The strange odyssey of Art Pepper

Jazz people carry a lot of baggage, literally and figuratively. The musicians haul their equipment; the fans haul their music libraries. The musicians' journeys to the gigs or the fans' to new homes find them dodging various potholes that color either their expressions or perceptions of this thing called jazz.
Too many of the great musical artists of my lifetime have been crushed by the weight of their own spiritual impedimenta, and more friends than I care to count have succumbed to weaknesses that once had seemed strengths.

When a musician is lost, more is forfeited than hope of possibility. Something is lost right now. There is one less voice in the choir to soothe the pain of living. And when a fan is lost, there appears a chink in the great mass of humankind that reshapes the kindredhood of poor clay.

And this brings me to the bizarre and very interesting career of alto saxophonist Art Pepper and a fan named Pierce. Pierce was my friend more than 30 years ago during our first year of college on the east coast of the United States. He was notable for many things, but chief among them were three characteristics I value in people: he was eccentric, he loved music, and he was instinctively kind.
Pierce nurtured a great admiration for Art Pepper, a strange hobby horse for a man of his age to ride in those days of casual drugs, casual sex and omnipresent rock 'n' roll. Jazz simply didn't figure into the daily lives of whippersnappers our age. But that was Pierce. And he also had the best stereo component system in the dormitory, which he generously made available to anyone who cared to stop by for a listen.

Pierce's rooms were where I met the music of Art Pepper and, I am embarrassed to say, I didn't understand it. I hadn't yet made the leap across the divide of understanding from the rock and pure blues hallways I traveled to the far more intricate musical corridors that kept Pierce so entertained. I begged him to take it off and, being Pierce, he did, but I noticed thereafter that any time I stopped by, Pepper was on.

That Pierce should have admired Pepper is no surprise, because the altoist carried a quality that Pierce admired: he was interesting. Pepper found his unique voice during a period when everyone who aspired to alto greatness was trying to be Charlie Parker, and only a handful of men who played Bird's instrument can claim that distinction.

Pepper also was known for breaking a color barrier in his native southern California, playing in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the early 1940s and following his muse without fear of what others might think. In doing so, he buttressed an egalitarian strain that ran through the jazz community in a time when my country was even more racially divided than it is today.

Stints with the Stan Kenton and Benny Carter orchestras preceded his time in the military during World War II, and he rejoined Kenton in 1947, where he encountered a set of circumstances that brought him an opportunity for bold experimentation and its debilitating polar opposite, a severe heroin addiction that dogged him for the rest of his life. In fact, the middle 1950s were fairly well lost to him, and to his fans, because of drug convictions and at least two periods in jail.

He emerged again in 1957 with several recordings on the Contemporary label, but that ended in 1960, again because of the insatiable appetite of the monkey on his back.

Through the 1960s, Pepper was mostly on the sidelines, behind bars and, perhaps in reflection -- or, perversely, celebration -- of his hard life, his music grew a hard shell, as though tough luck had left enough scars to form an armor.

But he bounced back in the mid-1970s with some of the finest recordings of his career. He branched out with the clarinet and even wrote an autobiography, "Straight Life," a harrowing trip along the back streets that even the most wordly should avoid.

Pepper was only 57 when he died in 1982, having lived an interesting, if difficult, life. My friend Pierce wasn't much past 25 and was only getting started when he met his end.

After our freshman year at the university, Pierce hauled his stereo away on some privately-raised funds for a biology project in a country I can't now remember, so he wasn't on campus when I arrived in the autumn to resume my literary studies and start booking gigs for my blues-rock outfit. I never saw Pierce again.

A mutual friend told me a few years later that he'd been murdered in New York City, where he was studying medicine at one of the major universities. Though I never could discover any details of the matter, I think of Pierce kindly throwing open his door to some nefarious character who slid a shiv between his ribs while Art Pepper played in the background. It's the kind of ghastly dissonance that would have made Pierce laugh.

After that, I've kept Pepper out of my music collection as a sort of personal tribute to Pierce, because, though I've grown to love and appreciate Pepper's music, I can't help but think of my friend when I hear it. But my resolve is weakening, because I keep encountering Pepper nowadays in the strangest places.
I have a taste for pulp detective fiction and it is surprising to me how many times Pepper is mentioned in the noir novels that are set in L.A. I hear him in elevators and airports occasionally and, most recently, on a car trip through Georgia in the middle of the night, I caught on the static-ridden airwaves, back-to-back, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and "Straight Life."

I pulled over for a melancholy few minutes to remember my friend Pierce. Then I tipped an imaginery hat to Art Pepper and, in my loneliness, hit the road for Florida once again.