Arthur Edward Pepper: Narcisist, Musician, Convict. Composer, Dope Fiend, Artist, Criminal. Author; Womanizer. One of the greatest alto saxophonists the jazz world ever produced; and one of it’s most tragic flame-outs.
What can I say about him; he tells the story himself with unflinching honesty and and an almost noir narrative voice.
I’ve just finished reading Art’s Autobiography, Straight LIfe – The Story of Art Pepper; and I find myself nearly speechless.
Art’s own words describe the circumstances under which this photo, the cover for his autobiography, was taken:
“in 1956, Diane and I lived on one of the steepest hills in Los Angeles, on Fargo STreet. I woke up one morning to a phone call from Bill Claxton, the photographer, saying he had to take my picture today for the cover of The Return of Art Pepper. I had run out of heroin and was very sick, and was unable to score befor Bill got there. We climbed to the corner, and he snapped this picture of me in agony.”
For those who haven’t heard of Art, or some version of his story, here’s a short version, mostly culled from Art’s book. Born in 1925 in southern california to a merchant seaman father and a fifteen-year-old mother. He was a weak, sickly child, raised by a a powerful, tough grandmother after his parents divorce. He grew up neurotic and fearful, seeking outlets in music, sex, and later, alcohol and a incredible capacity for drugs.
By the 1940s, only eighteen, he was touring with one of the country’s top jazz outfits, the Stan Kenton Orchestra; by the early fifties, he was becoming one of West Coast Jazz brightest lights; an alto player, often compared to Charlie ‘bird’ Parker and Lester Young early in his career.
As his career began to peak, however, he discovered heroin; one night in Chicago in 1950, a singer in Art Kenton’s group offered Art both her body, and a snort of heroin, a substance art would love with more passion and commitment than any other person or thing before or after.
It’s hard to understand, from today’s point of view, what heroin was, then and there. Today we know it as a tragic destroyer of lives and careers, as well as a substance with a dark, romantic allure. We see both the broken down and lost, and the wasted glamor of rock music. Then, though, it wasn’t even seen as that big a step from pot; in 1910 it was beleived to be a non-addictive alternative to morphine; until 1924, it was still routinely used medically. When era greats like Charlie Parker began to use it, it was generally seen as cool, and even to enhance one’s playing (after all, some of Parker’s greatest records were made when he was too strung out to stand up.) Heroin use in the jazz community was ignored by the press; it was just part of the scene, the way cocaine was seen in the late seventies. If you weren’t using, you weren’t really in.
Today, we hear some musician is a junkie, we just sort of think of him or her as a nit-wit. In those days, you looked in a cat’s eyes and saw his pupils like pin-holes and you’d think, he’s cool. So in those days, starting up wasn’t big; a lot of the major figures of the day used at one point or another; many (MIles Davis, Coletrane) kicking, while some (Pepper, Chet Baker) never were truly free of it, and saw brilliant careers ended, shortened, or derailed because of it.
In 1952, Art did his first stint behind bars; somewhere he’d find himself over and over for the next twenty years. He was in and out of jail for much of the fifties, meanwhile producing incredible jazz albums like the incomparable Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and Art Pepper +11.
In 1961, Art ran out of road and wound up in one of the worst prisons in the country, San Quentin; in 1966 he was released, hardened and embittered, and more addicted than ever. In the late sixties, Art discovered acid, and added it as well as speed and incredible amounts of alcohol to the heroin he was already shooting many times daily. He all but gave up jazz, playing rock or whatever he could get paid for when he had his horn, though as often as not he would hock it to buy drugs.
In 1968, attempting one of many come-backs, he joined Buddy Rich’s Big Band; after half a tour, though, years of punishment and neglect began to catch up with him. He was hospitalized for a ruptured spleen, and was found to have severe cirrhosis; he was advised to quit drinking and drug use or face certain death. But quitting wasn’t going to happen. The last day of Art’s life, in 1982, he was both injecting and snorting coke.
In ’69, in a state of physical and mental collapse and quite literally near death, Art was more-or-less coerced into joining Synanon, a late-sixties organization that began as a sort of AA-for-dopers, and then went on to become a bizarre commune/cult, and finally collapsed under it’s own weight under attack from the IRS and the federal government.
While in Synanon, Art quit smack (at least temporarily), met Laurie Miller, the woman who’d be his last wife and collaborator, and found some sort of peace in the unlikely form of Synanon’s “game” (a type of encounter group/attack therapy hybrid).
After Synanon, Art both discovered cocaine, and got onto a methadone program; never clean, he was at least able to function, with Laurie’s help, and entered the most musically productive period of his life. Between 1971 and 1982, Art recorded some thirty albums, toured internationally, and, unexpectedly, found artistic recognition and some degree of satisfaction, finally, with his own playing. He also began, with Laurie’s help, to record stories of his life; a chronicle of drugs, music, crime and punishment. He told these stories in the voice of an author, brutally honest, unflinchingly confessional. He talked about his childhood, life, his crimes, his music, his fears and hates. He talked about his obsessive sexuality in pornographic terms. He talked about love.
Early in Straight Life, after describing his first experience with heroin, Art says:
“I realized that from that moment on I’d be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That’s the word they used. That’s the word they still use. That’s what I became at that moment. That’s what I practiced; Thats’ what I still am. And that’s what I will die as — a junkie.”
In 1982, after shooting coke all night, Art suffered a cerebral hemorrhage; his wife took him to the hospital, where he proceeded to snort coke on his gurney in the emergency room. I want to be high when I die, he said. Art asked Laurie not to let the doctors cut him open. Doctors doubted his nearly-destroyed liver could survive surgery anyway. He was pumped full of morphine to help the pain in his head and methadone to control his withdrawal symptoms. His last words, when they gave him his drugs, were “it’s about time”.
In the years before Art’s death, Laurie had taken the hours and hours of tapes he’d had recorded, and edited them into a cohesive, linear story; told in Art’s own words, it reads like some tragic, brilliant novel. I cannot tell where Art ends and Laurie begins; the finished work is a life, and a story. In another place and time, Art might have been a writer instead of a sax player, pouring his soul out into a battered typewriter instead of into a brass horn. The book was released not long before Art died.
I’ve long been a fan of Art’s music; his lyrical, expressive playing is unique and highly personal. Without knowing anything of who he was, I loved his work from the very first time I played meets the rhythm section. But after reading his book, I feel like I know the man, in an almost disturbingly personal sense.
While a generation and more separate Art and my eras, I know people just like him. Addicts, brilliant, tortured players, creative genius lost, destroyed or wasted under madness or self-destruction. I’ve lived with them, partied with them, loved them. I’ve bought and carried drugs for people like Art, knowing full well I handed them the bullets for a slow, inevitable suicide. I’ve seen lives lost and ruined, and I’ve narrowly missed that life myself.
This book is that story; the story from the inside of a brilliant, chaotic life, from inside the mind of the tortured genius. Like Art’s music, it’s a staggering work. I feel like I’ve been sitting with the man, hearing his stories with sharing a joint or a jug, or passing a mirror. I feel like I’ve met him.
Art was a difficult, complicated, incredibly sensitive man. He was the kind of person you love but may not like; the kind of person you’d help even when you know it’ll kill him. I can hear him telling the stories in Straight Life in his own voice. I’m still, twenty four ours after finishing it, feeling like I just watched someone I know buried.
My intent when I started writing this was to illustrate it with music from Art’s various periods of eak creativity; I find though that I can’t yet. That project will take more time. Later, it’ll be here, or in another entry that compliments this. For, this will have to be enough.