Art Pepper steps up

It’s the End-of-the-Academic-Year Death Spiral once again, and the chances of me writing anything very serious in the next few weeks are rather remote. So here’s a little something in the meantime: the conclusion of Art Pepper’s autobiography Straight Life, which recounts a jam session between a strung-out Pepper and the speed-demon bop saxophonist Sonny Stitt. I’ve always loved this passage.

At a certain point, you have to put the horn to your lips and blow.

I was given a gift. I was given a gift in a lot of ways; I was given a gift of being able to endure things, to accept certain things, to be able to accept punishment for things that I did wrong against society, the things that society feels were wrong. And I was able to go to prison. I never informed on anyone. As for music, anything I’ve done has been something that I’ve done “off the top.” I’ve never studied, never practiced. I’m one of those people, I knew it was there. All I had to do was reach for it, just do it.

I remember one time when I was playing at the Black Hawk in San Francisco. I forget the date, but Sonny Stitt was touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic. He came in, and he wanted to jam with me. He came in, and he says, “Can I blow?” I said, ‘Yeah, great” We both play alto, which is . . . It really makes it a contest. But Sonny is one of those guys, that’s the thing with him. It’s a communion. It’s a battle. It’s an ego trip. It’s a testing ground. And that’s the beautiful part of it. It’s like two guys that play great pool wanting to play pool together or two great football teams or two magnificent basketball teams, and just the joy of playing with someone great, being with someone great . . . I guess it’s like James Joyce when he was a kid, you know. He hung out with all the great writers of the day, and he was a little kid, like, with tennis shoes on, and they said, “Look at this lame!” They didn’t use those words in those days. They said, “God, here comes this nut.” And he told them, “I’m great!” And he sat with them, and he loved to be with them, and it ended up that he was great. That’s the way Sonny felt; that’s the way I’ve always felt.

I said, “What do you want to play?” Sonny says, “Let’s play ‘Cherokee.’” That’s a song jazz musicians used to play. The bridge, which is the middle part, has all kinds of chord changes in it. It’s very difficult. If you can play that . . . If some kid came around, and he wanted to play, you’d say “Let’s play ‘Cherokee,’ ” and you’d count it off real fast. I said, “Well, beat it off.” He went, “One-two, one-two;” he was flying. We played the head, the melody, and then he took the first solo. He played, I don’t know, about forty choruses. He played for an hour maybe, did everything that could be done on a saxophone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played if he’d been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one of those looks, “All right, suckah, your turn.” And it’s my job; it’s my gig. I was strung out. I was hooked. I was drunk. I was having a hassle with my wife Diane, who’d threatened to kill herself in our hotel room next door. I had marks on my arm. I thought there were narcs in the club, and I all of a sudden realized that it was me. He’d done all those things, and now I had to put up or shut up or get off or forget it or quit or kill myself or do something.

I forgot everything, and everything came out. I played way over my head. I played completely different than he did. I searched and found my own way, and what I said reached the people. I played myself, and I knew I was right, and the people loved it, and they felt it. I blew and I blew, and when I finally finished I was shaking all over; my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming; the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but I just kind of nodded, and he went, “All right.” And that was it. That’s what it’s all about.

— Art Pepper, Straight Life, 475-76.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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