Art Pepper was an enormously gifted musician who left, at his death last week, a body of recorded work sufficiently large and distinguished to assure him a place in the history of "modern" jazz--scarcely as large a place as that occupied by his fellow alto-saxophonist, Charlie Parker, but one only a step or two below the first rank. Yet a few years from now, when we can look back on Pepper with some perspective, we may well conclude that his most durable legacy lies not in his art but in his life.
That is because he told the story of his life in one of the most striking--and certainly one of the most lacerating--American autobiographies. Its title is "Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper"; he wrote it with the editorial assistance of his wife, Laurie Pepper. It was published three years ago by Schirmer Books, an excellent firm but one more closely identified with classical music than with jazz and more accustomed to publishing music than autobiography. Perhaps for these reasons, or perhaps because Pepper never achieved fame outside the rather narrow confines of the world of jazz, the book never found the large audience that it deserves; it is my hunch, though, or perhaps more accurately my hope, that sooner or later it will come to be recognized as a work of commanding power, withering candor and raw artistry--certainly the best of the many jazz autobiographies, and much more than that.
Pepper was only 56 years old when he died, but to describe his death as "early" or "untimely" would be to miss the point. In those 56 years he subjected himself to physical and emotional abuse of such forbidding intensity that it is a miracle he lived as long as he did. He had a stunted, rootless childhood that ended too soon and left him with a yawning crater at the center of his life, a bleak knowledge that "living without love is like not living at all"; he was addicted to heroin, booze and tobacco, and he consumed all--as well as a startling variety of other stimulants and depressants--in self-destructive quantities; he put in a life's worth of time in the Los Angeles County Jail, the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital at Fort Worth, San Quentin and Synanon.
Ah yes: the jazz life! Shades of Bix Beiderbecke and Billie Holiday--another tale of Byronic self-destruction in the quest for the highest, purest, sweetest note of all. Except Pepper was bitterly aware that there was nothing in the least romantic about his life. Sure, he knew how to feel sorry for himself, was in fact expert at it: "My mother starved herself and took everything anybody had ever heard of that would make you miscarry, but to no avail. I was born. She lost." But in "Straight Life" Pepper indulged in self-pity only in passing. He wrote the book, I think, not merely to exorcise his own demons but also to destroy the jazz myth, to prove that "Young Man With a Horn" is a lie.
Pepper was a professional musician by the time he was 17 years old, good enough at that age to play for Benny Carter; he was a white boy in a black band, at a time when that violated the social norm even in California. He joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, played night-club dates and recording sessions on his own, accompanied June Christy and Helen Humes and Mel Torme, toured with Buddy Rich, got rave reviews in Downbeat and Metronome. When things were right, music filled the emptiness at his center and gave him reason to live. But too often things were not right, and he turned to drugs. The first time he tried heroin, "I felt this peace like a kind of warmth . . . I loved myself, everything about myself." He was hooked for life:
"All I can say is, at that moment I saw that I'd found peace of mind. Synthetically produced, but after what I'd been through and all the things I'd done, to trade that misery for total happiness--that was it, you know, that was it. I realized it. I realized that from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That's the word they used. That's the word they still use. That is what I became at that moment. That's what I practiced; and that's what I still am. And that's what I will die as--a junkie."
The honesty of that admission (not to mention the truth of it) is matched by the honesty of Pepper's description of the addict's euphoria. Just as he refused to romanticize his life, so he refused to apologize for his habit; he wanted us to understand that heroin made him feel good, it brought him "a whole universe of joy and happiness and contentment." He wanted us to understand, too, what it is like to be deprived of it:
"The agony of kicking is beyond words. It's nothing like the movies, 'The Man With the Golden Arm,' or things you read: how they scream and bat their heads against the wall, and they'd give up their mother, and they want to cut their throats. That's ridiculous. It's awful but it's quiet. You just lie there and suffer. You have chills and your bones hurt; your veins hurt; and you ache. When water touches you it feels as if it's burning you, and there's a horrible taste in your mouth, and every smell is awful and becomes magnified a thousandfold. You can smell people, people with BO, their feet, and filth and dirt. But you don't scream and all that: 'Kill my mother, my father, just get me a fix and I'll do anything you want!' That's outrageous."
Eventually, after San Quentin, Pepper found his way to Synanon and rehabilitation of sorts; he seems to have had little or no affection for the place, but a certain angry gratitude for the help it gave him in getting off the heroin habit. Synanon also introduced him to Laurie Miller, who had gone there in hopes of curing her own problems; she became the last, and by far the most important, of the many women in his life. In the late 1970s and early '80s Pepper made a comeback that can be described without embarrassment as heartwarming; he toured widely, including a trip to Japan, and recorded prolifically. In the last years of his life his playing acquired a richness and maturity that added depth of feeling to the brilliant, glossy sound for which he had always been noted.
But more than those late recordings, fine though they are, his autobiography is Pepper's monument. It is a raw tale, the relentless frankness of which finally leaves the reader exhausted; yet its passion and integrity are luminous. In his halting, insistent, primitive way, he accomplished what is denied to all but a few of us: he discovered the pattern and meaning of his own life, and he came to terms with himself. In the end, he was blessed.