Read Straight Life Online

Authors: Art Pepper; Laurie Pepper

Tags: #Autobiography

Straight Life

BOOK: Straight Life
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Copyright 0 1957, 1979 by Screen Gems-EMI Music, Inc. (BMI) All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Straight Life

The Story of Art Pepper


by Art and Laurie Pepper

Introduction by Gary Giddins

Discography by Todd Seibert

Introduction to the
Da Capo edition

ART PEPPER always had a distinctive sound, even back in 1943, when he made his recording debut with a halting solo on a Stan Kenton session: cool on the surface, with a skittish undercurrent that often made the prettiness seem restive. In the nearly forty years he made records, his style became increasingly personal--by turns bitter and timorous, knowing and scared. For a while, when he consciously imitated John Coltrane, his sound became icily strident. That phase didn't last long: the nature of his introspection didn't lend itself to Coltrane's steely embouchure or his effusiveness. At his best, Pepper's solos were shaped by a patient elegance, his phrases sculpted with dynamic logic and an even disposition. He had a miraculous ear for melody notes and a rhythmic sense that was all but imperturbable; he modulated the intensity of his swing to drive home the meaning of his melodies. He could make you laugh at his virtuoso conceits and weep at his unrequited passions.

But juxtaposing Straight Life, Pepper's brazen and unvarnished autobiography, with his playing merely points up the perils of reading too much meaning in music. The loveliness, ingenuity, and commitment to craft in his recordings finds few correlatives in the confused, tormented persona that emerges in the book. Indeed, it seems remarkable that the music was possible at all.
The lives of few artists have been told as comprehensively as Art Pepper's-Straight Life is almost fanatically con fessional, and one of the finest of all jazz autobiographies. I've always regretted that it was originally published by a firm associated with music (Schirmer) and marketed accordingly, because it received insufficient attention from mainstream media. At the time of publication, Pepper was compared with Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Malcolm X. Dan Wakefield, who knows what addiction is and how to write about it, welcomed Straight Life as "an honest and wrenching portrayal"; Whitney Balliett credited Pepper with "the ear and memory and interpretive lyricism of a first-rate novelist."
Because Straight Life was not written from the perspective of the former addict, it is a departure in the genre of taperecorded accounts of junkie jazz musicians: "That's what I practiced," Pepper writes, "And that's what I still am. And that's what I will die as-a junkie." He makes no attempt to cosmeticize his criminal tendencies or iron out the numerous contradictions. Nor is the reader primed to admire Pepper, who whines, justifies, patronizes, and vilifies. Still, his scrupulous honesty and uncommon powers of observation are admirable, and this is a brave, valuable book. Pepper's narcissism allows him to go overboard occasionally with intimate revelations; yet it also permits him to summon up events with uncanny detail not only in recounting what happened but in recreating his emotional responses.
Art Pepper was born in 1925, in California, to a merchant seaman and his fifteen-year-old wife. He was so sickly his family didn't expect him to survive; when his parents divorced, he was placed in the care of his paternal grand- mother-"a dumpy woman, strong, unintelligent. She knew no answers to any problems I might have." He grew up afraid of everything and resentful of his family. When he became a cog in the prison system, he adopted those very characteristics he despised in his grandmother to prove his strength: "I had to be tough. I had to ridicule anything that indicated weakness." His arrests followed his surrender to heroin, which he insists provided the only relief from sexual obsessions that had turned him into an obsessive masturbator, a rapist, a voyeur. In Straight Life, he recounts sexual exploits with the relish of a pornographer.
He turned to alcohol and pot to rid himself of anxieties, but nothing worked until a woman band singer cajoled him into a hotel john, taught him to sniff smack, and made a beeline for his fly. "I finally found peace," he says, and yet it is the peace that passeth liberal understanding: in a minute, he's ranging like a John Wayne reactionary, switching his hero worship from musicians to junkies:
I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked at Sheila [a pseudonym for the singer] and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and horned the rest of them down. I said, "This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I'm going to do, whatever dues I have to pay...... And I knew that I would go to prison and that I wouldn't be weak; I wouldn't be an informer like all the phonies, the no-account, the non-real, the zero people that roam around, the scum that slither out from under rocks, the people that destroyed music, that destroyed this country, that destroyed the world, the rotten, fucking, lousy people that for their own little ends-the black power people, stinking motherfuckers that play on the fact that they're black, and all this fucking shit that happened later on-the rotten, no-account filthy women that have no feeling for anything....

He continues in that vein for a while and concludes, with no trace of irony, "All I can say is, at that moment I saw that I'd found peace of mind."

This is alienation with a trudgeon, a narcissist's ravings. Yet it's a side of a man who in those same years revealed in his music a gentility and generosity of spirit that made him one of the most distinctive and emotive improvisers of his generation. He attempts in his book to justify his indulgences by parading them nakedly, giving and asking for no quarter.
Pepper had already achieved a measure of stardom in the straight world. He'd appeared with Benny Carter's band, and for five years (1946-51), following his stint in the Army, he emerged as the most admired soloist in the Stan Kenton orchestra. Yet he was sinking deeper and deeper into the netherworld. His first marriage broke up, and a second one became a grotesque and vindictive battle between two junkies who tortured each other relentlessly until she informed on him. Then Pepper, who felt more for his long-suffering dog than for his second wife ("The Story of Diane-The Great Zeeeero"), embarked on a maniacal revenge that was shortcircuited, like so much else in his life, by the requirements of his addiction. The music seemed to come last, though it's impossible to suspect that when you hear the fugitive recordings from the early Fifties. In those days, he seems to have chosen as his models Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Charlie Parker, and Lee Konitz-a matrix of hot and cool stylings, girded by fierce rhythms, rich in exquisite harmonies. Still, except for a couple of beguiling Savoy dates and two private sessions with Hampton Hawes, Pepper hardly recorded at all.
Then, in 1956, he started making the rounds as a sideman. He appeared on numerous sessions led by Shorty Rogers, Chet Baker, Marty Paich, Hoagy Carmichael, John Graas, Mel Torme, Barney Kessel, June Christy, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn, Helen Humes, and others. During the same years, 1956 to 1960, he hooked up with Les Koenig's Contemporary Records, and produced a series of masterful albums. Those sessions were a respite, a period of grace. With his lithe, dry-ice sound, he emerged as the sharpest white player in L.A.-a qualitative and racial distinction of profound importance to him. Even in his last years, he wanted nothing less than to be the first white player to loom as "the inspiration for the whole jazz world."
It's astounding to read in Straight Life that Art had to be propped up to play on sessions that became epiphanies of the West Coast jazz movement. Pepper's intonation was clear and balmy (on clarinet and tenor as well as alto), but the texts of his solos were shaded with longings. The tensile and deliberated phrasing was a means to a direct and manly emotional expressiveness that was virtually antithetical to the cool posturings of those improvising beach boys who tried to recreate California jazz as fun in the midnight sun. Could he really have been nodding out when those cover photos were taken? He appeared so strong and uncomplicatedly handsome. He recorded his last Contemporary date in November of 1960. Except for a sideman gig eight weeks later, a guest stint with Buddy Rich's orchestra in 1968, and a little-heard featured spot with the Mike Vax Big Band in 1973, Art Pepper disap peared from records and, as far as most people were concerned, from public view for fifteen years.
He had made the big time: San Quentin. Pepper was caught stealing to support his habit, devoting his most creative energies to planning heists, many of which could have been better executed by Laurel and Hardy. (The most satisfying moment of his life, he says, was a successful heist.) The prison sequences in Straight Life are among the best I've ever read, vivid and impassioned and stubbornly convinced that the moral life of the yard-where a rapist is treated with contempt, but a gang rape proves a gang's bravery; where a rat is lower than a child molester-is superior to that of the outside. His language and vision superficially resemble that of Gary Gilmore in Mailer's The Executioner's Song: both men are proudly homophobic, murderous on the subject of informers, indifferent to the outcome of their crimes, vain, and convinced of their own courage and moral impunity. In San Quentin, Pepper starts thinking "how great it would be to kill someone and really be accepted as a way out guy," but he always, sometimes through the intervention of friends, managed to keep some control; several acquaintances explain it as cowardice. He also turned increasingly racist in jail, a widespread phenomenon that in a particularly lucid moment he traces to the prison system itself. (Paradoxically, this in no way mitigated his conviction that the great jazz players and, indeed, the moral giants of the music were predominantly black.) Upon his release, he spent time in North Beach in San Francisco, seething to kill blacks; he talks about organizing a white vigilante committee "who'd stick up for the white race." Soon enough he returned to heroin to alleviate the hatred over which he had no more control than he did his sexual obsessions.
Finally, at the nadir of his life, he retreated to Synanon. The Sixties were in full gear, and he wore an earring and hit the rock joints with his tenor; but his life was empty and even his mother refused him lodging. The description of life at Synanon is as uncompromising as the jail sequences; he is alternately damning and grateful. The best thing to happen to him there was meeting Laurie, who became his wife, lover, mother, babysitter, manager, editor, and co-author.
Art left Synanon in-1971. Four months later, his father died-a release, Laurie speculates, that may have made it easier for Art to think of himself as a man. He started working as a musician again, playing casuals and clinics, touring colleges, sitting in. But his ambivalence about music remained. In 1977, three events, in Laurie's estimation, forced him to reappraise his gift and his life: In March, he played a concert series in Tokyo with Cal Tjader, and the crowds cheered him as though "he might have been the Beatles"; in June he toured the East Coast for the first time as a leader, playing two dates at the Village Vanguard; in September, he got busted after a car accident that almost killed him. Laurie recalls, "Art discovered then that he couldn't go `home' again to jail. There was no honor, no welcome there. All his buddies were dead. He was an old man. He wasn't a bigshot. He went through a long spell of depression, aggravated by sobriety and by Les Koenig's death in November. When he went back to Japan with his own band in February of 1978, he'd just about decided to be a musician. Galaxy signed him in September. That did it. That and the publication of Straight Life."
Pepper's sudden reappearance in 1975 had been something of a second coming in musical circles. For the next seven years, his frequent recordings and tours, and the publication in 1979 of Straight Life, transformed him from a gifted altoist who had made a string of semi-classic albums in the Fifties to a touchstone for the very aesthetics of jazz music. He wasn't merely back; he was back with a vengeance.
What sobered the critics and fans (many of them musicians) about those last years was the aggressiveness of his creativity, a refusal to coast that made every performance a conscientious statement--a "trip," in the prison lingo he favored. If you thought you were going to sit back, sip your whiskey, and drowsily tap your foot, you were in the wrong place. Pepper could draw blood (usually his own), especially on ballads. He was always thinking, thinking, thinking. And he made you think; he reminded you how you came to love this music in the first place.
Armstrong once said, "Jazz is only what you are." Pepper's understanding of that was profound. He had lived a dark, cold life and this was his last stand. He shamelessly set it all out on the table, in writing and in music. He was a drug user, and he put that into his music. He was white in a music in which most of the innovators were black, and he accepted that as a challenge. "It looks to me like life begins at fifty," he wrote, "and I never thought I'd live to see fifty, let alone start a new life at this age." He set up an ambitious agenda for himself (to be the best saxophonist in the world, for starters), and, driven in part by a paranoia that convinced him that everyone wanted him to fail, he found new ways to stretch his endurance. You could hear that in his playing, and it was riveting.
The subject of music is not ignored in Straight Life. Pepper discusses his influences at length, his concern with tone, his conviction that a man's music must respect the moral rightness of his life-he gives Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie as examples. There's a revealing description of his famous '50s session with Red Garland-I wish there were more of the same-and sharply observed anecdotes about road trips with Kenton, Buddy Rich, and others. His account of a jam session with Sonny Stitt that closes the book is as lyrical a celebration of a bandstand plight as I know of. When he wails like this, Pepper the memoirist isn't too far from Pepper the recording artist.
But it is Laurie Pepper who is responsible for the book's shape and much of its literary texture, and her efforts can hardly be overpraised. Using the standard oral history techniques of modern anthropology, she crafted a brutal montage of voices-relatives, acquaintances, and friends, as well as disingenuous magazine interviews-that amplify and contradict Pepper's steely narrative. She allows Pepper to come through whole, boasting of a crime on one page and declaring absolute innocence on the next. The text is eloquent, witty, and credible. When I reviewed the book for The Village Voice, I wrote that Pepper was better than William Burroughs on the subject of drugs and better than Malcolm Braly on prison life, an evaluation that is easier to make today, when neither Bur roughs's junky nor Braly's On the Yard are as well remembered. But it hardly matters that Laurie Pepper brought the book to life; her ear and editorial instinct turned Art's stories and obsessions into a hellfire narrative. The collaboration was seamless, and every page is wounding and real.
BOOK: Straight Life
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Knight Life by Peter David
The Elementals by Thorne, Annalynne
Diving Belles by Wood, Lucy
Daughter of Chaos by McConnel, Jen
That Takes Ovaries! by Rivka Solomon