Columbia Jazz Legend Skipp Pearson Has Died
Saxophonist Skipp Pearson plays at Main Street Public House last September.
Skipp Pearson, the beloved Columbia saxophonist known to many as Pops, died last night following a five-year struggle with bone cancer. He was 79.
Playing with such greats as Otis Redding, Wynton Marsalis and Sam Cooke across a career that spanned five decades, he received his official title as the state's jazz ambassador from the South Carolina Senate in 2002, and this January was given the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor the governor or South Carolina can bestow.
As those awards would suggest, Pearson made it his mission to do more than just play jazz, but to open up the form to others, serving as a mentor to many players in the local community over the years. Through his namesake foundation, he hosted many outreach events, and he maintained a near-constant weekend residency at Le Cafe Jazz, a jazz club nestled in Finlay Park operated by his foundation.
“It’s a music that’s heard around the world, but it’s music created in America,” Pearson said of jazz in his last interview with Free Times, conducted last fall in Le Cafe Jazz. “And it needs to continue to be heard around the world because other cultures have also drawn from it and improved or at least added it to their culture. What else do we have that’s as powerful as jazz? The arts is what man has to depend on to remain civil."
Among Pearson’s more fondly remembered contributions to the local scene are his weekly jazz workshops at the brewpub Hunter-Gatherer, which ran for 17 years before ending in 2014, helping to connect up-and-coming talent with more longstanding players. Many young musicians recall getting their start at Pearson’s jam sessions.
“I learned a bunch from Skipp,” offered Columbia bassist Reggie Sullivan when Free Times reached him for a recent cover story on Pearson. He now leads a trio under his given name in addition to other engagements here and in other cities, but his first gig was playing bass in the house band for Skipp’s workshops. “So many amazing international, just renowned musicians would always come by and play. Even to this day, people always ask about the Hunter-Gatherer on Thursday. It’s just where you would learn, learn about the music and the vibe and the whole essence of jazz, far more than in like a classroom setting.”
Local trumpeter Mark Rapp helped lead the effort to get Pearson in the studio to record his last proper album, 2015’s Conversations in Jazz. He too spoke of Pops as a source of inspiration.