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The Great, Troubled Art Pepper

It seems as if alto saxophonist Art Pepper had two careers: As an influential musician and as a heroin addict who was jailed on several occasions.

In his AllMusic profile, Scott Yanow says that despite is frequent incarceration and drug problems, “virtually every recording he made is well worth getting.” Yanow adds that Pepper was one of the few altoists who was able to create a sound outside the huge shadow of Charlie Parker.

Art Pepper was born in Gardena, California to a 14-year-old runaway, according to Wikipedia. Both she and Pepper’s father were violent alcoholics. He ended up with his paternal grandmother.

Pepper played with Benny Carter and Stan Kenton before being drafted. He was discharged in 1946 and re-entered the music scene. His level of fame — at least in the jazz community — grew. He finished second to Parker in Downbeat’s 1952 poll of alto sax players. Wikipedia also offers a discography, which is extraordinarily long.

That is one side of the story. The other side is drugs and jail. Pepper served time from 1954-56, 1960-61, 1961-64 and 1964-65.

Pepper survived the drugs and the jail. He was killed by a stroke in 1982.

This is from the website promoting Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper. It was written by Laurie Pepper, his third wife:

He was one of the few alto players to resist the style and tone of Charlie Parker. What he failed to resist was the lure of drugs, ubiquitous, at that time, among jazz musicians. And although some users managed to get through and over their addictions, Art, survivor of a rocky childhood (alcoholic neglectful mother, alcoholic violent father), unbalanced from the get-go, never did quite triumph over his, though he may have fought them to a draw.

So, in 1952, he began a long series of hospitalizations and incarcerations for violations of the drug laws of his time—possession, internal possession (“marks”), and then for violations of his previous releases (more possessions and internal possessions). In time, he became a petty thief, a real thief, a robber (though not an armed robber; his fellow criminals thought he was too crazy to be trusted with a gun). He served time for the Feds (Terminal Island) and for the State of California (San Quentin). He prided himself on being “a stand-up guy,” a good criminal.

Wikipedia, AllMusic and the website of the book Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper (which also is credited for the homepage photo).

Above is “Mambo Koyama” and below is “Rhythm a Ning.”

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Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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