Art Pepper was born 89 years ago today. The Los Angeles native was 56 when he died in 1982, leaving behind a substantial recorded legacy and the autobiography, Straight Life. An as-told-to collaboration between Pepper and his wife Laurie, Straight Life is the most candid and unsparing account yet published of a life devoted to jazz and junk.
Pepper’s career on record came in two parts that were separated by a 15-year interval in which he spent so much time in prisons and rehabs that he didn’t record at all. Much like the memoir, the flawless, confident playing of the pre-1960 period took on a warts and all character when his recording career resumed in 1975. The saxophonist was one of the few alto players of his generation recognized for developing a style that eschewed an orthodox devotion to Charlie Parker. Pepper was a steadfast proponent of individuality. The tenor players, Lester Young and Joe Thomas, were his models, and he worked briefly with the band that Young and his brother Lee co-led in Los Angeles in 1942. He also toured with Benny Carter, whose alto playing inspired him. He joined Stan Kenton in 1943, and in addition to army service between 1944-46, spent the better part of a decade with the bandleader. Pepper later observed that Kenton’s charisma was of a sort that would have made him a rival of evangelist Billy Graham.
Pepper’s early dependence on alcohol was compounded when he began using heroin in 1950, and his subsequent life as an addict resulted in several prison sentences served at county jails and San Quentin. He spent three years in rehab at Synanon between 1968-’71, and over the last decade of his life enjoyed a second act as a performer. His appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1977 was his first ever as a leader in the Big Apple, an event that underscores how restricted he was by the California penal system and parole requirements.
Pepper left no stone unturned either as a memoirist or as a stylist, and his latter-day playing often makes for a listening experience of searing intensity. By the early ’70’s, he’d worked through the influence of John Coltrane and become one of the most nakedly emotional soloists in modern jazz. The English jazz critic Brian Case described his playing as a “shifting symmetry of anguish and elegance,” a dichotomy that’s evident in this performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” Pepper’s quartet features pianist Milcho Liviev, bassist Tony Dumas, and drummer Carl Burnett. At present, it’s one of the few pieces of film that captures the great jazzman in concert.