Alto Saxophonist Art Pepper, a native of Gardena California, played in the overtly emotional manner that came to define the West Coast style. His solo approach was always passionate, from early recordings made with Stan Kenton's orchestra during his years with the band (1943 and 1946-52) and in jam sessions on LA’s Central Avenue.
Records and club work with Shorty Rogers and his Giants beginning in 1951 provided more room for his solo skills, and by 1952 he began cutting more intimate and open quartet and quintet sessions under his own name. By this time he had already developed a dependence on alcohol, pills, and heroin that led to an erratic lifestyle and (in 1952) the first of several arrests and incarcerations.
For the remainder of the decade, Pepper alternated stretches in prison with bursts of recording activity. Two of these latter occasions found him teaming productively with what was then the most prominent rhythm section of them all, Miles Davis's rhythm section: Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones. This resulted in one of Art Pepper's greatest album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. He also recorded two successful Blue Note albums with Chet Baker.
Pepper was always present when his East Coast colleagues visited the West Coast especially the man he came to admire greatly, John Coltrane. It was Coltrane's example that moved Pepper to become even more direct and searing in his own improvisations. Yet another arrest in 1961 and the subsequent sentence to San Quentin effectively ended Pepper's career for 15 years.
There was a brief stint playing tenor in the Buddy Rich big band in 1968, and a stay in the Synanon drug facility at around that time. Only by the mid-70s was Pepper able to put his career back on track. It was then that his renewed recording career (in 1975) and first appearances on the East Coast and in Japan ('77) brought him the acclaim of a living legend. There was a sudden general and media interest in his life and his return, which brought new festival invitations and club performances.
In 1978 he signed with the Galaxy label which collaboration brought a stream of recordings that included some highly regarded work in which it became clear that years of physical and emotional wear and tear had aged his tone gracefully.
Pepper never fully conquered his demons, even after publication of his brutal autobiography Straight Life in 1979 and subsequent documentary films.