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The Evolution of an Individualist
Art Pepper discusses finding and developing his own musical style, his personal journey through addiction, and the influence of his wife, jazz musician Laurie Pepper, over four interviews with Les Tomkins, 1979-1981.
Source: Jazz Professional
"Happily, Art Pepper - for so many years a jazz legend we had to think of in the past tense - is back on the playing scene again. His wife Laurie has made, and continues to make, the major contribution to recovering and maintaining his good health. While I interviewed Art, prior to his recent London concert, Laurie Pepper was sitting nearby. The comments or interpolations she made were very relevant and interesting; italicised within brackets, they are included here." Les Tomkins, 1979
If you have individuality in music, it's something to hold on to. In Lester Young's playing there was the beauty of music; it was melodic, swinging, a beautiful sound - everything was there. Then when he got older, with so many people telling him he should play like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins or something, all of a sudden he started playing louder and with a vibrato - and just destroyed himself. It was such a shame, just awful.
But it's very hard to be an individual. When I joined Kenton the second time, after the Army, everybody listened to Charlie Parker records or classical records, or Woody Herman, you know. They're all saying: "Oh, that's the greatest player in the world. Nobody can play like him," and all that. And it was really a drag at that point, to be thought of as nothing, in comparison to Charlie Parker. He's the only person that's saying anything. Which I disagreed with - but it didn't change the way they felt. So it was hard to keep playing yourself, because people really try to change you. Fortunately, I was able to hold my own. Until I heard John Coltrane, and then I fell by the wayside for a little while. But fortunately again, I'm back to myself again. I didn't feel it was a hang-up to be in the Coltrane bag, other people thought it was. They changed; see, when it was Charlie Parker, then it would be okay to play like Parker, but Coltrane, it wouldn't be okay to play like him, I don't know why. They must have had some reason.
But I thought it just helped my growth as a musician, going through the Coltrane thing. If I had stayed playing like him, then it would have been bad. It was just like you go to school, and take a certain course for a year or a couple of years.
Your technique, your facility becomes that much greater. It helps your approach, you can do so many more things and incorporate them into the way you feel about music, your own feelings about your style. In the long run, it gave me a different dimension, and it just broadened the whole thing.
The way so many musicians slavishly imitated Coltrane - that's the way it was with Charlie Parker, only even more so, if that can be imagined. Everyone that I knew changed totally. But they took the worst things of his playing; that harsh sound, it just didn't come off the way they did it.
The way he did it was great; their way wasn't good at all. I just would listen to 'em, say: "That's a Bird imitator" and that would be it; I would never care to listen to them again.
Yes, certain people have created something from this; Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt. Lou Donaldson? Well, he's more like Louis Jordan; he's just a swinging type player. With Phil Woods, he got Bird's horn, then he lived with Bird's old lady, and he knew all Bird's tunes; so to me he's a Bird imitator. But he has developed it, you know. He still carries some of the harshness that Bird had - maybe that isn't a good word - but I love the way he plays. Like, he's a great player, and he has taken it beyond that point that he started at.
Alto is just a very hard instrument; there are so few people that play it really well. I feel it's the best one, too, now. At first I didn't feel that way - I wanted to be a tenor player. It took a long time for me to feel that alto was the most expressive of the saxophones.
Sure, my time with the Kenton band was a great opportunity. A lot of people have played well but have never had the opportunity to prove themselves, or to be heard. That's why it's so hard now for me to take the fact that so few people get to hear my records. Because Kenton's records were everywhere, and I just figured that that was the way it would be always. But it isn't.
I enjoy playing with a big band occasionally, but it's too restricting; you really don't have a chance to stretch out and do what you want to do. Getting that thing of relating to a large band is great experience; I relate much better, though, if it's a small band.
As for that whole West Coast era, it was a great opening to reach the people, even though it made me angry to be pigeonholed like that. Some good records came out of that period, like "Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section", with the Miles Davis rhythm section of the time - Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. "Gettin' Together", on similar lines, was even better.
The next period in my life, because of my addiction problem, was a terrible one. But I don't think I could have avoided it. I mean, I tried to stay out of it for a long time, knowing what it might do. I think that in my searching for something - for love, acceptance or whatever it is, to be a real man, to relate to my father, and all those things - going to prison was a help. It was part of my evolution, as a human being and as a musician. I feel that I have much deeper feelings now than I would have had, had I just been a musician all that time, which would have been a very dull existence. You know, I wanted something more than just being thought of as a musician, period. To be labelled "Art Pepper, musician", period, would just be awful, what a boring life that would be. At least I was able to go in a lot of different directions, seeing how things were from another viewpoint. I got to know myself better, definitely; I was seeing what I was capable of, what my feelings were, what my morals were. All those things that are very important. What kind of strength I had, the fact of dealing with certain situations, and with a whole different type of people. People were very honest I found, in that other thing - much more so than musicians. Now, I play music, but I'm not a musician. I don't know if I'm getting across what I'm trying to say… Yes, what I have become as a person is what matters most.
That's why the book we've written is so nice. I don't know how it'll be accepted, if it'll sell or what, but just Laurie and I having gone through this has been a great thing. Except it's very hard for me now. I'll start to tell her a story, and then I'll realise that she isn't interested; she'll look at me, and she'll say: "Yeah, I read that." So I can't tell her anything that she doesn't know about me - which is kind of a drag at times! I have to reach and reach to find something to say; I get off into the metaphysical, talking about death and hate, you know, something to try to shake her up, so I can reach her.
Yeah, I manage okay! Without Laurie, I would never be here right now, I know that. I would either be in a coffin, or stashed away doing a life sentence some place. Or running and hiding some place, if I was still alive. I'm certain I wouldn't be playing music.
She's just been perfect for me. And she's a protector also; she protects me from myself, from temptations, and bad associations. She's constantly shielding me from walking the red-hot coals of existing as a game. It's great to have her - she's so wonderful.
We met in Synanon, the rehabilitation centre. (Laurie - It was in 1969). It was very strange. She had been to Westlake School of Music when I was there; she wanted to be a singer. (That was back in 1956. And I had heard of Art he had a terrible reputation - but I never met him. Then, when we met in Synanon, he had become a legend. I expected to see some monster). Yes. it was funny that our paths were so close at one time; I'm glad we didn't meet at that time, it just might not have happened. When we were both in Synanon, I was looking for a woman I could love. After you're there a certain length of time, you're allowed to search for a person to get into a relationship with. You find a girl, and then you go to your tribe leader, it's all in tribes, you see. (It's very complicated. It takes three chapters in the book to explain it.) You have to get permission, and make sure that she hasn't been in Synanon too much longer than you, and that she won't be a bad influence, and so forth. Then you can have a courtship and if everything works out all right, you can go on from there. I had to ask her tribe leader if it was okay for me to have a relationship with her, and she had to talk to mine. After a certain length of time, we were allowed to book a period in the -what was it?-the guest room. (Yeah. Don't give the whole book away.) I didn't agree with their philosophies, but it was very good for me at that particular time, to go through those things.
Did I play during those years? Well, occasionally I would get a chance. (He doesn't even remember, but he played during that time. He played tenor nearly every evening, for dancing.) He's not talking just about Synanon, are you? In prison and things, I'd play whenever the opportunity would arise, but I had to borrow a horn from someone. Certain times, I wasn't playing very much; other places, I played a lot, practising by myself. At Synanon it was very sporadic; we would play maybe one song in the evening, to do a dance that they had.
But when I finally got into music again, I had a very good background. You never forget this innate thing that you've gone through, learning the technical aspects of the instrument, things like that. You had to reach the point where you were at a long time before, and then you could move on to different things. It took a long time. I didn't achieve it from practising a lot, just from thinking about music, I was able to learn. The period when I wasn't playing much, I'd put music out of my mind.
The composing side I just did on my own. I never studied arranging, or anything like that, but I would do it by asking questions of people that did write. So I learned just by doing. When I had my own albums I would write the tunes, because I felt that if I were playing my tunes I was able to do more what I wanted to do - they were the right frameworks.
More so than a song by somebody else, except for certain songs that are really excellent, standards that I really feel and like to play. But just recently, I noticed that I am going through a phase where I'll start a lot of songs and I won't finish them. I don't know why that is, but I hope it ends pretty soon, because I'm doing an album as soon as we get back to Los Angeles, and I've got to have the tunes ready. So I have to tie up the loose ends; I think once I complete a few songs, it will be a lot easier for me to do it in the future. Writing is very difficult, when you haven't studied it; notation and such things take longer.
I can arrange for ensembles, although I haven't had much chance to do it. I've done two line things. In the new Galaxy album, I wrote a thing called "Mambo Koyama"; in that I use the bass, the piano and the alto as a large band playing an ensemble, and the drum keeping the time. It came out very good. I've hardly ever heard that done very much at all. So I'm trying to have that certain identity. (A lot of the stuff that you wrote for the live Village Vanguard recording, which will be out eventually on Contemporary - didn't that have several lines? Didn't you write the bass lines and everything?) Yeah - but they were like more of a counterpoint type thing, where this is a counterpoint and an ensemble thing, using the bass, the alto and the piano as sections. The bass on the bottom, the piano in the middle and the alto on the top, so it has a large range of sound. That's what I'm trying to do now with my writing - maybe that's why it's so hard to complete it.
Yes, I've titled several tunes after Laurie. "My Laurie" is a very pretty thing; "Samba Mom Mom" uses a pet name that I have for her; "What Laurie Likes" is kind of a rocktype tune; then there's a slow shuffle “Rita San", that's what they call her in Japan.
To show you the things that she does - I'm getting royalties now that I never ever got before. I've made over a hundred albums, I didn't realise that until the Swing Journal in Japan had a discography, and it had the pictures of all the albums that I've been on, bearing my name or something that was featuring me all the way. I was amazed that I'd done that many and I've done a whole bunch of 'em since that was put out. There's so many albums coming out of the same material, from before I went with Contemporary, and all through this period I never got a penny from any of them I didn't even know the album existed, until somebody would see something in a store, buy it, and give it to me or show it to me.
So what Laurie did; she tracked these people down - it was really a job - and she's still doing it, and she's gotten all kinds of money. Not nearly the money that should have been gotten, but getting some money from all the people has enabled me to live for the first time, without supplementing my income. Now I can be choosy about jobs. I don't have to do any casuals any more, like weddings, bar mitzvahs and all that. Because of her, I don't have to do the things that musicians have to do to make a living.
She's done that and when I go to play some place, like here, she'll take tapes of the songs, and send them, with the parts, to be distributed to the guys who are going to play them. Which is great. Before we went to Japan for the first time, she did that, and they didn't even bother to look at the music. (The result was that Art had to do his Japan debut playing standards instead of the tunes he'd prepared.) After all that work, Cal Tjader's band just figured that they knew it, that they could read anything. But regardless of whether you can read or not, you have to play something to get the feel of it.
Anyway, we understand now that Peter Ind's trio, who I'm playing with here, has run over the things. Now all I'll have to do in the rehearsal is play my part, make sure the tempo's right, and explain some points, feeling-wise. So that'll be great.
She does all these things so that I don't have to do them. When somebody calls about something, she answers the phone; pictures, biographies, she takes care of it all. The only thing I have to do is play the horn and write music. She's my manager, publicist, agent, and also is a great critic. If I have a drink, she can tell immediately. She’ll be sitting at a table or something. This happened just recently in this club; she was sitting with these friends of mine, I started playing a tune, and all of a sudden she turned round, looked at me, looked back at them and said: "Art's been drinking." And they didn't hear anything different at all than the first set. I played a couple of notes, and she knew. She went up to the bar, asked for the tab, and she saw that I'd had two drinks.
If I really play something that I think sounded great, I won't say anything, and she'll say: "You really sounded beautiful on so-and-so", which will be the one that I felt the same way about. If I'm not playing good, she tells me the brutal truth about that, too. It's depressing at times, but it's true. I imagine her background has a lot to do with it. (I don't venture my opinions unless I'm asked, though.) Well, I can tell when there's something wrong; so I have to ask. It's great. Little by little, I'm getting away from bad habits - which is the reason that I'm here.
(Art's famous for not practising, but apparently that's a pretty usual state of affairs. John Dankworth says maybe every three or four weeks he'll practise for a few days a couple of hours each day - that's it. And that's just like Art.)
Right. Of course, I don't play too much. It's been so great being able to survive without playing these awful jobs. I've stopped everything now, except jazz things or in the studio, if it's a movie or something like that, but that's a rare occasion.
Yeah, I played on two Clint Eastwood movies recently. (And a new one now - a movie called Heartbeat, which is about Jack Kerouac. That should be nice; the clips were nice. Art got to play unaccompanied behind some scenes, if they keep it in.)
They had written music; full orchestra, with strings and everything, but they didn't like it. So they just asked me: "Do you think you could watch the scene and improvise something to it?" I said: "Yeah"; I did it, and they liked it. So I hope that that'll be in the movie, because that would leave a little opening maybe for some more things like that. Which would be very interesting.
Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.