BUT BEAUTIFUL: ALTO SAXOPHONIST ART PEPPER

Geoff Dyer is a British-born, LA-based writer with four novels and numerous nonfiction meditations on subjects that range from Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky’s cult classic Stalker to the photographs of Garry Winogrand to an inside look at life on an American aircraft carrier. His latest work, out in May, is a reflection on greatness in aging called The Last Days of Roger Federer.

My favorite, though, is But Beautiful, a lyrical, semi-biographical, semi-imagined “novel” of some of the greatest jazz musicians who have ever lived: Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Lester (“Prez”) Young, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk.

Duke Ellington, one of the few who didn’t burn out before his time is in there.

And so is Art Pepper (1925-1982), West Coast jazz alto sax player, who was born in Gardena, LA, played the Central Avenue clubs during their 40s and 50s heyday, and lived for years on Fargo Street in Echo Park. He spent three years at the since-discredited drug rehab Synanon, at the time in Santa Monica.

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, his autobiography, was written with Laurie Pepper, his third wife.  Pepper’s parents were violent alcoholics. His childhood was marked by trauma and abandonment.

But he seems to have been born with the kind of meteoric gift that borders on the supernatural, and he discovered music early. He made his recording debut in 1943 with Stan Kenton’s band. He was movie-star handsome, the epitome of cool.

Outside of the music, however, as critic Gary Giddins points out in the Intro, the reader is hardly “primed to admire Pepper, who whines, justifies, patronizes, and vilifies.”

The amount of alcohol, drugs, barbiturates, and street drugs Pepper ingested was staggering. He did four stints in prison, the last two in San Quentin. Somewhere along the line proudly declared that he wanted to live and die a junkie. At 53, at Kaiser Panorama Medical Center, he did—ostensibly of a stroke.

And along the way, in and out of prison, institutions, one-night stands, marriages; as he traveled the world by plane, bus, car, and depending on how broke he was, foot; he  also formed himself, through several musical incarnations, by all accounts into one of the finest alto sax players of his, or any, time.

How did that happen? How did someone who seemed so seemingly morally weak and narcissistically disordered produce such sublime music?

ART PEPPER WITH HIS FINAL QUARTET: CARL BURNETT, GEORGE CABLES, ART, DAVID WILLIAMS

Dyer’s theory about the noticeably shortened life span of many jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s—a period when the form reached heights possibly never to be achieved again—is that the work required such a tight-rope-walking, hair’s-breadth musicianship that they were almost destined to burn out early.

The lifestyle—drink, drugs, exhausting travel and hours—was part of it. But more to the point, night after night, two or three shows a night, six or seven nights a week, every single show  they were called to improvise, to invent as they played, to go beyond themselves until “a reciprocal shiver” passed “through audience and performers alike,” until suddenly the music was “happening.”  

In the 1982 documentary Notes from a Jazz Survivor, filmed shortly before he died, Pepper observed: “I would get sick to my stomach, four, five days before a gig. It’s like if you’re going to do something different, it’s really scary. And if you’re not scared, that means you’re not planning on doing anything different.”

To call oneself to the very highest level, in other words, required the holding of a certain kind of tension that very few human beings would be equipped to hold; that perhaps for Pepper, and many others, was not possible without drugs and alcohol to keep their nervous systems in check.

Dyer takes it a step further: “Now, in what [Pepper] knows as the last years of his life, he is able to achieve an absorption in the music so total he can routinely lose all sense of himself, play beyond and above himself almost automatically. Every note strains toward the consolation of the blues and even simple passages tear at your heart like a great requiem. Aware of this, he feels almost certain of something he has wondered about, suspected, and hoped for a long while—that he didn’t squander his talent by getting as [wasted] as he did, that as an artist his weakness was essential to him: in his playing it was a source of strength.”

This isn’t to promote the pernicious lie that drugs are a prerequisite to good art. But I couldn’t help but think of St. Paul: “I boast of my weakness.” Is it not one of the greatest mysterious of the human condition that we are able to function, create, and love, not only in spite of our weaknesses—but in some sense because of them?

There’s nothing wrong with a clean life, technical proficiency, and musical excellence. But can we ever be excellent in the truest sense of the word without a hefty dose of suffering, humiliation, bewilderment, and failure somewhere along the line?

Or as Lester Young once said: “Yeah, man…but can you sing me a song?”

2 Replies to “BUT BEAUTIFUL: ALTO SAXOPHONIST ART PEPPER”

  1. I enjoyed reading your arts and culture piece! I am a big fan of jazz music. When the pandemic first started and I felt so lost, I listened to WBGO (from Newark) and WWOZ (from New Orleans) nonstop. I also read “Straight Life” during the first month of the pandemic. I have never read a more realistic account of incarceration….Jazz music (and 1960s Italian movies) saved me during March 2020. I have only read “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It” by Geoff Dyer. I am definitely going to read “But Beautiful” now.

    I would like to recommend a documentary to you: “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.” It’s the best jazz documentary I have seen. Anita’s version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” is just sublime. She was addicted to heroin like many of the jazz greats, but she said she got off smack by traveling to Hawaii: every time she jonsed for heroin, she jumped in the ocean; she said the pounding waves beat the craving out of her. She lived and worked right up until her death in 2006, at the ripe age of 87.

    Thank you for always writing about diverse topics!

    PS. I am very sad about the Phoenix-based (Brazilian) priest, Father Arango, who said the baptism rites incorrectly. I am praying for him and the people who he incorrectly baptized. What do you think?

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh let me know what you think of But Beautiful if you end up reading it…and the Anita O’Day looks fantastic; can’t wait to watch, thank you! Jumping in the ocean as a way to combat jonesing: interesting! Something worked, if she made it to 87…

      Oh dear, I had not heard of Fr. Arango and the “botched baptisms”…Since the Holy See has weighed in, and also because I try to steer away from doctrinal, political etc arguments here, I’ll defer. I will say that though I am far far from a person who believes oh let’s just do the Mass and Sacraments free-form, and I revere the liturgy and rites–what comes to mind is “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”…

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS!

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