Pepper Adams

Park Frederick "Pepper" Adams III was an American jazz baritone saxophonist and composer.

Park Frederick “Pepper” Adams III (October 8, 1930 – September 10, 1986) was an American jazz baritone saxophonist and composer.

He composed 43 pieces, was the leader on eighteen albums spanning 28 years, and participated in 600 sessions as a sideman.

He worked with an array of musicians, and had especially fruitful collaborations with trumpeter Donald Byrd and as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band.

Jazz: Pepper Adams with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Aug. 1977

Pepper Adams Biography
Cited from: Wikipedia article: Pepper Adams

Pepper Adams was born on October 8, 1930 in Highland Park, Michigan, USA.

Both of his parents were college graduates, with each spending some time at the University of Michigan.

Due to the onset of the Great Depression, Adams’ parents separated to allow his father to find work without geographic dependence.

In the fall of 1931 Adams moved with his mother to his extended family’s farm near Columbia City, Indiana, where food and support were more readily available.

In 1933 Adams began playing piano. His family moved to Rochester, New York, in 1935 and in that city he began his musical efforts on tenor sax and clarinet.

Two years later Adams began deepening his developing passion for music by listening to Fats Waller’s daily radio show.

He was also influenced at a young age by listening to Fletcher Henderson’s big band radio broadcasts out of Nashville, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway.

Adams would later describe himself “up until the age of eight as really just traveling from one place to another”.

As early as 4th grade, Adams sold cigarettes and candy door-to-door in order to contribute to his family’s income for essential items.

Adams’ interest in performing further grew in 6th grade when the public school system offered a loaned musical instrument to any student who was interested, and further musical instruction if he could get into the school band.

Initially Adams chose the trumpet, then the trombone, but eventually settled on the clarinet, which he played in the school band. The following year Adams attained his lifelong nickname of “Pepper” due to former St. Louis Cardinals star Pepper Martin signing on to manage and play for the hometown minor league team, the Rochester Red Wings.

Adams’ classmates saw a resemblance between the two, and the nickname stuck. Later in his career, Adams also attained the nickname “the Knife” for “his ‘slashing and chopping technique’, which had a humbling effect upon musicians fortunate enough to gig with him”.

In 1943 Adams skipped school for a week in order to see Ellington play local gigs. He eventually met Rex Stewart, who further introduced him to Harry Carney and other band members.

This led to Adams being able to take lessons from Skippy Williams, who was the tenor saxophonist in Ellington’s band. Adams switched to the tenor saxophone in the fall of 1943 due to his jobs as a box cutter in the mail order room of a jazz store and an usher at a movie theater, which gave him enough money to buy the instrument.

His job at the jazz store also allowed him to listen to all of the newest available jazz records and led to his emulation of Coleman Hawkins, who he had heard play locally in 1945, and interest in the music of Don Byas. Adams’ first steady gig came in 1946 with a six-piece group led by Ben Smith, which then caused him to drop out of school in the 11th grade due to working six nights a week.

Early playing career

At age 16, Adams and his mother moved to Detroit, where he soon began playing with Willie Wells, who he had heard play for Fletcher Henderson, Fats Navarro, Tommy Flanagan, and Willie Anderson.

He had received casual instruction from Wardell Gray and Billy Mitchell, and played with a group led by Little John Wilson as well. Through the employee discount from his job at Grinnell’s, a music store in Detroit, Adams purchased what would become his main instrument: the baritone saxophone.

He initially purchased a used Bundy baritone saxophone, but later traded it in for a new Selmer ‘Balanced Action’ E-flat baritone in 1948, which he used until 1978. This switch proved to be successful, as he was soon playing in Lucky Thompson’s band. In Detroit, Adams also met several jazz musicians who would become future partners, including trumpeter Donald Byrd. He attended Wayne State University. Adams became interested in Wardell Gray’s approach to the saxophone, later naming Gray and Harry Carney as his influences. He also spent time in a United States Army band, and briefly had a tour of duty in Korea.

Upon returning from Korea, Adams began playing at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit where he played with Thad Jones under the leadership of Beans Richardson. When Jones left to play with Count Basie, Adams then became the music director at the Blue Bird. In late 1954 Adams left the Blue Bird to join Kenny Burrell’s group at Klein’s Show Bar, also in Detroit, where he would later become musical director following Burrell’s departure. Following the recommendation of friend Oscar Pettiford, Adams joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1956, where he played for a majority of the year until leaving the group to form a new ensemble with Lee Katzman and Mel Lewis in Los Angeles. Before moving to California, Adams also recorded with Kenny Clarke, Curtis Fuller, and Quincy Jones. In April 1957 Adams joined Chet Baker’s group, where he played for about a year.

He later moved to New York City, where he played on the album Dakar with John Coltrane, played with Lee Morgan on The Cooker, and briefly worked with Benny Goodman’s band in 1958. During this time, Adams also began working with Charles Mingus, performing on one of Mingus’s Atlantic albums of the period, Blues & Roots. Thereafter, he recorded with Mingus sporadically until the latter’s death in 1979. Adams formed a quintet with Donald Byrd in 1958 that lasted until 1961. Following the breakup of the Donald Byrd–Pepper Adams Quintet, Adams lacked a consistent band association until 1965 and the formation of the Thad Jones–Pepper Adams Quintet. During this phase, he performed with the likes of Teddy Charles, Pony Poindexter, Marcus Belgrave, Thelonious Monk, and Lionel Hampton. In September 1963, Adams made an agreement with Motown Records for an exclusive recording contract and an exclusive management contract with International Talent Management, a Motown affiliate. Prior to signing with Motown, Adams turned down an offer from Harry James to play in his Las Vegas-based band because it was extremely commercial and presented few opportunities to solo, despite its $10,000 annual salary.

Partnership with Thad Jones

He later became a founding member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, with whom he played from 1965 to 1976, and thereafter continued to record Jones’s compositions on many of his own albums. Adams also co-led a quintet with Donald Byrd from 1958 to 1962, with whom he recorded a live date, 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot (Riverside), featuring Elvin Jones, and a sequence of albums for Blue Note. During this time he also played with the Sal Salvador Big Band at the Diamond Beach Club in Wildwood, New Jersey, in August 1965, along with Teddy Charles in early 1966, and Ella Fitzgerald in 1967. Most of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band performances took place at the Village Vanguard in New York City, along with many colleges and other locations around the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The 18-year period spent with Thad Jones was filled with almost constant touring when the band was not playing their steady gig at the Village Vanguard.

One of the ensemble’s most frequent performing locations outside the United States was the Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Solo career

Adams’ solo career began in 1977 in California, where he initially stayed with John and Ron Marabuto. He soon played gigs with Mingus, Baker, and Hampton, with whom he went on a two-month European tour in 1978. On March 18, 1978 Adams purchased a new Selmer baritone saxophone that served as his interim back-up instrument for his original saxophone that he had been using since 1948. In 1979 Adams played several gigs with Per Husby across Norway. On June 5, 1980, the Berg Larson mouthpiece Adams had been using for 32 years finally broke, which led him to replace it with a Dukoff D-5 mouthpiece and a Bari plastic reed. The following day Adams premiered his new set-up at One Step Down in Washington, D.C.

Adams began composing “Urban Dreams” on July 29, 1980, on a flight to London for a short European tour. Adams finally replaced his original Selmer B-flat ‘Balanced Action’ baritone saxophone in December 1980 after 31 years of use. In 1981 Adams performed with Rein de Graaff’s trio, the Per Husby Trio, and the Franco D’Andrea Trio for three short European tours. When in New York City, Adams performed at Fat Tuesday’s several times during this period of his career, one of which, Live at Fat Tuesday’s, earned him a Grammy nomination in 1984 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance as a Soloist. In later years, Adams toured England and continental Europe several times, performing there with local rhythm sections, and he performed with a Count Basie tribute band at the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice.

Leg injury and end of career

Adams’ life was severely altered by the leg injury he sustained in December 1983, which was caused by his car’s parking brake becoming disengaged on his slanted driveway.

This led the car to pin Adams up against his garage door, crushing his leg and restricting him to bed rest for the following five months.

Despite the long recovery from his injury, Adams began playing again and exhibited his love for performing in October 1984 by flying from New York City all the way to Singapore for a one-night gig, then returning two days later.

He eventually regained the strength in his leg to move without the use of a wheelchair or cane in January 1985, after more than a year of recovery.

While in Sweden in March 1985, Adams visited a chest specialist at the suggestion of a friend, Gunnar Windahl, and was diagnosed with lung cancer.

He was hospitalized for testing later that month in New York, then was forced to take a break from performing or traveling for two months that summer in order to undergo radiation treatments.

A benefit concert was held for Adams on September 29, 1985, in New York City that featured Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Foster, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, and the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, among others.

Despite his various health issues, Adams continued pushing himself professionally, which was exemplified by his stretch in Dublin, Ireland, April 4–6, 1986, when he played five gigs over three days with five different bands.

Adams was diagnosed with pleurisy in April 1986 and died of lung cancer in Brooklyn, New York, on September 10, 1986. His final performance took place on July 2, 1986, at the Spectrum in Montreal as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival. Before counting off the first song, he received a strong standing ovation from the crowd.


Pepper Adams was in many ways the antithesis of contemporary baritone players Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff, who favored melodic cool jazz. In contrast, Adams managed to bring the cumbersome baritone into the blisteringly fast speeds of hard bop like no others had before.

Gary Carner, Adams’s biographer, described his style as having “very long, tumbling, double-time melodic lines. And that raw, piercing, bark-like timbre.”

Adams “succeeded in elevating the baritone saxophone to the level of all other solo instruments with blinding speed, penetrating timbre, distinctive sound, harmonic ingenuity, precise articulation, confident time-feel, and use of melodic paraphrase”.

Throughout his career, Adams consistently chose musical expression over large paychecks, as “he repeatedly recalled with great satisfaction his decision to play in groups focused on musical expression rather than to change his style to secure better paying jobs with now little-known white musicians”.

A large part of Adams’ appeal was that “he had the remarkable ability to blow low with enormous power and swing, becoming a hefty addition to big band reed sections.

He also was an equally dominant voice in small groups, adding ferocious excitement and stamina”.

Despite his prowess at hard bop, Adams was also adept at ballads and slower numbers.

An example is his contribution to the album Chet (1958) including a solo on the bittersweet “Alone Together” that critic Dave Nathan described as “one of the album’s high points”