Sunday, June 22, 2014

REVIEWS! #3 Whewwww!


Book Review: Laurie Pepper -Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman

Laurie Pepper - Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman
(APMCorp, 381pp., £11.84. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Opinion concerning Straight Life, Art Pepper’s unswervingly honest, harrowing autobiography (dictated to, transcribed and then painstakingly edited into literary shape by his wife Laurie) divides sharply along a fault-line largely determined by attitudes to drugs, but also by received truths about race and gender relations.

The legendary saxophonist had a great number of what he regarded as uncomfortable truths to impart about all these deeply contentious issues, and – like Flashman, another great eye-witness chronicler of a profoundly controversial subject (the British Empire) – he was worth listening to primarily because he utterly lacked the besetting sin bedevilling and muddying many such accounts: hypocrisy.

Art begins, in suitably unflinching style, with the heading ‘Suicide’, relating in detail the attempt at self-gassing (while one of Dylan’s greatest songs, ‘Visions of Johanna’, played on her record player) that led to Laurie Pepper checking herself into Synanon, a long-term residential cure for addicts, where she met her future husband. The couple have an unusual affinity, but (starting as she means to go on) Laurie is at pains to point out, in her scrupulously honest, touching manner: ‘People think I was some kind of little wifey-saint who rescued him ... But he knew how crazy I could be. We rescued each other.’

Once married and living together, the couple dedicate themselves to putting Pepper’s career back on track, and Laurie’s account of the vicissitudes of the jazz life, with its gruelling touring schedules, often unsatisfactory recording sessions, problems with sidemen etc. – all immeasurably complicated and exacerbated by the saxophonist’s ceaseless craving for the inevitably unattainable ultimate high – is simply spellbinding in the sheer power of its dedication to truth.

Her own description of her reintroduction to coke is worth quoting at length, because it perfectly exemplifies the literary skill and sensitivity that make the book so memorable: ‘My mind was suddenly filled with possibilities, optimistic plans, and with a breadth of love and understanding for everything and everyone, and all of this was rooted in what seemed to be philosophical solid ground on a glorious shore I’d landed on at last after having spent my whole life at sea under some evil spell that hadn’t let me see the world as I saw it now, full of accessible wonders, as it obviously always had been ... This experience opened a window onto real, rich, energetic life with all its marvelous complexity, and it made an engine of me for exploring and glorying in it.
‘This lasts about twenty minutes.
‘And then you have to do it again.
‘And again and again for the rest of your life, and it’s never quite the same ... you keep trying and trying and trying and trying and trying to get back to that perfect state ...’

Such perceptive eloquence is applied not only to her relationship with her husband, the travails of artistic sensibility, the ups and downs of band life etc., but also to apparently incidental matters. Take ‘New Yorkness’: ‘In L.A. we put a gloss on everything, and we insist that the gloss is reality. Everything has to be pretty or at least amusing. In New York it’s generally acknowledged that everything is nasty, and when they put a gloss on it, they understand it’s just a gloss over nastiness. In New York you can be crippled, stupid, diseased, and not at all amusing and still be a member of the human race.’

Such hard-won insights are everywhere in this witty, wise and deeply compassionate book, which not only serves as an indispensable companion volume, equal in stature with but intriguingly complementary to one of the most compulsively readable accounts ever written about the jazz life, but also has a healing quality, perfectly expressed by a born writer, Laurie Pepper herself: ‘If this book is about anything, it’s about how stupid or crazy you can be and still survive. Even prevail. It’s also about luck.’

REVIEWS -- Second...

Bebop Spoken Here
Book Review: Laurie Pepper - ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman.

(Review by Lance)
One of the pivotal moments of my life was hearing Art Pepper in concert at, what was then, Newcastle's University Theatre. I was stunned! I'd never heard alto playing like it, nor had I witnessed a person visibly being destroyed by demons and being so able to rise above it. This was akin to the second coming of Christ (Charlie Parker) and I left in a state of shock. The following day, which would be May 11, 1981, I bought every Art Pepper album I could lay my hands on. This wasn't difficult as I worked in a Newcastle music store.

Another pivotal moment was the autobiographical tomeStraight Life written by Laurie Pepper from taped conversations with Art. This was a harrowing, unputdownable read that caused my friend, the late Brian Fisher, to say it made Anita O'Day seem like a nun! (O'Day's High Times, Hard Times is another tale of jazz and addiction.) After reading ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman, I'm tempted to say that Laurie makes the Art of Straight Life seem like a monk and I don't mean Thelonious!
It's a remarkable book written, this time, from her perspective rather than her husband's and it is as equally compelling as the first book. The two are inseparable. If you've readStraight Life then you must read this. If you read this one first then seek out Straight Life.
In passing, yes it's jazz history, but it's also a very powerful love story. A strange and unconventional love story but these are strange and unconventional people. One an artist capable of overcoming a mountain of set backs to produce some of the greatest modern jazz ever heard. The other a writer inspired by - and able to inspire - a genius. If Art Pepper had been a Country artist then the title would surely have been Stand by Your Man. Fortunately he wasn't and the title, laid on Laurie by an Australian journalist long before the book's conception, was recalled and proved a flawless choice in describing two far from flawless people! Together they have plumbed the depths and reached the heights. It is the latter position Laurie Pepper  has achieved with this book (and Straight Life).


C. Michael Bailey at

All About Jazz: C. Michael Bailey

ART: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman By Laurie PepperBy C. MICHAEL BAILEY,
Published: June 13, 2014 | 1,429 views
View All12Next»

ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman
Laurie Pepper
358 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1494297572
Art Pepper Music Corporation

About two-thirds the way through her memoir, ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman Laurie Pepper plants her spear in the dirt and declares the obvious:

"A question I ask myself is if Art hadn't had me there constantly assessing his mood, taking his aesthetic temperature, would he then have had to push his vision by himself"? I think somebody else, another friend or lover, might have done it...But what matters here, to me in my story, is that it was me who paid attention and was listened to. I played an important part in this and other projects of undoubted value and knew it at the time and was thrilled and am proud now."

And it is about time.

Thirty-five years after the original publication of Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper (Da Capo, 1994, revised edition) and nearly as long after the alto saxophonist's early death at 56, Laurie Pepper has finally put a fine point on a hard truth, though, I think she sells herself short in her belief that someone might have been there to hold Art Pepper's hand and accomplish what she did. That is unlikely. In Straight Life and the present text, Art Pepper did not demonstrate the life skills necessary to manage the logistics of the Village Vanguard or Maiden Voyage sessions on his own, much less the international tours. This is not judgment, only a statement of apparent fact. It took his delivery to these events to see them through to their success and Laurie Pepper was responsible for that...exactly.

Art Pepper could have just as easily suffered the same neglect that killed Bud Powell or taken the path of least resistance to a sordid end as did Chet Baker. Instead, Laurie Pepper provided an environment where the saxophonist ultimately thrived and produced only music of the highest quality (as opposed to Baker, who recorded promiscuously until the end, producing many unlistenable performances).

By the standards of today's faux-confessional reality television's (A&E's Intervention or TLC's Addicted) tidy millennial reductions, Laurie Pepper could have be held responsible as enabling her husband's addictions (as well as her own). But, things were not so clear in the 1970s, and the thought of treatment-resistant chemical dependency was and is something, while acknowledged, ill-considered and under-reported matter how much Drew Pinsky natters on about it.

What Laurie Pepper enabled was a behaviorally-difficult, emotionally stunted genius to take root and flower late, producing art of enduring beauty and significance. This book has Art Pepper mentioned in it, but it is not about him. It is about Laurie Pepper and what she has to teach us about life on its own terms and that one does not merely wish to endure, but ultimately prevail.

Laurie Miller's story begins with a Sylvia Plath-suicide attempt that did not progress fast as desired. This ultimately led to her track to Synanon where she was to meet the elephant in the room that would eclipse her in Straight Life. What Laurie Pepper adds in her present memoir are glimpses of her Russian-Jewish heritage and parents with a serious Trotsky bent when such would have not been so popular... Revealed is her daughter Maggie, and her abandonment, and an ex- husband and a slightly-off new wife offering the dirty paucity that life often offers as its consolation to an exiled mother who ultimate prevails. It is a sweetness that cannot be properly enjoyed, but Laurie Pepper puts it into such perfect perspective that it is easy to believe her conclusions later in the book.

Regarding the Art Pepper sections, Laurie Pepper concentrates more here on her motivations and fears and how these influenced her decisions, and they can be read in parallel with the same events accounted for in Straight Life. Her writing is strikingly different from that in Straight Life. Again, this is because of a change in focus: to the person behind the curtain in Oz rather than Oz himself and nearly near 40 years of experience between then and now. Casual honesty is the best way to describe Laurie Pepper's delivery of the conflict, the frustration and triumph of 1975 to 1982. But there is no end there. Damaged men cannot write this way, no matter how bad the politically correct wish it were so.

Laurie Pepper's descriptions of the aftermath of the saxophonist's death are heartbreaking, but not as powerful her all too brief description of her own mother's evaporation to Alzheimer's disease. After caring for Art Pepper at the end of his life, Laurie Pepper sounds rightly prepared for the desolation of her mother's passing. Is Laurie Pepper's book about music?


Music...and life.

But Laurie Pepper brings the reader to a level of empathy and understanding that is both personable and amiable and lacking in any competing account. It is as if we are having tea with her one afternoon, sharing similar experiences in some synergistic way that only like-kind souls can.

During her cathartic coda, Laurie Pepper again becomes nakedly candid about her feelings and motivations:

"Reader, I'm going to tell you here, point blank, what ought to be implicit in all the rambling pages that have gone before: Everything that has happened to me, what I saw and heard, and all the ways I felt, if I will try to remember them completely, that is my wealth. The so-called good experiences and the so- called bad ones are what I have... ...What I am trying to say is that when I write I find my life in memory, multifaceted, complete, waiting to amaze me, my own treasure."

In between the ellipses, she shares both an incredibly painful and stark life episode juxtaposed against a youthful, innocent and sensual experience, finally equating the two experiences in a summation of her troubled and brilliant husband:

"At his best, Art found beauty in everything, even in harshness, pain, and violence. And in his music, if you pay attention, you can hear the promise. The promise is the moment of a held breath when you know, you know it is all beauty and you are reconciled with your existence in this world."

It is all beauty and you are reconciled with your existence in this world. indeed.

That, fair reader, is perfect humility and acceptance. No amount of pop psychology or 12-step syllogism will bring one there: Only self- realization.

The photograph of Laurie Pepper, taken in April 2014 by one Hugh Kenny (who is a story unto himself, if briefly, in this memoir), that closes is tome, shows a graceful beauty, still youthful in short hair and overalls, reflecting the joy of a satisfied spirit with shining eyes and an easy smile...reconciled with her existence in this world.