Are You Scared to Smack Up?

"I was greatly impressed by Art's talent, his sound, his concept of playing lead, and his creative ideas. He was a handsome, clean-cut, and most mannerly boy with a very affable disposition. I wasn't aware at all of Art drinking heavily or using drugs. I liked him, and have only positive memories of him at that time"
(Benny Carter, quoted in Straight Life: the Story of Art Pepper).

Art Pepper
by William Claxton

Which makes for a good place to begin, a point of departure to scratch away at the Great Jazz Myth, in order to expose: what? Ordinariness, not quite, more the discrepancy in perceptions circulating around the remains of a legend. Like the thing about Bill Evans, was it Orrin Keepnews who said it was pretty clear that for a while "Everybody dug Bill Evans- except Bill Evans". So, much more than you'd imagine, this plays a major part in making his music something exceptional, so that even his most cursory contribution to the Stan Kenton "orchestra" had the distinctive flavour of the Pepper allure. How to define? At first bite, nothing bitter to discern in his alto sax style, you'd say he was a crooner in the Sinatra or Torme mould adapting their effortless approach to the sax mouthpiece. You know, vocalising on the instrument that haunted his dreams, from the days of playing in army bands to jamming in prison with the dope fiends, junkies and psychopaths. But then, he was all those things. Straight Life tells the story, with help from his fourth wife Laurie. An uncomfortable read: if you're looking for a role-model for the tortured genius lifestyle, a self-contained beginner's guide to being the reclusive self-styled outsider seeking release through your art, this gives food for thought. The nights of lucidity become splintered moments, less and less frequent, puncturing the soul with visions of defeat, discomfort.

So what cold comfort to draw from the man's vision? Why choose him as an inspiration, or at least a template for the grand jazz lifestyle, unreal unrealisable but still there captured in the cover shots, photos in colour, trademark well-worn suit, hair flicked back to highlight those classic features, the haunting tinge of psychedelia there on the cover of Smack Up, he stands proud unshakeable like some punchier more compact Gerry Mulligan. But Gerry had Chet to bring the jazz myth to his combo, Chet the Montgomery Clift to his John Wayne, in the dried-out Red River landscape of a piano-less set-up. The William Claxton photos capture the Pepper story in its hard-edged, simple but driven lyricism. A shot in Claxton's coffee-table-style book Jazz shows Art in suit, sax in hand, nearing the top of a hill in LA, a deserted street, the walk seems a struggle, Art's face unemotional impassive. It's a black-and-white poem to the man's overwrought determination to make it, or make something out of the chaos closing in and threatening to implode on the moments of serenity. Terry Southern describes the photo as capturing the uphill struggle of the man- tongue-in-cheek literality never did anyone any harm, but did he notice the way he holds his instrument? Again, risking clichˇ it seems not only an extension of him but the thing that makes him him. A dangerous accomplice, sax punk sax thug.

So to Smack Up, recorded October 1960, which captures the man's ornery charm, mellifluous malevolence. No one could stand in his way when he was in this kind of mood. The group playing with him are picked from the West Coast scene, give formidable backing, but at no moment do you sense rivalry in the air. It's the Art Pepper implosion show, and he grips all the way. Afro-Cuban rhythms reflect Dizzy splashed with Horace Silver in 'Las Cuevas de Mario', a lilting syncopation reinforcing the imperturbable flow, and you could argue that the spirit of Bird is with him all the way. But what spirit: the logical flow of the playing is undeniable, upupandaway coasttocoast on a journey to fusion between man and instrument.

The West Coast sound, where even at full throttle there's an extra gear waiting in abeyance, but unnecessary, as the momentum carries the players forward, no histrionics, no impediment to the artful spin of the precious thread. The thread which winds through the impassioned grind of the title track, where the gauntlet is thrown down: there's no shoe-gazing here, smack up or ship out. The sense of risk informs the jaunty roseate glow of 'How Can You Lose', Art hustles his players along, Frank Butler's drumming easeful in its accomplishment, Pete Jolly tripping along on piano - like Paul Newman chalking his cue at the pool table, the statement becomes the unanswered question: "how can I lose?" The contemplative side is never far away from view, music this spontaneous is born from the present, but also the days spent in confinement, pondering and smarting from the wounds of ecstasies hard-won and quickly lost, the grim, choked-up perspective of 'Tears Inside'.

Included as extra tracks are takes 33 and 37 of 'Solid Citizens'- testament to the hyperkinetic force of the man's temperament, still probing and luring the rhythms towards new fringes of hushed intensity. The review from Down Beat quoted on the back cover gives further evidence of the zeal and self-flagellatory qualities which went hand in hand for him- whiplash inspiration, he stoked his fires to a pitch of intensity unhealthy for most mortals.

There are many other mighty records by Pepper, and Stan Getz's West Coast sessions are consummate workouts in the same vein, supple subtle but shot through with vigour and an undercurrent of understated loss. But here the fireworks are contained in a single portfolio, never too far away from striking for home in an Ornette Coleman-like groundswell of riveting impulsiveness.

So the Art Pepper-bird was a magpie of sorts, capable of grand expression on the intimate stage of his small groups, but could adapt his performative instincts to other people's projects and still retain the distinctive tone, the melodic leaps and quivering romanticism which come through even on the theme composed for him by Kenton as part of the Innovations project, where he plays himself in a musical drama of multiple personalities, including June Christy and Shelly Manne, luminaries in their own right. Or the sessions with the short-lived but mythically-named (other) Carl Perkins on piano, spawning such cracking performances as 'Long Ago and Far Away'. But through it all, the man's music tells a story, the story of a crack-up, smacking (his bitch) up (the autobiography tells the whole sorry tale), the music which has its visual equivalents not just in the lonely walk through a hostile, unpopulated LA, but films which give the same sense of doom menacing through the shadows.

The embrace of self-destruction as Stanley Baker surrenders to the spray of gunfire out in the snow, unflappable unredeemable, but still spoiling for a fight. Cleo Laine accompanied by John Dankworth on the soundtrack singing "all my sorrow, all my joy, came from loving a thieving boy", the same words which had opened the film in its prison setting, isolated and threatened by sadistic incursions from the inside- Joseph Losey's The Criminal, 1960 British noir thriller with a psychotic edge, further over there than Get Carter even. Or Too Late Blues from 1963, with its authentic jazz soundtrack, Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell accompanying the drama of male inadequacy, dangerously exposed nerve-endings. Bobby Darn and Stella Stevens the musical couple caught in a web of compromise and self-deceit, in short the story of a road not taken, stranded midway uphill with the unforgiving camera-eye to record the failure to take that risk. Too Late Blues by Cassavetes no less, hampered by his own battles with uncomprehending major studio bosses, but the story told remains faithful to its milieu and relevant nearly 40 years on. The shooting style may be conventional, the trappings may lead you to expect a more lightweight, less corrosive melodrama than is actually delivered, but the message is more urgent than being an excuse for a muscle-flexing workout. Cassavetes had more soul than that: though he wrote the role for Clift, and though Darn is impeccable, imagine Art in the lead role. Giving the performance of his life. A performance captured on every record he made. But check out Smack Up- incendiary, none more worthy of being placed on the marble index.

© Marino Guida 1999