ART PEPPER: LAST CONCERT
Kool Jazz Festival, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
(With Roger Kellaway, David Williams, Carl Burnett; mastered by Wayne Peet)
In his autobiography, "Straight Life," Art said:
"[As a child,] I built up my own play world. I loved sports, and I'd play I was a boxer or a football player. …Boxing was the one I really got carried away with. At that time Joe Louis was coming up as a heavyweight. I would go out in the garage and pretend I was a fighter. I had a little box I sat on. I'd hear an imaginary bell and get up in this old garage and fight, and it was actually as if I was in the ring. Sometimes I'd get hit and fall down and be stunned, and I'd hear the referee counting, and I'd get up at the last minute, and just when everybody thought I was beaten, I'd catch my opponent with a left hook. And then I'd have him against the ropes. I'd knock him out, and everybody would scream and throw money into the ring and holler for me, and I'd hold my hands together and wave to the crowd."
On May 30, 1982, Art Pepper performed in the last concert of his last tour. This is the concert.
He was 56 and was standing, victorious, at the end of the battle: his life. His ups and downs were legendary, because his talent was so remarkable and his drugged-out desperation and incarcerations so notorious. But, at the last minute, as in his childhood play, he triumphed. He had turned all of his fraught energy, at last, to music, recording, by the end, hundreds of albums, composing hundreds of tunes, all exceptional, because it wasn't in his nature to tolerate anything less. Ever.
He was at the top of his form, here, just a few weeks before a cerebral hemorrhage took his life. And he played, here, with his characteristic desperate energy. He said it himself. "At my age, things happen. I know that every song might be my last." He wanted each performance to be indelible. This one is. People who were there still talk about how sublime it was.
Art's last comeback began in 1975 with the release of the "Living Legend" album on Contemporary. But it was only after publication of his autobiography, "Straight Life," at the end of '79, that the touring and recording really began. And then, as publicity piled up and club owners and promoters learned that this popular but volatile artist could be relied on to be punctual and prepared and unfailingly brilliant, the gigs began to come nonstop. We'd been touring almost continuously when we arrived at the Kool Jazz Festival.
The following excerpt from a memoir I've been working on gives some background on this album.
The May tour was Milwaukee, Chicago, and D.C. Our regular band at that time was George Cables, Art's favorite pianist, David Williams, bass, and Carl Burnett on drums. But George had been offered another, much better paying gig (as Sarah Vaughan's music director), so he couldn't make this tour with us. Against Art's mild misgivings, I chose Roger Kellaway. He was a composer and arranger, and, as a pianist, an extraordinary technician and performer in the fiery, ornamental mold of (Art's ex-pianist) Milcho Leviev. But Roger was quite famous, had had a hit with the theme for the tv show, "All In the Family." He had scored a number of movies, had written a ballet for Balanchine, no less, and so on. Art disliked his hearty benevolence and resented his financial success. Yet Roger'd been soulful and inspiring when he'd sat in on some local nightclub gigs, and he had read and played wonderfully at first sight some of Art's most complicated charts.
At that time, Kellaway didn't do a lot of touring. The money he'd get for a week on the road was less than he made for a few hours work in the studios at home in L.A. Nevertheless, his respect for Art was enormous, and I guess he thought touring with him would be a lark, fun.
Art rarely found touring larky. He did it for the money, to expand his fame, and to prove himself. He correctly considered the performance of live jazz to be right up there with Olympic contests in rigor and cruciality.
On the first night at the Jazz Gallery in Milwaukee, Roger partied. Before the show and between sets he drank, got drunk, and thus, not only did he communicate an insulting view of the proceedings, but he screwed up the charts. He played wrong.
I'd never seen Art so... steely. At the end of the night, Art called a rehearsal for the following afternoon. He didn't blame Roger, just said the band needed work. And then he rehearsed them for five hours, leaving them (and himself) only enough time to eat, shower, dress, and return to the club and play for five more hours. I felt sorry for Carl and David who knew the tunes by heart, but they toughed it out, grinned and worked their way through every single chart.
And Roger, who'd been accused of nothing, mind you, he apologized to everyone, went to work and learned the music. And he played like an angel for the rest of the tour.
The second night, seeing all was smooth, I stepped out during the first set for some food. When I returned to the club, Art told me that he'd sung! "And you missed it!"
Art couldn't sing. All the notes came out the same.
I turned to Carl. "He sang?"
"Not for very long."
"What did you sing?" I asked.
"Ohhhh, my baby left me, ohhhh," Art droned. "I finally did it!" He was so happy.
We were only in Milwaukee for two and a half days and went on from there to a difficult and poorly coordinated part of the Kool Jazz Festival at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. No on-stage monitors, no dressing rooms, no food (look at the annoyed expressions on the faces of the band in the accompanying photo). The town was filled with musicians. There were concerts everywhere.
While in Chicago, the magazine's hometown, I introduced myself to the editor of downbeat, historic bible of American jazz. I asked him to put Art's picture on the cover. It had been promised but had fallen through in '77. I bluntly said I supposed he knew Art wasn't long for this world. The young fellow coolly informed me they'd featured too many saxophonists recently. He couldn't do another one.
His manner grew chilly the moment Art was mentioned, and something in the way he dismissed him as another saxophone player made me wonder whether there'd been some slight somewhere along the line. I encountered people like him from time to time who just hated Art. Either they felt he'd snubbed them, personally, or they resented his seeming irresponsibility, his romantic, bad-boy image and his enormous talent, all of which got him the mad love of his fans. Anyway, with this guy I could tell there wasn't a hope.
I was drinking in Chicago, and that made me emotional, and so this failure rocked me. I think I cried over it, and I did what I always do when I'm upset. I wrote. A letter. Witty and cutting and self-righteous, I'm sure. I scrawled it on a paper placemat or an envelope and didn't send it (or, ultimately, keep it), but I read it to Art, who consoled me. He assured me that after he died they'd vote him into the downbeat Hall of Fame.
We continued to D.C. where our hotel looked out on the Watergate apartments, and Art performed on the night of the day we arrived -- in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center.
There was a historic reunion backstage. Zoot Sims was on the bill and showed up in the green room. Art was as happy as a kid to see him. They'd been kids together, and Art talked about that later in his on-stage patter.
As I stood in the wings before the guys went on, I was approached by a man from Voice of America. He wanted to record the show for broadcast. The rumor was that one of the evening's performers, Benny Goodman, had refused, saying VOA was staffed by Nazi war criminals. I remembered Milcho Leviev's eloquence on the importance to him, during his early life in Bulgaria, of VOA's clandestine broadcasts.
I asked the guy, "Are there ex-Nazis working at Voice of America?"
"Absolutely not," he answered.
"Fine," I said. I let him tape the show. Before the band went on, a functionary of the festival reviewed the schedule with Art: He'd been given ten extra minutes. We thought that meant he'd do a 70 minute set. Then Art, as usual, discussed the tunes with me.
He always began with what he called "a flag waver," a familiar up-tempo blues that swung hard; then he'd move on to something challenging, a medium tempo song, something in 3/4 or 6/8 time, a tune with interesting chord changes and structure and varying moods for the audience to really listen to, now that he'd gotten their attention. After that, he'd bring on something weird or funky or a Latin chart that really swung. And it was at this point that the audience, well warmed up, and if the mood was right, often stood and started cheering solos. After that, a bebop standard, crisp and sure and dazzling -- just to blow away the classicists and remind everyone this really was a jazz concert. Then a ballad, usually a tour de force of emotion and energy. Then, and only then, when they were completely won over and calm, and their ears were adjusted to fewer decibels, he'd play the clarinet.
Since he'd taken it up again, seriously, Art was always looking for good clarinet tunes. Old fashioned songs worked well, and lately he'd been playing "When You're Smiling," a perfect tune for what always seemed to me that plaintive, childlike voice, so hard to mike, so easy to drown out. And then he'd close the set with another flag-waver, really difficult and lightning fast and hot: Art's "Straight Life" or Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee." "Straight Life" ended by racing to a sudden, shocking stop: All that noise and speed and then a crashing silence, a moment like an implosion. There'd be this glowing vaccuum......... and the audience would be compelled to fill it up with screams and cheers and loud applause.
And then, for an encore, usually a slooowwww, grieving, groaning, shouting, screaming, preaching, whispering, chuckling blues (my favorite part).
We organized this set: "Landscape" would be the opener; then "Ophelia," "Mambo Koyama," "Over the Rainbow," "When You're Smiling," and "Straight Life," omitting the bebop standard and the encore. Art would keep his solos short, and the guys would do the same.
Art walked onto the stage to greet a full house of knowledgeable, cheering fans. He didn't let that carry him away. Like many criminals, he was punctilious about following rules, and he monitored the clock with care. The set was stunning, and he'd reached the end of "When You're Smiling"(he dedicated it to Zoot Sims) when someone in the wings signaled him to leave the stage.
From my seat out at the sound board in the audience I saw Art shake his head and point at his watch. I looked at my own. He had ten minutes left. Someone in the wings got more insistent.
"I'm not done yet. I got more time. I want to play another song."
The audience grew restive, began a chant against the management, demanding "more." You can hear them on the tape.
"I'm not finished," we heard Art say. "I want to play just one more song."
We'd been given bad instructions. Or we'd misunderstood them.
Art walked toward the wings to discuss the matter, but the invisible personage convinced him that he had to end his set. He walked back to center stage, gesturing at the audience to sit down and take the disappointment graciously as he would try to do. He waved goodbye.
"When You're Smiling" was the last song Art ever played. He played it on clarinet, his very first horn, in his youngest voice, and he said he wasn't done. Ten days later he was in a coma. Six days after that he died.
Beauty tells us "all is well." Right now, in the shimmering moment, if we will only pay attention. Art found beauty in every thing, even in harshness and violence. That's what artists do. And when Art plays, if we pay attention, we know it is all beauty. And we are reconciled with our existence in this world.
A few months after his death, Art was inducted into the downbeat hall of fame.