Art Pepper-The Life And Times Of A Swinging Saxophonist

Art Pepper-The Life And Times Of A Swinging Saxophonist

Art Pepper was THE quintessential West Coast alto saxophonist of the 1950’s and 60’s.  His beautiful alto saxophone sound and infectious sense of swing made him a star on the Los Angeles jazz scene at an early age.  Strikingly handsome, some of his finest playing was captured early in his career on Aladin Records, and subsequently reissued on vinyl on the Blue Note label in the 1970’s and on CD in the 1980’s.  Art’s later playing became rougher and less interesting to me personally, but his late experiments with the clarinet I find very satisfying.  While not the most harmonically advanced saxophonist of all time, his solos typically swing like crazy and have some interesting harmonic devices that are typical of the swing era.  Art Pepper is well worth listening to, and certainly made quite an impact on the jazz world in his storied career.  His saxophone playing was influenced by rock, funk and some of the free jazz experiments of John Coltrane in the 1970’s.  Unfortunately this period of Art’s music is not my favorite, although you will find some interesting things during those years if you dig hard enough.  To me, the early Art Pepper recordings are the definitive saxophone work of the man.

The Art Pepper Wikipedia entry can be found here……  However, the story of Art’s life and music can only be partially told in a Wikipedia entry.  A more complete picture can be gleaned by reading the sometimes heartbreaking biography by Art’s widow Laurie Pepper entitled Straight Life. 

One must be prepared for the details and descriptions of their life together.  Art did some time in prison for drug related offenses, and he was not always a model citizen.  But he was a gifted and natural musician, and his life should be celebrated for the incredible music he left behind.  Another companion piece that shows in living color part of Art’s life is the DVD Notes From A Jazz Survivor. 

Laurie Pepper also managed to write a second book about Art Pepper, entitled Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman. 

From my perspective this book was really an attempt by Laurie to thrust Art back into the limelight in the new millenium, and it is not particularly interesting nor does it offer anything really new about Art Pepper.  In fact many of the events recounted in this second book are mere rehashes of previously documented stories.  I understand that the author likely felt the need to relate these memories from her own unique perspective; nevertheless, in my opinion, don’t take the time to read Junkie Jazzman unless you are a strict Art Pepper completist.

I have long listened to and played along with many Art Pepper recordings.  His intonation and tone in the early years are very solid, his swinging ideas and phrases well worth studying. I return often to his solo on Birk’s Works, from the seminal recording Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section.  This may very well be the definitive Art Pepper recording, and I really love how this solo unfolds, having learned it by ear many years ago.  I did my best to transcribe this solo, which is over a minor blues progression in the key of G minor for the alto saxophone.  Play through this solo and see for yourself what a fine example of improvisation this is, it is the perfect introduction to Art Pepper’s saxophone work…..

Birks Works:AP

Another tasty musical treat from this recording is Art’s solo on the classic jazz standard You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.  I can’t get enough of this solo; aspiring jazz improvisers should thoroughly master this tune, and this solo should help you to see how an experienced jazz musician works his way through these classic chord changes.  Draw some conclusions from what you hear and don’t be afraid to pull out and play often any phrases that appeal to you.  This sort of practice is a great way to develop jazz phrasing and melodic vocabulary.

You'd Be So Nice:AP

I am particularly fond of Art’s recording with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh entitled Art Pepper With Warne Marsh from 1956.   

This amazing document shows two Lester Young influenced saxophonists swinging hard on several standard jazz tunes, including All The Things You Are and I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me.  Another standout is Tickle Toe, which was originally recorded by the Count Basie Band and featured a very influential Lester Young solo that was often studied by students of Lennie Tristano.  I am certain that both Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh learned this solo in their studies with Lennie, and we do have evidence that Art knew this solo as well.  I am including an E flat alto sax PDF here of the original Basie Band/Lester version, including the melody and chord changes, that I put together while learning this tune myself. 

Tickle Toe Complete Eb


In addition to that I am including here a pdf of Art’s solo on Tickle Toe from this recording.  It is quite clear that Art and Warne were very moved by the musical example set by Lester…..

Tickle Toe:AP Solo

Free Wheeling, which features  the unheralded  tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, Warne Marsh and Art, was recorded on the same day, November 26th, in 1956.  Again this early period for Art is just sublime, and this recording shows the influence of Lester Young in great detail.  On the tune Broadway, again initially recorded by Lester with the Basie Band, the three horns combine to play the famous Lester Young solo.  If you love swing influenced, horn heavy jazz, this recording is a must have item.  I have transcribed some of the tenor solos on this recording and plan to post those in a blog post about Warne Marsh that I’ve been working on for some time now.  These two recordings were issued together on a disc called The Complete Free Wheeling Sessions on LoneHill Records, LHJ10236.  The two different recordings are actually culled from one long recording session done that same day; what an amazing collection of music these recordings represent.

Art and Warne had a long association while Art was alive and playing in Los Angeles.  While I do not have first hand knowledge of this, it is clear that they often jammed together at Donte’s jazz club in LA in the 1970’s.  A recent project of Laurie Pepper’s was the issuing of a live three CD set entitled Unreleased Art: Volume 9-Art Pepper & Warne Marsh at Donte’s April 26, 1974.  She put this out on her Widow’s Taste label, and I purchased it through CD Baby.  There is some incredible interplay between these two jazz cats, and Warne in particular plays some really incredible improvisations.  His solo on Donna Lee on disc 1 is breathtaking.

West Coast jazz was sometimes considered by East Coast jazz musicians and critics to be a watered down, “cool” version of the real thing.  While I don’t agree with this thinking at all, it was prevalent at the time and to some extent that perception still persists today.  Again our friends at LoneHill Jazz have reissued a fabulous recording entitled Chet Baker & Art Pepper-Complete Recordings, LHJ 10274, recorded in and around the summer of 1956.  There is much to admire about these quintessential recordings that capture these West Coast musicians at the peak of their powers.  This is an incredible recorded document that to me shows how unique and stylized a young Art Pepper was at this point in his early period.  I would be remiss in not including a link to the West Coast trumpet star Chet Baker, a tortured soul and jazz great if there ever was one…… more about Chet Baker at Wikipedia here…….

Art Pepper, after many hard living years, made an attempt to break into the lucrative recording studio scene that existed in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Movie soundtrack composer Henry Mancini, best known as the composer of the Pink Panther theme, made a recording entitled Combo, RCA Victor LP 2258 in 1960.  Much to my surprise I found Art Pepper played a small yet important part on this recording, playing clarinet and alto saxophone on about half the recording.  While not much more than a footnote to his career, his playing on this recording is notable for its excellence and authenticity.  In particular his clarinet and alto sax solos on Sidewalks Of Cuba stand out for their punchy, jaunty demeanor.  Art manages to sound just a little like his hero Benny Goodman on clarinet on this track.

One of the first blog posts I wrote detailed my all time favorite clarinet solo, Art’s solo on In A Mello Tone from the duo recording with pianist George Cables. I have quite a bit of transcribed material of his clarinet solos that I plan to post in the near future, but for now, if you have the time, review what I said about his clarinet playing in this earlier post.  Art Pepper’s clarinet playing is an absolute thing of beauty…….

Art Pepper was a giant on both saxophone and clarinet, and his early playing is a perfect example of a melodic and swinging style that all students of improvisation can learn a lot from.  An iconic jazz musician to be sure, and a legacy that, for all it’s faults and foibles, surely stands the test of time and places Art Pepper in the Jazz Musicians Hall of Fame.  As they say……Art Lives!

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