Born Arthur Edward Pepper, Jr.;September 1, 1925, in Gardena, CA; died of complication from a stroke, June 15, 1982, Panorama, CA; son of Arthur, Sr. (a longshoreman/seaman/machinist) and Mildred Bartold; married Patricia (Patti) Madeleine Moore, 1943; Diane Suriago, 1957; Laurie La Pan Miller, 1974; children: Patricia Ellen.

Straight Life would seem to be an ironic title, no doubt deliberately so, for the memoir of Art Pepper. For though he lived to see himself regarded as one of the great alto sax players in the world--a unique voice in the post-Charlie Parker era--Pepper lived most of his life as it began, in turmoil and trouble. That he lived to his mid-50s is little short of miraculous, given his self- destructive behavior, as chronicled in the book that was produced in collaboration with his third wife, Laurie, about three years before his death.

Essentially the unwanted child of a rebellious, high-living mother and a traveling seaman father, Pepper found himself being raised by a well-meaning but cold grandmother. Musical talent emanated from his mother's Italian family and nine-year-old Art persuaded his father to buy him a musical instrument and provide a teacher, Leroy Parry, who assigned the clarinet as his first instrument. His proud father would showcase his son playing popular tunes of the day, earning spending money and adulation, as they made the rounds of local bars. By the age of twelve, Pepper switched to alto sax which was to become his major instrument throughout his professional career.

Largely self-taught through intensive listening, Pepper began jamming and sitting in on Central Avenue, Los Angeles's home of black jazz and the West Coast's answer to New York's 52nd Street. In 1941 the Ritz Club and the Club Alabam were the places to be as the blooming altoist jammed and sometimes earned money playing with the likes of trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, bassist Jimmy Blanton, alto stylist Johnny Hodges, and tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Gordon introduced the upstart to drummer Lee Young, brother of tenor legend Lester "Prez" Young. The drummer served as a mentor and eventually introduced Pepper to Benny Carter, the legendary saxophonist and bandleader.

Pepper recalls his 1943 experience in the Carter band in his autobiography, Straight Life: "I had never played much lead alto, so with Benny I played second alto, he played lead, but in my book I had two parts written in most of the arrangements and sometimes, if there wasn't a large audience, Benny would just get off the stand and let me play his parts. I'd get all his solos. I learned that way how to play lead in a four-man saxophone section. And I learned a lot following Benny, listening to his solos, what he played against the background." With a southern tour pending, Carter decided not to take the promising white musician with his "colored" band. Instead, Carter arranged for Pepper to audition successfully with the upcoming Stan Kenton band, for whom Art began playing lead alto at age 17. Kenton's highly stylized arrangements convinced Pepper that he needed to know more about theory and chord structure in order to solo effectively. Kenton's tenorman, Red Dorris, provided help at this stage of Pepper's development.

Though he had been a sickly and weak child, Pepper developed into a strong and handsome teen-ager. Virtually unsupervised and becoming street-wise, he began fighting, drinking, and experimenting with a variety of "soft" drugs, largely ignoring school. In mid-1943, while working his way through the bands of Gus Arnheim, Young, and Carter, the 17-year-old Art Pepper married his 16-year-old girlfriend, Patti Moore. While with Kenton, Pepper received his draft notice shortly after his eighteenth birthday and was inducted into the army in February of 1944. Just before going overseas, where he served as both a musician and as an unlikely member of the military police, Pepper became a father for the only time. His daugher, Patricia Ellen, was born on on January 5, 1945.

Through much of 1947, after his discharge, Pepper struggled for jobs and dug deeper into drinking and drugs. Kenton, with whom Pepper had made his first recording in 1943, summoned, and from that point until the end of 1951 the altoist was a featured soloist with the band that spawned an all-star list of jazz greats, including trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Shorty Rogers, trombonists Kai Winding and Milt Bernhart, saxophonists Bob Cooper and Bud Shank, and drummer Shelly Manne. It was during this on-the- road period that Pepper--lonely, insecure and musically unsatisfied at times--became addicted to heroin, a substance that would dominate his life until about 1969.

Pepper left the Kenton band at the end of 1951, as did several of the other players who were tired of the nine months of grinding touring and bus living. Deeply into heroin and alcohol use, Pepper formed his own quartet and began recording with his own band as well as with other groups led by Kenton alumni. His own highly acclaimed early 1952 combo feature pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer/vibist Larry Bunker. Shorty Rogers and His Giants and the Shelly Manne Septet also provided recording exposure, and irregular gigs supplemented his income, but not enough to support his growing heroin habit.

With the encouragement of his father, Pepper committed himself to a sanitarium in order to kick his dependence. Immediately upon release, however, he sought out a dealer and began using again. Now often using borrowed instruments, the altoist staggered through a series of minor jobs until his arrest for possession of heroin in early 1953. During this 15-month incarceration at the Fort Worth U. S. Public Health Service Hospital, Patti divorced Art and remarried.

Upon his release in May of 1954, Pepper resumed his now-familiar behavior. This led to his December arrest and further stops in the Los Angeles County Jail and at Terminal Island, totaling somewhat over a year. In mid-1960, he spent 90 days in jail, then in October was sentenced to San Quentin and Tehachapi where he served four and one-half years. Three months after this release, Pepper failed a drug test, for which he served six months at the Chino Institute for Men, receiving counseling and "rehabilitation." Once again violating parole upon release, Pepper was again assigned to San Quentin, leaving there for the last time in 1966.

During this turbulent period Pepper's 1957 marriage to Diane Suriago, who became a fellow addict, and his subsequent attachments to other co-dependent women were of little help to him. Often, he worked at various odd jobs, including helping to run a bakery. Upon his 1966 release from San Quentin, he had no horns and limited funds. As Pepper wrote in his liner notes for the Living Legend album, "I had switched to tenor for two reasons. Rock was in vogue, and only tenor players seemed to be working. But the major reason was that after all my years of playing, I had been influenced to the point of imitation by another musician, [tenor] John Coltrane. I felt what I wanted to say I could only say with the tenor."

Pepper grew away from his natural style, intensity became more evident, he became freer in his solo playing, introducing a rough, stabbing, searing quality. He soon returned to the alto and his identifiable voice on that instrument, but with a much more emotional component. Despite the extreme pathological behavior in his personal life, Pepper's playing, at least on record, rarely reflected these difficulties. Originally an extremely melodic, swinging player sometimes compared to Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond, Pepper was the embodiment of the West Coast "cool" style. As Shelly Manne put it, "He's very individual. You can hear it. You know it. Art was a very lyrical player. Especially at a time when most of the alto players were in a Charlie Parker bag, Art had a distinct style of his own." Another fellow Kenton alumni, tenorist Bob Cooper added, "I always felt that Art's major influence was Lester Young; that came out more clearly when I heard him playing tenor a few times.... And to transfer that beautiful sound to the alto!... I think his sound wasby far the best alto sound at the time."

In addition to his unique sound, Pepper also astounded jazz listeners with his apparently effortless technique. Though he sometimes denied studying and practicing, Pepper details in his memoir two periods of intensive devotion. The first was in England when he was in the army. A friend and musician, Alan Dean, recalled Pepper going off duty and securing himself in a rehearsal room to "practice his instrument for hours and hours on end with very little sleep." Pepper also recalled a time during his stay at Fort Worth in Straight Life: "I'd go to the band room in the morning, sweep the floor, clean the place, and make sure everything was locked up, and then I'd get out my horn. I'd close the door in this little room and just sit there and practice. I did that every day...and I really got down with music."

In 1968 Pepper received an invitation to play lead alto in the band of Buddy Rich. There was a small problem: Pepper's alto had long ago been hocked. Don Menza, the great tenorman then with Rich, loaned Pepper his alto, with which Pepper made his first recordings in more than seven years. Pepper fit in immediately and, but for his physical condition, this could have been an agreeable long-term association. However, his spleen ruptured, followed by other complications. After three months of hospitalization, he returned to the Rich band briefly, playing the less demanding third alto chair. With his health deteriorating still further, Pepper eventually enrolled himself in Synanon, a California drug rehabilitation center, in 1969. There he met Laurie Miller who became a very positive influence on Pepper, and, in 1974, his third wife. It was Miller who helped him return to a successful music career and introduced some stability to his personal life.

From 1968 to 1975 Pepper recorded only one album. In 1975, however, he returned to the Contemporary studios to begin a series of albums that signaled his renaissance. One sustaining musical activity during his recording hiatus was provided in 1972 by Ken Yohe who, representing the Buffet instrument company, gave Pepper a set of instruments and arranged for him to conduct teaching clinics at colleges all over the country. After resuming his recording career, the altoist also made concert and club appearances, mostly with his own quartet, with the major exception of a 1975 stint with the experimental big band trumpeter Don Ellis. Included were several tours of the United States, Europe and Japan, where the enthusiastic reception buoyed Pepper and his group. Often his groups played such stellar Pepper compositions as, "Straight Life," "Diane," "Patricia," "Zenobia" and "Las Cuevas de Mario."

Pepper eventually succumbed to years of abuse and died of complications from a stroke in 1982. It is principally through his recordings as leader, with Kenton, and in a variety of settings with Marty Paich that Pepper will be best remembered. Marty Paich, is the leader/composer/arranger who utilized Pepper so often in accompaniments of Mel Torme and other singers and whose recordings with Pepper included the highly acclaimed, Art Pepper + Eleven. Paich praises Pepper in this way, "He had the notes, and he was swinging all the time. That's very important.... Art always swung. And he played all the instruments...exactly the same. He put them in his mouth and it was Art Pepper."

by Robert Dupuis

Art Pepper's Career

Began clarinet lessons at age nine, moving principally to alto saxophone at age 12; played with important jazz figures on Los Angeles's Central Avenue at age 15; while still in teens, played with bands of Gus Arnheim, Lee Young, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton; drafted into Army in 1943; re-joined Kenton, 1947-52; recorded widely, in concert and studio settings mostly with small groups, 1953-1982.

Art Pepper's Awards

DownBeat Readers' Poll, second (to Charlie Parker), best altoist, 1951-52; DownBeat Critics' Poll, best altoist deserving wider recognition, 1957 and 1977; DownBeat Critics' Poll, best established altoist, 1980; Swing Journal record of the year, 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

An exceptionally motivating sound that can only bring out the best in people. Art Pepper is truely like a recording he made, The Breeze and I.

over 13 years ago

Finally got around to buying Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section... embodiment of West Coast Jazz. RIP Art Pepper

almost 14 years ago

Just re-discovered the Winter Moon album. Wonderful. Not a note out of place. A genius. Thank you.

over 14 years ago