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Art Pepper

You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To

Part Nine Chapter 13

‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To’: Easy and elegant, Art Pepper blows his pinched and jittery tone through the changes of Cole Porter’s urbanity. The alto sax brings a brooding quality to the bouncy melody, telling us insouciance is not all it’s cut out to be. I think of Straight Life, Art’s brutally honest autobiography; I think of the abortion his mother wanted him to be: Something in his tone remembers—his lyricism is all the more moving for being naked and raw.

Posted by kind permission of Les Tomkins

If you have individuality in music, it’s something to hold on to. In Lester Young’s playing there was the beauty of music; it was melodic, swinging, a beautiful sound—everything was there. Then when he got older, with so many people telling him he should play like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins or something, all of a sudden he started playing louder and with a vibrato—and just destroyed himself. It was such a shame, just awful.

But it’s very hard to be an individual. When I joined Kenton the second time, after the Army, everybody listened to Charlie Parker records or classical records, or Woody Herman, you know. They’re all saying: “Oh, that’s the greatest player in the world. Nobody can play like him,” and all that. And it was really a drag at that point, to be thought of as nothing, in comparison to Charlie Parker. He’s the only person that’s saying anything. Which I disagreed with—but it didn’t change the way they felt. So it was hard to keep playing yourself, because people really try to change you. Fortunately, I was able to hold my own. Until I heard John Coltrane, and then I fell by the wayside for a little while. But fortunately again, I’m back to myself again. I didn’t feel it was a hang-up to be in the Coltrane bag, other people thought it was. They changed; see, when it was Charlie Parker, then it would be okay to play like Parker, but Coltrane, it wouldn’t be okay to play like him, I don’t know why. They must have had some reason.

But I thought it just helped my growth as a musician, going through the Coltrane thing. If I had stayed playing like him, then it would have been bad. It was just like you go to school, and take a certain course for a year or a couple of years.

Your technique, your facility becomes that much greater. It helps your approach, you can do so many more things and incorporate them into the way you feel about music, your own feelings about your style. In the long run, it gave me a different dimension, and it just broadened the whole thing.

Art Pepper on Fargo Street in Los Angeles, 1950s
Photo: William Claxton

Photo: Andy Freeberg

The way so many musicians slavishly imitated Coltrane—that’s the way it was with Charlie Parker, only even more so, if that can be imagined. Everyone that I knew changed totally. But they took the worst things of his playing; that harsh sound, it just didn’t come off the way they did it.

The way he did it was great; their way wasn’t good at all. I just would listen to ‘em and say “That’s a Bird imitator”, and that would be it; I would never care to listen to them again.

Alto is just a very hard instrument; there are so few people that play it really well. I feel it’s the best one, too, now. At first I didn’t feel that way—I wanted to be a tenor player. It took a long time for me to feel that alto was the most expressive of the saxophones.

As for that whole West Coast era, it was a great opening to reach the people, even though it made me angry to be pigeonholed like that. Some good records came out of that period, like Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, with the Miles Davis rhythm section of the time—Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Gettin’ Together, on similar lines, was even better.

The next period in my life, because of my addiction problem, was a terrible one. But I don’t think I could have avoided it. I mean, I tried to stay out of it for a long time, knowing what it might do. I think that in my searching for something—for love, acceptance or whatever it is, to be a real man, to relate to my father, and all those things—going to prison was a help. It was part of my evolution, as a human being and as a musician. I feel that I have much deeper feelings now than I would have had, had I just been a musician all that time, which would have been a very dull existence. You know, I wanted something more than just being thought of as a musician, period. To be labelled “Art Pepper, musician”, period, would just be awful, what a boring life that would be. At least I was able to go in a lot of different directions, seeing how things were from another viewpoint. I got to know myself better, definitely; I was seeing what I was capable of, what my feelings were, what my morals were. All those things that are very important. What kind of strength I had, the fact of dealing with certain situations, and with a whole different type of people. People were very honest I found, in that other thing—much more so than musicians. Now, I play music, but I’m not a musician. I don’t know if I’m getting across what I’m trying to say… Yes, what I have become as a person is what matters most.


From an interview with Art Pepper conducted by Les Tomkins in 1979. Originally  transcribed from the pages of Crescendo magazine by Ron Simmonds and posted on his Jazz Professional site, it was subsequently posted on the National Jazz Archive, a site where you will find Les’ other interviews with Art.
Copyright ©1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.

Art Pepper, Stan Kenton Orchestra, 1950 | Photo: Bob Willoughby

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