Friday, July 19, 2013

Jimmy Knepper

Cover photo of Cunningbird
While practicing the other day I got a look at myself in the mirror and thought, "Jesus, I'm starting to look like Jimmy Knepper."  The cover photo of Cunningbird, the only CD of his I have, could easily be me, if the hair was grayer. And he's dressed as I would if left to my own devices. Now, if I could just play like him.           
            Jimmy Knepper is another trombone player who ought to be a household name. I learned about him only after moving to New York and, sometime in 1989, playing hooky from work by going to a concert at nearby Pace University. The performance, dedicated to the great Ellington trombones, was led by Art Baron and included people like Craig Harris and Doug Purviance. As I remember it, a guy named Jimmy Knepper was supposed to have played as well but some sort of health problem prevented it. So when I ran across Cunningbird (an import from Denmark), probably in J&R Music or Tower Records on Broadway (where I spent a considerable amount of time and money) I remembered the name and bought it.

            While this 1976 recording was a great introduction,  it wasn't until I got into Charles Mingus that I realized what a complete trombone bad-ass Jimmy Knepper truly was.  For better or worse, Jimmy is best known for his association with Mingus and famously having his chops wrecked in 1962 when, in a fit of temper, the bassist punched him in the mouth.   Usually trombone and bass players get along pretty well and because they almost always function in support of someone else, often share some of the same dim views. Possibly because they work more steadily, I don't think bass players are as prone to becoming embittered - like me. Charles Mingus was a notable exception and even the most enthusiastic supporters refer to his temper as "mercurial." Anyway, we're talking about trombone players, not bassists so back to Jimmy Knepper.
            Over the years, I've found a few of his vinyl albums, Idol Of The Flies, Dream Dancing and (an unopened) 1st Place at used record stores and as far as I know, only Dream Dancing is on CD. I'd been meaning to hook my turntable back up for years but didn't and when we moved overseas, got rid of it entirely so, the Mingus albums have remained my main source of listening to Jimmy Knepper.           
            What strikes me about these Mingus recordings is, considering the period, the influence of J.J, and the emergence at the time of others like Curtis Fuller, how completely unlike anyone else Jimmy Knepper sounds. This is probably because, as he says, his main musical influence was Charlie Parker and how he adapted this to the trombone is something for a better trombone player than me to reflect on (Check out Kirk Dietrich's book Jazz 'Bones.) But I know enough to recognize that the language of bebop as expressed by Jimmy Knepper is unique.
            The tune I picked here, "Haitian Fight Song", is from Charles Mingus' album, The Clown, released in 1957. The opening theme is stated by Jimmy's trombone then builds into his solo which, especially the double-time section, is amazing. Again, he ought to be a household name but from what I've read, this was as much his own fault as anyone else's since he wasn't much of a self-promoter, like a lot of jazz musicians.
            So I'll finish this with something about Jimmy Knepper from Charles Mingus himself, an excerpt from "What is a Jazz Composer", the liner notes from the 1971 Mingus album Let My Children Hear Music, the only Grammy nomination he ever got (for the liner notes, not the music. No wonder he was pissed all the time).
            There are many other instruments besides the trumpet which jazz musicians have made do the impossible. And they can play, for hours on end, technical, involved, difficult, educated lines that have melodic sense. They are all virtuosi. The same goes for string bass. The same goes for saxophone, although it is not used much in symphony. But anything Milhaud has done in classical music, McPherson and Bird, alone, do with ease as well as human warmth and beauty. Tommy Dorsey, for example, raised the range of the trombone two octaves. Britt Woodman raised it three. And take Jimmy Knepper. One of his solos was taken off a record of mine and written out for classical trombone in my ballet. The trombone player could barely play it. He said it was one of the most technical exercises he had ever attempted to play. And he was just playing the notes-not the embellishments or the sound that Jimmy was getting. That about covers it.

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