Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Adams, "Pepper" (Park)

The baritone sax can be a hard sell to jazz fans as a lead instrument: nowhere is this more evident than in the career of Pepper Adams, whose name is little known despite his work anchoring the bands of Stan Kenton, John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Elvin Jones, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and his own outstanding work as a leader. He helped usher in the hard bop style with the colorful intensity of his solos, and a Pepper Adams solo statement was a consistent highlight of any session.

Park “Pepper” Adams III was born on October 8, 1930 in Highland Park, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. At the age of five, the Adams family relocated to Rochester, New York. Adams became involved in his school music programs during his early teenage years, initially playing the clarinet and soprano saxophone. Adams then briefly switched to tenor saxophone and studied with Ellington tenor-man Skippy Williams while still in Rochester. In 1947, Adams returned to the Detroit area where his musical career quickly developed.

Influenced by Ellington baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Wardell Gray, and Sonny Stitt, Adams picked up the baritone sax in his mid-teens and quickly became a central force in the promising Detroit jazz scene. Trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Thad Jones, drummer Elvin Jones and pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris were all Detroit based jazz musicians of similar ages, and all of these major players frequented the renowned Bluebird Inn to refine their talents and gain invaluable jam session experience.

In 1951, Adams enrolled in the Army and performed in the army band. Upon his discharge in 1953 following tours of duty in the Korean War, he returned to Detroit and played with his baritone sax influences Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt, both of whom were fine baritone players even though they are best remembered as tenor and alto players, respectively. Gigs followed with guitarist Kenny Burrell and multi-reedman Yusef Lateef in the mid 1950s. In April 1956, Adams participated in a big name session that included Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Curtis Fuller, and Philly Joe Jones, released under the title High Step.

In 1956, via Oscar Pettiford’s recommendation, Adams was invited to move to New York to join Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. At the end of the same year, the incarnation of Kenton’s group in which Adams participated made its final recordings in Hollywood, California, including “Opus in Beige” from the Contemporary Concepts sessions.

Upon the dissolution of Kenton's group, Adams remained in Los Angeles into 1957, where he performed with Dave Pell and Shorty Rogers on “Martians’ Lullaby” from the Portrait of Shorty.

Adams soon permanently relocated to New York City, with occasional visits back to the West Coast. After briefly performing with the Maynard Fergusson Big Band, Adams once again recorded with John Coltrane and fellow baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne on the Dakar sessions in 1957, which included the buoyant “Route 4.”

Adams’s additional sessions as a sideman in the late 1950s included participation in Lee Morgan’s The Cooker (1957) and Benny Goodman’s Benny Rides Again (1958). Quite remarkably, Pepper also began his career as a bandleader by releasing three records in 1957 – The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams, Critics’ Choice, and My One and Only Love. His convincing arrival on the jazz scene earned him Down Beat Magazine’s New Star Award that year.

In 1958, Adams joined forces with trumpeter and fellow Detroit musician Donald Byrd. The two musicians collaborated on many genre-defining hard bop sessions from 1958-1963. A revolving door of rhythm section greats joined the Byrd/Adams frontline throughout their six year partnership, including the classic lineup of Walter Bishop, Jr., Sam Jones, and Art Taylor for Byrd in Hand, featuring the relaxed groove of “Here Am I.” Additional recordings showcasing the Byrd/Adams partnership include 10 to 4 at the Five Spot, which included “The Long Two/Four," as well as the albums Stardust, Out of this World, Off to the Races, At the Half Note Volumes One and Two, and Motor City Scene.

Adams’s career underwent additional noteworthy developments in 1959. He first performed with Charles Mingus in February, most notably providing the famed baritone sax opening theme on “Moanin’" from the Mingus classic Blues and Roots. Later in the same month, Adams also joined forces with Thelonious Monk, performing on Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. Finally, Adams performed on two memorable sessions with Chet Baker in 1959 – Chet and Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Lowe.

Additional Adams-led sessions from 1958 to 1963 included a collaboration with trombonist Jimmy Knepper entitled The Pepper-Knepper Quintet in 1958 and Pepper Adams Plays Charles Mingus from 1963, one of Adams’s most revered recordings as a leader. Mingus himself hand-picked the repertoire for this outstanding octet date featuring Thad and Hank Jones, Bennie Powell, Zoot Sims, Teddy Charles, Paul Chambers, and longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

In 1966, Pepper Adams participated in the debut performance of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band at the Village Vanguard – a gig in which he would participate in until 1978. “Big Dipper,” a track from this opening night performance, showcases Pepper’s powerful big band presence Aside from appearing on many Jones/Lewis big band efforts, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis also recorded in a rare small group setting with Pepper Adams on the Jones/Adams co-led outing, Mean What You Say (1966).

In addition to his Monday night commitment to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Adams remained busy as a leader and sideman throughout the late 60s and 1970s. In October 1967, Adams performed with Dizzy Gillespie at the Village Vanguard, with the unique lineup of either Ray Nance on violin or Garnett Brown on trumpet, Chick Corea on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and either Elvin Jones or Mel Lewis on drums. “Tour de Force,” a highlight from the subsequent recording, Live at the Village Vanguard, features the steady lineup of Gillespie/Adams/Corea/Davis with Brown and Lewis rather than Nance and Jones.

Adams’s other long-standing collaboration during this period was with Elvin Jones. Jones invited Adams to perform on many of his hard bop records from 1969-1973, including Mr. Jones, Poly-Currents, Prime Element, and Merry-Go-Round.

Adams also released many more records as a leader throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Encounter! (1968) featured Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. Ephemera (1973), Julian (1974), Pepper (1975) and Reflectory (1978) were all quartet or quintet dates that featured the spectacular interaction between Adams and bassist George Mraz. “Reflectory,” from the aforementioned album of the same name, fittingly showcases the relationship between Adams and Mraz.

Additional freelance work throughout the mid to late 1960s and the 1970s included dates with Joe Zawinul, George Benson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Aretha Franklin, Carmen McRae, Dakota Staton, Arif Mardin, Curtis Fuller, and Lionel Hampton. Adams returned to the studio with Charles Mingus in 1978, participating in two of his final recordings, Me Myself an Eye and Something Like a Bird.

After leaving the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band and performing on Mingus’s final recordings in 1978, Adams’ work as a sideman decreased. He did remain active as a featured soloist and bandleader throughout the first half of the 1980s, however, with the albums The Master (1980), Urban Dreams (1981), California Cooking (1983), Conjuration: Fat Tuesday’s Session (1983), and The Adams Effect (1985), which featured “Valse Celtique”.

The Adams Effect would turn out to be the saxophonist's final work as a leader. Pepper Adams died due to complications from lung cancer on September, 10, 1986, at his home in Brooklyn, New York. He was 55 years old and was survived by his wife, Claudette Hill.

During his year-long tenure in Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, Pepper Adams was nicknamed “The Knife,” partly due to his musical “carving and slashing” of his fellow section-mates on the bandstand. Although some musicians were initially weary of his aggressive style on an uncommon soloing instrument, Adams reputation was quickly solidified as a master player.

Throughout his career, Adams's services were consistently in demand. His playing was exciting, tasteful, and wide ranging in his ability to seamlessly fit into the most delicate jazz vocalist combos or the most forceful, screaming big bands. Pepper Adams rather single-handedly provided a modern approach for the performing baritone saxophonist.

Selected Discography:

As a Leader:

Pepper Adams Quintet (1957), Critics’ Choice (1957), Pure Pepper (1957), The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams (1957), The Pepper-Knepper Quintet (1958), 10 to 4 at the Five Spot (1958), Motor City Scene (1960), Stardust (1960), Out of This World (1961), Plays Charlie Mingus (1963), Encounter! (1968), Ephemera (1973), Pepper (1975), Julian (1975), Reflectory (1978), The Master (1980), Urban Dreams (1981), Conjuration: Fat Tuesday’s Session (1983), Generations (1985), Adams Effect (1985)

Additional Recordings:

The Cooker (Lee Morgan, 1957), Dakar (John Coltrane, 1957), Go West, Man (Quincy Jones, 1957), Portrait of Shorty (Shorty Rogers, 1957), Art of the Ballad (Chet Baker, 1958), Benny Rides Again (Benny Goodman, 1958), Chet (Chet Baker, 1959), Blues and Roots (Charles Mingus, 1959), Byrd in Hand (Donald Byrd, 1959), Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (Thelonious Monk, 1959), Two Altos (Art Pepper, 1960), At the Half-Note Café, Volumes One and Two (Donald Byrd, 1960), Cat Walk (Donald Byrd, 1961), Dedication! (Duke Pearson, 1961), Complete Town Hall Concert (Charles Mingus, 1962), Sure Thing (Blue Mitchell, 1962), More Blues and the Abstract Truth (Oliver Nelson, 1964), Mean What You Say (Thad Jones with the Pepper Adams Quintet, 1966), Live at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, 1967), Live at the Village Vanguard (Dizzy Gillespie, 1967), Left and Right (Rashaan Roland Kirk, 1968), Prime Element (Elvin Jones, 1969), Just a Little Lovin’ (Carmen McRae, 1970), I Want a Country Man (Dakota Staton, 1973), All Star Band at Newport (Lionel Hampton, 1978), Me Myself an Eye (Charles Mingus, 1978), Something Like a Bird (Charles Mingus, 1978), Hot Knepper and Pepper (Don Friedman, 1978) Chasin’ the Bird (Helen Merrill, 1979), Impressions of Charles Mingus (Teo Macero, 1983)

Contributor: Eric Novod