Art Pepper’s Last Chorus

Listening to the Art Pepper CDs for the new batch of recommendations in Doug’s Picks (center column) stimulated memories of time spent with Pepper not long before he died. The occasion was the basis of an article in Texas Monthly. Later, in slightly different form, it ended up as part of a chapter in Jazz Matters. Here it is as a bonus post–or as a marketing ploy for a twenty-year-old book that manages to stay in print–or as an excuse to show you an unusual picture.

Art Pepper’s Last Chorus
Art Pepper had been quiet and a little sad all evening. But he grinned at the irony of posing for the Polaroid photographer in the Bourbon Street Jail. San Quentin was on his mind. He and his wife, Laurie, were in New Orleans on a book-plugging tour, andThumbnail image for Peppers.JPG everywhere they went he was asked about the years he had spent in prison on a narcotics conviction. What evolved into his autobiography, Straight Life, began as a series of cathartic tape recordings in which Pepper told Laurie everything he could recall about his unremittingly broken life. His memory was comprehensive, and he spared himself and his readers nothing.
Pepper’s merchant seaman father was twenty-nine and his mother was fifteen when they were married. He was rarely at home after Pepper was born, and she was often drunk. Pepper learned to play the clarinet at nine, the alto saxophone at twelve. At seventeen, he had played in the bands of Gus Arnheim and Benny Carter and was working with Stan Kenton. After two years in the Army, he freelanced around Los Angeles, then rejoined Kenton in 1947. His reputation as a brilliant and original saxophonist became established.
By 1950, when he was twenty-five, Pepper was a veteran of the military, big bands, alcohol, pills and pot. That was the year he became addicted to heroin. He was first sent to jail on a narcotics conviction in 1953. From then until 1966 he spent more time in prison than out. After a short period of rehabilitation, during which he played with Buddy Rich’s band, Pepper reached the depths. Sick almost literally unto death, in 1969 he checked himself into Synanon. There he met Laurie, who, along with methadone maintenance, proved to be therapy and salvation. He resumed playing and recording, and he regarded himself with wary realism. “I’m a junkie. And that’s what I will die as–a junkie.”
His account of the hell of his struggle with heroin puts into miraculous relief the beauty of his artistic achievement. From a childhood of rejection and neglect, Pepper had taken into manhood the only trustworthy and stable element he was to know in his first fifty years. Not until he met Laurie did he have another reliable anchor.
Pepper’s expressiveness on alto saxophone has deepened and broadened, and his recordings after 1976 have been acclaimed as his finest. Finally lauded worldwide as a master soloist, he was, in his cautious way, basking in the recognition and the star treatment. At dinner, between waves of his customary reticence, Pepper allowed that his playing was at a keen edge he had been seeking for years. He said that at last he was often able to accept his performances. It’s a nice memory of Art Pepper. At a sparkling table under the old ceiling fans at Arnaud’s with the woman who helped him gain control of his life, he was content and smiling.
In June, he died shortly after suffering a stroke as he sat at their breakfast table chatting with Laurie. He was fifty-six.

For excerpts from Laurie Pepper’s memoir-in-progress, go here.

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  1. Jack Berry says

    Saw and heard him play at about the same time in a Seattle Barnes & Noble. Geoff Dyer’s fantasy on Art in “But Beautiful”* is incredible in at least two senses of that word. And I was told that, as a kid, Jim Pepper, the Indian horn player, claimed Art was his uncle. “Well,” he was told, “you better get your uncle to tell you how to play the changes.”