The new releases at Rasputin’s Records were directly to the left of the checkout line. That’s where I first saw Art Pepper staring out from the cover of a Blue Note twofer. With those haunted eyes and sunken cheeks, he had the refried look of the nasty habit. Friends of ours back home had that look. It got so you hated to answer the door. Junkies were why we moved four time zones. The speed freak might rewire your house, but he won’t bore you shitless then steal your stuff.
“Death warmed over,” I said to my wife. She was staring at the picture, thinking the same thing. Andree was married to a junkie for seven years and knows the look better than I ever will.
“Blues In,” she read the title, clutching an armful of Steely Dan. “Who’s Art Pepper?”
“Never heard of him,” I nudged her toward the register. “Just another be-bop burnout.”
Smack and saxophones – an image so set in the fifties it defined cliché. Every neophyte knows the Yardbird story: Jazz genius goes down in flames taking a truckload of wannabes with him. It’s a fable as old as recorded music. From Bix to Hendrix the best licks tend to bow out early. Bird wasn’t the first junkie jazzman, but he had the fire. One of the few who find what they were born to do. So great was his talent he had to invent a form to contain it. Improvisation so florid and precise it will always take your breath away. Not just the speed, though speed was the essence. Bird could hit every note on the nose. No slurring or lagging, just flat out and ripping. Of course, you had to be up to the chase. As fast as Bird was, you get the feeling he could have played faster if anyone had the ears to follow.
I’d always wondered about jazz. I envied the way Kerouac dropped the names and I was partial to saxophones and smoke filled rooms. But it seemed like a too big world with no easy access and aside from a few records, I remained jazz ignorant.
This Pepper guy intrigued me. It was partly the picture, but also the fact that I’d never heard the name. Like most snobs I’m drawn to the obscure, and this guy looked every inch of it. A year would pass before I finally bought the record, but that moment in Rasputin’s was a premonition.
I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m a guy who needs his heroes. Despite the ravages or because of them, I knew this was someone I could get behind. If I was going to open the door to jazz I needed someone to lead me inside. Pepper had the look. If he had the talent, I was set to go. From the first track I was gone.
Pepper came out of big band swing, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton and the zoot suit clubs of central LA. He personified the cool, deceptively breezy west coast style that be-boppers couldn’t abide, too arranged, too loosey goosey, way too white. Another example of the times getting in the way, I suspect. You can’t see how it is until the dust settles. Bebop was young and angry, filled with sharp chops and hard edges, west coast was older, more polished, still swinging. Where the New York players made you bob and weave, the white boys just made you dance. I’m a guy that likes to dance.
Given the times and the dynamics of innovation, bebop was bound to prevail. It was brand new rather than reworked and refined. It captured the spirit of the post-war boom and the sensibilities of the avant-garde. Bop was raw and sexy. It broke from the past instead of evolving from it. Time was ripe for all things new. In the end it’s always a matter of context.
So bop assumed the big band mantel, modern music for modern times. And while Bird and his flock won the accolades, the west coasters just kept on swinging. What followed was a revelation. In an effort to remain cutting edge, bop veered into free form and eventually chaos. Coltrane, circa Miles, to Coltrane in the end is a tragic conceit, not a musical direction. No one ever tapped a toe to “A Love Supreme,” and no one ever will. In the meantime swing downsized into rhythm and blues, Louis Jordan, The Church Street Five and eventually rock and roll.
Bop vs. swing, a funny thing. Both played music but one was more … well, musical.
You can hear Charlie Parker in Pepper’s playing. For a young musician of that time the influence was inescapable. But Pepper’s cadence, his timing and rhythm are rooted in swing. The notes fly in a lyric dance that owes more to Goodman than Gillespie. While his fellow soloists reworked the theme, Pepper soared above it, putting the simplest ditty through majestic paces. Like Bird, he could hit every note, yet his use of time and space drove the melody instead of pulling it along. What they say about the great ones is true. It’s what you don’t hear that kills you.
But what set Art Pepper apart was emotion. His capacity for the heartfelt was exceeded only by his ability to express it – unbridled joy and effervescence, real pain, as opposed to show biz pain. Not to mention rejection. Where Bird was at least credited, Pepper was a sporadic presence, if not musically, then physically. Periods of incapacitation followed by longer periods of incarceration put him out of commission through the music’s heyday. That he recorded as much as he did is a tribute to talent alone. He was more in demand than in attendance.
Smack and saxophones. Like Bird, Pepper was a junkie first and a jazzman second. Scoring and fixing were the order of the day, and incidentals like club dates and recording sessions were secondary. Unlike Bird, he did not have an adoring public and visionary promoters to push him out on the bandstand, no slumming socialite to ease the descent. Heroin wreaked havoc on Pepper’s life, but unlike Bird it couldn’t kill him.
Too much heart, you can’t help but hear it.
Followed by years of poverty and dissipation.
Like Chet Baker he was a white junkie in a black junkies’ world. As white jazzmen, they were easy targets and the cops came down early and often. The way that worked is the way it always works. Give us a name and we’ll go easy. Guys like Baker knew the drill. But Pepper knew what he couldn’t live with and, unlike Chet, he did the time.
Too much heart for his own good.
Followed by six years in San Quentin.
Like the natural he was, Pepper never practiced, walked away from his horn for years at a time. He didn’t live and breathe the music. It came too easy, paid too little and got in the way of his downward spiral. The alto was the one thing that could save him, but one hope for a junkie can be worse than none.
By any measure the sax men fared badly. For the most part their stories end on a grim note and their recordings echo the talent wasted. The great plummeting Bird hit the rocks and, like lemmings, the others soon followed. The survivors were few, but Pepper was one of them. Maybe big hearts are the hardest to kill. As immovable object a forty-year habit has no rival. Enter, Laurie of the irresistible force. Why some get what they don’t deserve is one of life’s thornier questions.
The alto didn’t save him. The lady did.
Leading us all back to Berkeley and Rasputin’s.
A short spot on the radio led to my only meeting with the man. As part of a book promotion, Pepper was to appear at that same Rasputin’s. The book was Straight Life, the Story of a Jazz Survivor, his recently published memoir. By then I was deep into the music. Pepper’s “Blues In” twofer had grown to twenty albums that covered his progression from pure swing to hard blues.
And if ever there was a ripe time for a comeback the late ’70s was it. Rock music had hit a wall and the jazz bandwagon was starting to roll. Laurie, Pepper’s third wife, had assumed the task of compiling a discography, tracking down side sessions and collecting royalties on hundreds of recordings dating back through the fifties. She also transcribed hours of taped interviews into his memoir, one of the best of the genre. Thanks to Laurie, Pepper’s recording career was back in gear and he was touring and playing to rave reviews. Live long enough and anything can happen.
His history was part of the attraction. Pepper wore his dissolution like a cheap suit. Photos from the sixties and seventies showed what appeared to be a concentration camp survivor with bulging eyes and a death’s head grin. The first time my wife and I saw him play, in 1976, he looked like he wouldn’t survive the set. Morbid fascination, yeah, that was part of it.
Mostly though, it was the chops. His style had evolved. The up-tempo numbers had a flaring sound, and the ballads were baleful and brooding. The light touch was gone, replaced by a searing intensity that told the real story. Pepper had bulked up a bit, but the tattoos and prison pallor made watching him difficult. Listening was something else again. Not easy but spellbinding, each tune telling a story.
Our conversation with him would tell its own story.
We parked on Bancroft across from the Berkeley campus. A heavy mist muffled the streetlight. I had my copy of Straight Life and as we moved down Telegraph, I realized I’d never done anything like this before. When we got to Rasputin’s, I could see a few browsers but nothing resembling a crowd. There was a panhandler by the door, and a guy eating pistachios at the corner bus stop.
We went inside, slipping past a pair of skinheads. I fingered my way through a bin of used records. Pepper was late. The whole thing had the feel of a no show. Then, out of nowhere he was there. A bit shaky but dressed to kill, Laurie, smiling weakly beside him. I took a quick look around. There were six of us in attendance. A kid in a Mohawk met the Peppers at the door and steered them to a card table stacked with books and records. Everyone looked uncomfortable. I wished we hadn’t come.
“Hi, I’m Andree.” My wife stepped up with a great big grin. “My husband and I are huge fans.”
What the hell was she doing? These were living legends not yokels from her yoga class. I hurried to join them before she could blow it.
“Mr. Pepper? I’m the husband,” I reached a hand around.
“Please, call me Art.” His fingers were like ice.
“We just saw you at Davies Symphony Hall,” Andree blabbed. “I lost my hat.”
Art smiled and shook his head. “I’m real sorry to hear it.”
“That’s OK. I always lose my hats.”
Laurie chimed in “With me it’s umbrellas.”
“It was a cloche hat, black, with a lace veil. Tom had just bought it for me. Isn’t he sweet?” Andree gave my cheek a pinch. “Your book is fantastic, by the way. I can’t imagine being able to play music AND write.”
“Transcribe,” I said through my teeth.
“The book was transcribed … from tapes.”
“Oh, well it’s some story. I plan on reading it again.”
“Thank you,” Art nodded. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“And YOU!” Andree turned to Laurie. “What a fantastic thing you’ve done! Pulling it all back together again, it’s like a miracle!”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Laurie sighed.
I looked behind me. No one was cueing up and the store seemed deserted. When I turned back Andree was bent over the table sketching something on the back of an envelope. The lost hat, presumably. I looked to Art. He studied his pen.
“I thought the book was incredible,” my voice barely registered.
He glanced up. “I’m sorry?”
“Straight Life? I thought it was a masterpiece.”
“Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”
The wives burst out laughing and their voices dropped to a whisper.
“Listen Art,” I had to force myself. “Do you think you could autograph it for me?”
“No problem, that’s what we’re here for,”
I handed him my copy.
“To … ?” Art hesitated.
“Andree and Tom. Tommy, actually. … Make it Tom.”
He wrote something then handed it back. “There you are … Tom.”
Andree gave me a poke. “Did you ask him about the clarinet?”
“Oh yeah, I, … the uh, …”
She snaked an arm around my waist. “We think you should play it more often.”
“That makes three of us,” Laurie nodded in agreement.
”So why don’t you, Art?” Andree pressed him.
Pepper smiled and shook his head. “I love the sound. But the damn thing has a mind of its own. You can sneak up on it sometimes, but usually it’s a battle.”
This was the sort of info I was after, a rare glimpse into the mind. His answer was revealing, but more importantly the question sizzled with jazz savvy. Possibly no one had ever asked him about it. There were a million more things I wanted to know, but, try as I might, I couldn’t think of one.
Despite the night’s light turnout, Pepper’s star continued to ascend. “Straight Life” was a critical and commercial success and the volume of recordings released during the 80’s rivaled his most prolific periods. I still claimed him as my personal discovery, but the public was quickly coming around. By 1983 he was riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, and his club dates and concerts were hot ticket items.
Like all things cyclical, interest in jazz ebbs and flows. The surge in virtuosity that marked jazz, and to a similar extent, rock music has been largely lost to the mainstream muck. At the same time, a revitalized black culture seems better served by hip hop than bop. No matter. The tales that survive are the one’s you can’t forget. Art Pepper’s story is as troubling as it is trademark American — the interminable struggle, the long-shot happy ending — Pepper lived it and his recordings bear witness.
In 1985, at the height of his comeback, Art Pepper died of a stroke at his home in Los Angeles. Survival has a shelf life, as it turns out. His impact on jazz has been undervalued, but history has a way of settling accounts.
“To Tom and Andree. Hope you dig this. My best.” Art Pepper 1/14/81