Happy (Belated) Birthday to Art Pepper


Ok, this is a few days late, but last Thursday, September 1, the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper would have celebrated his 91st birthday. Besides being one of my favorite alto players, Pepper is also my saxophone grandpa (my saxophone teacher studied with him just before he got busted and sent to San Quentin), and our birthdays are one day apart. One of my favorite things about Pepper’s playing is that he wore his heart on his sleeve and didn’t hold anything back. From what I gather, he was like that when he was offstage as well. With Pepper, what you saw and heard was what you got. And that has always appealed to me.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a few of my favorite Art Pepper related recordings, books, etc. that every jazz fan should check out (or revisit if it’s been a while):

neon art
Neon Art, volume 2

Art Pepper, Neon Art, vols. 1-3 (Omnivore Recordings)
Pepper’s widow Laurie has a ton of live recordings that she’s been releasing fairly regularly in the last few years. These three albums (the were initially released on LP a few years ago and then CD in 2015) are on Omnivore and contain previously unreleased recordings from 1981. Combined the three volumes only contain eight cuts; as was generally the case, Pepper’s live tracks were pretty lengthy. The first volume was recorded live in Seattle on Jan 28, 1981, and features Pepper with David Williams, Carl Burnett, and Milcho Leviev. Volume two and three were recorded over several nights in Japan, November, 1981 and features Williams, Burnett, and Pepper’s favorite pianist George Cables. “Over the Rainbow” from Volume Two is particularly wrenching. The LPs are each pressed on fluorescent colored vinyl, and feature die cut sleeves. I was able to get all three volumes on LP in a set for a great price, but the set is becoming hard to find. The only downside of the sexy LP packaging is that the die cut sleeve has the chance to scratch the record.

There are a ton of live and studio recordings from this era out there already, so these recordings aren’t particularly unique or present anything surprising or unfamiliar. They are pretty different from his more “cool” albums from the 50s. But if you don’t have any, or many recordings from this period—or are like me and are a die hard fan—then checking out one or all three of them is a must.

Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor
Made at about the same time as Neon Art, this utterly compelling documentary gives a pretty good picture of who Art Pepper was. Sure, it’s framed in a certain way (the first time you hear Pepper speak he’s talking about the first time he tried heroin), but you get to see how forthcoming he is about his tumultuous life, from childhood to prison. The dynamic between Art and Laurie is particularly interesting, and his comments about how he approaches playing are really revealing. I first saw this in jazz history class, which my saxophone teacher taught, and it was pretty shocking, to me and my classmates. My teacher says every time he shows it his students they are blown away on a ton of levels, but most of them respond very positively to his music, even if they care or know very little about jazz. Check out the full documentary below:

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepperstraight life
Ok, so I haven’t read very many jazz autobiographies, but out of all the ones I have Straight Life absolutely blows them away. It might be my favorite book about jazz—biography, autobiography, academic, whatever. A close second is Doug Ramsey’s biography of Paul Desmond called Take Five. Like the documentary this is a completely engaging work. It starts with his early childhood, early career, time with Kenton, and moves into when he made all those great albums in the 50s. It covers in great detail his struggle with drugs, the crimes he committed to satisfy his addiction, his life in prison, how he got clean and met Laurie, and his comeback in the late 70s. Interspersed throughout are short contributions from people he played and worked with, which serve to fill out the picture of the man. Straight Life is a must read for any jazz fan.

So there it is, my birthday tribute to Art Pepper—a complicated, damaged, and brilliant person and musician who helped make some of the best albums in the history of the music. Happy birthday Art.

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