BOOK REVIEW / Art takes off for the trip of a lifetime: Scott Bradfield on the painful memoirs of a great musician, published here for the first time: Straight life art & Laurie Pepper - Picador pounds 8.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS BOOK is the autobiography of Art Pepper, a man who never understood anything except his own talent. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, Pepper was raised by a longshoreman father who beat him, an alcoholic mother who enjoyed getting him stoned, and an excessively stoic grandmother incapable of showing any sort of human affection; he went on to become the greatest jazz saxophonist of his generation.

His style and range encompassed the smooth companionable shifts of Lester Young, the glittery nervy bebop of Bird, and the weird, often interstellar flights of Coltrane and Coleman. When Pepper played he took trips; and when audiences listened, there were times when they thought he'd never find his way back again. He always did, though. Musically, that is.

But once the music stopped Pepper began looking for other ways to get high, and unfortunately he found them. Booze, marijuana, nicotine, cough syrup, nutmeg, sex with groupies, insecticide, morphine, Dilantin, Percodan, Phenobarbitol, you name it. While performing with the great Stan Kenton Band in Chicago in 1950, Pepper was introduced to heroin. It immediately brought him, he claims, 'this peace like a kind of warmth'. And when he looked into his reflected eyes in the bathroom mirror, 'it was like looking into a whole universe of joy and happiness and contentment . . . I loved myself, everything about myself . . . I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked at Sheila 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. . . ' '

Pepper accepts a strange, almost obsessive responsibility for his life, perhaps because, like many addicts, he's something of an egomaniac. He can't bear to think that forces beyond his control might be happening to shape his life, only that he is a force that happens to everybody else.

'I believe I'm above anybody I meet,' Pepper confesses. 'Anybody. Everybody. I think that I'm more intelligent - innate intelligence; I feel that I'm more emotional, more sensitive, the greatest lover, the greatest musician; I feel that if I had been a ball player I'd have been in the Hall of Fame. There's no question in my mind: if I ever became crazy I would probably be Jesus. But, unfortunately, I've never been crazy. I've just been totally sane.'

The first 'Return of Art Pepper' occurred in 1960, after two short terms in prison and a longer, sustained one of self-abuse. At this time Pepper began recording again and claims that, out of a deep sense of dissatisfaction with his life, he decided 'to get really far out and having everything change, and in order to do that I started using just a ridiculous amount of heroin. And so I put myself in a position where I was no longer able to function, really where it became obvious to everyone what was happening . . . They thought this was something that was happening to me, that I had no control over. But I was doing it. Purposely. Purposely doing it for some end that I'm not really sure what it was except that I knew I wasn't happy in this false paradise I had carved out for myself in Studio City'.

These 'purposeful' acts led to two long periods of incarceration in San Quentin, where Pepper found a weird version of happiness. He quickly made friends with the other convicts because he was 'right. That's the only criteria. If you're right, not a rat. If you're a regular; if you're righteous people; if you haven't hurt anyone; if you haven't been rank to people; if you haven't balled some guy's old lady when he went away. Word filters through'.

In this inverted paradise, Art Pepper spent his weekends 'playing music, reading, and trying to get loaded'. Perhaps he felt content because he didn't have as much time or opportunity to destroy himself any more; in fact, at this point there wasn't that much self left worth destroying.

Pepper began his professional career at the age of 17 with Benny Carter, and quickly became associated with what was known as 'West Coast Jazz', a more laid- back style percolating up from LA's Central Avenue. In 1951, the Down Beat jazz poll placed Pepper's alto second to Charlie Parker, but only by a slim 14-point margin.

As usual in his life, when things started looking good, Pepper began behaving really bad. He spent 11 of the next 16 years in prison, intermittently producing more than his share of brilliant albums with his avuncular record producer, Les Koenig - most notably Smack Up] and Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section .

According to magazine interviews (many of them included in this book), Pepper was always in the process of rehabilitation, but this was usually just a con he played to satisfy the squares. After a long flirtation with Synanon, the addict-run drug rehab organisation in Los Angeles, Pepper left when they tried to make him quit cigarettes; he took a job in a bakery, and tried the State's methadone programme for a while.

He announced his second 'return' in the mid-1970s and produced, with Les Koenig, what for for my money are the finest jazz albums ever recorded. Living Legend, The Trip and Winter Moon show what Pepper did best - long unravelling emotional waves of melody and riff. They take you on journeys. But when they bring you home again, you're never certain it's a place you've been before.

I've always thought that Pepper produced two different types of music. One was his bop, which unnerved me, like the crackling chemical let-down of an amphetamine rush or a sleepless weekend. It's the sort of edge and circumlocution you find in the more hyperactive passages of Pepper's autobiography. On the other hand, there are the ballads - 'Ophelia,' say, or 'Our Song'. This was the real Pepper, the swelling, mournful, incommensurable stuff of him, modulated and informed by technique, but pure emotion nevertheless. Unlike his bop, Pepper's ballads leave you feeling illuminated, not simply intoxicated.

In the tradition of Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues, Straight Life is an 'oral history' about the vainest and most eccentric type of modern artist, the jazz musician, and receives its first UK publication this month as a Picador paperback. It transcribes a series of interviews with Pepper, his family, fellow musicians and friends, and is absorbing for the reason that real voices and lives are always absorbing - it resounds with as much dissonance as harmony, as much blank incomprehension as total recall. Art Pepper was insecure, cowardly, dishonest, egotistical and self-infatuated - but he tries to tell the truth that he remembers, and there's not much more you can ask of any autobiographer.

Pepper died in 1982 after doing more abuse to his body than any one book could ever detail. His liver deteriorated, his spleen ruptured, his skin was flayed by cheap tattoos, and he eventually suffered a fatal heart attack at 57. In the mid to late 1970s I regularly went to see him perform at Donte's in the San Fernando Valley, and he looked like someone who had been dry-cleaned a few times too often.

I was pretty young at the time, and while I was drawn primarily to the talent, I know the story of his life attracted me a little, too. I had a lot of adolescent ideas then about the criminal artist and all that, the sort of nonsense that leads us to admire bad Beat poetry or Norman Mailer's self-congratulatory ravings. Sitting in Donte's and listening to Art Pepper, there were times when I felt I was close to some sort of personal mythology. I imagined something was happening here that was more important, or more cerebral, than mere music.

But then of course, if you're lucky, you learn two important things as you grow older. Mythology is always bullshit. And all that really matters is the music.

(Photograph omitted)

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