Despite a remarkably colorful and difficult life, Art Pepper was quite consistent in the recording studios; virtually every recording he made is well worth getting. In the 1950s he was one of the few altoists that was able to develop his own sound despite the dominant influence of Charlie Parker. During his last years, Pepper seemed to put all of his life's experiences into his music and he played with startling emotional intensity.

There was nothing halfway about Art Pepper, which was both a blessing for his music and a significant burden for his day-to-day life. He claimed to have never studied or practiced his horn; disdained inevitable comparisons with Charlie Parker yet embraced the later expressive discoveries of John Coltrane in advance of most of the jazz world; and became labeled an icon of a supposedly cool jazz scene by reason of geography while in fact playing some of the most intense and boiling music of anyone in his lifetime. And, thanks to a drug habit that forced his absence from the music business, he managed to record only twice between 1961 and 1975.

Pepper was undeniably a West Coast jazzman. As a native of Gardena, California, he had more claim to the label than many Eastern and Midwest players who came to the Los Angeles area and played in the less overtly emotional manner that came to define the style. His solo approach was always passionate, from early recordings made with Stan Kenton’s orchestra during his years with the band and in jam sessions on L.A.’s Central Avenue. Records and club work with Shorty Rogers and his Giants provided more room for his solo skills, and by 1952 he began cutting more intimate and open quartet and quintet sessions under his own name. By this time he had already developed a dependence on alcohol, pills, and heroin that led to an erratic lifestyle and, in 1952 the first of several arrests and incarcerations. For the remainder of the decade, Pepper alternated stretches in what he would later refer to as "la pinta" (the joint) with bursts of recording activity. Two of these latter occasions found him teaming productively with Miles Davis’s rhythm sections of the time; he would always catch the appearances of the Davis band in Los Angeles, particularly for the transcendent tenor solos of the man he came to admire greatly, John Coltrane.

While Coltrane’s example moved Pepper to become even more direct and searing in his own improvisations, documentation of this evolution is scarce. Yet another arrest in 1961 and the subsequent sentence to San Quentin effectively ended Pepper’s career for 15 years. There was a brief stint playing tenor in the Buddy Rich big band in 1968, and a stay in the Synanon drug facility at around that time; but Pepper did not sufficiently control his demons for the purpose of putting his career on track until the mid-Seventies.

Art Pepper began his serious comeback in 1975 and the unthinkable happened. Under the guidance and inspiration of his wife Laurie, Pepper not only recovered his former form but topped himself with intense solos that were quite unique; he also enjoyed occasionally playing clarinet. His recordings for Contemporary and Galaxy rank with the greatest work of his career. Pepper's autobiography Straight Life (written with his wife) is a brutally honest book that details his sometimes horrifying life. When Art Pepper died at the age of 56, he had attained his goal of becoming the world's great altoist.


Anonymous said...

I agree with what you say about Pepper - a remarkable musician, and in my opinion, the equal of Parker.

Anonymous said...

Good words.