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All Music Guide:
A fine soloist with a distinctive sound not overly influenced by J.J. Johnson, Jimmy Knepper's improvisations are full of subtle surprises. He began on trombone when he was nine, started playing professionally when he was 15, and worked in the big bands of Freddie Slack (1947), Roy Porter (1948-1949), Charlie Spivak (1950-1951), Charlie Barnet (1951), Woody Herman, and Claude Thornhill. Knepper gained fame for his versatile and inventive playing with several of Charles Mingus' groups (1957-1962). He also worked with Stan Kenton (1959), Herbie Mann (a 1960 tour of Africa), Gil Evans, Benny Goodman (a 1962 tour of the Soviet Union), and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (1968-1974), in addition to playing in the 1970s with the Lee Konitz Nonet and Mingus Dynasty. Knepper's reputation in the jazz world has remained quite strong, although he has not recorded that often as a leader, cutting sessions for Debut, Bethlehem (both in 1957), SteepleChase (1976), Inner City, Blackhawk, Hep, Soul Note, and Criss Cross. During the '80s and '90s, Knepper could most often be found touring Europe, gigging frequently and occasionally recording, an ever vibrant gun for hire. He also remained an active member of the Mingus Dynasty, anchoring the trombone section with his distinctive tone and solos much as he had during his two brief tenures with Mingus in the early-'60s and mid-'70s. Diagnosed with Parkinson's in the '00s, Knepper's pace slowed considerably and on June 14, 2003 he passed away due to complications from the disease.
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 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) 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 Sweethearts of Rhythm on May 8, 1954, at a civil ceremony in Phoenix, 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 'Bird' Parker. He had four grandchildren.
In late 1959, early 1960, he went to Africa on a State Department sponsored tour with Herbie Mann.
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.
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.
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 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 toured Japan and Europe with them, and appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival with them in 1974.
With 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 with the instrument's keyboard cover, then punched Knepper in the mouth. Then, on October 12, 1962, Mingus reportedly punched Knepper while the two men were working together at Mingus's apartment on a score for his upcoming concert at New York Town Hall and Knepper refused to take on more work. 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. With Knepper, it was always about the music, and he was able to forgive and forget. Following Mingus' death, he led the Mingus Dynasty Orchestra, and toured the Middle East and Europe.