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Jimmy Knepper, 75 Trombonist With Mingus

June 17, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Jimmy Knepper, jazz trombonist admired for his originality, gruff sound and lyrical phrasing and perhaps best known for his memorable but volatile relationship with bassist and composer Charles Mingus, has died. He was 75.

Knepper died Saturday at the home of his daughter, Robin Rios, in Triadelphia, W. Va., of complications of Parkinson's disease. He lived on New York's Staten Island.

Although he worked with several bands, including those of Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill, Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, Knepper built his reputation on the five years he spent recording with Mingus from 1957 to 1962. His trombone was an important part of favorite Mingus albums, including "The Clown," "Tijuana Moods" and "Mingus Ah Um."

Because of that work with Mingus, Knepper was named "New Star" on the trombone by Down Beat magazine in 1959.

The relationship between the two perfectionists went on long-term hold, however, on Oct. 12, 1962, after Mingus -- in a dispute over Knepper's music copying workload prior to a New York concert -- struck Knepper in the mouth and broke one of his incisors. The injury damaged Knepper's embouchure and reduced his upper range on the trombone for years.

Mingus was convicted of third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence.

A decade later, the two men reconciled enough to play together again on Mingus' 1971 album "Let My Children Hear Music," at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1976 and on the last three albums Mingus made before his death in 1979.

Knepper went on to play with the Mingus Dynasty, a group of former Mingus sidemen, through the 1980s. In later years, he made several tours of Europe as a soloist.

In 1993, when the trombonist appeared in Newport Beach as a featured soloist with the Mark Masters Jazz Orchestra, a Times reviewer wrote: "Knepper, on 'Languid' and 'Primrose Path' ... played lines that curved, and lines that leapt back and forth, up and down his horn. There was an intimate quality to his work, as if he were speaking in hushed tones and wanted to take you into his confidence."

Masters, in describing Knepper for The Times, said, "Jimmy Knepper is the trombone. He transcends all eras of the instrument."

Born in Los Angeles, James Minter Knepper began playing the alto horn in military school at the age of 6 and switched to trombone at 9. He began performing professionally as a teenager. In addition to other bands, Knepper played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra from 1968 to 1974 and was in the pit orchestras for several Broadway musicals.

In addition to Rios, Knepper is survived by his wife, Maxine, and four grandchildren. A son, Timothy, died in Los Angeles in 1991.

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