Art Pepper Biography

1 September 1925, Gardena, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 15 June 1982, Panorama City, California, USA. Pepper started out on clarinet at the age of nine, switching to alto saxophone four years later. After appearing in school groups, he first played professionally with Gus Arnheim’s band. During his mid-teens he developed his jazz style sitting in with otherwise all-black bands along Los Angeles’ Central Avenue. After leaving Arnheim he worked with Dexter Gordon in Lee Young’s band at the Club Alabam. He then joined Benny Carter, playing alongside artists such as Gerald Wilson, Freddie Webster and J.J. Johnson. In 1943 Pepper joined Stan Kenton but soon afterwards was drafted into the US Army, spending most of his wartime service in England.

In 1946 Pepper rejoined Kenton, staying with the band until 1951. That year he also recorded with Shorty Rogers, playing a marvellous version of ‘Over The Rainbow’, a tune he would regularly play over the years. Later, he appeared on Rogers’Cool And Crazy album. Pepper subsequently freelanced around Los Angeles, performing many record dates, some under his own name, and usually playing extremely well. Nevertheless, his career in the 50s and 60s was marred by his drug addiction and interrupted by several prison sentences. At the end of the 60s Pepper began a slow, uphill fight against his addiction, a struggle that was eventually successful and heralded his re-emergence in the mid-70s as a major figure on the international jazz scene. In the last years of his life, he produced a rich crop of recordings, including Winter Moon, an album with strings (a long-held ambition of Pepper’s), the three-album set Live At The Village Vanguard (a fourth volume appeared posthumously) and two records recorded live in London under the name of pianist Milcho Leviev, Blues For The Fisherman andTrue Blues.

Early in his career Pepper played with a light airy tone, through which burned a rare intensity of emotion that reflected his admiration for Charlie Parker and the lessons he learned playing with Carter. After his rehabilitation and a period playing tenor saxophone, on which instrument he showed both the influence of Lester Young and an awareness of John Coltrane, Pepper developed a strong, bop-rooted alto style that retained much of the richly melodic elements of his earlier playing. Pepper’s life story was memorably recounted in his candid autobiography and a subsequent film, Art Pepper: Notes From A Jazz Survivor, which offered a potent and harshly unsentimental lesson for any young musician contemplating the use of addictive drugs.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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