Art Pepper - Biography

“If you have individuality in music, it's something to hold on to,” saxophonist Art Pepper told Les Tomkins in a wide-ranging 1979 interview. It was a creed that Pepper lived by. Despite the obstacles in his path, many of them created by his own self-destructive behavior, the alto saxophonist was a surprisingly consistent performer. Across the years , his large and varied discography seldom presents him at less than his passionate best.

Arthur Edward Pepper, Jr., was born on September 1, 1925, in Gardena, California, the product of a deeply troubled marriage. As a youngster his health was precarious, and at the age of five he was sent to live with his paternal grandmother in the California countryside. He started playing clarinet when he was nine. Around three years later he switched to alto sax, which would remain his main instrument for the rest of his career.

Pepper developed rapidly on the horn, and before long the mostly self-taught teenager was making his name known in jam sessions on Central Avenue, the home of African-American music in Los Angeles. Here he encountered such stars as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and tenormen Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. It was Gordon who introduced Pepper to drummer Lee Young, (brother of famed saxophonist Lester Young), a bandleader and prominent session player at the time, who in turn brought Pepper to the attention of saxophonist/bandleader Benny Carter. As Pepper later recalled in his searing autobiography, Straight Life, “if there wasn't a large audience, Benny would just get off the stand and let me play his parts. I'd get all his solos. I learned that way how to play lead in a four-man saxophone section.” Just before a tour of the South, Carter decided it would be problematic to take the white saxophonist on the road with his African-American ensemble.  Instead, Carter got him an audition with the Stan Kenton orchestra. Pepper got the job, and at seventeen became the lead altoist in the band. He made his recording debut in late 1943. Pepper got his draft notice after he’d joined the band, and he was inducted into the Army in February 1944.

After discharge in 1947, Pepper scuffled for jobs and began his explorations of drugs and alcohol. Kenton soon rehired him, and he stayed with the orchestra until 1951. Other members of the band included many future associates, including trumpeters Shorty Rogers, saxophonists Bob Cooper and Bud Shank, and drummer Shelly Manne. It was in the Kenton band that Pepper was first introduced to heroin.

Pepper, tired of constant life on the road with Kenton, left the orchestra at the end of 1951 and formed his own quartet. On the strength of his Kenton features, Pepper placed second on alto in the 1952 Down Beat poll. The winner was Charlie Parker, and Pepper was one of the few saxophonists of the day not to fall under Bird’s musical spell.  Like Parker, though, he was an incorrigible heroin user. After a 1952  attempt at rehabilitation failed, Pepper was arrested in early 1953. Incarcerated in Texas, he was released in May 1954, and took up where he’d left off. For the rest of the Fifties, his story combines jail terms for drug abuse with continued development on the saxophone, documented on several classic albums. In 1957, he signed with Contemporary Records. They brought him into the studio that January to record Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, all from the Miles Davis quintet. Subsequent dates like Art Pepper Plus Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics (1959 Contemporary) and Gettin’ Together (1960 Contemporary) confirmed Pepper’s prowess. But his ongoing addiction led to a big bust in 1960 and a four-year sentence in San Quentin. Soon after his release he was re-arrested and did another two years at San Quentin, leaving for good in 1966.

Pepper had continued to play in the prison band, but had switched to tenor sax. He later wrote that “rock was in vogue, and only tenor players seemed to be working. But the major reason was that after all my years of playing, I had been influenced to the point of imitation by another musician, John Coltrane.” He soon went back to the smaller horn, but his sound had changed somewhat,  incorporating some of the emotional intensity and freedom that he prized in Coltrane’s music.         

In 1968, Pepper was invited to join Buddy Rich’s big band on lead alto. He had been scuffling, and didn’t even own a horn at the time. Tenor saxophonist Don Menza, one of Pepper’s many admirers, not only lent him a horn but convinced Rich to re-record the band’s just completed new album (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) with Pepper in the group. The gig didn’t last too long because Pepper’s spleen ruptured and he had to stay behind when the band left town. Still unwell, he rejoined the group briefly several months later, but continued health and drug problems led him to enter the rehabilitation community Synanon in 1969. At Synanon’s campus in Santa Monica, he met  Laurie, who would become his third wife in 1974. He told Les Tomkins in 1979 that without her, “I would never be here right now, I know that ... I'm certain I wouldn't be playing music.”

Pepper left Synanon in 1972, unsure about whether or not to return to music. But then he got a call to do a student clinic in Denver. Ken Yohe of Buffet Instruments not only lent him a clarinet to replace the old, borrowed horn that Pepper had brought to the event, but also encouraged Pepper to play more and arranged for the company to send him some new horns. Soon Pepper was playing regularly in clinics and in clubs. Pepper later wrote a blues in Yohe’s honor which appeared on his first album in 15 years, Living Legend, back on Contemporary Records with an all-star band of Hampton Hawes on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. “It looks for me like life begins at fifty, and I never thought I’d live to see fifty, let alone start a new life at this age,” Pepper wrote in his liner note.  Pepper stayed with the label until owner Les Koenig died in late 1977, recording the well-received The Trip (1976 Contemporary), and headlining in New York for the first time, immortalized on a series of albums later collected in the 9-CD set Live at the Village Vanguard.

Armed with fresh optimism from his reception in Japan on a 1977 tour with Cal Tjader and by his strong notices from his New York gigs, Pepper found a new label in the Berkeley, California-based independent Fantasy Records, which revived its Galaxy imprint for a new series of jazz recordings. Not only did he convince the label to give him an non-recoupable advance, but he also got into his  contract a promise to do a date with a large ensemble, which was realized in 1980 with Winter Moon (Galaxy). On a solid financial footing, and with the immense support of Laurie Pepper, the next few years were a blur of recording sessions for albums and a few films for Clint Eastwood, plus tours of Europe, Japan and the United States, punctuated by the 1979 publication of Straight Life. The autobiography, hailed by critics and jazz fans alike, helped to raise Pepper’s profile even higher. But ongoing health problems finally took their toll, and on June 9, 1982, after complaining of a headache, he fell into a coma, dying on June 15.

His last recordings, made with such stalwarts as pianists Stanley Cowell, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and especially George Cables, bassists Cecil McBee and David Williams, and drummers Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, and Carl Burnett, were collected in a 16 CD extravaganza, The Complete Galaxy Recordings, in 1989. Laurie Pepper continues to promote his legacy in a continuing series of archival recordings on her Widow’s Taste imprint. “The main thing,” Art Pepper wrote in 1975, “is to swing and be honest.” Every note he played makes it clear that was the only way he knew.

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