Jimmy Knepper with the National Jazz Ensemble
|Birth name||James Minter Knepper|
November 22, 1927|
Los Angeles, California
|Died||June 14, 2003
Triadelphia, West Virginia
|Associated acts||Charles Mingus, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra|
James Minter (Jimmy) Knepper (November 22, 1927 – June 14, 2003) was an American jazz trombonist. In addition to his own recordings as leader, Knepper performed and/or recorded throughout his career with many of the top figures in jazz including the bands of Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Gil Evans, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Toshiko Akiyoshi & Lew Tabackin, and, most famously, as friend and arranging/transcribing partner of bassist and composer Charles Mingus in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Knepper died in 2003 of complications of Parkinson's disease.
Knepper was born in Los Angeles, California, the second son of a nurse and a police officer. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and his mother had to take her abusive husband to court in order to get child support. He and his older brother, Robert, were sent to several boarding and military schools, Page Military Academy and St. John's Military Academy, while their mother worked. He picked up his first instrument, an alto horn, at the age of 6 while he was a pupil there. His first teacher convinced him to put aside the alto, and pick up the trombone, because, as he said, he had a "trombone mouth". He did his first professional gigs in LA at the age of 16. He graduated high school, and later attended classes at Los Angeles Community College.
He married Maxine Helen Fields, a trumpet player with the all-female jazz band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm on May 8, 1954, at a civil ceremony in Tucson, Arizona, while he was on a tour with the Maynard Ferguson Band. They had two children, a daughter, Robin Reid Knepper Mahonen, and a son, Timothy Jay Knepper, who pre-deceased him. Jimmy chose the names "Robin" and "Jay" to honor his idol, Charlie Parker, who the jazz world knew as "Bird". He had four grandchildren.
In 1959, the U.S. State Department funded a trip for bandleader Herbie Mann to visit Africa, after they heard his version of "African Suite." In a stroke of serendipity, Jimmy Knepper replaced Willie Dennis as trombonist in the band for this tour. The grueling 14 week tour took place between 12/31/1959 to 4/5/1960. Personnel: Herbie Mann, Bandleader, flute and sax; Johnny Rae, vibist and arranger; Don Payne, bass; Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Carlos "Patato" Valdes, conguero; Jose Mangual, bongos. Destinations listed on official itinerary: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia. This tour was meticulously documented by Jimmy, in a series of letters he sent home to his wife, Maxine, his daughter, Robin, and his son, Timothy. These letters were recently found carefully preserved in a dusty box in the attic of the family home, and have now been transcribed by his daughter. The letters provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner circles of a notable piece of jazz history, and the life of a touring musician, who was also a devoted family man. He paints vivid portraits of the personal life of the musicians he worked with, and his descriptions of the African landscapes and its people are heartbreakingly stunning portraits of an era where there were no civil rights for Africans in their own land. Jimmy's daughter is hoping to publish these letters in the near future. <personal letters of Jimmy Knepper being held by his daughter, Robin Knepper Mahonen>
In 1962, he toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman's Big Band, as part of the cultural exchange during the Cold War. The Bolshoi Ballet came to the US, and the Benny Goodman Band went to the Soviet Union. This groundbreaking, yet disastrous tour, was also documented in Jimmy's letters. They have yet to be transcribed.
He also played the entire run of the Broadway show Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand, and later, Mimi Hines. After seventeen previews, the Broadway production opened on March 26, 1964, at the Winter Garden Theatre, subsequently transferring to the Majestic Theatre and the Broadway Theatre to complete its total run of 1,348 performances. In 1967 and 1968, he played in the pit orchestra at the Mark Hellinger Theater for "An Evening with Marlene Dietrich", for which Dietrich received a special Tony award in 1968. He also appeared on and off Broadway in "On Your Toes", and "The Me Nobody Knows".
While he was playing Funny Girl, he became a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, a big band formed by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis around 1965, which began the 40-year tradition of Monday night jazz shows at the Village Vanguard in NYC's Greenwich Village. The band performed for twelve years in its original incarnation, but since the death of Lewis in 1990 it has been known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. They have maintained a Monday-night residency at the Village Vanguard for four decades. Knepper again toured the USSR, this time with TJML, as well as Japan and Europe with them, and appeared with them at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974.
In 1969, he toured and recorded "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are", with keyboardist Al Kooper, in the jazz period which followed his departure from Blood, Sweat & Tears. Jimmy appeared on this concert tour which included shows at the Philadelphia Spectrum, and in Atlanta, where he briefly met Janis Joplin.
In 1980, he received a Grammy nomination from The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for "Best Jazz Instrumentalist Performance, Soloist", for his original album, "Cunningbird".
He received "Best Trombonist" award from Downbeat Magazine Reader's Poll four years running from 1981-1984; and the Downbeat Critic's Poll in 1981, and then five years running, from 1983-1987.
Although he wove himself seamlessly among some of the most notable jazz legends of the 20th century, he was perhaps best known for his collaboration and stormy relationship with bassist and composer, Charles Mingus. Knepper was twice on the receiving end of Mingus' legendary temper. Once, while onstage at a memorial concert in Philadelphia, Mingus reportedly attempted to crush his pianist's hands (Toshiko Akiyoshi) with the instrument's keyboard cover, then punched Knepper. Later, Mingus reportedly punched Knepper in the mouth while the two men were working together at Mingus's apartment on a score for Epitaph, at what became his disastrous concert at New York Town Hall, on October 12, 1962. The blow broke one of Knepper's teeth, ruined his embouchure and resulted in the loss of the top octave of his range on the trombone for almost two years. This attack ended their working relationship and Knepper was unable to perform at the concert. Charged with assault, Mingus appeared in court in January 1963 and was given a suspended sentence. According to his daughter, Robin, Mingus also later mailed heroin to Knepper's home, and made an anonymous phone call to the police. A little girl, she remembers the police questioning her father after the mailman delivered the package. Nevertheless, in the 1970s, the two eventually reconciled enough to play together in concert and on at least one of Mingus' last albums. Following Mingus' death, and the death of the first Mingus Dynasty bandleader, drummer Dannie Richmond, he led the Mingus Dynasty Orchestra, and toured the Middle East and Europe.
- Jazz Workshop Presents: "Jimmy Knepper" (Debut, 1957; Danish EP reissued on Mingus Rarities, Volume 1, OJC)
- A Swinging Introduction to Jimmy Knepper (Bethlehem, 1957)
- Pepper-Knepper Quintet (MetroJazz Records, 1958)
- Cunningbird "Jimmy Knepper Quintet" (Steeplechase, 1976)
- Jimmy Knepper in L.A. (Inner City,1977)
- Tell Me... (Daybreak, 1979)
- Primrose Path (HEP, 1980)
- First Place (Black Hawk, 1982)
- I Dream Too Much (Soul Note, 1984)
- Dream Dancing (Criss Cross Jazz, 1986)
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With Charles Mingus
- Tijuana Moods (1957) RCA
- East Coasting (1957) Bethlehem
- A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry (1957) Bethlehem
- The Clown (1957) Atlantic
- Mingus Ah Um (1959) Columbia
- Mingus Dynasty (1959) Columbia
- Blues & Roots (1959) Atlantic
- Mingus Revisited (1960) Mercury
- Reincarnation of a Lovebird (1960) Candid
- Oh Yeah (1961) Atlantic,
- Tonight at Noon (1957–61) Atlantic
- Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (1978) Atlantic
With Mose Allison
- Swingin' Machine (Atlantic, 1963)
With Richard Davis
- Muses for Richard Davis (MPS, 1969)
With Gil Evans
- Out of the Cool (1960) Impulse!
- The Individualism of Gil Evans (1964) Verve
- Blues in Orbit (Enja, 1971)
- Where Flamingos Fly (1971) Artists House
- Collaboration with Helen Merrill (1987) EmArcy
With Dizzy Gillespie
- Perceptions (Verve, 1961)
With Langston Hughes
- Weary Blues (MGM, 1959)
With Clark Terry
- Color Changes (Candid, 1960)
With Kai Winding
- The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones (1960) Impulse!
With Herbie Mann
With Kenny Burrell
- Guitar Forms (Verve, 1965)
With Gary Burton
- A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA, 1967)
With the Jazz Composer's Orchestra
- The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis featuring Miss Ruth Brown (1968) Solid State
- Monday Night (1968) Solid State
- Central Park North (1969) Solid State
- Basle, 1969 (1996) TCB Music – recorded 1969
- Consummation (1970) Solid State
- Suite for Pops (1972) A&M
- Live in Tokyo (1974) Denon Jazz
- Potpourri (1974) Philadelphia International
- Thad Jones / Mel Lewis and Manuel De Sica (1974) PAUSA
With Al Kooper
- You Never Know Who Your Friends Are (1969) Columbia
- Road Time (1976) RCA/Victor