Living History: Master Saxophonist Skipp Pearson

Skipp Pearson's musical career spans more than 50 years. The South Carolina native has collaborated with legendary musicians ranging from Otis Redding to Sam Cooke. Pearson talks about his love for jazz, South Carolina's place in jazz history, and his grooming of young musicians.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, it's time for Wisdom Watch, our conversations with leaders who've gone before us, those with experience and knowledge - not just smart, but wise.

Today, when you think of the South Carolina scene, you may think of sea grass baskets, catfish, the birthplace of notables like Jesse Jackson, home to beautiful palmetto trees. But one thing you may not think about is jazz or the contributions that South Carolina has made to this art form. One man is working to change that, and it doesn't hurt that he, too, is legendary here in South Carolina.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Saxophonist Skipp Pearson has been in music over 50 years. He's performed with many of the best musicians in the business, including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Wynton Marsalis. And now he's interested in passing on his love of music to the next generation. So we're pleased to welcome Skipp Pearson.

Mr. Pearson, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. SKIPP PEARSON (Saxophonist): And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So is it true that they call you Pops?

Mr. PEARSON: They call me Pops.

MARTIN: Can we call you Pops?

Mr. PEARSON: Sure.

MARTIN: Well, Pops, I hear you started playing professionally at age 14, and you were leading a band at 15. How did you get that music bug?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, it started early in my life. And, of course, I learned to play the saxophone when I was in the sixth grade. For a short period of time, I took lessons, along with a friend of mine who encouraged me to join him for his lessons. So I then asked the teacher, who was a high school band director, if I brought in $.50, could I take lessons, too? So he said, well, I don't have an instrument. And I said, well, I can use that one if it's all right. So we shared the instrument and then eighth grade, when I went to high school, I joined a band - joined as a drummer.

MARTIN: As a drummer?

Mr. PEARSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. So it wasn't always just the sax.

Mr. PEARSON: That came later.

MARTIN: What is it you think about the saxophone that kind of keeps you interested?

Mr. PEARSON: Its passion. It's a very passionate instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PEARSON: It's one of the leading instruments of jazz music because it fits into any size ensemble.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: When you were coming up, though, there was still segregation. And were there times when it was hard to find a place to stay while you were going from place to place?

Mr. PEARSON: Oh, yes. Sure. But as the earlier musicians did that were traveling, if they didn't have relatives on the path that they were traveling, people were asked to board musicians. And I had that experience in two places. It's - one was down in Kentucky, Bowling Green, Kentucky - and the other was North Carolina.

MARTIN: Did you ever get discouraged and think, I just can't do this anymore?

Mr. PEARSON: I wasn't discouraged, but I decided I wasn't going to do it anymore.

MARTIN: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. PEARSON: There were discouraging times, but I have decided to come South. And I said I need to go and see my mom. And I came down here with that in mind and then getting on back out there, stopped in North Carolina and lived for a year. All I did was play music day and night. Then I went on to Savannah and started out with a band there, which was close to home - close to Orangeburg, South Carolina. So, you know, when I left Savannah, I came here and my mother and my wife talked me into going to school. So I went and got a music degree from Claflin University. And then I started teaching when I was a sophomore in college.

MARTIN: You were telling us earlier that a lot of people may not associate jazz with South Carolina. But there is a jazz tradition in South Carolina. Tell me about it.

Mr. PEARSON: Oh, yes, a very strong one. Being that part of South Carolina's coastal area - speaking of Charleston area specifically - with the movement of people from even farther South going North, many of them came out of the New Orleans area. And, of course, South Carolina was already - unknowing to them -developing their skills, and some came through and stayed in the area. They found the music probably similar in their early years here. And many topnotch musicians ended up in the top bands in the country. And, of course, they still produce very good musicians in Charleston. Like New Orleans, in Charleston, it must be in the water.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Saints Go Marching In")

MARTIN: But you were saying that you think some of the musicians don't want to claim South Carolina as their home. Why would that be?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, that goes back into the migration from South to North. In many instances, it was dangerous to do that because you had people there that would capture you and bring you back South for the money. Other reasons were those people that were fortunate enough to already be in the North and know their way around and how to handle themselves kind of looked at you as well, you from down there, you don't know anything. And my grandmother told me she -the first time I went to New York, she said don't go out there looking up at the tall buildings now, because everybody will know you from South - from the South. It was those little fables and that kind of thing that…

MARTIN: I'm from New York, and I still look up at the tall buildings when I go home. So forget that.

Mr. PEARSON: Yeah. But…

MARTIN: But I see your point.

Mr. PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: They'll say the same thing. Don't act like a tourist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: That's right.

MARTIN: But you're standing up for the heritage, the jazz heritage in South Carolina.

Mr. PEARSON: Yes, yes. Definitely.

MARTIN: And now, you working to pass it on. I know you've got a foundation?

Mr. PEARSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: The Skip Pearson Jazz Foundation. What's that about?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, the jazz foundation is about preserving live jazz music, and also providing avenues by which younger people, younger musicians can share the music with those of us that are moving along in our day, you know, and there are things they need to know. And I discovered this from getting young musicians to play with me, and they want to know not only about the music, but about lifestyles and other musicians and that kind of thing. Your - my experience is out there. And I have young man, he's just longing to learn everything. He won't - he's picking my brain all the time, which is all right.

MARTIN: What would you like your legacy to be?

Mr. PEARSON: A long way off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you know, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: From when I first learned to play, which inspired me to have bands at an early age, was that I wanted to share what little I knew at that time with other musicians. And I kept doing that, and I'm still doing it. Thank God. Thank God I'm still able to do that.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Skip Pearson is a master saxophonist, a native South Carolinian. He was kind enough to join us from South Carolina's ETV Radio in Columbia. You can find more information about Skip Pearson and his foundation at our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore.

Pops, Mr. Pearson, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. PEARSON: Thank you for having me.

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