Knepper’s first big job was with Freddie Slack, a jazz piano player leading his own big band. After that he worked with other jazz big bands led by Roy Porter, Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, and even Stan Kenton in 1959. He finally gained notoriety and attention while playing under Charles Mingus. Mingus’ prior trombonist, Willie Dennis, was a friend of Jimmy’s, so before leaving he got him the job.
Knepper played on many of Mingus’ biggest albums. His first album with Mingus was The Clown, from 1957. He was the only brass player on the album. In 1959 he appeared on both Blues & Roots as well as the landmark album Mingus Ah Um.
Jimmy Knepper stayed with Mingus until October 12, 1962. On that date Mingus and Knepper reportedly got into an argument over an upcoming concert, and the bassist punched Knepper in the mouth, breaking one of his teeth and ruining his embouchure. This blow also resulted in Knepper losing the top octave of his rage on the trombone for the rest of his career. Knepper pressed charges, and Mingus was charged with assault, but given a suspended sentence.
Jimmy Knepper’s first solo record, A Swinging Introduction to Jimmy Knepper, was released in 1957. This was comprised of mainly covers, with a few original tracks written by Knepper. He also released Idol of the Flies that same year, featuring a young upcoming pianist by the name of Bill Evans. After this, Knepper did not record another solo effort until 1976.
When he did release Cunningbird, it was extremely well-received and put the highly skilled trombone player back in the top echelon of bebop trombonists. He released six more recordings, with his last one being Dream Dancing in 1986. Throughout the eighties and the nineties Knepper toured Europe, taking any gig that he found. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after the turn of the century, and passed on from complications related to the disease on June 14th, 2003 in Triadelphia, West Virginia.
Jimmy Knepper came into prominence during J. J. Johnson’s reign as alpha jazz trombonist. Jimmy Knepper, however, stuck to his own style and created an individual approach to his instrument that has never been successfully copied or bettered.
Knepper could take a Dixieland solo just as well as he could cry out a mournful solo in an Elington-esque ballad. Although he could keep up with an alto sax note for note, he chose to hang back with Miles Davis and just be cool. He is widely overlooked when it comes to jazz trombonists, but he most certainly deserves as much credit as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Fuller, Kai Winding, and even King J. J. Read more on Last.fm.
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