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Art Pepper: Sax, Drugs and All That Jazz

Updated on January 28, 2009

Arthur Edward Pepper, Jr.,

Talent and Genius will only get you so far...

Alto Saxophonist Art Pepper, was born in Gardena California, played in the deep emotional manner that came to define the West Coast style of jazz. His solo approach was always passionate. Art always played like his life depended on it, 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 Art's solo skills, and by 1952 he began cutting more intimate and open quartet and quintet sessions under his own name. Favoring the sax-piano-bass-drums quartet. But by this time Art 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 3 years of incarceration.

For the remainder of the decade, Pepper alternated stretches in prison with bursts of recording activity. Two of these latter occasions found Art teaming 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. Though it was not released for decades but contained his Surf Ride. His style peaked with the brief "modern jazz classics" that he recorded with the 11-piece Marty Paich Orchestra on Plus Eleven 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 a prison sentence to San Quentin effectively ended Art's career for 15 years.

There was a brief stint were Art played tenor for the Buddy Rich big band in 1968, and a stay in a drug rehabilitation facility at around that time. By the mid-70s Pepper was able to put his career back on track. With an emotional comeback with Living Legend, containing superb compositions such as Ophelia and Lost Life. His renewed recording career and first appearances on the East Coast and in Japan brought him the acclaim. There was a sudden general and media interest in his life and his return, which brought new festival invitations and club performances.

In 1978 Art 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.

Art never fully conquered his demons, even after publication of his brutal autobiography Straight Life in 1979 and subsequent documentary films. But he was able to realize victories and heart felt reviews as well as ambitious projects with string orchestras and intimate duets with his favourite accompanist, pianist George Cables.

An Intro to Art Pepper

His Biography

Art Pepper, born in Gardena, California on September 1, 1925 and raised in nearby San Pedro, began playing clarinet at age 9 and, by 15, was performing in Lee Young’s band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue, the home of jazz in prewar Los Angeles

Pepper was one of the few alto players to resist the style and tone of Charlie Parker. What he failed to resist was the lure of drugs, ubiquitous, at that time, among jazz musicians. And although some users managed to get through and over their addictions, Art, survivor of a rocky childhood (alcoholic neglectful mother, alcoholic violent father), unbalanced from the get-go, never did quite triumph over his, though he may have fought them to a draw.

So, in 1952, he began a long series of hospitalizations and incarcerations for violations of the drug laws of his time—possession, internal possession (“marks”), and then for violations of his previous releases (more possessions and internal possessions). In time, he became a petty thief, a real thief, a robber (though not an armed robber; his fellow criminals thought he was too crazy to be trusted with a gun). He served time for the Feds (Terminal Island) and for the State of California (San Quentin). He prided himself on being “a stand-up guy,” a good criminal.

All this history makes a pretty gripping story as it’s told by Art with his wife Laurie Pepper in their book, Straight Life (DaCapo). What’s surprising is that the music he managed to make during irregular bursts of freedom was enthralling, too. The gift was starved for the spotlight, for opportunities for performing and recording, but it flowered in the dark, became deeper and more soulful.

Art Pepper died June 15, 1982 of a cerebral hemorrhage. But the 1979 publication of Straight Life and accompanying press had revived Art’s career. With Laurie’s help, he spent the last years of his life trying to make up for lost time, making each performance a life-or-death occasion, touring worldwide with his own bands, recording over a hundred albums, writing songs, winning polls, respect, and adulation.

Most of his albums are still available for sale. Laurie Pepper (Art's Wife) is releasing the best of what remains unreleased and is working on a movie based on the book, Straight Life.

Art Pepper Meets The Miles Davis Rhythm Section 2

The Movie Based On The Book

"Straight Life"

Laurie Pepper says that after Art died, Hollywood producers approached her about making a movie based on his life, but they didn't really want her input. So she decided to make it herself.

Four years ago, she took classes in video editing and special effects. At 63, she began assembling her film at her home computer – with no budget, volunteer actors and donated technical help.

Laurie says she expects to be done in about a year with the first of three hourlong films — one for each period of Art Pepper's life, between his jail terms. She's not looking for funders, but she wants people to see the film, so she's posting clips from the work in progress on YouTube.

On the screen, Art Pepper's story is illustrated with documents, text, drawings and photos — some of them animated, all assembled on Laurie's desktop.

The images are layered, kaleidoscopic — almost hallucinatory. Laurie says that the animation and drawings are an attempt to re-create the way her late husband saw the world.

"The stories — the things that he tells — really did happen," she says. "But the way he saw them is the way that, you know, a baby or a schizophrenic sees things."

Art Pepper told his story himself in his harrowing 1979 autobiography, Straight Life, compiled from the same interviews that make up the backbone of Laurie Pepper's film.

The saxophonist was never diagnosed with mental illness, but his view of the world was shaped by his circumstances. He was the product of a broken family, raised by his grandmother. He was playing in Los Angeles clubs by the time he was 13. Not long after, he started shooting heroin.

Heroin put Pepper in and out of jail. He disappeared from the music scene between 1960 and '75. In 1969, he met Laurie Miller at Synanon, a Southern California Rehab facility. They moved in together in 1972 and married. Laurie began to manage Art's career, and he made a remarkable comeback — despite a return to his drug habit — releasing three dozen records in six years.

Fred Kaplan, who writes a jazz blog for Stereophile magazine, says YouTube is the right place for Laurie Pepper's film, and he says the music tells the story as much as the pictures.

"It's always dangerous to equate art with autobiography," Kaplan says. "But in Art Pepper's case, I mean, the two are at one, because … he's pouring out the miseries of his life into the ballad. And by using these songs as the background material, she enriches that."

Kaplan thinks that the point of Laurie Pepper's documentary is the way Art Pepper turned his misery into music.

"And that's how Art saved himself for so many years as he did, which was by utilizing this pain and experience and making it into something that can be shared, and that was rich and meaningful."

Laurie says Art Pepper saved himself and saved her, too. She says she hopes her film does what Art Pepper said he wanted his music to do: make somebody feel something.

Laurie Pepper's Summary of the movie:

Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper

My Straight Life movie is a trilogy. The first of the three short films (of about one-hour each) is "Diane." Seven of the nine sequences that comprise this movie are completed. Some are available on my websites as indicated. The nine sequences are as follows:

1. The introduction sequence: how the book & my movie came to be. (background music, "The Trip.") This clip can be found at

2. The Terminal Island sequence. At 28, Art is imprisoned at Terminal Island Federal Prison. He reflects on his life so far. We get a sketch of who Art Pepper was when the movie begins: His parents, his childhood, his musical career, his criminal career. (background music, "Lost Life"). The complete sequence -- three clips -- available at site named above.

3. Art gets out of prison in 1954, goes to Jazz City, meets Diane, first day out. Not posted on the net) (music, not set)

4. Diane persuades Art to move in with her. Art starts using heroin again, they fight. (music, "Diane"). The fight is posted as clip #3 ("I would be tearing at the light fixtures") at

5. Diane arranges with Les Koenig at Contemporary Records to get Art to the studio to record "Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. Some is posted on the web as #5., #6., and #7. same page as above. (music. "Straight Life")

6. Diane attempts suicide, and Art feels sorry for her, marries her. Some posted on the web as #8., #9., same page as above. (music, "Diane")

7. Art & Diane go to San Francisco, where Art plays at the famous Black Hawk jazz club. After heckling Art from the audience, a drunken Diane goes back to the hotel. When Art gets to the hotel, she threatens suicide -- having destroyed Art's belongings including his new clarinet by running a hot shower on them. Art stomps out. Comes back. Diane is gone. He goes out on a somewhat surreal hunt, looking for her in San Francisco. Returns. Waits. Diane finally arrives. She has consulted an emergency-room psychiatrist, and has decided that the only way she can be reconciled to Art's addiction is to start using heroin herself. The last part is posted on the site as #4. "And all these things came to pass." (music, "Frisco Blues")

8. They return to L.A. Diane, now a junkie, leaves Art with the dog, Bijou. (we've seen Bijou in the suicide sequence). Art is homeless, living with various friends, going out 'boosting' (stealing), taking the dog along, he explains, because he doesn't want to leave her. He and his friend Rudy go out every day in Rudy's old '37 Plymouth (the year is 1957). They drive through the streets of L.A. with the dog in the back seat. We hear Art's description of his life, the life of a scuffling junkie, as they drive thru '50's Los Angeles. They park in East L.A. (a Mexican neighborhood). Art snatches a heavy hydraulic jack from a service station and starts trying to shove it into the car. Rudy returns, saying he's seen the cops. They get the jack into the back seat, but Bijou has gotten out and wants to play. The two men chase her around the East L.A. neighborhood. People come out on their porches to watch. Art finally catches the dog, and they make their get-away. This sequence is a work-in-progress. Live shooting is completed. What remains to do is editing and animation as well as masking of live footage. Some, thank God, was shot with a green screen. But most of it wasn't. If I had money I would hire people to draw masks in After Effects. But I don't. So this sequence will probably take about a year to complete. (music, a spectacular version of "Make a List (Make a Wish."))

9. Diane is busted. She informs on Art. He goes to San Quentin. (This is not shot, but will be done mainly with existing stills). I do have some great, scenic San Quentin footage I have shot. (Music, probably "Lost Life" again.)

"All music, with the exception of "Straight Life" from the Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section album, is previously unreleased, and I own it. I have licensed the "Straight Life" track from Fantasy/Concord."

Terminal Island Part One

Discography: Art Pepper


Among Friends (LP) Flyright Records 1980Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (CD, Album) Contemporary Records 1991Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (LP, Album, RE) Contemporary Records Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (CD, Album, RE) Contemporary Records 1987Art Pepper Today (LP) Galaxy 1979Early Art (2xLP, Mono) Blue Note 1976Living Legend (LP) Contemporary Records 1976New York Album (LP) Galaxy 1985Omega Alpha (LP) Blue Note, Liberty 1981Picture Of Heath (LP) Pacific Jazz Records The Art Of Pepper (CD) Blue Note The Art Of Pepper - The Complete Art Pepper Aladdin Recordings, Vol. 3 (CD, Album) Blue Note 1990The Artistry Of Pepper (LP) Pacific Jazz Records The Young Art Pepper with Stan Kenton & Shorty Rogers (CD) Giants Of Jazz

Appears On:'

Round Midnight (LP) 'Round Midnight Milestone Records 1986Barney Kessel (CD, Comp) Sugar Blues, Sweet Sue Giants Of Jazz 1993Cole Porter Songbook (CD, Comp, RM) Too Darn Hot Verve Records, Universal Music Classics & Jazz 2006Cool And Crazy (CD, Album) RCA, BMG Music (Spain) 1998Cools Out (LP) The Route Boplicity Records Easy Go (CD, Comp, RE) Dynaflow Capitol Jazz 2001Herb Ellis Meets Jimmy Giuffre (CD, Album, Gat) Verve Records 1999Hoagy Sings Carmichael (LP, RE) Pausa Records 1982Hoagy Sings Carmichael With The Pacific Jazzmen (Vinyl, Mic) Pacific Jazz 1957Hoagy Sings Carmichael With The Pacific Jazzmen (LP, RE) World Records (6) I Get A Kick Out Of You - The Cole Porter Songbook Volume II (CD) Too Darn Hot Verve Records 1991Jazz Encounters (CD, Album, Com) Capitol Jazz 1992Jazz: The 50's Volume II (LP, Comp) Po Po Pacific Jazz Records 1978Late Night Jazz - The Essential Album (2xCD) What's New Essentials (2) 2003Mercy Mercy (LP, Album) World Pacific Jazz 1968Mistral (LP) Liberty 1981Mistral (LP) Liberty 1982My Funny Valentine (2xCD, Comp) EMI Music (Norway) 2006Nat King Cole (4xCD + Box) Orange Colored Sky Capitol Records 1992Night And Day - The Cole Porter Songbook (CD, Comp) What Is This Thing Cal... Verve Records 1990Phil Spector: Back To Mono (1958-1969) (4xCD, Comp) ABKCO Records 1991Photograph (Double Exposure) (2xCD, RM, Ltd) I'm So Blue Rhino Handmade 2005Portraits On Standards (LP) Street Of Dreams Creative World Re-Bop: The Savoy Remixes (CD + CD, Smplr, Promo) Minority (Large Profes... Savoy Jazz, Savoy Jazz 2006Smooth Ride (CD, Comp) Just In Time Hammer & Lace Records, Arsenal Records (4) 1993Some Like It Hot (CD, Album) Original Jazz Classics 1998Songs For Lovers (CD, Album) Darn That Dream Pacific Jazz Records 1997Swings Shubert Alley (LP, Album, Mono) His Master's Voice The Best Of Buddy Rich (LP) Channel 1 Suite World Pacific Jazz The Big Shorty Rogers Express (CD, Album) RCA Victor 1994The Gauntlet (Original Soundtrack) (LP) Warner Bros. Records 1977The Jazz Soundtracks (CD) Gambit Records 2006The President's Men - Lester Young's Disciples (CD) Coop's Solo Saga 2003The Verve Story: 1944 - 1994 (4xCD, Comp + Box) Too Close For Comfort Verve Records 1994This Is How I Feel About Jazz (CD, Album) GRP 1992Warner Jazz: Les Incontournables (CD) Besame Mucho WEA Records (France) 1999

Tracks Appear On:

'Round Midnight (LP) 'Round Midnight Milestone Records 1986Blue Mambo (CD, Comp) Mambo De La Pinto Blue Note 2000Brunch Time Jazz (CD) What Is This Thing Cal... Disky 1999California Cool (CD, Comp) Diablo's Dance Blue Note 1993Carnival (CD, Comp) Mambo De La Pinta EMI Music (France) 2002Carnival (3xLP, Comp) Mambo De La Pinta EMI Music (France), Blue Note 2002First Class Jazz - Chet Baker (CD) The Route, For Minors ... EMI Music (Belgium) 2006Jazz Ballads For Easy Listening (CD) Bewitched, Bothered An... Disky 1999Jazz Signatures Vol. 2 (CD, Comp) Straight Life Starbucks Entertainment 2009Late Night Jazz - The Essential Album (2xCD) What's New Essentials (2) 2003Midnight Jazz (2xCD) Blues In EMI Records 2004Solo Flight (LP) I Can't Give You Anyth... Jazz West Coast 1957Still Stompin’ At The Savoy (CD) Brown Gold Giant Steps Records 2003Superstition - Songs In The Key Of Jazz: The Music Of Stevie Wonder (2xLP, Comp, Gat) Isn't She Lovely ZYX Music 2003The Best Of Latin Jazz (CD, Comp) Mambo De La Pinta BGP Records 1999The Ultimate Jazz Archive (Box, 168) 1950-1954 Membran Music Ltd. 2005The Ultimate Jazz Archive - Set 29/42 (4xCD, Sif) The Count On Rush Stre... Membran Music Ltd. 2005The Very Best Of Blue Note Jazz (3xCD) For Minors Only, Fasci... CEMA Special Markets 1994Warner Jazz: Les Incontournables (CD) Besame Mucho WEA Records (France) 1999

Suicide Attempt

Laurie Explains


Submit a Comment

  • Dink96 profile image


    9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

    You really put a lot into this blog. Straight Life is a riveting read, about as genuine as you'll ever get about addiction. It's no "Man with the Golden Arm" soft-sell about heroin addiction. Art turned to heroin to combat his personal demons because he felt alcohol wasn't working for him anymore. His account of heroin use and subsequent destruction of his life is searing, gut-wrenching and fascinating all at the same time. It's like watching a train wreck.

  • hot dorkage profile image

    hot dorkage 

    9 years ago from Oregon, USA

    Good for Laurie! I admire anyone who insists on honesty.


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