Pepper Adams handled the baritone saxophone with the driven facility of hard bop and fueled the big horn with a propulsive intensity that caused him to be nicknamed "the Knife" for his "slashing and chopping technique," which had a humbling effect upon musicians fortunate enough to gig with him. From 1954 until shortly before his passing in 1986, Pepper Adams existed as an indispensable ingredient in the North American jazz ensemble, releasing more than 20 albums as a leader, emanating a special warmth as a featured soloist, and serving as a strongly supportive sideman and an often overlooked accompanist, for he anchored many an ensemble behind vocalists such as Brook Benton, Aretha Franklin, Jon Lucien, Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Esther Phillips, Dakota Staton, Joe Williams, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Often mentioned in the same breath with Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan, and Cecil Payne, his powerhouse approach was closer to that of Harry Carney and Leo Parker.
Born Park Adams III on October 8, 1930, in Highland Park, MI, he was five years old when his family moved to Rochester, NY, where he soon developed a passionate interest in jazz by listening to Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway on the radio. At 12 he was blowing clarinet and tenor sax and was soon sitting in with local bands, including one led by veteran reedman Ben Smith. Pepper's primary inspiration was tenor archetype Coleman Hawkins, and Harry Carney inspired him to take up the baritone. Moving back to Detroit in 1946, he played in a group led by Lucky Thompson and worked in the house band at the African-American-owned Bluebird Inn with Barry Harris, Billy Mitchell, and Thad and Elvin Jones while holding down a job manufacturing automobiles. He blew tenor with Lionel Hampton for a while and served in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1953, including a spell in Korea. Resuming his routine at the Bluebird, he developed his stamina while working with Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, and Wardell Gray, whose influence he always acknowledged.