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Art Pepper

Robert Spencer By

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It's all in his remarkable autobiography, Straight Life. Art Pepper was a junkie. First and foremost. He spent long stretches in prison, had innumerable wild adventures, and used drugs to the end of his life. He spent years devoted entirely to scoring the next dose. But in and through it all, he somehow managed to become one of the greatest alto players ever, a bebopper not in thrall to Charlie Parker, a postbopper not in thrall to John Coltrane, and a sincere and multifaceted improviser who created more than a little fine and enduring music.

As a very young man in the Forties he played in the Stan Kenton and Benny Carter orchestras. Even then he distinguished himself with his tone and his imagination, but in the Fifties he really came into his own. He recorded a few albums for the Contemporary label that rank among the foremost examples of what jazz can be: how varied, how majestic, how sweet, how hypnotic. Foremost among these is the superb Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, recorded with Miles Davis' acclaimed rhythm men of the day, Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). The story is by now well-known: Pepper only found out about this date on the morning it happened. He hadn't played in two weeks, was strung out on smack, and his horn was broken. Listen to it and see if you can hear any of the chaos in his life. Instead you get calm, assurance, ease, high spirits. How did he do this?

And how did he keep doing it? For there are many other great recordings, and no doubt there would have been many more in the early Sixties. But by then Art Pepper was in prison. He didn't get it together again to play in a serious way until he joined Buddy Rich's group in 1968, but by then he was ill. He made it to Synanon, and things began to turn around.

His great comeback began in 1975. The amazing thing about it was that Pepper was playing better than ever. Fantasy, the inheritor of Contemporary's catalog, has made 25 discs available in two large boxed sets of the music Pepper made from 1975 until he died at age 56 in 1982. All of it is worth hearing. All of it is beautiful. His solos for the first time took on something of the quality of his life and character: searing, intense, honest, but always musically coherent and melodic. As Scott Yanow says in the All Music Guide, "When Art Pepper died at the age of 56, he had attained his goal of becoming the world's great altoist."
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