Jimmy Knepper (1927–2003)
Jimmy Knepper was an American trombonist born in Los Angeles, California, who performed and recorded with many of the most popular big bands of the 1950s and 1960s, including the bands of Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and, most famously, Charles Mingus in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
While a pupil at a military boarding school, his first instrument was alto horn. His first teacher persuaded him to switch to trombone because, he said, he had a ‘trombone mouth’. He played his first professional gigs at just 15 years old.
In 1959, Knepper joined a US State Department-funded trip to Africa with bandleader Herbie Mann. (He wrote home to his family about this gruelling 14-week tour and Knepper’s daughter is hoping to publish these letters.) In 1962, Knepper toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman’s Big Band, as part of a cultural exchange in which the Bolshoi Ballet came to the United States. On his return, he spent some years working on Broadway in the pit bands of a number of hit shows, including the entire run of Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand.
Although Knepper worked with some of the most notable jazz musicians of the 20th century, he is best known for his collaboration and stormy relationship with bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus. Following Mingus’ death, Knepper led the Mingus Dynasty Orchestra, and toured the Middle East and Europe.
Knepper received Best Trombonist award from Downbeat Magazine Reader’s Poll from 1981 to 1984 and was awarded first place in the Downbeat Critics’ Poll for five years running from 1983 to 1987.
Biography by Mike Rose
In three interviews by Les Tomkins trombonist, Jimmy Knepper discusses his early life, his extensive playing career both in the US, the UK and across the world. In this first interview in 1981 he explains his personal and musical relationship with bassist, Charles Mingus.
Jimmy Knepper: Interview 1
|Interview date||1st January 1981|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit||Tom Marcello|
|Image source URL||https://commons.wikimedia.org/wi...|
A welcome chance to see quite a bit of England was provided by the three–week tour for the Jazz Centre Society in November. It was a nice time of year to see all that beautiful countryside. As for the musicians I worked with—they were marvellous. Peter Jacobson is a superb piano player, Bobby Wellins is quite a tenor player, and Ron Parry, the drummer, and Dave Green, the bass player, are both excellent—so I had no complaints. We got a good rapport going very quickly—a great bunch of guys. Or geezers, blokes, chaps—whatever you want to call ‘em. Not a twit in the lot.
Of the musical associations I’ve had, certainly the one with Charles Mingus was quite productive. And this last couple of years we’ve had about seven go–rounds with the Mingus Dynasty group, including a trip for the State Department to India, Egypt, the Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. It’s quite enjoyable. But I don’t know whether you can say the group is sticking together—we’ve had about four different tenor players so far, three different trumpet players, three or four piano players, two drummers and two bass players.
The continuance of the group depends on what Mrs. Mingus comes up with—it’s more or less her baby, her idea. Evidently there are some opportunities for it to work—at least, she’s made the opportunities—and hopefully there’ll be some more.
Maybe not as much as we’ve done; maybe more—who knows? But we made one album in ‘79, and another one just last July in Montreux.
I really couldn’t say whether he would have wanted this to happen. Bless Stan Kenton—he said: “No Stan Kenton bands, under the direction of anybody.” Mingus might have been pleased that his tunes were given something to keep them being presented in public, as he, being dead, can’t do it. And it might be a consideration that it provides some money for his family. I don’t really know what Mingus thought about the whole idea—although he did indicate to Mrs. Mingus that, for some reason or other, he trusted me, and felt that I understood his music. Which I don’t claim to do at all. So I was the first one she called, and I had a great deal to do with the organising of the music.
That is, I wrote most of the arrangements; Sy Johnson also wrote some—and we’re running out of material now.
The object of the group? For me, it’s to provide work. The object for Mrs. Mingus is probably to have something to do, to occupy her, and also to further his music. But you can’t get a Mingus sound without Mingus; you can’t really call it Mingus’s music—we play his tunes, but once the tune is over you’re playing the music of John Handy, Randy Brecker, Ted Curson, George Adams or whoever is taking a solo; then you come back and play the tune again.
Mingus’s band was unique, in that he had a rapport with Dannie Richmond, the drummer, and the two of them acted almost as a unit.
They could do some very startling things, just by looking at each other—each one knew what the other was going to do. It was a very unique rhythm section. Dannie has played all the Mingus Dynasty trips and jobs except the Montreux recording. Well, there was one in New York that he didn’t play, but that was about half–an–hour at the mayor’s house—I forget what the occasion was.
For me, that Montreux album didn’t quite jell at all. To get an understanding or appreciation of the music, and to do it in a reasonably authentic way, you have to get familiar enough with it to be able to relax. But at the last minute a new piano player, Roland Hanna, came in and did it, and Billy Hart took Dannie’s place just for that record. Joe Farrell came in for just the day also.
John Handy had made all the jobs up to then, but he dropped out and went back to San Francisco. So instead of four horns we were down to three.
Then they added an extra bass player—Aladar Pege from Hungary; he impressed Mrs. Mingus in Bombay when she heard him there. She got a feeling that he was close to Mingus’s kind of playing; so, for one reason or another, she got him on this record, and we did it with two basses. It was kind of like two elephants in heat. Pege, although, in fact, he has no affinity with Mingus, is a remarkable player; he should play with his own trio. A real virtuoso—I never heard a bass player play like that. They didn’t even invite me for the mixing of the record—and I wrote six out of seven of the arrangements. Or seven out of eight; I forget how many we did.
And I have no idea what it’s going to sound like—it was against my better judgement to do a record with several new musicians playing the music for the first time, and on a concert situation. I said: “Do it when there’s more control over it—in a studio, where we can do the things over and over, and get them somewhat to our satisfaction.” But—that’s not my job, not my money.
There was a lot of tenseness in Mingus’s music—but at least you can free your energies for something other than just playing the tune. For young musicians—for all musicians—what we do is try to get the elements of producing music as unconscious as we can. That is, we don’t consciously think of tone placement, attack, intensity, any of those things; you just hope that they get automatic, so that you can free matic, so that you can free your concentration on some particular element, but you should hope that you don’t have to worry continually about the technicalities of playing—intonation, playing right notes. If you don’t do it consciously, there’s too many different things you have to think about to make it come off.
Probably Mingus’s writing was his greatest asset. There are plenty of bass players now. . . I don’t know if individually they’ve learned anything from Mingus, but the bass has been extremely liberated in the last decade. Primarily, probably, because they’re playing with pick–ups; they can set their strings lower, and play more like a cello or violin technique.
Because the strings are much closer to the fingerboard—they don’t have to use physical strength to play.
Consequently: bass players nowadays are fantastic with the technique and the things that they can play; they can play like. harps and guitars—like horns.
His organisation of his writing is probably Mingus’s main contribution to jazz. Some of the tunes are very well regarded, for compositional reasons, as being somewhat different than the general run–of–the–mill tunes—although he did borrow music from everybody he ever heard, I think. Tin Pan Alley, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and whoever. It all kind of pasteurised in his mind, and came out uniquely Mingus. He could analyse it for you, and tell you: “Oh, this part is from ‘Body And Soul’, this part is from ‘Lush Life’ and this is a pop tune of the ‘thirties”, or whatever, but he assimilated all that and came up with his own original compositions.
It was in February, 1957, that I made the first record with him—”The Clown”. There were quite a few record dates that year, in 1958 and 1959; in 1960 we did something with Roland Kirk and that was about the last record I made with him until the very last two that he did. I was added on to “Cumbia And Jazz Fusion”, and then I was on the very last one, “Me, Myself An Eye”, where he had two of everything. By that time, he was paralysed, and he didn’t participate very much at all in the date.
Not everything with Mingus was a challenge; some of the music was relatively simple. Nothing was that difficult, although some things were hard to memorise—I’ve heard one record, I can’t imagine how in the world I ever memorised that thing. Some of the things he wrote for saxophones were much more dif-ficult than what I had to play. But you play ‘em a little bit, and they fall under your fingers—you do it somehow.
The challenge of playing with him was to play in spite of him, because he would put obstacles in your path. Maybe the reason for that is that he wanted very strong musicians, who could overcome any obstacle, and bull their way through some of the road–blocks he put up for them. I don’t know what he had in mind; but that’s the way he operated it. He said: “Well, you want to play? This is what you’ve got to go through. So you do what you have to do.” If it brought something out of you, I don’t know what it was—except energy, maybe. The idea that he shaped or influenced musicians—that’s something I really don’t believe about Mingus. The guys who played with him were set in their with him were set in their styles, the way they played, already. They might have learned things from Mingus, but their playing wasn’t formed by him. Eric Dolphy would have played the way he did whether he played with Mingus or not; it was just fortuitous that he happened to be with Mingus’s band for that year–and–a–half or so, and get the exposure and the opportunity to play the way he wanted. If he’d have been with some other band they might not have put up with him doing the things that he did; they’d have said: Oh, Eric, you re playing wrong notes” or “Hold it down” or “Tune up”, or whatever. But with Mingus he was relatively free.
Although he had to struggle against Mingus too; Mingus didn’t want him to play bass clarinet—he yelled at him: “Leave that thing at home! “ But Eric was known as a bass clarinet player; one of his great of his great contributions was the mastery he had of that bastard instrument.
My style was formed before I was with him, and I’d say that’s probably true of all the players. I can’t think of any. . . well, maybe Dannie Richmond, because he’d just started playing drums. But Mingus wasn’t a drummer, and Dannie just figured out for himself how to play—and he’s marvellous now. He was marvellous back then too, but he’s even better nowadays.
I’m from Los Angeles, and that’s where Mingus grew up; he was born in Arizona, but he grew up in a suburb of Watts. I met him about 1945. Dean Benedetti had the first bebop band in Los Angeles, with trumpet, tenor, trombone and three rhythm; one night we needed a bass player, and he hired Mingus. I didn’t even know who it was; in fact, I didn’t find out until years and years later, when Mingus told me that that was the first white band he’d ever worked with. And a few months after that he called me to work with him at Billy Berg’s—he had a few nights there. Then I didn’t see him for at least ten years—in 1957. A friend of mine, Willie Dennis, was quitting Mingus, and he told me that he would need a trombone player. Sure enough, Mingus called me, I went over to his apartment, and started learning a few of the tunes—” The Clown”, “The Reincarnation Of A Love–Bird” and “Haitian Fight Song”, all of which appeared on that very first album I made with him. We learned tunes one by one, and recorded most everything that we learned.
I really couldn’t name any particular album as a favourite, because a lot of the dates we did were put away or split up. Often they didn’t have enough Mingus tunes to make an album; so they’d take it from a whole bunch of dates. Some of the albums, I’m only on two of the tunes, and the rest of the tunes are from three other different dates. I haven’t listened to ‘em, anyway—so I can’t pinpoint any particular tune.
Copyright © 1981 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.