The Jazz Life: Art Pepper

22 May


I’ve just ordered a new copy of the great ‘Straight Life’, written by Art Pepper towards the end of his tumultuous life, and covering (literally) the high and lows of his life in sometimes excruciating detail.  It’s all in there: the talent, the dreams, the crushing difficulty of trying to live as a jazz musician in the 50s and 60s, the racism (white-on-black, and, controversially at the time it was published, black-on-white).  And of course the drug addiction and the long periods in jail (almost the whole of the 60s, which probably would have been his decade).  But what comes out most of all is the passion for life and music – the following passage is his famous account of a bandstand ‘battle’ with the ferociously competitive Sonny Stitt:

‘He played, I don’t know, about forty choruses. He played for an hour maybe, did everything that could be done on a saxophone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played had he been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one of those looks, “All right, suckah, your turn.” And it’s my job; it’s my gig. . . . He’d done all those things, and now I had to put up or shut up or get off or forget it or quit or kill myself or do something. I forgot everything, and everything came out. I played way over my head. I played completely different than he did. I searched and found my own way, and what I said reached the people. I played myself, and I knew I was right, and the people loved it, and they felt it. I blew and I blew, and when I finally finished I was shaking all over; my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming; the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but he just kind of nodded, and he went, “All right.” And that was it. That’s what it was all about.’

And here’s Art playing a great version of ‘Blue Bossa’ from his comeback period (from the ‘Among Friends’ album on Discovery Records):


‘Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper’ by Art and Laurie Pepper is published by Canongate Books in the UK, and is available from Amazon:


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