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May 2001

Todd Selbert
The Art Pepper Companion: Writings on a Jazz Original

Todd Selbert, the editor of a valuable new collection of 30 short pieces about Art Pepper, suggests in his introduction that the best written companion to Pepper’s music is Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper. That’s the late, great altoist’s searingly truthful autobiography (co-written with his wife, Laurie), which documents the bebopper’s life in drugs, sex, violence and crime—as well as music. In short, a life in which one of the few things “straight”—in the legal, not sexual, sense—was Pepper’s unblinking honesty. To those with a newfound love for Pepper, that should be the first book to read.

This book, The Art Pepper Companion, includes pieces by some of the best jazz critics: Whitney Balliett, Ted Gioia, Bob Blumenthal and Dan Morgenstern. But the strongest work on Pepper is by Gary Giddens, who combines unparalleled knowledge of his subject with great clarity and incisiveness as a writer. Selbert saw fit to include four of Giddens’ sharply drawn essays on Pepper, more than any other writer. And Giddens finds Pepper to be a prime case history for the mysteries of jazz. He was a musician who shattered as many stereotypes as he created. “Our fascination with the great white bebopper—of whom there is none greater than Art Pepper—is part envy and part admiration because he got close to the secret world of black culture—that world of genius and fire and bared emotion that promised salvation,” Giddins writes.

Pepper did, indeed, get “close to the secret” of black culture, helping dissolve the persistent myth that jazz has a skin color. But the Californian also got close to the horrors of another, far more insidious culture—the drug culture—helping to build the myth of jazz and junkies. As well as providing the 30 differing glimpses of Pepper, the book also is testimony to the evolution of racial attitudes, as the essays in the book span a period of nearly 40 years, from 1960 to 1998. Many of the authors of the early pieces harp especially on the race issue, and the difference, as T.E. Martin puts it, between “white and Negro jazz.”

If not always good jazz criticism—the analyses range from the sublime to the silly—the book provides engaging snapshots of society and its problems. While the separate pieces indicate that race relations have improved in the past 40 years, they provide evidence that the nation’s relationship with drugs clearly has not. Dave Solomon, writing in the March 1961 issue of Metronome, wrote that “for Art Pepper, America’s medieval drug laws and federal administration have once again decreed that a desperately ill man spend years rotting in a prison cell rather than a few rehabilitative months in a hospital bed.” If Pepper had been alive and using during the last ratcheting up of drug laws, he likely would have died in San Quentin, rather than being released, as he was in 1966, to a second round of successes as a musician. Clearly, the editor wanted this book to be more than just a look inside Pepper’s album covers, and he has succeeded.

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