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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 10 January 2015 20:00

Laurie Pepper - Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman

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The life of Art Pepper - one of the greatest jazz stories, now told from his wife's perspective

Straight Life, The Story Of Art Pepper, is the finest jazz biography I have come across. It is not a celebrity biography, ghost-written by a journalist that carefully skirts around some of the more delicate topics. Nor is it a book that relies on second-hand sources to tell a tale. The book is credited to Art and Laurie Pepper, but most of the credit is really due to Art’s wife, Laurie, who persuaded and cajoled her husband into telling his incredible life story over a number of years, and then painstakingly pieced the story together. The result is a fascinating insight into jazz, of course, but also the mindset of an addict, and the code by which he lived his life. 

The book was originally published in 1979, just three years before his death, and a revised edition was later published covering the events that led to his eventual demise. 

Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman is a mesmerizing follow-up by his widow, Laurie Pepper, telling the story from her own perspective. Laurie was no angel, as she informs the reader at the beginning of this book. The two of them met at Synanon, a drug rehabilitation centre and community based in Santa Monica, in the late 1960s. They left four years later, and whilst Art was arguably no better equipped to deal with the outside world, at least Laurie was, and she helped to bring out the best in him in the final decade of his life.

There are many parallels with the life of Chet Baker. Both Art and Chet were white, West Coast jazz musicians who experienced success at an early age; Art joined the Stan Kenton orchestra in 1943, whilst still in his late teens, whilst Chet teamed up with Gerry Mulligan in the early 1950s. Both musicians suffered from a troubled upbringing; Art was the son of two violent alcoholics, and suffered from chronic nightmares as a child, whilst Chet’s father was also an abusive alcoholic. Addiction and incarceration blighted their early initial achievements, but against the odds, both men embarked on something of a comeback in the mid-1970s.

Art Pepper’s later recordings are more consistent than those of Chet Baker. This partly reflects Art’s decision to remain in California, which meant that he was able to maintain a more consistent relationship with certain record labels, such as Contemporary and Galaxy. By contrast, Chet chose to leave the US in the late 1970s, and subsequently recorded for a variety of companies, many of which were of dubious quality. But Art’s consistency also owes a great deal to the influence of his wife, Laurie, who tried her best to keep him on the straight and narrow. She was offered helpful guidance along the way by Keiko Jones, the Japanese wife of the great drummer, Elvin Jones. “She explained to me that Art and Elvin were two of a kind,” Laurie reveals. “They were geniuses but also madmen, addicts, who needed constant supervision and could not under any circumstances be allowed to operate independently or carry any money.” 

As the title of the book promises, we also learn what drew her to the troubled musician. “It happened that he was born with genius, too, and a taste for sensation, an eye and an ear for beauty, and his responses were so childlike, so full of awe, that what he felt could overcome you, too, if you were with him.”

Laurie Pepper has a keen eye for detail herself, perhaps because of her background in photography. Her description of her own breakdown captures the events with impressive clarity, and her subsequent rehabilitation is a fascinating story in itself.

It should be noted that there is plenty here for the jazz fans too; lots of interesting anecdotes, and descriptions of some of Art’s key recording sessions that will have you delving into your collection to listen again, or look to buy or download records you may have overlooked.

Straight Life may be the obvious starting point for newcomers to Art’s story, and is still available to buy or download, but this book is a worthy successor, and a great read in its own right.

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