jazz types like trumpeter Stu Williamson and pianist Carl Perkins. Bassist Leroy Vinnegar added his famous "walking" lines and drummer Mel Lewis provided a steady, smooth rhythmic pace, while Adams contributed two originals and did three standards in his usual impeccable fashion.”

It was the two originals on the Mode date that Wynn references – Freddie Froo and Muezzin’ – that particularly caught my attention as they appealed to me as clever melodic lines, that were very cleaning executed by Stu Williamson and Pepper and which really provided an improvisational platform for Adams’ intriguing and interesting solo inventions.

Muezzin’, in particular, with its Latin beat that jumps to straight time on the bridge of this 32-bar AABA tune, was played in a relaxed medium tempo that was very much in the West Coast Jazz style that my ears were accustomed to at the time. Perhaps this helped me to hear more clearly what - to use a musician’s phrase – “Pepper was saying” on baritone.

Also based on the 32-bar AABA song form, Freddie Froo, by contrast is an up-tempo “burner” which really shows-off Pepper’s ability to get around [i.e.: facility] on the supposedly cumbersome baritone, as well, as his penchant for hard-charging, take-no-prisoners solos in the best be-bop tradition. Put simply – whatever its unwieldy properties - the man could really play the baritone saxophone.

Continuing with the custom of also featuring the writings of others on JazzProfiles, what follows is the interview that Pepper gave to Ben Sidran which will serve as the basis for the first part of Pepper’s profile before turning to an extensive review of the Adams’ style and discography in the second part of this piece on him.
Pianist, composer and the holder of a Doctorate in American Studies from Yale University, Ben Sidran conducted a number of interviews with Jazz musicians between 1984 – 1990. Edited versions of these talks were broadcast on NPR as part of a series entitled Sidran on Record.

In 1995, Da Capo Press in New York made these available in Talking Jazz: An Oral History – 43 Jazz Conversations and what follows is Ben’s January 1986 interview with Pepper Adams [pp. 209-220].

“Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams played with literally hundreds of key bebop musicians over the course of his career and provided a very strong alternative to the style of baritone saxophone playing that was most popular at the time, that of Gerry Mulligan. His sense of "swing," or forward progress, in his improvisation was extraordinary, and his choice of notes always seemed to be the most intelligent alternative given the harmonic possibilities of the moment. Perhaps it was the somewhat odd nature of his instrument (the baritone can look a bit awkward around the neck of stringy guy like Pepper) that kept him relatively obscure, even through the heydays of the bebop movement. Also, as he candidly remembered while we spoke, there was the issue of having to please the jazz critics. He never did try too hard to do that, and the repercussions of their negative reviews stayed with him until the end Pepper died of brain cancer several weeks after our talk.

Ben: I consider you to be one of the most literate of jazz musicians, not necessarily because you're so well read, although you may be, but because playing strikes me as being so intelligent. I'm not embarrassed to say that we first met several years ago when I ran up to you in a hotel said, "Pepper, do you remember the solo you played on Thelonious's 'Little Rootie-Tootie,' from the Town Hall Concert?" And you stopped and said, "Yes, I think I remember that."

Pepper: You know, I could hardly deny it.
Ben: And I know I went on about how literate I thought that particular was, that it struck me as being almost verbal in nature, and I asked "Does that make any sense to you?" At the time you said "Yes," but of course you were under duress from this mad fan. But does that make any sense to you today, that your solo should be seen as almost verbal?

Pepper: Oh, certainly. Yeah. I can certainly see that.

Ben: How can a saxophone solo be like the written word? In what ways?

Pepper: Well, if it flows in a logical sequence, with an occasional surprise here and there, that's almost a form of verbalization. I'd like to get conversation going about the same rate. Probably time-feeling has something to do with it, too, I would imagine.

Ben: And intonation contouring, I suppose, the way the lines move up an down, and the way the breaths are taken ...

Pepper: Yeah, certainly ...

Ben: I think also what I heard, and what I hear in the best of jazz recording is a room full of people that are very comfortable with one another an, aren't very self-conscious of what they are doing. They're not trying to hard. On that recording, you don't sound like you're trying too hard.

But let's change directions and come around through the back door on this. Let's find out some personal history, so that your musical style has a context. You're associated with the Detroit school of jazz player You spent your formative years in Detroit, Michigan ...

Pepper. Primarily so, yes ...
Ben: There's an apocryphal story that I read which places you in an instrument repair shop back in Detroit. You were a tenor player at the time And you came across this baritone saxophone and rescued it from the junk heap and made it your own.

Pepper. Well, that is apocryphal. It is not the way it actually happened. How I did fall into playing baritone, more or less, is by accident. And a repair shop enters into it. Would you like me to tell the true story for the record? ...

Ben: Absolutely, we're interested in the truth.

Pepper. Well, I was only about sixteen, and at Christmas I was just hired on as extra help in the record department of a large music store, which was called Grinnell’s. It had branches throughout the state of Michigan. But their main shop was in Detroit, right downtown. And I was a Christmas extra. Right next door was their repair department, and a baritone saxophone that they had taken in trade passed through their repair department. I had become friendly with the repair man by this point, so he suggested that I try it out. I did, and I enjoyed playing it. So, using my employee's discount, and I think my friend Mark Degreder made me a loan to begin with, I purchased that instrument, and played it about six weeks. By then, I decided that I enjoyed the baritone so much I really wanted a good one, and was able to get a brand new Selmer on hire-purchase. That's not an American phrase, is it?

Ben: Right, it's British, and it refers to the act of lease-renting, right? . .

Pepper. Yeah, something like that ...

Ben: The importance of your choice of instrument is made more significant, I think, by the fact that there are so few baritone players. There are tenor players who play baritone, and there are other people who play the instrument casually, but you're a baritone saxophone player.

Pepper. Yeah, it's becoming rather more common now than it was in earlier times. But it is still a relative rarity.

Ben: One thinks of Gerry Mulligan, of course, in the '50s, as having a real influence on the instrument, and your emergence on the jazz scene, as a counter-theme to the way he approached the instrument, was noteworthy. You put the muscle back in the instrument through more aggressive playing. If his approach was typically "West Coast," you were clearly from the East.

Pepper. Yeah, I've always felt there was no real competition between Gerry and myself, since we approach the instrument so differently. I really enjoy listening to him play. It's just a different approach than I would feel comfortable with for myself.
Ben: I'm also reminded of something John Coltrane said about why he took up the soprano saxophone after playing tenor for so long. He said he'd been hearing a higher sound in his head for years and years, and it wasn't until he got the soprano in his hands that he realized, "This is what I've been hearing." Did you have a similar feeling? Had you heard a lower voice in your head as you were playing other horns, and when you got the baritone, you said, "Yeah, this is what I hear inside"?

Pepper: There probably is something to that, yes, since I played soprano when I was young, and I played some alto. And I don't think I could anymore. I don't think I can hear intonation up that high anymore.

Ben: So you were hearing it lower.

Pepper: And a number of people have pointed out that, in terms of natural form of expression, the baritone seems to fit with my speaking voice.

Ben: True enough. Traditionally, people, because it's played in the lower register, would think of it as being a slower instrument to get around on. You've disproved that. Did you have to go to great lengths to disprove that?

Pepper: Actually, baritone tends to sound logy a lot, and a lot of baritone players always seem to be behind the beat, just struggling to catch up. Which, I think, can come from two basic reasons. One being just a sheer lack of technical expertise. And the other is that, if you play everything legato and don't use the tongue, and don't outline where the note is gonna hit, everything tends to run together. Because it is lower-pitched. And this has no rhythmic impact, or impulse behind it. So I've tried to use a legato tongue so that there is differentiation between the notes. And I try to do a lot with articulation, because that has a lot to do with what the time feeling is going to be. And if you fail to articulate on a baritone, or any lower pitched instrument, it is gonna be just one constant ramble after a while.

Ben: Is it a technique you specifically had to find for yourself, or did you apply a broader tenor technique to it?
Pepper. You know, I really don't know. I think I kinda stumbled into it. As a way of trying to make the instrument seem like it was actually playing in time with the rest of the band. When I was first playing the baritone, well, Harry Carney was of course my favorite player, and still is, as far as his ability with the instrument overall, and everything he could do with the instrument. I guess you'd have to say that the popular baritone player among the young musicians of that time, or the only one that they really heard very much, would have been Serge Chaloff. And I didn't care for his playing at all, for one thing. He always sounded like he was behind and struggling to catch up. And so I guess it was the fact that people were listening to him, gave me the idea of listening to him, and finding out what I didn't like, and then working from there.

Ben: Could be a good technical guidepost for young players: as well as finding people you do like, find out people you don't like.

But early on, you also found some aggressive players to hang out with in Detroit, world class players, that kept you playing strong to keep up with them. I'm thinking specifically of Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris and the Jones brothers, Elvin, Hank and Thad.

Pepper. Well, I think that Detroit, historically, has always had a great jazz scene. I remember people like Rex Stewart and Quentin Jackson talking about having been there with McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1930. And, I think that throughout the '30s and '40s and '50s, there was a high level of musical consciousness in the city, so that there were indeed a lot of fine local musicians. And one factor I've mentioned before is that there was such a high overall level of musicianship in Detroit that if you were a young musician and really aspired to work and make money playing your instrument, you had to get awful doggone good to be on a level to compete at all. And I didn't realize how true this was until I left Detroit and went to the Army. Get out in the rest of the world and found out the standards elsewhere were not nearly as high.

Ben: Barry Harris has mentioned the same thing. The level of achievement in Detroit was very high. Were you aware of a Detroit sound? or were you aware of doing it a particular way in Detroit?

Pepper. I think as time went on, indeed I was, yeah. I think basically it was the time feeling. More than anything else, the kind of loose swing with no doubt of where the time lay. I found it difficult to listen to people with floundering time feels. And I like to play with the time. I like to play tricks with it, of course, but always knowing where I am and being able to come back to where the time is in such a secure manner as to make the listener wonder if I had really left.

Ben: Kind of The Pepper Adams Theory of Relativity there. You and many of the Detroit players, of course, wound up in New York City eventually. Was it difficult initially to get work as a baritone saxophone player in New York City? Was the instrument any problem, in terms of getting employment?

Pepper: I suppose, to some extent, it would be with a club owner who'd never had a baritone player in the front line before, just wondering, "What is that thing?" And thinking that maybe this isn't the way he should go. So perhaps to some extent, but I think, in a sense, it helped me in that I came to New York pretty well-equipped already as a musician. I was no kid. I was 25 or 26 when I came here, I think. And in Detroit, I worked practically all the time, from the time I returned from the Army, for the next three years. When I stayed in Detroit, I was working six nights a week, pretty much steadily, and I had never had any trouble reading anything, so I was equipped for a variety of work.

Ben: What's the first job you got when you got to the city?
Pepper: Wow, I'm not really positive. I had a number of friends here, when I moved here. One of them being Oscar Pettiford. I think Oscar got me the first gig, and that was out at a place, long gone now, that was called the Cork and Bib, in Westbury, Long Island. I remember being new to New York, and not knowing very much about the city. I knew Manhattan a little bit, but the environs, I knew nothing. But when I went to the Cork and Bib, in Westbury, and discovered an outfitters shop for polo ponies next door, I figured, "I think I must be in a fairly affluent part of Long Island."

Ben: Circle the wagons boys, we're here. Well, it's a far cry from what the rest of the employment must have been like, 'cause I know that the club scene in the city was of a different order.

Pepper: Yeah. Let's see, I worked out my union card transfer. And again, Oscar Pettiford kind of forced me onto Stan Kenton's band. Forced both of us. Forced me to do it, because I was never very much of a fan of that band. And talked Kenton into hiring me, sight unseen. And, there's a very long story that we could insert here, but that can go elsewhere. So actually, I worked out part of my transfer time while on the road with Kenton's band.

Ben: Well, we've kind of arrived full circle to the recording I mentioned at the beginning, the one that you made in February of 1959, at Town Hall in New York City. It was released originally on Riverside Records. It’s the album Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, featuring Monk, of course, on piano, Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass, Art Taylor on drums, and yourself on baritone saxophone.

Pepper: Don't forget Jay McAllister on tuba. I got Jay McAllister on the gig. He'd been in Kenton's band with me.

Ben: A very high point in the history of jazz, from the fans' point of view. It's a record that's traded and highly praised all over. One wonders why this particular format of Monk's music, the big little band, didn't go on beyond this one concert. Was this like a one-shot thing?

Pepper: That wasn't the intention. When we were rehearsing for the concert there was talk, in fact, it was supposed to be definite, that a concert tour of about three weeks had been set up for the group, that was to begin something like four weeks after the concert. So we had that, were to do the Town Hall concert, have three or four weeks, add some more pieces to the repertoire, have further rehearsals, paid for, and then go on this tour of concerts, primarily in colleges, I believe. And that was the whole theory. And that in fact was part of the package that I was approached with initially, when I was asked to play in this band for Town Hall.
Ben: In other words, to take out a month and devote yourself to this project.

Pepper. Yeah. Which sounded fine. It was certainly enjoyable, the rehearsals were just great. We had a lot of fun. But we went on, played the concert and the immediate reviews that we received were so bad that all of the rest of the concerts were cancelled.

Ben: I can't believe it. How bad could they have been, and what in fact did they say?

Pepper: Actually, my basic memory of the situation was, that it was a case of the immediate reaction being bad. That is, in New York daily press or weekly press, such as the Village Voice, which I believe would have been Nat Hentoff in those days. And, recently somebody gave me , review of the concert from the New York Times, for Monday, March 2nd, '59 ...

I've mentioned a number of times before about how this was suppose( to have been a continuing working band, and how the reviewers just put it away so badly that we never got another gig. Actually, we had one about a year later. One festival. And there's been a lot of disbelief around since this record is held in such high esteem these days. But the fact that the daily and weekly press put us away so bad, and I can quote now from the review in the New York Times. There is mention of some of the titles that the ten piece band played, one of them incorrectly. We did not play "Crepuscule with Nellie.” And then it says that “… Mr. Monk’s determination to impose his musical personality on his musicians and the surging, sweaty efforts of the musicians to wrestle with Mr. Monk’s music, give the disks a raw excitement.” He’s speaking of previous Monk recordings with a smaller group. “But none of this could be found in the bland, workaday performances of the large group, with which Mr. Monk played Saturday evening. The arrangements smoothed out the characteristically Monkian lumps and bumps, diluted his tartness and robbed the works of their zest. It was a pipe-and-slippers version of music that is naturally querulous."

Ben: And, why don't we, since we've listed the soloist of the day, why don't we also list the writer of this review as well.

Pepper. Well, the reviewer? John S. Wilson.

Ben: John S. Wilson, the New York Times. So his opinions, which have clearly been proven wrong in the light of history, were a big part of the reason why promoters cancelled the tour of the Monk big band. The fact of the matter, then, is the press has a lot to do with our jobs out here. Wilson's review stopped that tour, right?

Pepper: Yeah, certainly. Put an end to that band.
Ben: A moment of silence here for what might have been. And for all critics and would-be critics to examine their consciences.

You mentioned that the rehearsals with Monk were fun. Hall Overton, of course, came in with charts, and he had orchestrated some Monk piano solos.

Pepper: Oh, yeah, and they were terrific. He had done a beautiful job. And the rehearsals were held in Hall Overton's loft, which was in the flower district here, like the 20s and Sixth Avenue. And we had great fun. As you know, there's some pretty tough music in there, so there were some things to wrestle with, and it was a lot of fun. Demanding and enjoyable.

Ben: You talk about the tonguing being important, to get the rhythmic feel. Well, Monk’s lines are just skipping all over the place rhythmically. And the ensemble work is tight without being rigid. I mean, you seem to be skipping, but together. When you get through playing those lines behind the rhythm section, is your solo at all influenced then by the ensemble work, or do you just step out front and play what you will?

Pepper: That's interesting. Sometimes a solo can grow out of what has preceded it. Or act as a commentary on the surroundings in some way. Other times, it just doesn't seem to work out. But it's nice when it does, when you're in a big band setting. So many of the solos in Ellington's band were like that. Where they were almost an indispensable part of the arrangements after a while.

Ben: Ellington was reputed to have written the arrangement sometimes to make the other side of it happen.

Pepper: I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Ben: I’m struck Pepper, by the amount of live recording you've done. This Monk at Town Hall is an exception only in the sense that it's not a Pepper Adams date. But there are some serious Pepper Adams live dates out I think the first record you made as a leader was the album Ten to Four at the Five Spot, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Doug Watkins, Elvin Jones on drums and Bobby Timmons on piano. Do you remember how out of tune that piano was on that date? It was outrageous, You know, it speaks about the conditions under which this particular an form is practiced daily. How do you put a piano like that out of your mind and execute a lovely ballad like you did on that record?
Pepper: Ho, ho, ho. I tell you, it's excruciating, really. Because I completely lose track of where the core of the intonation is, if indeed there is, if there is one. And so, very quickly, instead of just competing with an out-of-tune piano, I have lost all track of intonation within myself. So I'm not even sure to what extent my intonation on my own instrument is. To use the Irish expression, "Something like that'd make your face hurt." It's tough and was probably made even worse by the fact that everything on that album was taken from the very last set of the night.

Ben: Really? How did that happen?

Pepper: I think we did three or four sets in there, this was when stereo was first coming in, if you noticed by the date there. And it was Riverside' first attempt at recording stereo on a live date. So we completed the earlier part of the evening and I think Ray Fowler was the engineer, if I'm remembering correctly, and Orrin Keepnews was there, of course, overseeing seeing things. And he says, "Well, I think we've got a lot of great music in there. I think we can even start packing up now." And, Orrin had Elvin and myself go to the bar for a drink, and Ray Fowler comes running and says, "One of our microphone leads has been out all night. Nothing is in stereo." And that was part of the whole point, this is their first live stereo recording. So we quickly had to do one more set, and that's entire album.

Ben: April 15, 1958, at the Five Spot Cafe in New York. You are there

Pepper: And Elvin Jones had a black eye. Not from any disagreement. had had a wisdom tooth removed a couple of days earlier, and the roots had gone back so far that its removal caused the blood vessels to burst inside, giving him a rather spectacular black eye. If you've never Elvin with a black eye, you're really missing something there.

Ben: When you hear the small handful of people clapping at the end that record, the four or five people left in the club, again you're reminded of the number of brilliant recordings that have been made in front of few dedicated, or oblivious, people who just happened to be in the joint, and who probably don't even realize what's just happened in front them. And it's only because there's a document that anybody says years later, "Wow, that music was great! Were you really there that night?” Important history often feels pretty ordinary when you're right in the middle of it. But I bring up the subject of live recordings with you, because captured music, versus manufactured music, seems to be important to what you're all about, Pepper. Do you have any feelings about live recordings versus studio recordings? Pepper: No, not really. I think that the feeling within the group is the primary thing. And there's been a lot of things written about the inspiration that an audience can give. Well, the sort of audience you mentioned, you know, it sounds like the end of Laugh-In...

Ben: Yeah, the sound of one hand clapping ...

Pepper: Now that's a dubious inspiration right there.

Ben: But you know, sometimes I think that when you hear somebody playing great, in the face of adversity, maybe with instruments that are out of tune, an audience that's somehow indifferent, it brings even more greatness to the music. I know it's perverse to say that.

Pepper: Well, I can see the poignancy of it. I've made some live recordings of which I'm quite fond. But also some studio recordings. I can't say that I played better in one context then the other, necessarily.

Ben: Well, perhaps ironically then, after many years of recordings, live and in-studio, you finally got some critical recognition recently when you were nominated for a Grammy, and it was for a live album. The album was called Pepper Adams Live at Fat Tuesdays and, again, featured some of your old Detroit pals, like Hank Jones and Louis Hayes. So you're still hangin' out with some of those same Detroit guys, I see.

Pepper: Oh yeah. Certainly. Actually, there's a large number of musicians and people who are our friends from Detroit, and we have continued to be good friends for thirty years or so. And that's nice, that's really nice to have. Like I could sit and name forty or fifty people that I've maintained friendships with consistently for over at least a thirty-year span. And I doubt if there are many people in other walks of life could do that.

Ben: Why do you think that is? Because parts of the jazz world do seem like a big family at times.

Pepper: I think it's a basic closeness and mutual respect that we share. And just a strong liking. There are a lot of the musicians, some that you started naming before, that came from Detroit and became internationally known. There are an awful lot of really nice fellows among 'em too. Wouldn't want to meet anybody nicer than Tommy Flanagan. Or Barry Harris, or Kenny Burrell. Any number of others. Roland Hanna, Louis Hayes, and it just goes on and on. And there a number of musicians that never left Detroit, that we all know, us Detroit musicians. They're just not known to the general public, because they never received the exposure. For one reason or another.

Ben: It's like the famous Steinberg map of the United States as seen from the New York City perspective. There's New York City and then there's Japan, and everything in between is just a wasteland. That's the way the New York press often perceives it, anyway.

You know, Phil Woods refers to you as one of the warriors of this music. You bring that up with Phil, if you like. But I think the image apt. There's a clear dedication in your playing to some of the pure values of the music that first drew you to it.
Pepper: You know, I don't wanna take much credit for that, because I try to play as well as I can, as an improvising jazz artist, as much of time as I can. I'm capable of sitting in a section and playing perfectly well, because that's part of the craft. But I try as much as I can to work as a soloist, and try to play, just try to swing for one thing, and the various other ways that I try to approach playing. But I'm doing that not so much because of any kind of altruistic thing; it's because that's what I feel I do best. So if I have any shot at survival at all out here, I better stick to what I do best, even though it sometimes seems to be overlooked or downgraded in the press. Musicians seem to like it. And the public seems to like it. The class that I don't seem to satisfy are the critics. The Live at Fat Tuesday's album, which as you mentioned was nominated for Grammy, only received two and a half stars in Down Beat. I mean, you got to make a pretty bad album to get two and a half stars.

Ben: Yeah. Especially when times are such that they give four and five to some rock and roll records.

Pepper. Yeah. That was one of the problems with Live at Fat Tuesday's, course; no synthesizers on it.
Ben: Well, the concept of a warrior, then, I think is apt.

Pepper. Yeah, but I don't wanna take credit for it, because if I wanted make a crossover record, or something like that, I wouldn't know the first thing about it. Freddie Hubbard said he sold out and it wasn't worth it, because he didn't make enough money. Well, I would feel, you know. I don't know anything about the criteria for judging any of that other stuff. All I know about is jazz. And so I figure I better stick to that, because I just don't know the esthetics of the jazz-rock or pop-rock.

Ben: Years ago, when we first talked about your solo on Monk's "Little Rootie-Tootie," and I said to you, "It sounds so verbal, so literate, do you think there's any connection between the bebop style of playing and the highly literate times, the bohemian era of the forties and fifties?" And I remember you said to me, "Oh, absolutely. You know, Charlie Parker was a great reader." But nobody knows that about Charlie Parker. Nobody thinks of that. What you hear about Charlie Parker is his life of excess, things that the press can play up and sell issues, you know And they dispense with the man, almost, by trivializing the depth of the work ...

Pepper. Um, hm, very true ...

Ben: So back to the point: I hear in your playing a very literate sensibility. Are you a great reader? Are you a somebody who spends time with books?

Pepper: Oh yes. Very definitely. Always have been, yeah.

Ben: Who are some of your favorite writers?

Pepper: Currently? William Trevor. Josef Skvorecky. Right now I'm reading Ludwig Bemelmans, which is going back to the '30s and '40s. It is very funny. Let's see. Among people writing right now, Keith Waterhouse is a terrific writer, who is hardly known in the United States. He wrote the novel Billy Liar, from which came the film. But he's written eight, ten other novels in a variety of styles, and several of them with considerable humor. And he's an awful lot of fun.

Ben: The element of humor being a big part of jazz too.

Pepper: I think so. I love it and I think sometimes mine might go almost a little overboard, into the slapstick thing. But so does Thad's. I love Playing with Thad [Jones], because sometimes the slapstick kind of humor starts flowing ...

Ben: Physical or musical humor?

Pepper: Musical. But so broad as to approach farce.

Ben: Referring perhaps to quotes, musical quotes, the way you approach that.

Pepper: Yeah. Or making fun of a style that we don't care for by exaggerated vibrato. Taking a well-known phrase from something and distorting it. Or particularly playing it in another key. And creating the tensions that occur when you play something that is totally recognizable as a melody, except that the whole rest of the band is in an entirely different key. I like that. One of my favorite classical composers is Arthur Honegger. And I love, particularly, the way he mixes keys. He'll have a beautiful melody going, and with a very strong accompaniment, but they could be, not the easy intervals, not necessarily the tri-tone interval or something like that, but be a minor third apart, or a second apart. It really gets fascinating.
Ben: Do you use any of that sort of abstraction when you play? Are you thinking consciously of that? Or are you talking as you talk to me now?

Pepper: Well, I'm not sure how conscious it is. I do often try to play in another key, sometimes. For various effects. It can be for a drama, it can be for humor, poignancy. All these effects can occur with a bi-tonal approach. And a lot of that has to do with how you resolve it at the end, too. You can either leave it hanging, or you can bring it back in.

But, to me, just improvising more or less straight-ahead jazz on a rhythmic basis, and over a regulated set of chord changes, is endlessly fascinating. Where did I see that quote? Oh, Stanley Dance, who is a very nice man, and a very good friend, But he doesn't care much for music since '45 or so, refers to the harmonic cul-de-sac of bebop. I would have to argue with Stanley about that one, because there is much, much more that can be done with the harmonies. And melodies.

I don't really necessarily think of myself as a bebop player. I don't know about that. I'm suspicious of all labels. And particularly that one, because when I was young and in Detroit, the bebop players really denigrated my playing, because they told me I wasn't doing it right. And I wasn't trying to do it right. I was not imitating Charlie Parker in the sense of playing his phrases, as most of the youngsters, younger players at that time would try to do. To be hip, you played a phrase of his. I never tried that. I never memorized solos or studied solos in particular at all. What I would do, certainly, was pay attention to his harmonic usages, and his melodic usages, and try to learn from them, and then do it in a way that was comfortable to me. So based on that, I really don't think of myself as particularly a bebopper at all. And the label "hard bop," I don't know where that came from. That's kind of a handy term of denigration that writers like Martin Williams or Whitney Balliett seemed to use with reckless abandon, grouping together people that don't play alike at all. But, since they disapprove of this style, they can apply it to anyone whom they don't care for.

Ben: There's an intellectual tradition, where you define a thing in order to dispense with it.

Pepper. Yeah, oh yeah, certainly. Very good. Um, hm.

Ben: Well, have we left out any critics? Is there anybody we didn't take to task here?

Pepper. "Whom have we not yet offended," in Mort Sahl's phrase.
Ben: You come here very much a man at the top of his career, somebody who's mastered his craft. Is there something that you would say to a younger player today, faced with the adversity of this business, and the randomness of critical acclaim, and the difficulty of developing a style? Any advice to a young player?

Pepper: I think I would tell just about any young player, "Enjoy what you do, but don't really count on making a living at doing this," because if it's something you approach cold-bloodedly, as if you're gonna become a star, I don't think it can be worthwhile for you. It can be worthwhile only if you love the music and derive enough enjoyment from the music and the people you're involved with in the music to compensate for what is quite likely to be a life below the poverty line.

I think those are just about the facts. I mean, there are young players coming to New York, who are making out fine. A few. But for the vast majority, it's tremendously difficult, much more so than when I came here, 25, 30 years ago, And I don't really know how they get along. And I hear fine young players all the time. Our educational system is turning out fine young players. Jerry Dodgion asks, "But what are they gonna do with all this expertise?" Only so many can work with Woody Herman at one given time, you know?”

…. To be continued in Part 2: Elements of Style & Discography