Review by Robert Pinsky in City Secrets: BOOKS
The Essential Insider's Guide" (2009)

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper

By Art and Laurie Pepper

"Straight Life, by Art and Laurie Pepper" —even the word "by" on the book's cover has a special, bewildering, and exciting meaning: a jazz meaning.

Laurie Pepper gives an elegant, three-sentence preface:

This is a true story, a tape recorded narrative by Art Pepper (and those who've known him) which I have transcribed and edited. In order to avoid embarrassing a number of people, some details have been changed and pseudonyms are occasionally used. Attitudes, intentions, and feelings attributed by Art Pepper to anyone besides himself should be understood by the reader to be Art's impressions, not fact.

The emphasis on truth and the subjectivity of truth; the sleek plainness of the statement introducing a furious, wild set of variations and evolutions; the spontaneity and calculation of spoken narrative, the collaboration and the idiosyncrasy; the laconic irony and the implicit passion: all these have a jazz quality, emphasized and deepened by Straight Life's epigraph:

What is the use of talking and there is no end of talking
There is no end of things in the heart.
                  —Ezra Pound

The book is talked and it is composed, from Art Pepper's heart and in his voice. It has the qualities I admire in writing, though it was not literally "written" but spoken by its main author.

The material of this life story is mostly hard drugs and jazz music, and its action is the agony of self-destruction and self-preservation. The way I remember passages in Dickens, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky, I remember Pepper's account of the first time he takes heroin and his account of making his historic recording Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section with Miles Davis's rhythm section—Pepper playing with those master sidemen while he was strung out, with a horn needing repair, the instrument neglected because he hadn't practiced for six months. Having been either in prison or stoned, Pepper hadn't heard current tunes like "Imagination;" Red Garland played the head melody once, and Art Pepper played an approximate version of it, later (rightly) praised by critics for its inventive quality.

Art Pepper has no interest in making jazz or drugs romantic. There is no glamorous bullshit here—though there are heroes, like the producer Les Koenig, who defied the Loyalty Oath and the HUAC scoundrels, leaving movies for music. Pepper hates hypocrisy and complacency. The style of his book, like the style of real poetry, disrupts ease with discovery. Pepper's description of the night he dueled with his rival Sonny Stitt, the two saxophone players challenging one another with multiple choruses of improvisation, is exciting—but the narrative of that cutting session is as grim and doomed and realistic as battles in The Iliad.

Media Contact:
Terri Hinte