Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pepper, Desmond and Shank

Not a law firm. Art Pepper, Paul Desmond and Bud Shank are white alto sax players who eschewed the hard-edged sound and harmonic approach of Charlie Parker. There were other well-known white sax players in the 1950's: Phil Woods, Joe Maini, Herb Geller and Charlie Mariano who, because of their approach and tone, fell more into the lineage of Charlie Parker. I'd call Gene Quill a borderline case, with one foot in each camp. 

To a large extent, Pepper, Desmond and Shank became the (alto sax) personification of the West Coast versus East Coast schism and represented a lightning rod for racial tension in jazz during the 50's and 60's (the New York-based Lee Konitz did also, but to a lesser degree).

This tension is a major subplot in Straight Life, the Story of Art Pepper. A fascinating read, Pepper's jumble of self-delusion, introspection and braggadocio is not the place to go for an objective examination of social issues. But, although clearly sometimes a prick, Pepper is convincing in his descriptions of the resentment that some black musicians felt toward him and the insults he suffered as a result of being white and playing jazz.

I'm not going to try and parse out the threads of the racism/reverse-racism issue–abandon hope all who enter there. But, there are some interesting questions that can be asked. Were there black musicians playing in this softer, non-Bird style? Were they not being recorded because of the same recording industry biases that prevented black bands from being recorded in the 1920's playing anything but "hot" music? Did group/political pressure keep black musicians from pursuing this avenue of creative approach? These white musicians seemed to be consciously trying to carve out a different musical space-was it inevitable they end up sharing so much of the same space, one that prioritized sweetness of sound, ballad playing, slightly less blues emphasis and the creation of melodic lines instead of vertical chord delineation? 

It would take hundreds of tracks to properly characterize how these guys sound, but I'll present a ballad and an up tempo performance from each to give a sense of their playing. First, ballads.

Art Pepper

Paul Desmond

Bud Shank (starts at :53)

And, uptempo.
Bud Shank (Cooper solos first)


Desmond-(hard to find uptempo, rhythm-changes-type tracks like Scrapple)

My take: Pepper's tone is slightly more tart than the others. Desmond uses the most vibrato, then Shank and Pepper. In the uptempo tracks, a non-Bird approach seems to fall naturally under Pepper's fingers. Shank falls back more on Bird, but does find other pathways through the changes, albeit in a seemingly less natural way. Desmond's uptempo approach is all about the lines. It's more spare and he plays behind the beat more often. In sum, though, there is a very strong resemblance in their playing.

In any case, and broader cultural questions aside, I'm happy to hear any of these guys blow in a playlist that also includes hard boppers like Gigi Gryce, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Criss...

As happens more and more often, the discussion about this post is happening not here, but on social media. If you want to read that discussion, go here. You're also welcome to leave a comment here.

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