Pepper Adams, Master of Baritone Saxophone, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Jazz star Park (Pepper) Adams, one of the few masters of the baritone saxophone, died Wednesday in New York City after a long battle with lung cancer.

Adams, 55, whose distinctive, hard-charging style brought fans to their feet and won the admiration of fellow musicians over the decades, performed with some of the leading big bands of the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as with small, tight-knit combos of the bop and post-bop eras.

Adams was voted the top baritone sax player in Down Beat magazine’s International Critics Poll for at least the last six years.


He was a favorite soloist and ensemble player at jazz festivals both here and overseas and made his last appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival on the July 4 weekend.

His wife, Claudette, said Adams had been fighting cancer for about 18 months and returned from the Canadian festival with pneumonia. She said he died quietly at home.

“He was one of the few true giants of the baritone sax,” said jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather. “He also was one of the principal jazz figures to come out of Detroit during the 1950s.

“I saw him at Montreal (in July) and talked with him briefly. He did a good show, bravely battling his disease. He was cheerful and outgoing and seemed to be in extraordinarily good shape emotionally.”

Gerry Mulligan, the other leading contemporary baritone sax jazz star, said he was deeply saddened by Adams’ death. Mulligan, whose mellow, lyrical style is in sharp contrast to Adams’, said that while some fans and critics may have seen them as rivals, neither he nor Adams ever felt that way.

“I see music as cooperative, not competitive,” Mulligan said in a telephone interview from his Connecticut home. “We were very good friends, and we understood very well our different approaches. . . . Pepper was a hard-blowing player, full of vitality.”


On the few occasions when they played together, he said, the differing styles nicely complemented one another.

Drummer Mel Lewis, co-leader with the late Thad Jones of the top-ranked New York big band that often featured Adams, said the baritone man was one of the group’s outstanding players.

“We called him ‘The Knife’ because when he’d get up to blow, (he) had almost a slashing effect on the rest of us. He’d slash, chop and cut everybody down to size,” Lewis said Wednesday.

Adams was born in Highland Park, Ill. Reared in Rochester, N.Y., he played his first engagements there as a teen-ager, performing on both clarinet and tenor. By 1947, then living in Detroit, he was concentrating on the baritone, playing with the Lucky Thompson and Tommy Flanagan bands at night while working days in automobile plants.

Adams served in the Army in Korea from 1951 to 1953, often appearing in Special Services shows. He went to New York in the mid-50s and played variously with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Maynard Ferguson Band. He also played innumerable club dates with small groups, which often included trumpeter Donald Byrd, several of which he led.

Down Beat gave him it’s New Star award in 1957, and critic Ralph Gleason called Adams “the only new baritone saxophonist with any real class.” As a jazz writer, he was credited with more than two dozen compositions.