Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, published in 1979, remains one of the most critically acclaimed jazz biographies ever written — some would even call it a “classic of its kind.” Written by the great West Coast alto player and his third wife Laurie, the book is brutally honest about the world Pepper traveled in, and is filled with colorful stories about his time with Stan Kenton, graphic descriptions of his sexual encounters, and, of course, the toll of his epic substance abuse.
Laurie Pepper has just published a follow-up to Straight Life called Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman, an exciting development for many of us. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to do so. No less an authority than Gary Giddins blurbed for the book: “Everyone who knows the skillful craftsmanship she brought to Straight Life, the masterpiece she made of Art Pepper’s life, will find it here again, in service to her own story, which would be reason enough to celebrate this gripping book. But there is another: a wittingly different perspective on Art’s tale — this good wife was every inch his match.”
As a reminder of the greatness of Straight Life, check out this excerpt, which tells the story of Pepper’s Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section session, in which he was surprised by the gig (which was set up by his wife at the time Diane), got strung out prior to the recording, and played what he described a “messed up horn.”
Diane woke me one morning and said, “You have a record date today.” I hadn’t been playing. I hadn’t been doing anything. I said, “Are you kidding? Who with? And where? And what?” She told me that she and Les Koenig from Contemporary Records had got together. The only way they could do it, they figured, was to set it up and not tell me about it so I’d be forced into it. They knew that no matter how strung out I was I would take care of business if people were depending on me. Even at my worst I was always that way. She told me that Miles Davis was in town, and they had gotten his rhythm section and set it all up with them. They were going to record with me that day: Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, and Red Garland on piano.
I wouldn’t speak to Diane at all. I told her, “Get out of my sight.” I got my horn out of the closet, got the case and put it on the bed and looked at it, and it looked like some stranger. It looked like something from another life. I took the horn out of the case. When you take the saxophone apart there’s the body piece, the neck, and the mouthpiece, and those three pieces are supposed to be wiped and wrapped up separately when they’re put in the case. Evidently, the last time I’d played I’d been loaded and I’d left the mouthpiece on the neck. I had to clean the horn because it was all dirty. I had to oil it and make sure it was operating correctly. On the end of the neck is a cork, and the mouthpiece slips over that. I had to put a little cork grease on it. I grabbed the mouthpiece and pulled. It was stuck at first and then all of a sudden it came off in my hand. The mouthpiece had been on the neck for so long that the cork had stuck inside it, and on the end of the neck was just bare metal. It takes a good repair man four or five hours to put a new cork on. It has to set. It has to dry. It has to be sanded down. I didn’t have time for that. I was going to have to play on a messed up horn.
And I was going to have to play with Miles Davis’s rhythm section. They played every single night, all night. I hadn’t touched my horn in six months. And being a musician is like being a professional basketball player. If you’ve been on the bench for six months you can’t all of a sudden just go into the game and play, you know. It’s almost impossible. And I realized that that’s what I had to do, the impossible. No one else could have done it. At all. Unless it was someone as steeped in the genius role as I was. As I am. Was and am. And will be. And will always be. And have always been. Born, bred, and raised, nothing but a total genius! Ha! Ahahaha!
There was no way to fix the neck so I put the mouthpiece back on it with the cork and fitted it where it was. If I wasn’t in tune, or if it started slipping or pulling loose or leaking, I was dead. I wrapped some tape around it. I took the reed off. It was stuck on the mouthpiece, all rotted and green. I got a new reed, found one I liked, and I blew into the horn for a little while. Then Diane came to the doorway. She was afraid to come in the room. She said, “It’s time for us to go.” I called her a few choice words: “You stinkin’ motherfucker, you! I’d like to kill you, you lousy bitch! You’ll get yours!” Then I went into the bathroom and fixed a huge amount.
I had no idea what I was going to play. Talk about being unprepared! The first albums I’d made, I’d always had something I’d written, a couple of tunes. We drove to Melrose Place, where the recording studio was, and there was Les at the door. He gave me a sheepish grin and said, “Well, how’re you doing?” I said, “Uh.” He said, “It’ll be alright. Everything’ll be alright.”
Les Koenig was someone I’d met in the early fifties. He’s been a movie producer at Paramount, a good producer with a lot of credits (He co-produced “Detective Story,” “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday”). But right after the war they started a big campaign to rid the movie industry of communists; I think it was the McCarthy thing. I guess after Goebbels and Hitler they saw what a strong force propaganda was, and they were trying to clean up, rightly or wrongly, the people that started it. Probably they were thinking right, but like anything else that starts out like that it becomes a monster after a while and a lot of people suffer. So the people in the industry were asked to sign a paper saying that they didn’t believe this or believe that or had never been a communist or had never attended a meeting or would never attend one and all this nonsense. And the people were called before a committee and asked to name communists in the movie industry. Most of them signed the paper and named names. They just said, “Well, fuck it — this is my livelihood.” But there were a few that were such real people, such honest people, honest to themselves, that they would not cooperate. And Les Koenig was one of these. He wasn’t a communist actually, but he refused to go along with it because he felt that the committee infringed upon his rights. And so he was ostracized and kicked out of an industry where he’d become a producer.
After he left the movies he had to find something to do. Les was a person that liked good things. He liked art; he liked good writing; he loved music. And so he started Contemporary Records. Les was the first to record the legendary Ornette Coleman when no other company would touch him. He recorded many young, far-out people and gave them their first opportunities to be heard. And he recorded Sonny Rollins, Shelly Manne, Andre Previn, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, and many more. I had made albums for different companies, but I’d never gotten the right shake on my royalties, things like that. (In fact, all the records I made prior to my association with Les are still being sold in this country or in Europe, in Japan, and I don’t get a penny in royalties from them to this day.) I just figured that was how the record business was. Then I was approached by Les. He offered me a contract, and his whole operation was very different. I saw that her was an honest man, and I felt very safe with him, and so I signed, and I’ve never had any regrets. We developed a beautiful friendship over the years. When I was really troubled, I could talk to him. He helped me a lot.
So here he is at the door, and I walk in, and I’m afraid to meet these guys because they’ve been playing with Miles and they’re at the pinnacle of success in the jazz world. They’re masters. Practicing masters. But here I am and here they are, and I have to act like everything’s cool — “Hi” and “What’s doin’?” “Hi, Red, what’s goin’ on?”
When the amenities are over and Les gets everything up, the balance on the horn and all the microphones, then it’s time to start making the album. Red Garland is looking at me, and my mind is a total blank. That’s always been one of my faults — memory. I have a poor memory, and I can’t think of anything to play. Red says, “Well, I know a nice tune. Do you know this?” He starts playing a tune I’ve heard before. I say, “What’s the name of it?” He says, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” “What key?” “D minor.”
It came out beautiful. My sound was great. The rhythm was great. And I remember in the reviews, by people like Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, they said, “The way Art plays the melody is wonderful. He’s so creative. He makes it sound even better than the actual tune.” Well, what I’m doing, I don’t know the melody so I’m playing as close to it as I can get, and that’s the creativity part. It does sound good because I play it with a jazz feeling, and it’s like a jazz solo, but I’m really trying to play what I recollect of the song.
Les suggested we try a ballad for the next side, so Paul Chambers said, “You know what would be a nice tune for alto and the way you play? ‘Imagination.’ Do you know that?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that. Bah dah dah dahhhh dah…” Red said, “That’s A flat.” I said, “Well, I was just goofing around.” We ran through the melody and the bridge and then I said, “What should we do at the ending?” Red said, “Just do a little tag kind of thing. Just make it a free kind of thing.” I played the melody and then I blew; Red played; Paul played; I came in and just followed along, a little series of chords; and then they stopped and I played a little ad lib kind of thing and we went into the ending. It was just fantastic. “Imagination” on Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It sounded as if we’d been rehearsing for months.
That’s the way the whole thing went. We played a lot of things I’d liked but never done. And I really moved them, you know. And that’s something. They’d been playing with Miles! And me being white! They were all real friendly and said it was beautiful, and they dug the way I played. Diane looked at me, like “Would I forgive her?” and “Wasn’t I happy?” And I was so relieved it was over I told her, “Everything’s cool.” So that was the session, and when it came out the people really liked it.
Excerpted from Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper
by Art and Laurie Pepper
by Laurie Pepper
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
“Jazz Casual,” featuring the Art Pepper Quartet