HE WAS THE archetypal white hipster, Norman Mailer's white Negro.
"I didn't want to be with white people because I have nothing in common with them," said Art Pepper, star saxophonist with Stan Kenton in the late '40s and early '50s.
"I wanted to get high and wiggle and shake, and play my horn. And I liked the way blacks played.
"It was just alive. It was like a beautiful fantasy. That's what I wanted to be, a part of that."
Pepper, now 54, was one of the biggest names in jazz 30 years ago. He finished second several time behind Charlie Parker in the Down Beat magazine reader's poll. He was one of the highest paid and soughtafter saxophonists in the country.
But all that ended when he got hooked on heroin, the scourge of many jazzmen in the '40s and '50s. He spent 10 years in prison and did time in mental institutions. His marriages broke up and jazz fans forgot him.
Now Pepper is performing again. He says he's kicked the habit once more and is on the road to what he says if the latest recovery.
At 5-feet-10 and 182 pounds, he's no longer the trim, handsome perfomer he was a generation ago. Pepper has a hernia that gives his stomach a distended appearance and looks jaundiced from a rare blood disease -- Mediterranean Minor -- common to Greeks and Italians.
The alto saxophonist made a rare East Coast appearance last weekend at The Bandstand in Baltimmore: On opening night a packed house awaited him. The enthusiastic audience included those who remembered him from 30 years ago and those who would hear him in person for the first time.
He played with a light, limpid tone and offered dancing, lyrical melodies, especially on "Patricia," a bitter-sweet blues ballad named for his daughter (it's also on "Art Pepper Today" Galaxy 5119).
Pepper is also promoting his soon-to-be published autobiography, "Straight Life," a searing account of growing up under a domineering father, a devious mother and puritanical grandmother. He graphically decribes his broken marriages, bouts with drugs and alcohol, armed robbery capers, solitary confinement ordeals and sadomasohistic episodes.
He comes out looking like a latter-daay Francois Villion, or a character in a Jack Kerouac novel. Pepper epitomized the raw hedonism and self destructiveness of the Beats of the '50s, romantics who saw blacks as the new Noble Savage.
The book was co-written by Pepper's third and current wife, Laurie, 39, whom he met at a Synanon drug treament center in Santa Monica in 1969.
The bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life . . . The Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilizations, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks . . . -Norman Maller "The White Negro: Superificial Reflections on the Hipster."
In the early '40s, Pepper was the minority Caucasian among blacks and Mexicans. He lived in Watts and hung out in Central Avenue, whre the good times were -- women, drugs, liquor, jazz clubs.
He tried going out on the road with a sweet dance band -- an outfit similar to Wayne King or Lester Lanin -- but he hated it. He rushed back to Los Angeles for a job with Lee Young's band at the Club Alabam. Like the great white jazzmen before him -- Beiderbecke, Teagarden, Russell -- he embraced an Afro-American esthetic.
"I loved that scene, man," he said with a faint smile. "People on the street, hanging out, bull ---, capping on broads.
Mexicans were my main role models. They were the people I looked up to. I just happened to meet this guy, and started dealing [using heroin]. He said, 'Are you ready to go to jail for a long time?' I said, 'Yeah.' It was like a test. I thought I had to be up to it. Mexicans were into living as gangsters."
Pepper went from Watts to Stan Kenton, blending his ringing tone with the rich buoyant sound of the band's Wagnerian harmonies. Groupies followed him and collectors searched for his rare discs. His recording of "Over the Rainbow" in 1951 won success in the jazz community.
But the good times dried up. In the early '50s, the drug busts begans, and he ended up spending 10 years in prison, several in San Quentin and shorter stretches in Chino, Folsom, Vacaville.
"I've spent 17 years of my life in prison, mental institutions and the army," Pepper said without the slightest trace of irony.
Meanwhile, racial harmony became dissonant. Black consciousness and white resistance in the '50s and '60s polarized the races.
"It was like party time," recalled the saxophonist. "I was accepted. It was very beautiful. Then all of a sudden I was totally obstracized because I was white. I couldn't understand it. The black power thing changed everything.
"The reason I hate it so much is that it totally leaves me out. Like I have been canceled out because I'm white. I get very upset when I talk about it. When I finish I feel horrible. I'm just shaking inside.
"I wanted to be accepted. Everybody wants to be accepted. But I wanted to be accepted by the people I dug, the way they lived, and that was the black people."
Though he considered himself part of the "black family," like most white hipsters, he knew only a small part of the black experience. Pepper failed to recognize why he could not go on a tour of the Deep South with a black band in the early '40s.
"It wasn't until Benny Carter told me that I understood why," recalled Pepper. "He was amazed that I didn't know why."
His wife explains this by pointing to his self-absorption. "As long as he was treated okay," she said, "he didn't know about what was going on in the rest of the world."
He was torn between pleasing his father and being himself.
"I used to hear my father raving about Jews, Niggers, and wops," Pepper recalled. "He hated everybody: policeman, junkies, communists, management. He hated people, period."
However, his father went into debt to put Pepper in a first-rate drug treatment program.
"I kept going through the agony of kicking," said the musician. "I wanted my father to dig me, you knwo, being strong, being in prison, suffering. I still carry a lot of guilt around."
Does his wife worry about him going back on junk? "I'm not a worrier," she said. "I'm not prepared for it. When the time comes, I'll deal with it as best as I can."
His wife, a Berkeley-educated former photographer for music companies before her problems with pills, said,"We're going through the best times we've had since we were in Synanon. He rarely drinks. He worries about his health. He uses the barbells."
Pepper said he's controlled the urge to destroy himself, and is now on a methadone maintenance program. "I want to live more than ever," he explained. "All of a sudden my career is going up."
He and his wife with their four cats in a two-bedroom bungalow in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. He watches TV a lot, especially sports and soap operas. He performs mostly in the Los Angeles area or in Japan.
But after playing music for almost 40 years, Pepper still yearns for wider recognition.
"I'd like to become well known," he said, "When people talk about jazz musicians, they talk about Miles [Davis] Trane [John Coltrane], Dexter Gordon. I want to be a person who's one of the top people in jazz.
"I've had to prove myself over and over again. Some musicians have never heard me play. They have no idea who I am. I want to be accepted."