The Sound Of Pepper Adams

I first heard the sound of Pepper Adams when I was six years old back in 1962.  My brother, who had just returned home from a 4 year stint in the U.S. Airforce, was a saxophonist and moved into my bedroom.  Seeing my interest in his Mark VI Selmer alto and his extensive jazz record collection, he allowed me access to his records, teaching me the correct way to hold the LPs and not scratch them and thus opened a whole new world to me.  He came back from the Airforce with a Voice Of Music stereo component system with separate speakers, -truly state of the art for 1962!  After exploring the wealth of Blue Notes, Prestige, Columbia etc., LPs I settled on 3 records as my first favorites because I was mesmerized by the sound of the saxophones I heard on them.  The very first was Sonny Rollins, “Newk’s Time” and I wore out the grooves of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” much to my brother’s dismay.  The next 2 records featured trumpeter Donald Byrd and were: “Off To The Races” and “Byrd In Hand”, which of course featured Pepper Adams.

I still remember first listening to those “sounds” from the “Byrd In Hand” LP.  I immediately fell in love with the sound of the trumpet when I listened to Donald Byrd play “Witchcraft”, but before I could pick up the needle to play it over again, this passionate, deep and beautifully gruff sound leaped out of the record player at me!  It froze me and literally grabbed me by the throat, so powerful, so masterful and so masculine!  What was THAT???!!!  I took my hand off the needle and grabbed the album cover.  Pepper Adams, baritone sax.  My life has never been the same since.  I fell in love with the sound of Pepper Adams, and looked for every LP in my brother’s collection that had him on it.  There wasn’t a whole lot of them back there in 1962.  So my whole Pepper Adams experience at that point consisted of 3 LPs: “Off To The Races” where I relished Pepper just eating up the changes to the title cut, of course “Byrd In Hand”, but to my delight, I discovered a non-Donald Byrd session with Pepper: The Regal label “2 Altos” by Art Pepper and Sonny Redd with only 2 long tracks featuring Pepper Adams with Sonny Redd, Wynton Kelly, Doug Watkins and Elvin Jones!  On those 2 tracks: “Watkins Production” and “Redd’s Head”, was a whole universe of jazz excitement for a young kid of six years of age!  “Watkins Production” continues to this day to haunt me, the blend of Pepper and Redd was so sensually perfect with the drive of that rhythm section of Kelly, Watkins and Elvin!  And I was cool with just these 3 albums.  It would be years before I heard any more Pepper Adams.  But I knew right then, this man was special especially when I heard other recordings of baritone saxophonists.

No baritone saxophonist truly could command  my attention like Pepper, except for the single exception of Charles Davis on Kenny Dorham’s “Jazz Contemporary” on the Time label; the record we called ‘the white album’ due to it’s reverse negative cover.  For me, for the single exception of Charles Davis, nobody could touch Pepper and I couldn’t for the life of me understand what all the hooplah was about for Gerry Mulligan.  To my young ears, his baritone playing sounded almost amateurist compared to Pepper.  HE”S suppose to be the top baritone player?  Why not Pepper? It was only many years later as an adult that I came to appreciate Mulligan.  But even still, I was more interested in Mulligan’s concept; his arrangements and compositions spoke more to me than his playing.  For sheer baritone sax excitement, I to this day cannot get enough of Pepper Adams.

To my now adult ears, Adams is the perfect extension of Charlie Parker more than any other saxophonist, and unlike most other saxophonists, Pepper Adams did this on the baritone sax.  This to me, is no small accomplishment.  This is why I say that Pepper Adams up until this point in time, is the greatest baritone saxophonist who ever played this music.  Now, this statement has gotten me in some trouble.  For many say it is Harry Carney.  A very justified argument.  I say Pepper extended Carney’s foundation.  I’m sure Hamiet Bluiett would have a problem with my statement and will probably tell me so to my face when he sees me.  And he would have a good argument too, but we would just have to agree to disagree.  All the other great baritone players whom I love and appreciate: Payne, Brignola, Cuber, Smulyan would, I believe, might agree with me.  On baritone sax, Pepper Adams was such a force of nature.  What does it for me is his sound.  One of the most unique and instantly identifiable sounds in jazz.  His sound is the way I think a baritone should sound: deep, strong and powerful.  A baritone sax should sound like a baritone sax.  Why would you play a baritone all sweet and soft-like?  They got tenor saxes for that!  I think what pushes him over to all-time greatness is that first, he an extension of Bird and Carney.  But what to me makes him so unique is that he is also an extension and fulfillment of Wardell Gray.  To me, this is where his melodic genius comes from.  From Bird and Carney comes the technique, tone, drive and sound.  But from Wardell comes the ability to take all these gifts from these great masters and be utterly melodic, lyrical, and musical with it all.  Had Wardell Gray been able to live out his life, there is no doubt he would have taken his place as one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in jazz history.  We would be talking more about him instead of Dexter, Stitt and Getz.  And Pepper himself says that this is where his influence directly comes from.  I’ve been quoted as saying that Hank Mobley was the most lyrical tenor saxophonist that jazz has produced.  But I think that would be due to default by Wardell Gray’s pre-mature death in 1955.  Listen to the lyricism Gray displays on “Donna Lee” and “Taking A Chance On Love” on those live sessions from the Haig Club in 1952 that is available on CD.  Remember, not only are you hearing supreme lyricism, but you are hearing superior technique, tone and sound and most importantly, drive.  Here is truly where Pepper Adams’ major influence comes from. If you are a true lover of jazz, you will find yourself not getting enough of listening to Wardell’s solos here!  That sense of driving lyricism  is what Pepper picked up from Wardell.

So why was Pepper Adams not recognized as jazz’s greatest baritone player when he first arrived on the national scene back in 1956?  As Adams himself mused, it was because at that time, Gerry Mulligan was hailed as jazz’s greatest baritone player and he totally didn’t sound like him, so something must be wrong.  Adams even said, musicians would come up to him and tell him he was playing the baritone wrong.  It was supposed to sound smooth like Gerry Mulligan and not “hard” and so forceful like he was playing.  Since Mulligan was so universally acclaimed at that time and identified with the West Coast jazz style and scene as well as being perceived as a big success, Mulligan’s style was hailed as the correct way to play the baritone sax, again owning more to his celebrity than his playing. The concept of ‘cool jazz’, west coast jazz, was a new music the public could understand and saw as a relief from the frantic-ness of bop’s frenetic early days.  Mulligan’s concept was so ingrained into the psyche of the jazz consciousness of the mid-fifties that even a teenage Charles McPherson upon hearing Pepper for the first time said, “Man, you sound good!  Just like Gerry Mulligan!” Young McPherson was promptly pulled aside by drummer Elvin Jones who chastised him, “Man, you’re not supposed to say that!  That’s Pepper Adams!”

However, in my opinion, it was due to the big elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about when it came to Adams’ sound early in his career.  Later in his career starting in the late 1970s until his death in 1986, the jazz world finally caught up to him; his genius finally understood.  But when he first emerged on the scene in the mid fifties, he was very much misunderstood.  His style was something not heard before and presented a challenging problem for many a listener in those days.  Pepper Adams with his slashing, aggressive playing had what can best be described as a hard bop or ‘black’ sound.  Early in his career he aligned himself primarily with black musicians.  In his own words, Adams always said that he was usually the only white guy in all the bands he played in during those early years.  The beautiful thing was how totally accepted he was by black musicians who realized his genius which even crossed racial barriers. I like the story Pepper told about one time visiting Charles Mingus and finding him on the phone ranting and raging at the musicians union’s bias of white musicians over black musicians.  Mingus was yelling,  “You white motherf*$#%ers this, you white mother*&%@ that!”  Then he put his hand over the receiver and said, “Hey Pepper, there’s cold beer in the ‘fridge!”, and went back to cursing out the union guy on the phone.  “He was one of us!” one famous Detroit jazz musician who knew Adams in those days told me.  “He was the first white cat I ever met who was totally without prejudice.”  Because black musicians were assigned the ‘east coast’ sound by jazz critics, by virtue of the hard forceful style of which Pepper shared with black musicians of that period, he was the very antithesis of the laid-back, cool west coast style who’s leader happened to be a baritone saxophonist, one Gerry Mulligan.  Even the Europeans when they saw their first photos of Pepper Adams were surprised because they had always assumed he was a black guy!  Also Gerry Mulligan was looked at as not merely one among many of the musicians on the west coast jazz scene, but it’s leader and most prominent and visual member.  This made it particularly tough on Pepper Adams as well as many other baritone saxophonists at the time.  Mulligan’s playing was seen as the ‘right’ way a baritone should sound: a tenor sax concept.  The west coast sound primarily created by white musicians was seen as ‘successful’, whereas the east coast sound was primarily created by black musicians, which we can easily surmise was not seen as so ‘successful’.  Black musicians were seen as junkies in those days.  In the mid fifties there was a lot of publicity given to black musicians on the east being addicted to drugs despite the fact that many of their white counterparts on the west coast were also involved with drugs.  Did the spotlight on east coast jazz’s drug addiction problem make the public wonder about non-users like Adams or Donald Byrd actually being users?  It’s almost like Pepper was a victim of reverse racism; the powers that be at the time simply didn’t know what to make or do with him.  But ultimately, it can be seen that his initial non-acceptance by the critical jazz community was because Pepper Adams was truly an innovator and ahead of his time.  That more than any other reason is why he filled the heads of the jazz business of his day with question marks.  For example, just look at the dilemma he presented someone like Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records.  Although he gave Adams plenty of dates as a star sideman, why wouldn’t he give him his own date as a leader?

To be sure, Pepper Adams was at his best among his Detroit peers.  Even until late in his career, he continued to perform and record with the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Louis Hayes and Frank Foster.  Two of his most important Detroit collaborations were with Thad Jones from 1965 until the late  1970s and with Donald Byrd from 1958 until 1961.  Finally by the late 1970s, he began to attract the acceptance and recognition he deserved as a leader and began to lead his own record dates.

I personally lost track of Pepper from 1974 to 2002 because during those years I was without a baritone sax.  On my blog Frugal Apathy ( from August 2009 on a blog entitled “Baritone Sax Seduction and the Merits of Good Band Directors”, I tell the story of finding an unused, brand new Mark VI baritone sax in the band room of my high school, which I played until I graduated high school.  During those intervening years I was busy learning how to master the alto, tenor and soprano sax.  But in 2002, thanks to Gary Chin at Stein On Vine music store in Hollywood, he gave me an opportunity to acquire a baritone sax through helping me get an endorsement deal with Jupiter Band Instruments.  Blowing a baritone sax again was like coming back to a long lost friend.  A voice I hadn’t heard for over 20 years! When I first pulled the horn out of the case and tried it at the store, I’ll never forget Gary saying: “Damn Man!  You sound just like Pepper Adams!”  It immediately brought me back to Pepper Adams;  -that sound was still there in me after all those years.  It was at this point I began to make a serious study of his work and acquire all the many recordings of his that I had not heard.  Needless to say, my inspiration to play this horn reach the highest level listening to this great man play.  For several years, I stopped playing all the other saxophones, and upset many of my fans by showing up with just the baritone sax.  I needed this time to integrate the baritone to the level of my other saxophones, as well as find out who I was as a baritone saxophonist.  I knew I would come out of Pepper, but didn’t want to be a Pepper clone.  But this focus on the baritone was all worth it and was truly the most fun I ever had musically.  In 2007, I recorded the CD “Plays The Music Of Pepper Adams” as a way to sum up all I learned from my five year intense study of Pepper Adams.  And I am by no means finished.  Currently, I am looking forward to performing my 2011 project: the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet Project, as a way of bringing myself back full-circle to my very beginning awareness of jazz in those days as a six year old listening to Pepper’s playing on “Byrd In Hand” and  “Off To The Races”.   For me, Pepper Adams is everything good about what jazz music is.  The music he left us with is truly timeless.  Long may the sound of Pepper Adams barrel down the corridors of time into the limitless future.  For every future baritone saxophonist will owe him the greatest debt of gratitude for lighting,  -no torching the way!  The man spits fire!

-Dale Fielder, February 2011

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