Art Pepper

Art Pepper

Pepper in Los Angeles, 1979
Background information
Birth name Arthur Edward Pepper, Jr.
Born (1925-09-01)September 1, 1925
Gardena, California, U.S.
Died June 15, 1982(1982-06-15) (aged 56)
Los Angeles, California
Genres Jazz, West Coast jazz, cool jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Saxophone, clarinet
Years active 1946–1982
Labels Savoy, Discovery, Pacific Jazz, Contemporary, Fresh Sound, Galaxy, Xanadu , Intro, Score.
Associated acts Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Johnny Griffin, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Zoot Sims, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Higgins

Arthur Edward Pepper, Jr. (September 1, 1925 – June 15, 1982)[1] was an American alto saxophonist and clarinetist. A longtime figure in West coast jazz, Pepper came to prominence in Stan Kenton's big band. He was known for his emotionally charged performances and several stylistic shifts throughout his career, and was described by critic Scott Yanow as "the world's great altoist" at the time of his death.[2]

Early life

Art Pepper was born in Gardena, California, on September 1, 1925.[3] His mother was a 14-year-old runaway; his father, a merchant seaman. Both were violent alcoholics, and when Art was still quite young he was sent to live with his paternal grandmother. He expressed early musical interest and talent, and he was given lessons. He began playing clarinet at nine, switched to alto saxophone at 13 and immediately began jamming on Central Avenue, the black nightclub district of Los Angeles.


At the age of 17 he began playing professionally with Benny Carter and then became part of the Stan Kenton orchestra, touring with that band until he was drafted in 1943. After the war he returned to Los Angeles and joined the Kenton Innovations Orchestra. By the 1950s Pepper was recognized as one of the leading alto saxophonists in jazz, finishing second only to Charlie Parker as Best Alto Saxophonist in the Down Beat magazine Readers Poll of 1952. Along with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne, and perhaps due more to geography than playing style, Pepper is often associated with the musical movement known as West Coast jazz, as contrasted with the East Coast (or "hot") jazz of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Some of Pepper's most famous albums from the 1950s are Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, Art Pepper + Eleven - Modern Jazz Classics, Gettin' Together, and Smack Up. Representative music from this time appears on The Aladdin Recordings (three volumes), The Early Show, The Late Show, The Complete Surf Ride, and The Way It Was!, which features a session recorded with Warne Marsh.

His career was repeatedly interrupted by several prison stints stemming from his addiction to heroin, but Pepper managed to have several memorable and productive "comebacks". Remarkably, his substance abuse and legal travails did not affect the quality of his recordings, which maintained a high level of musicianship throughout his career until his death from a brain hemorrhage in 1982.

His last comeback saw Pepper, who had started his career in Stan Kenton's big band, becoming a member of Buddy Rich's Big Band from 1968 to 1969. During the mid-1970s and early 1980s he toured Europe and Japan with his own groups and recorded dozens of albums, mostly for Fantasy Records.

Personal life

Pepper lived for many years in the hills of Echo Park, in Los Angeles. He had become a heroin addict in the 1940s, and his career was interrupted by drug-related prison sentences in 1954–56, 1960–61, 1961–64 and 1964–65; the final two sentences were served in San Quentin.[1] While in San Quentin he played in an ensemble with saxophonist Frank Morgan.[4] In the late 1960s Pepper spent time in Synanon, a drug rehabilitation group.

After beginning methadone therapy in the mid-1970s, Art had a musical comeback and recorded a series of albums including Living Legend, Art Pepper Today, Among Friends, and Live in Japan: Vol. 2.

His autobiography,[5] Straight Life (1980, co-written with his third wife Laurie Pepper), discusses the jazz music world, as well as drug and criminal subcultures of mid-20th century California. Soon after the publication of this book, the director Don McGlynn released the documentary film Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor,[6] discussing his life and featuring interviews with both Art and his wife Laurie, as well as footage from a live performance in Malibu jazz club. Laurie Pepper also released an interview to NPR.

Pepper died of a stroke in Los Angeles on June 15, 1982, aged 56.[5][7] He is interred in the Abbey of the Psalms Mausoleum in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood.


Stan Kenton, Eddie Safranski, Shelly Manne, Chico Alvarez, Ray Wetzel, Harry Betts, Bob Cooper, and Art Pepper (second from right), 1947 or 1948

As leader

With Chet Baker

With Jerry Fielding

With Jack Nitzsche

As a sideman


Published transcriptions:

Transcriptions available on the Internet:


Pepper's most famous composition is probably "Straight Life". Composed long before the autobiography of the same title was published, it features the jagged lines he typically played and was typically played at a breakneck tempo. It was recorded numerous times by Pepper, both in his "early" period and his "later" years. Perhaps the most famous version was included on the 1957 Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section.

His other compositions include: "The Trip", "Red Car", "Gettin' Together", "Ol' Croix", "Tynan Time", "Minor Yours", "Diane", "Blues at Twilight", "Bijou the Poodle", "Pepper Pot", "Val's Pal", "Chili Pepper", "Art's Opus", "Brown Gold", "Zenobia", "Angel Wings", "Junior Cat", "Pepper Steak", "Straight Life", "Tenor Blooz", "Walkin' Out Blues", "Patricia", "Five More", "Minority", "Mambo de la Pinta", "Surf Ride", "Las Cuevas De Mario", "Our Song", "Among Friends", "That's Love", "Waltz Me Blues", "Labyrinth", "Make A List", "Pepper Returns", "True Blues", "Landscape", "Miss Who", "Mambo Koyama", "Ophelia", "Lost Life", "Dynaflow" with Stan Kenton and "Funny Blues".


A more extensive bibliography is issued by the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt


  1. 1 2 Slonimsky, Nicolas; Theodore Baker (1992). Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition. New York, New York: Schirmer Books.
  2. Yannow, Scott. Art Pepper Biography from, accessed 12 September 2016
  3. Dupuis, Robert. "Art Pepper." Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Vol. 18. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997. 164-67. Print.
  4. "Frank Morgan On Piano Jazz." Interview by Marian McPartland. NPR Music. N.p., 30 May 2008. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <>
  5. 1 2 Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper by Art Pepper and Laurie Pepper, Da Capo Press (reprint of original 1979 book published by Schirmer Books, a division of MacMillan Publishing).
  6. See the New York Times review of the movie.
  7. Rhythm-a-ning: jazz tradition and innovation in the '80s By Gary Giddins. Da Capo Press. p. 106

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