Sunday 20 October 2019

Straight Life by Art Pepper & Laurie Pepper

Harrowing and engrossing in equal measure, Straight Life tells the life story of Art Pepper, accurately described by Freddie Hubbard in the last pages of the book as "the greatest alto saxophone player in the world."

It's Pepper's virtuosic gift for music — he plays like an angel — which makes Straight Life worth reading. It's his ineradicable tendency for self destruction which makes it so hard to read. 

Art Pepper was a junkie — primarily heroin, but he was so addictive that almost any substance would do. As a result, he spent a huge portion of his career behind bars instead of making the priceless music which would have uplifted us all.

If you want to see what that life did to Pepper physically (though, miraculously, it didn't affect the music), just compare the cover photos of the handsome young man with the exhumed-corpse of later years.

Probably the dominant feeling I had, reading this book, is anger at a legal system which destroys someone just because they use a chemical to make themselves feel good. Is that really a criminal act?

Incidentally, I channelled some of this anger into my novel Written in Dead Wax, where my descriptions of the way the LA narcotics cops persecute jazz musicians was based on my readings about Art Pepper, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.

We have Art Pepper's third wife, Laurie, to thank for this classic book. She constructed it from taped interviews with Art and other important figures in his life. 

Laurie also writes really well herself, as when she describes her husband on tour as being "droopily unhappy and unhelpful as a small child."

She had no illusions about Art, but loved him all the same, and that is what makes this book so superb. It does require the occasional reality check, though, since it so powerfully replicates the tunnel vision of its subject.

For instance, Art is amusingly scathing about his second wife Diane, often for good reason. She got him sent to prison, for a start. 

And the way he talks about her is bitterly hilarious. Describing his struggle with drugs, and comparing her with his beloved first wife, he says   “When I was with Patti I was using, so I certainly wasn’t going to stop for Diane.”

And the reader completely buys into this — until we realise that without Diane, his greatest album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section would never have been recorded.

If you read Straight Life, and I urge you to do so, make sure you get one of the later printings which features not just the original text but also a useful introduction by Gary Giddins, and an absolutely priceless afterword by Laurie.

The book is peppered (sorry) with fascinating observations about music, like Art's comparison of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington (they both "wrote for the individuals in the band instead of writing charts just with an anonymous band in mind").

Or how, when he sold his saxophones to pay for drugs he would still retain the mouthpiece because “with your own mouthpiece you have half the battle won”.

But because of Pepper's tormented life, this book is as relevant to anyone who wants to know about the penal system in America as it is to music lovers.

(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads. The LP cover of Rhythm Section — the first British issue of the album — is from the magnificent blog of my friend the London Jazz Collector.)

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