Jazz Institute of Chicago

Most Valued Player: Art Pepper

Most Valued Player: Art Pepper
by Nic Jones

The seminal figures in jazz have always inspired dedicated followers, musicians for whom an individual's playing has been the first and last word on the subject. Charlie Parker, wildly unbalanced as an individual yet also the seminal figure in the music after Louis Armstrong, inspired a legion of alto sax players all of whom were enthralled by some aspect of his musicianship. In his time the number of alto players who were not influenced by him could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Art Pepper was one of them.

Born in Gardena, California on September 1, 1926, Pepper worked at a young age with Benny Carter's band, before joining Stan Kenton in November of 1943. After a two-year stint in the army he freelanced in the immediate post-war period, and continued an on-off association with Kenton until 1950. In this period the seeds of his heroin addiction were sown.

Jail sentences for narcotics convictions often kept him out of the public eye, though by the mid-1950s he was recording as a leader for both the Aladdin and Contemporary labels. On the Modern Art album, recorded for the former over two different sessions late in 1956 and early in 1957, Pepper shows himself to be a player with nothing in the way of a Parker influence; the intensity of his sound and the individuality of his musical conception are his alone.

The string of albums he was to record for the latter document that singular talent. His playing on Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section is that of someone supremely capable of taking care of musical business, even in the midst of chaotic personal circumstances. This is itself was a potent characteristic, and while his equally potent addiction depleted his matinee idol looks it had no effect on the fecundity of his musical imagination, as his reading of "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" exemplifies here.

In a career not without its share of disruption Pepper succeeded in producing a body of recorded work the consistency of which defied circumstances, and he enjoyed an Indian summer in recording terms late in his life. In 1982, the year of his death, he recorded an album for the Japanese market in the company of fellow alto sax player Lee Konitz called Lee Konitz And His West Coast Friends. The musical fun and games find both men in good form, and Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow Of Your Smile" finds Pepper on clarinet and his ideas and tone unsurprisingly owe little to other clarinettists.

Tete A Tete, an album of duets with the pianist George Cables recorded a matter of months before Pepper's death, includes a reading of "Over The Rainbow" which makes the absence of the song's trite lyric even more welcome than usual, with Pepper teasing out implied meanings through the directness of his lyricism.

Whatever his faults as a human being, Art Pepper's music remains. The twenty years since his death have had the odd effect of making his individuality only more apparent.

Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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