Art Pepper

There was nothing halfway about alto saxophonist Art Pepper (1925-82), 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 (1943 and 1946-52) and in jam sessions on L.A.’s Central Avenue. Records and club work with Shorty Rogers and his Giants beginning in 1951 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. It was then that his renewed recording career (in 1975) and first appearances on the East Coast and in Japan (’77) brought him the acclaim of a living legend. Pepper never fully conquered his demons, even after publication of his brutal autobiography Straight Life in 1979 and subsequent documentary films; but he was able to realize poll victories and reverent reviews as well as ambitious projects with string orchestras and intimate duets with his favorite accompanist, pianist George Cables.