Caught by the River

Art Pepper's Straight Life

Ian Preece | 21st August 2015


Art Pepper (1925–1982) was called ‘the greatest alto saxophonist of the post-Charlie Parker generation.’ Ian Preece revisits his autobiography, Straight Life

Like a dopefiend looking for his next fix, Brian Case’s fine book of encounters (jazz and otherwise) On the Snap made me finally pick up Art Pepper’s Straight Life. First published in 1979, I’ve had an old Picador paperback lying around for the best part of twenty years. I should have read it before now. Like with all the best books on anything, the nominal subject or raison d’être of the book – in this case music, jazz music – lies off-stage, but is woven through the fabric or the background of the account like weather or music through a novel. There are no lengthy accounts of album sessions ‘recorded with no overdubs’, no track by track run through the major works in the discography here. Art rarely mentions his records; in fact, you’d be forgiven for suspecting, given how out of it he was for much of the time – either doing time; shooting junk; getting juiced; or having his possessions, early scrapbooks and records, pawned for junk by his needy wife Diane – that he possibly has no idea what he recorded and when, for the large part. (There’s a thirty-page discography at the rear of the book; he mentions three or four LPs during the actual book.)

Or, in other words, this is a book of the jazz life. At one point, late on in Synanon – a kind of brainwashing hippy correctional facility for dopefiends trying to kick, and even ‘squares’ or ‘life-stylers’ from outside trying to de-clutter their lives and reconnect to the spiritual (this is the west coast of America in 1969) – there’s an account of a particularly brutal raid by the ‘elders of the tribe’ that involves the removal of ‘some beautiful stereo equipment’, a few TVs, cameras and other detritus of twentieth-century decadence to the city dump. Apart from the earlier loss of scrapbooks and a nice suit, and the occasional write-off of a beautiful car, or pawning of a horn, it’s the only time Art seems bothered about anything more material than a cigarette. Where to score, avoiding psychopathic fruiters in jail, getting cash for the next fix, and an absolute insistence that Art Pepper is no rat, has never ratted on anybody, are the main preoccupations of Straight Life.

Which perhaps doesn’t sound that enticing over the best part of 500 pages, but what keeps you turning them is Pepper’s voice, which rings clear (in that Bukowski–Fante vein), floats above the story with great assuredness, and is never less than aware of both the hilarity and the sad desperation of his life, the appalling darkness and the flashes of great beauty and compassion. With the sadness, he’s more reflective and troubled; he knows how close he’s always been to letting it all go down the pan. And there’s incredible tenderness – there’s a beautiful purity to the few pages where he makes out with the choir lady while detained in Fort Worth hospital; there’s the wild, sexual attraction of his early life with Patti, his first wife – alongside unbelievable brutality: the awful relationship with Diane, his second wife, who seems even more needy than Art. By the end, Diane was the kind of lady who, rather than attempt to shoot milk into a vein, or call the hospital, would leave someone she was fixing with passed out, ODed, head down in a plate of food or heroin, to die, while she gathered up any spilt dope and, being as she was there, anything nice from the closet too. (What’s heartbreaking is her journey from lonely waitress who wants to save Art to the washed-up junkie even her children despise – someone who, Art mentions several times, he would like to kill.)

Art’s childhood was appalling, and Diane’s doesn’t sound much better – which set them both for life. Art’s dad is a curious figure – an overbearing bully with his own issues early on, he soon retreats to the background of the tale, but late in life you get glimpses of him willing to do anything for his son: driving miles to pick him up; re-mortgaging the house to fund another stay in a drying-out clinic. He and Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records become the two guardian angels in Art’s life, along with Laurie, his third wife, whom he meets in Synanon and who takes no bullshit from him at all. Laurie straightens out his life, and co-wrote the book, but coolly underplays her role in all of that.

If anything, Straight Life should be filed under ‘prison classics’. Getting busted, getting by inside (cigarettes, dope and black and whites), getting out, getting fixed, getting some Red Mountain wine, getting some acid, getting clean for the Nalline test on parole, getting busted again . . . the cycle just repeats. Two thirds of the way through, you’ll get a chapter heading along the lines of: ‘16, San Quentin, Learning the Ropes, 1961–1964’. The squalor, the racial tension, the ruthlessness of the law of the prison jungle, avoiding getting shanked, avoiding becoming someone’s punk, getting your prison blues, getting hosed down, getting sick, staying upright, getting parole . . . the crackle, the intensity, the sheer pull of the story, the caper, the shank dodged . . . such is the grip of all this – and the supporting cast of dopefiends, murderers, clear-eyed psychopaths and, Art’s particular bête noir, Puerto Ricans – you’ve long given up wondering how the recording session for Pink Squirrel with Shorty Rogers and his Orchestra went.

Late on, you realise he’s got a bit of a strange obsession–compulsion thing going on. Entertainingly, after hundreds of pages of getting high, Art starts fantasising over how he can transfer his book-keeping skills honed in the San Quentin payroll office to real life. And after he gets out of Synanon in the early seventies, he actually ends up working in a wholefood bakery in Venice, LA, where, after initially keeping the books and ordering the supplies, it’s not long before he’s slicing up and pricing banana bread, arranging the window display, cashing up and mopping the floor. For a while it reads like he’s found true contentment – but a methadone programme and a serious cocaine issue are just around the corner.

Art and Laurie Pepper would never use such a corny phrase, but the book contains a handful of epiphanies. At one point early on, when the sun is shining and you suspect he might be coming round, having been through the wringer once again, something suddenly doesn’t feel right, and he just turns off the highway home, back towards east LA to score. No, the straight life is not for him. But later, these moments tend to take on a musical hue. There’s a fantastic account over a few pages of him losing his nerve before joining Buddy Rich’s band for a season at the Riverboat in New York – this is 1968, he’s hardly a spring chicken – but the opening night (in Las Vegas) goes well, and afterwards he’s in a motel room with Christine (another doomed relationship):

‘I was blowing Don Menza’s alto in the motel room. I was jamming in front of the mirror, blowing the blues, really shouting, and all of a sudden I realized, ‘Wow, this is me! This is me! Christine was there in the room, reading a book, and at the same time she looked up and said, ‘Art, that’s fantastic! Alto, that’s you!’ Then I realized that I had almost lost myself. Something had protected me for all those years, but Trane was so strong he’d almost destroyed me.’

He realises he had to be influenced by John Coltrane in order to come out of that and find his own true voice. Coming through that first night in Vegas echoes an earlier session in the book, which is possibly one of the finest, most gripping pieces of music writing ever. Vegetating in the house for weeks on end, strung out on smack, living in a stinking pad – a sponge of vomit, blood and broken glass for a living-room carpet, as Geoff Dyer memorably wrote in But Beautiful – and only getting up to fix or score, Diane informs him that she and Lester Koenig have organised a session for him, recording an album with Miles Davis’ band who are in town . . . today. So he’d better get out of bed . . . now. He’s fucked, he feels like shit, he hasn’t played for weeks, he can’t get the mouthpiece off his horn, then he yanks it off and the cork is stuck in the neck. The horn is fucked. The rising panic thrums off the page. Diane points out it’s time to go. He screams at her, ‘You stinkin’ motherfucker, you! I’d like to kill you, you lousy bitch. You’ll get yours!’ Then he goes into the bathroom and fixes ‘a huge amount’. Meanwhile, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and Red Garland are waiting for him in the studio. One of the subtexts is, these cats are black, they’re cool, they’ve been playing with Miles for years. Pepper is just a white junkie with a fucked horn in a black man’s world. He makes it to the studio, and once the niceties are over, Red Garland looks at him expectantly from behind the piano . . . and Art’s mind is a total blank, he can’t think what to play. Red suggests You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To and Pepper makes it through, just about keeping up, and as a reader you breathe again. He writes, ‘It came out beautiful. My sound was great.’ Then Paul Chambers suggests Imagination. It’s clear who’s in control. ‘Red played; Paul played,’ he writes. ‘I came in and just followed along. I played a little ad lib kind of thing and we went to the ending. It was just fantastic.’ The reviews of the album, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, are ecstatic. ‘It sounded as if we’d been rehearsing for months,’ he laughs. Things are even briefly cool with Diane – though, of course, none of this lasts.

Back in the eighties and nineties, before the internet, people went to nightschool. I knew my better half had done some classes in jazz and jazz recordings; she knew her way round the greats. Flipping through the ‘p’ section of our records at home . . . hallelujah! There it was, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, on vinyl, complete with £6.49 HMV price sticker. I’ve been playing it for a few weeks now. What I have a dim memory of previously dismissing as ‘a bit smooth’ (you know, no fire, like those hep cats Ayler and Coltrane) is a stunning record – haunting and cool and beautiful – especially turned up loud on these warm summer nights, and when you know the circumstances of its making.

Great book. Still in print with DaCapo.

Ian Preece on Caught by the River