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Straight Life – The Story of Art Pepper by Art and Laurie Pepper

C. Michael Bailey By

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Straight Life—The Story of Art Pepper
Art and Laurie Pepper
506 Pages
ISBN# 0306805588
Da Capo Press
1996

Writer's Note: Straight Life—The Story of Art Pepper is 35-years old and is a well-established piece of jazz reportage not requiring further comment, which has never stopped me. I have written this piece for a two-fold reason: one, to provide All About Jazz some commentary original to the magazine, and to anticipate Laurie Pepper's long awaited memoir, ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman (Art Pepper Music Corporation, 2014). These two books taken together provide a glimpse into jazz making in the latter half of the 20th Century, when it most rapidly evolved and how two desperate souls found one another and created something beautiful and forever.

Jazz autobiographies, like all autobiographies, are funny animals. Ostensibly, an autobiography could be expected to be an open and honest account of its subject's life: an objective appraisal. Okay, that is a bit pie-in- the-sky. But, all too often, autobiographies come off glib, aloof, and historically uninformative as Miles Davis did in Miles: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1989, with Quincy Troupe) or candidly evident that the author is revealing only what he or she wants the reader to know as in Eddie Condon's We Called it Music (H. Holt, 1947, with Thomas Sugrue). Both are certainly entertaining and reveal much of their authors' personality and temperament: more in the vein of memoir than true biography. That said, both, in equal measure, fail to provide the academic rigor of the classical biography. Perhaps they were never supposed to.

Art and Laurie Pepper's Straight Life—The Story of Art Pepper exists as a classic biography within an autobiography, wrapped in a memoir. Published originally in 1979 and then again in 1994 with a new afterword, updating the alto saxophonist's story from 1979 until his death in 1982, Straight Life remains the touchstone of the post-bebop West Coast jazz life. Within is the open and honest account of the jazz life: the only American Romantic myth that can compare with its European equivalent, Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, the myth of beautiful and talent youth damned to self-destruction.

Laurie Pepper, then Laurie Miller, had met Pepper in 1968 while they were living at Synanon, a quasi- predecessor to what would become "rehab," chemical dependency treatment centers 15- years later. Synanon utilized the "honesty at all cost" rehab maxim without the 12- Step dogma. It was founded in 1958 by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich, Sr. and boasted treatment successes in the face of conventional wisdom. Like many social movements (read that, "cults"), Synanon transmogrified into the Church of Synanon in the 1970s, and like many such organizations, permanently disbanding in 1989 in the shadow of alleged criminal activities, including attempted murder and Federal tax-evasion accusations.

It was during this period that Laurie Miller began a relationship with Pepper, with both leaving Synanon, seeking vocations outside of treatment. After having spent much time with Pepper, a master storyteller, Miller posited the idea of writing Pepper's story and in 1972 when her initial interviews with the saxophonist began. The two married in 1974 and after some fits and starts, the book was written. What resulted was a story assembled using interviews to flesh out Pepper's pre-Synanon life and Miller's being an active participant in the story after. In equal measures, Pepper's story exists as a grinding and lurid story of West Coast class distinctions, poverty and neglect out of which a singular talent emerged and finally prevailed. Pepper narrates with the flair of an exhibitionist, detailing his sexual coming of age, two failed marriages, his introduction to heroin and his multiple incarcerations, which make for many of the most gripping passages in the book.

Straight Life exists as a collection of books, a jazz bible, where many elements are given in- depth treatments. These often disparate elements include music and race on Los Angeles' Central Avenue in the 1940s, traveling with a big band (Stan Kenton) after World War II and then the small-group recordings that grew out of the East Coast Bebop movement as it moved West. Institutional life in San Quentin is provided in lurid detail, with Pepper detailing the measures required to live in prison, as well as, the stories of crime and larceny that existed between incarcerations. The Synanon sections illuminate the structures and conduct of the cult, which were well ahead of their time.

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