photo by Andrew Haworth
Columbia musician Skipp “Pops” Pearson, a jazz institution in South Carolina, died after a years-long cancer battle. He was 80.
Pearson, whose music career spanned more than 50 years, died Monday from organ failure due to complications caused by the advanced stages of bone cancer. He was surrounded by family and friends, according to a post from his foundation.
His musical journey began on the drums, but fearing getting “kicked out of my mama’s house,” he switched to the sax. Louis Jordan and Earl Bostick were early influences, Pearson said in an interview years ago, but Pearson said he vividly remembered the first time he heard Charlie Parker.
He and childhood friend John Williams had a competition over who could find the hippest records.
“He called me and said, ‘I bet you ain’t heard this cat,’” Pearson says, eyes crinkling behind his glasses.
It was Parker.
“I thought that was the greatest thing I ever heard.”
Pearson took private, 50-cent saxophone lessons as a sixth grader. He was leading The Rhythm Artists, a five-piece orchestra, at 15. Enlisting in the Air Force at 19 didn’t cramp Pearson’s style because he played everywhere he served.
From Parker to Coltrane, Columbia native Lucky Thompson to Don Byas, Pearson listened to and learned from the greats. He played with some, too – among them Otis Redding, Wynton Marsalis, Paul McCarthy, Miles Davis and Sam Cooke.
“Skipp is a legend. There’s no one more of a real deal than Skipp,” Mark Rapp, a Columbia jazz musician and friend of Pearson’s, said previously. “His tone, his phrasing, his ideas, his whole life embodies the truest essence of jazz music.”
In addition to education programs and other activities to help young musicians, he received many honors from the state he called home. He was named the Ambassador of Jazz Music by the South Carolina Senate and House and was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. He also was inducted into the South Carolina State University Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998.
The community rallied around Pearson in recent years as he battled bone cancer, holding fundraisers like the Skipp Pearson Jazz Bash and Love Fest to help fund initiatives for the jazz great.
Former staff writer Otis Taylor contributed.