© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
After recently putting together a video tribute to the 19th century artist John James Audubon [1785-1851] which uses for its soundtrack tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ original composition Audubon [based on the chord progressions to Honeysuckle Rose] from pianist Don Friedman’s Hot Knepper and Pepper CD [Progressive PCD-7036], I got to thinking about trombonist Jimmy Knepper and thought it would be nice to put up a brief feature about him on these pages.
Jimmy was born in Los Angeles in 1927 and his early career included stints with the orchestras of Freddy Slack, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. Knepper became widely known after his association with bassist Charlie Mingus.
Len Lyons and Don Perlo pick up Jimmy story from here in this excerpt from their Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters [pp. 330-331]:
“As a member of the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop from 1957 to 1961, Knepper established a reputation for consistently well-conceived, soulful, and technically adroit solos. Though rarely complimentary, Mingus called Knepper "probably the greatest trombone player who ever lived." Their admiration was mutual; Knepper has become known as an authority on Mingus's intriguing music and personality.
Knepper began studying trombone at age nine. As a teenager, he was working in Los Angeles — based big bands, and in 1945 he joined saxophonist Dean Benedetti's band, one of the first bebop groups in Los Angeles. It was in this band that Knepper met Mingus, who was filling in for Benedetti's regular bassist.
Knepper spent the late 1940s and early 1950s traveling between California and New York in search of steady jobs. The highlight of this disheartening period was a week of sitting in with Charlie Parker. In 1953 Knepper retreated to Los Angeles to attend college. He was now planning to become a teacher. But three years later, disenchanted with school and finding few opportunities to work, Knepper returned to New York with his wife and daughter.
In 1957 Mingus hired Knepper away from the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, where Knepper had found work, on the recommendation of Mingus's departing trombonist, Willie Dennis. Knepper maintains a smooth, glowing tone on his earliest recordings with Mingus, even through his most axing double-time and upper-register figures (Tijuana Moods, RCA). His plaintive blues licks embroider Mingus's earthy compositions like "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and "Better Git It in Your Soul." Although Knepper claims his chief inspiration was Parker, his playing makes explicit reference to the trombone tradition, including tailgate style, the "talking" sounds of Sam Nanton, and the luxurious muted tone of Lawrence Brown (Better Git It in Your Soul, Columbia).
An infamous incident in which Mingus struck Knepper in the mouth over a musical disagreement precipitated a ten-year estrangement between them. During this period, Knepper toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman (1962) and free-lanced in studio groups, pit orchestras, and pick up bands for social functions. In the late 1960s, Knepper began a seven-year association with the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis big band. Knepper rejoined Mingus for the bassist's final recording sessions in the mid-1970s, and from 1979 to 1981 he toured with the Mingus Dynasty band, still playing with great fluency (Live at Montreux, Atlantic).”
In their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., Richard Cook and Brian Morton remarked of Jimmy:
“Long associated with Charles Mingus, Knepper has an astonishingly agile technique (based on altered slide positions) which allows him to play extremely fast lines with considerable legato, more like a saxophonist than a brass player.
Doing so has allowed him to avoid the dominant J.J. Johnson style and to develop the swing idiom in a direction that is thoroughly modern and contemporary, with a bright, punchy tone.”
In Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz,
Frank von Dixhoorn wrote of Jimmy:
"Every inflection in Jimmy Knepper's phrases, every move from third to fourth position is a split-second victory of form over vacuum. His wit, the veil over one measure and the razor-sharp intonation which reveals another, all these might be described. But they can't be predicted." [p. 389]
Before his death in 2003, Jimmy would also be associated with the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Thad-Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra, the American Jazz Orchestra, the National Jazz Ensemble and the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra.
Gunther Schuller in his essay on The Trombone in Jazz in Bill Kirchner, editor, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, ranked Jimmy as one of the “young Turks” who were influenced by J.J. Johnson’s style of playing Bebop on the trombone while noting that:
“All were spectacular technicians, easily expanding the range of the trombone to the trumpet’s (!) upper register (high B flat and C), and with their new-won technical wizardry capable of playing things that a few years earlier could have only been played on a trumpet, or a flute or violin. Knepper in particular carved out a remarkably successful career in New York, both as a much sought-after, highly individual freelance studio and session player — possessing superior reading skills and the ability to play in a variety of jazz styles — and, most important, as Charles Mingus's favorite trombonist, which led to a long-term association with the great composer-bassist.” [pp. 638-639].
With Jimmy Knepper, one thing was certain: two notes and you knew it was him.” [Pun intended]
Jimmy, Pepper and Don are joined by bassist George Mraz and drummer Billy Hart on this version of Audubon.