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ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman Paperback – May 8, 2014
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REVIEW BY C. MICHAEL BAILEY in ALL ABOUT JAZZ
About two-thirds the way through her memoir, ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman Laurie Pepper plants her spear in the dirt and declares the obvious:
"A question I ask myself is if Art hadn't had me there constantly assessing his mood, taking his aesthetic temperature, would he then have had to push his vision by himself? I think somebody else, another friend or lover, might have done it...But what matters here, to me in my story, is that I played an important part in projects of undoubted value and knew it at the time and was thrilled and am proud now."
And it is about time.
Thirty-five years after the original publication of Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper (Da Capo, 1994, revised edition) Laurie Pepper has finally put a fine point on a hard truth. What she enabled was a behaviorally-difficult, emotionally stunted genius to take root and flower late, producing art of enduring beauty and significance. This book has Art Pepper mentioned in it, but it is not about him. It is about Laurie Pepper and what she has to teach us about life on its own terms and that one does not merely wish to endure, but ultimately prevail.
Is Laurie Pepper's book about music?
During her cathartic coda, Laurie Pepper becomes nakedly candid about her feelings and motivations. She shares both an incredibly painful and stark life episode juxtaposed against a youthful, innocent and sensual experience, finally equating the two experiences in a summation of her troubled and brilliant husband:
"At his best, Art found beauty in everything, even in harshness, pain, and violence. And in his music, if you pay attention, you can hear the promise. The promise is the moment of a held breath when you know, you know it is all beauty and you are reconciled with your existence in this world."
It is all beauty and you are reconciled with your existence in this world.”
Review by Lance Liddle in BEBOP SPOKEN HERE
One of the pivotal moments of my life was hearing Art Pepper in concert at, what was then, Newcastle's University Theatre. I was stunned! I'd never heard alto playing like it, nor had I witnessed a person visibly being destroyed by demons and being so able to rise above it. This was akin to the second coming of Christ (Charlie Parker) and I left in a state of shock. The following day, which would be May 11, 1981, I bought every Art Pepper album I could lay my hands on. This wasn't difficult as I worked in a Newcastle music store.
Another pivotal moment was the autobiographical tome Straight Life written by Laurie Pepper from taped conversations with Art. This was a harrowing, unputdownable read that caused my friend, the late Brian Fisher, to say it made Anita O'Day seem like a nun! After reading ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman, I'm tempted to say that Laurie makes the Art of Straight Life seem like a monk and I don't mean Thelonious!
It's a remarkable book written, this time, from her perspective rather than her husband's and it is as equally compelling as the first book. The two are inseparable. If you've read Straight Life then you must read this. If you read this one first then seek out Straight Life.
In passing, yes it's jazz history, but it's also a very powerful love story. A strange and unconventional love story but these are strange and unconventional people. One an artist capable of overcoming a mountain of setbacks to produce some of the greatest modern jazz ever heard. The other a writer inspired by - and able to inspire - a genius. The title, laid on Laurie by an Australian journalist long before the book's conception, was recalled and proved a flawless choice in describing two far from flawless people! Together they have plumbed the depths and reached the heights. It is the latter position Laurie Pepper has achieved with this book (and Straight Life).
About the Author
Laurie Pepper was born in 1940 in Los Angeles to a family of radicals and artists. She grew up in New York and Los Angeles, attended U.C. Berkeley, and was photographer for the legendary L.A. Free Press during the 1960s but went astray and wound up in rehab where she met Art Pepper. Since Art’s death in 1982, she has continued to produce and promote his music. Her very small label, Widow’s Taste, has released a new album of previously unreleased Art Pepper performances every year since 2006.
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Art Pepper was a musical genius. He was, like many geniuses, especially musical geniuses, charming, amusing, and difficult. Laurie's two main tasks in their relationship seemed to be getting and keeping him straight (off drugs) and getting him and his group to the stage on time. She gives us the nitty gritty on what it took to do this.
"Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman" opens to us a love affair, a marriage, as well as the 'jazz scene' of the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's and Art and Laurie's travels in Europe and Asia. Art played. Laurie saw the insides of airports, hotels, clubs, eateries, hotels and airports - not a Cook's Tour.
She doesn't spare us, herself, or Art. The title says it all: Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman. But do read the whole story. Fascinating. Ms. Pepper's truth comes shining through humor, affection, love, and loss, but most of all love.
I hadn't read a book cover to cover in quite some time, but was enthralled with Laurie's writing style and the beautiful way that she helped Art tell his story in "Straight Life." The vivid portrait she helped to paint in the telling of that story moved me deeply. I finished that book in a matter of days, feeling both sad that it was over, and wishing there was more of Art and Laurie's life to experience.
Now comes this book, Laurie's follow up, which fulfilled that desire for more, and then some. The story told from Laurie's perspective is perhaps even more evocative and compelling than the story told in "Straight Life". Her honesty, humor and lyrical descriptive prose made this book a riveting joy to read. She describes scenes, and the emotional detail of events with such beauty and insight that I found myself re-reading sections much the same way one might be captivated and rendered speechless by a beautiful piece of music, and needing immediately to hit replay to experience it again. Laurie's narrative is truly that magical.
I highly recommend this book to musicians and lovers of Art Pepper, but also to anyone who appreciates a life story told with honesty, humor and humility. This is more a life portrait than a mere recounting of events. You can see, smell, taste and feel the world that Laurie describes, and again I'm left wanting more. I eagerly await the next musings from the great author/artist Laurie Pepper.
Although I’ve read “Straight Life” a couple of times over the years prior to reading this book, I don’t feel it’s a prerequisite to enjoying this book. Nor do I think you have to be greatly familiar with Art’s music - wouldn’t hurt though. This book does a nice job picking up from “Straight Life” where Art enters Synanon (and meets Laurie) and then takes us through the final years to the end of Art’s life. It’s definitely a warts and all ride to the end. We get to see that it wasn’t all smooth sailing when Art and Laurie left Synanon.
There seems to be a never-ending river of people on the sidelines and out of the limelight that serve great artists out of love and respect--facilitating beauty entering into our world. It’s rather obvious but still merits pointing out that Art was very lucky to have Laurie in his life.
When so many of these types of books fall short discussing artists and their lives, it’s real nice to run across one that doesn’t dumb things down, is thoughtful, and just works. Thank you Laurie.