The Art Pepper Companion: Writings on a Jazz Original

Edited by Todd Selbert (Cooper Square Press)

Art Pepper's 1977 autobiography Straight Life is still the most disturbing entry in the ever-expanding library of jazz memoirs. Pepper's warts-and-all recounting of his own days as a topflight alto saxophonist, heroin addict and convict makes for harsh reading. Even fellow sociopath and occasional bandmate Chet Baker dismissed the tome -- particularly Pepper's account of his own exploits as a peeping Tom -- as "disgusting."

The book was Pepper's confessional, and he spent more time describing his own vast array of problems than he did reflecting on his considerable place in jazz history. Co-written with his third wife, Laurie, it was told in unblinking detail and brutal honesty (albeit some of his sexual exploits sounded suspect -- as if a salivating adolescent was scribbling a letter to Penthouse).

Now jazz writer Todd Selbert has compiled 25 years' worth of articles about Pepper that helps to fill in some of the holes left by the autobiography. It makes for a good companion piece to Straight Life, but it also stands alone in celebrating a neglected and troubled musician.

Art Pepper: Talented but troubled saxophonist.
Art Pepper: Talented but troubled saxophonist.

One thing all of the pieces in Companion make clear: Pepper was an extraordinary talent. His career was actually two careers: one pre-prison and another that followed his decade-plus of incarceration. Both segments were well-documented in the recording studio, but not to the extent they should have been.

In a kind of inversion of the Dorian Gray legend, the worse Pepper's life got -- and the more his movie-star good looks wasted away -- the more his talent intensified. In spite of his problems, he was never a slouch when playing. His early work contained no wasted notes, no showboating, but an abundance of ideas. He was overshadowed by his contemporary alto-ist Charlie Parker, but Pepper -- who steered clear of Parker's pyrotechnics -- could always hold his own. Right from the start, despite his California upbringing, he outdistanced himself from all the supposed "cool" reserve that hampered (in critics' eyes, anyway) every West Coast player of the 1950s -- especially the white ones. Regardless of his geography, Pepper played like he was on fire.

But during his "second" career, when he left heroin behind in favor of methadone and cocaine, a Coltrane-like delirium fueled his work, as if Pepper knew he had to make up for years of wasted time. His newfound passion was scary. Many of his post-1975 recordings can exhaust a listener.

Since Pepper's career had more stops and starts than a bebop solo, the press he received reflected that same zigging and zagging. Therefore, Companion jumps over time and space, and many of the articles collected here suffer from an inevitable sameness. In some cases, only a matter of days separate the interviews that made up the pieces, so quotes and observations often reappear throughout the book.

But plenty of fresh insights into Pepper's life also surface. Consider this kernel of circular junkie logic spouted by Pepper in a Rolling Stone profile: "I'd started taking acid to try to figure out why I used heroin. I was messed up as far as being together . . ."

Gary Giddens -- one of the finest and most accessible of jazz critics -- contributes three brief essays that do Pepper justice. And it's also worth checking out critic Clive Loveless' fawning appraisal of the saxophonist from 1963 just to read his acerbic dismissal of Pepper's peers. In typical British understated fashion, Loveless rejects Paul Desmond's "vapid meanderings" and Cannonball Adderley's "hysterical squawks," and he washes his hands of the "bubble and squeak" stylings of Eric Dolphy.

As a human being, Pepper knew he was a fuck-up. In the pages of this book, he labels himself as a "master of dopefiendmanship" and a "scumbag." His own daughter wrote him off once as a "racist and a rapist." But as a jazz musician, he suffered no such self-loathing. Pepper believed he was a genius and the "best" at what he did. The 20-some writers who contribute profiles to this book offer reasons to believe that both estimates were correct.

 
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