Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pepper, Art (Arthur Edward Pepper Jr.)

Alto saxophonist Art Pepper’s playing was cerebral in its melodic concepts, sophisticated in execution and mordant in tone, and his expressive timbre set him apart from his "cooler" West-Coast contemporaries. He played with bandleaders Benny Carter and Stan Kenton in his teens, but his career was frequently interrupted by drug abuse. In the 1970s, he reemerged with an invigorated style that could still sound fresh in an ever-changing musical landscape.

Arthur Edward Pepper Jr. was born on September 1, 1926 in Gardena, California to Arthur Sr. and Mildred Bartold. Pepper’s father Arthur Sr. was a longshoreman and machinist. Both parents were alcoholics, which created a chaotic atmosphere in his formative years. Pepper was raised by his grandmother in nearby San Pedro.

Pepper began his musical education when he was nine year old, when he asked his father to buy him an instrument. Shortly after, Art began to play the clarinet and took lessons from a teacher named Leroy Parry. His father took him around to local bars, where the boy earned tips by performing popular songs of the day. By the age of twelve, Pepper switched to the alto saxophone, and dedicated himself to the instrument.

Pepper played in school ensembles, and in his early teens he began to sit in on jam sessions on Central Avenue, the focus of jazz activity in Los Angeles. Nightclubs such as the Ritz Club and Club Alabam attracted the nation's best jazz talent, and at this time he had opportunities to perform with, among others, trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

Gordon introduced Pepper to drummer Lee Young, the younger brother of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. At the age of fifteen, Art began to perform with Dexter Gordon in Young’s band. Young became something of a mentor to the young saxophonist, and introduced him to bandleader Benny Carter. Pepper performed with Carter, whose band at the time included trombonist J.J. Johnson, and trumpeters Freddie Webster and Gerald Wilson.

Carter was booked for a tour, but decided not to take the young saxophonist with him. Still wanting to see him succeed, Carter arranged for him to audition for Stan Kenton. His audition was successful, and at the age of seventeen, he joined the group. While his skills as a soloist earned him the band's lead alto chair, the challenges of playing Kenton's complex arrangements convinced the bandleader he needed a more formal musical education. Kenton enlisted his tenor saxophonist Red Dorris to help Pepper develop a better working knowledge of chord structures and general music theory.

Already as a teenager, Pepper developed a taste for drugs and alcohol. In 1943, Art married his sixteen-year old girlfriend, Patti Moore. The same year, he made his first recording with Kenton. While performing Kenton, Pepper was drafted into the Army in February of 1944. Before he was shipped overseas, Art's daughter, Patricia Ellen, was born on January 5, 1945.

During his time in the armed forces, Pepper served with the military police in London and performed with British jazz bands. After his discharge in 1946, Art rejoined the Kenton band and quickly descended into his habitual problems with drugs and alcohol. Nonetheless, his work with Kenton during this period still shines, and he also worked actively as a freelancer during this time. During this stints on the road with the group, Pepper became addicted to heroin, a habit he would not break until 1969.

On October 22, 1947, Pepper recorded the song “Unison Riff” with the Kenton orchestra. The song is a prime example of Art’s early soloing capabilities and overall time with the group. After a powerful introduction where the band performs in rhythmic unison, trumpeter Ray Wetzel and Kenton both solo before Pepper. During his solo, Pepper displays a feverish style that is both unbridled and melodically complex. The ensemble performs a brilliant figure which ends the song on a high note.

In 1951, Pepper left the Kenton group along with several other members of the ensemble. The reason for his exit was that he became tired of the grueling tour schedule and wanted to pursue his own music. Afterwards, Art formed his own quartet and began to perform throughout the country. The same year, he recorded with bandleader Shorty Rogers on a rendition of “Over The Rainbow,” which became a regular tune in Rogers’ repertory. The success of the song led to more club dates and recording work with Rogers. During this time, Pepper also performed with several alumni of the Kenton Group.

In 1952, Art formed a group with pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer/vibraphonist Larry Bunker. The same year, he came second to alto saxophonist Charlie Parker in Down Beat Magazine’s “Best Alto Saxophonist” poll.

With his growing dependence on heroin, Pepper’s father encouraged him to commit himself to a sanitarium in order to kick his habit. He completed a detox program at the sanitarium, but immediately began to abuse heroin again after his release. Throughout this time, he went through a series of minor jobs before being arrested for heroin possession in early 1953.

As a result of his arrest, Pepper was incarcerated at the Fort Worth U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. During this time, Art’s wife divorced him and went on to remarry. Upon his release in May 1954, he continued to abuse heroin and was arrested in December 1954 and served terms at Los Angeles County Jail and at Terminal Island Federal Prison. In November 1956, he recorded the album The Art Pepper Quartet with the rhythm section of pianist Russ Freeman, bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Gary Frommer.

The following year, Pepper recorded with trumpeter Quincy Jones on his album Go West, Man! The same year, Art recorded with trumpeter Miles Davis’ rhythm section on his album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, which featured pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The ensemble is at its best on the Cole Porter-penned composition “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”

After an eight bar introduction from Garland, Pepper enters the arrangement where his gentle performance breathes life into the ever-flowing melody. During his solo, Art enhances the gentle performance that he portrayed when he played the melody with sixteenth-note passages and the occasional growl that he administers in the lower register. Pepper and Jones trade four bar phrases, and push and pull each other into new and exciting directions.

In 1958, Pepper formed an octet to record his album Mucho Calor, which featured the popular standards “Autumn Leaves” and “That Old Black Magic.” The same year, Art married Diane Suriago, herself a heroin addict and signed to Contemporary Records.

In 1959, he released the album Art Pepper + Eleven, an album that featured an eleven-piece big band with arrangements by Marty Paich. The album includes big band interpretations of “Round Midnight” and “Anthropology.”

The start of the 1960s proved to be a prolific time for him with the recording of his album Gettin’ Together, which saw him utilizing the musical talents of Paul Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

In November 1960, Pepper recorded the album Intensity alongside pianist Dolo Coker, bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Frank Butler. The album was his last studio date before an absence of over ten years from the jazz scene.

In the mid 1960s, Art spent ninety days in jail on drug related offenses. Shortly after, Art served four and a half years at San Quentin and Tehachapi State Prison. A mere three months after his release, he failed a mandatory drug test and was ordered to serve six months at the Chino Institute for Men where he received counseling. Once again violating parole upon his release, Pepper was again sentenced to San Quentin where he eventually left in 1966.

After his release, Pepper did various odd jobs to support himself. After hearing John Coltrane, Pepper began to experiment with the tenor saxophone. His switch to tenor ushered in a different sound, which incorporated intense noise elements. While he continued to experiment with the tenor saxophone the alto remained his primary performance instrument.

In 1968, Pepper was invited to perform as the lead altoist in drummer Buddy Rich’s band. At this time, Art did not have an alto saxophone due to selling it for drug money years prior. Rich’s tenor saxophonist Don Menza lent him his alto saxophone and he began to record for the first time in more that seven years. The same year, he appeared on Rich’s album Mercy, Mercy, which reached the number two position on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums chart.

While this was a positive time for Pepper, his spleen ruptured the following year, which was followed by several other health complications. After three months of hospitalization, Art returned to the Rich band for a brief time where he played the less demanding third alto position. He continued to experience health problems and decided to enroll himself at Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center in 1969. Upon entering the center, Pepper met Laurie Miller who became a supporting factor in his rehabilitation. The two married in 1974.

In 1972, the Buffet instrument company gave Pepper a set of instruments and arranged for him to conduct teaching clinics at several colleges around the country. Soon after, Art began to made concert and club appearances throughout the country, which was sparked by a renewed interest in his life and work. The following year, he lent his talents as a clarinetist to pianist Henry Mancini’s album The Big Band Sound of Henry Mancini.

In August 1975, Pepper returned to the jazz scene with the album Living Legend, which featured Hampton Hawes, drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Charlie Haden. Art continued to record prolifically throughout the remainder of the 1970s with 1976’s The Trip and 1977’s No Limit being excellent examples of his later career. In 1978, he signed with the Galaxy label and released 1979’s Straight Life.

Straight Life is also the title of Pepper's autobiography, published the same year by the Schirmer Books Corporation. The following year, Art recorded the album Winter Moon, an album that included him performing with a string section. The album was a passion project for him, as he always wanted to record with strings. A perfect example of Art’s style with this instrumentation is the album’s title track.

During the introduction, the orchestra sets a mood that feels akin to a vintage film-noir movie. Pepper performs over this texture with his relaxed and subtle phrasing easily mixing with the atmosphere. The orchestra then begins to perform with a more explicit sense of swing, which proves to be a fascinating contrast in style. The orchestra works well with Art by mirroring his performance at times and at other times performing with his same intensity.

In August 1981, Pepper recorded the album Art Lives, a live album that was recorded at the Maiden Voyage club in Los Angeles. In September of the same year, Art joined tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims on the album Art ‘N’ Zoot, a live album that was recorded at Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. His last sessions were a series of duets with pianist George Cables that were documented on the albums Goin’ Home and Tête-à-Tête. Pepper’s last concert occurred on May 30, 1982 at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as part of the Kool Jazz Festival.

Pepper passed away on June 15, 1982 at the Kaiser Panorama Medical Center in Panorama City, California. The cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage that was a result of a stroke; he was fifty-six years old. Six months to the day after his death, the documentary Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor was released. Directed by Don McGlynn, the film explores Art’s life through the ups and downs and includes clips from a live concert in Malibu, California.

Select Discography

As a leader

The Art Pepper Quartet (1956)

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957)

Mucho Calor (1958)

Art Pepper + Eleven (1959)

Gettin’ Together (1960)

Intensity (1960)

Living Legend (1975)

The Trip (1976)

No Limit (1977)

Straight Life (1979)

Winter Moon (1980)

Art Lives (1981)

With George Cables

Goin’ Home (1982)

Tête-à-tête (1982)

With Quincy Jones

Go West, Man! (1957)

With Henry Mancini

The Big Band Sound of Henry Mancini (1973)

With Buddy Rich

Mercy, Mercy (1968)

With Zoot Sims

Art ‘N’ Zoot (1981)

Contributor: Eric Wendell