Tuesday, 24 July 2012


So far on these Tuesday Talent posts the person reviewed or interviewed is alive and creating as you read about them. Not so this week. I want to showcase the work of Art Pepper, who between the early 1970’s and the end of his life in 1982 produced some of the most beautiful and honest music I have ever heard. That’s a huge claim I can hear you saying, it is.  But for me, however, it is the truth.

I am a jazz fan, have been since the late 1970’s when lots of different influences came together to point me firstly in the direction of John Coltrane then ever outwards to the whole glorious jigsaw that is the music we label jazz. Duke Ellington never liked the term, and Count Basie said in his autobiography, that there were only two types of music-good and bad. Call it what you will, jazz will do for today.

Originally I saw the development of jazz, rather like the history I learned in primary school, all kings and queens, or the way the Bible describes an individual’s linage – Coleman Hawkins begat Lester Young, Lester Young begat Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker begat, well everybody. But I digress, the point of this post is to big up Art Pepper.

Art began playing in the 1940’s, he played with Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, later in the 1950’s along with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan he was viewed as one of the leading exponents of West Coast Jazz. I find this period of his playing, while technically excellent , just not to my tastes. He sounds in hock to Charlie Parker, but all of those 1950’s alto saxophonists do, Bird (as Parker was known) casts such a huge shadow.
Art had difficulties with substance dependency, and spent much of his life in goal.  You can read about his life in the autobiography he wrote with his third wife Laurie (Straight Life http://www.amazon.co.uk/Straight-Life-Story-Art-Pepper/dp/1841950645/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343139636&sr=1-1). It is a harrowing tale and not for the faint hearted, yet it is a story of triumph.

By the middle 1970’s Art had got himself reasonably clean and he set about rebuilding his career. His playing from this time on was magnificent, and was always truthful, no matter how painful, he rose above the chaos of his life and played like no one else. At the end his life was a triumph, he was the best alto saxophonist in the world. 

You can hear what I mean on a series of recordings that Laurie has made available on her label Widow’s Taste (http://straightlife.info/ ). I would recommend the Croydon Concert (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/artpepper3) a live recording that showcases Art at his peak. Similarly the Stuttgart Concert (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ArtPepper8 ) from 1981is an amazing record of great beauty, especially the tune he wrote for his daughter Patricia.

There are many great recordings of Art out there, as well as the excellently recorded live sets mentioned above I would suggest you listen to Lost Life and one of my favourite lps of all time: The Trip (here is the title tune on you tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfhmYICFsDI ).  

Art wrote in the liner notes:
I wrote The trip in 1963 when I was in San Quentin. Whenever the guys would gather like on the weekends, in the yard, in your cell, or wherever they might be, any time a group of guys would get together, one guy would invariably say to another guy “Hey Louie, take us on a trip.”
And so-there’s nothing else to do, you know, and you’re very lonesome...you don’t have your freedom, you’re just one of a bunch of men...the things you took for granted as a free preson...become more and more important, and you begin dreaming about those things, just the idea of being able to walk and turn right or left, or just to be able to walk and breathe. Things other people don’t even think about... when I play, my hands and mouth are not my hands and mouth, they’re nothing but an extension of me, and the horn is the means instead of the voice. The sound that comes out of this thing, this piece of metal is just me saying these things and taking people on a trip...and that’s how I wrote The Trip...Every time I play it, it’s like taking someone on a trip. And if the rhythm section is really right and together, the way it is on this record, then it’s like a trip for everyone, like everyone is on this trip-thinking and looking off into space, except they’re doing it with sounds.

I am not sure this post does justice to the beauty of Art’s music. Just go and check it out for yourself, who knows, it might take you on a trip. It has me for the past thirty odd years.


  1. I will have to listen to some of his music!

    1. It's worth listening to, I'd recommend The Trip for starters.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I just started reading Straight Life myself. It's a great book, I'm glad I'm old enough not to be influenced by his "lifestyle" as I was to a degree by Bird's.
    Does anyone remember what Art said about Coltrane's music?

  4. I cannot remember what Art said about Coltrane save that he was very influenced by him and critics say The Trip is very Coltrane like.