Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Straight Life

Art Pepper was a musical genius. In the prime of his career, he was one of the two best alto sax players in the world, along with Charlie Parker, and for many people, Pepper was first. He was a musical prodigy, playing with the Benny Carter band at age seventeen and the Stan Kenton band at twenty-two.

Art Pepper was also a psychopath. His life was extraordinarily dark, both due to his own personality and a decades-long heroin addiction.

Pepper's third wife, Laurie, conducted an amazing series of recorded interviews with him and edited them into a remarkable autobiography titled Straight Life. It's mentioned frequently as one of the most compelling autobiographies ever written, and after reading it I think that's a fair evaluation. Pepper's voice is absolutely distinct, and transcribing audio interviews in the Studs Terkel tradition makes the book absolutely distinct as well. I doubt that you have read anything like it. Pepper's own words will make you both admire and despise him, often on the same page. It is riveting reading and totally unforgettable.

If you're curious about his music, I'd recommend Art Pepper + Eleven and Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (where Pepper played with the rhythm section of Miles Davis's band in 1957). 'Musical genius' was not an exaggeration.

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