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When Art came back to jazz in the mid 1970s, he did it hesitantly. He had emerged this time, not from another incarceration but from a complete mental and physical collapse followed by two years in Synanon, a long-term residential drug program. When he left the program in 1972, he got a job as bookkeeper/manager at a fellow Synanoner’s bakery.
Art dreaded what performing music seemed to lead him to. His instability, competitiveness, and perfectionism and the kind of life one lives at night in clubs had always led to drinking and then using. So at first, he didn’t want to play at all, and, anyway––he would have grimly pointed out––no one was asking. Then, at the urging of a horn company (Buffet) who supplied him with shiny brand-new instruments, he started doing jazz clinics at colleges. That was a revelation for him. The students were respectful and admiring. They even called him “Mr. Pepper!” They made him feel important, as if he had something, still, to offer. In 1975, he recorded “Living Legend” for Contemporary, his first album in 15 years. He gave up bookkeeping and began to make a living playing “casuals:” bar-mitzvahs, weddings. And by 1975 he was also playing actual bi-monthly jazz gigs in a quintet assembled by Jack Sheldon – at Dontes, a local nightclub in North Hollywood. Then one night Clint Eastwood walked into the club and asked Art to play on “The Enforcer” soundtrack. The result showcases a spectacular Art Pepper solo during a roof-top foot-chase sequence. Art just loved to do that kind of work. He’s featured later on Eastwood’s “The Gauntlet,” playing mostly baritone sax but he’s effectively and frustratingly drowned out by motorcycles, helicopters, and machine guns.
In hopes of getting more studio work, Art figured he’d better practice “doubling,” playing other woodwinds. So he met weekly with John Magruder’s rehearsal band in Sherman Oaks. He also joined a challenging performing band, Don Ellis’s, in which he played all the horns including flute and even piccolo. And he continued playing casuals. He wasn’t yet as ambitious and, accordingly, as crazed and desperate as he would soon become, craving fame again, and––facing his mortality––urgent in his need to leave a legacy, to be remembered. That ambition was ignited by the 1977 East Coast tour which took him to the Village Vanguard about a year after this recording was made.
Art had already played at Pete Douglas’s Beach House in Half-Moon Bay. That’s where he met his Northern California band, the band appearing here. You can hear them on another album “A Night in Tunisia” (in limited release, recorded at Half-Moon Bay in 1977; it includes my favorite version of Art’s Lost Life). We probably requested this band for this jazz festival at the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga.
I don’t know who recorded Art’s set, but someone did, thank goodness, from the soundboard, and later somebody sent me the tape which was unearthed and digitized by my friend, the archivist, Rocco Bertels when he visited this year. He made it accessible. Recently browsing through the database Rocco created, I saw this listing, said, “Hmm, what’s this?” I found the file and listened. The opening bars of Caravan knocked me out, and I decided it was time to offer the fans some tracks with unfamiliar sidemen, from a different time, and with a slightly different playbook. And still, great music.
I must have been sitting close to the outdoor stage on that September afternoon because the onstage mics picked up my yelps of celebration and encouragement. The music and Art’s talk assure me he was happy. His talk also tells me he was sober (though he played great in any state).
One non-chemical reason Art felt good that day was his pianist. Though he wasn’t and would never become a well-known player outside the bay area, Smith Dobson was a dedicated jazz educator, lecturer and clinician, beloved by students, fans, and by the soloists who worked with him, from Van Morrison (“Quality Street”) to Richie Cole (“Tokyo Madness”). Art classed Smith with the best, and on this recording you’ll hear why. And you’ll hear Art’s heartfelt praise of him. Smith was a wonderful musician and a sweet young man who died untimely.
With Smith we got the excellent Jim Nichols, a bassist and guitarist who recorded with Herbie Harper. And we got burnin’ young Brad Bilhorn. Brad worked with straight ahead jazz guys like Harold Land and with big R&B acts like The Pointer Sisters.
Art liked to start a set with something fiery and swinging. Caravan is both; it’s just a blazing opener. For his second tune Art often played the multi-paced Ophelia, which he said he wrote "for women" –– back in the early sixties. It was inspired by his suicidal, junkie second wife, Diane. The first time I heard it was at the “Living Legend” session.
At that time, even with my untrained ear, I knew Ophelia was exceptional. I loved it. It's a composition that illustrates Art's genius for a dramatic, structured narrative and embodies, in the actual chart, as no standard could, all Art's morphing ambiguities of mood, his subtlety, mystery, and sweetness, his solid, swinging funkiness, and the chaos in his rage. It also maps the full range of his musical experience, from blues and swing to bebop and beyond, his evolution as an artist. Before I heard Ophelia at the “Living Legend” session, I'd based my respect for Art on the opinions of others and then on the effect on me of his beauty and swing. Now Art's music was teaching me how to listen and what to listen for.
Over the next couple of years, Art played Ophelia in club and concert settings and went wild with it, took it everywhere it ought to go. If I were to stretch an emotional truth, I might say that Ophelia, was the beginning of my commitment to Art's music, a commitment that took me beyond my personal tie to him (and to the book we were creating, “Straight Life,” DaCapo) and made me the same kind of crazy for him as the most rabid of his fans. But it wasn't just Ophelia. It was everything he played by the time I met him, as the mature artist he had––in spite of everything he’d done and had done to him––become. At his best, and that is, most of the time, Art took every tune on a trip like this, wrote dozens of narrative compositions, rhythmic and harmonic structures, each of which contained his passion and sustained him when he took that passion through the roof.
And then we have a ballad. I never heard Art play a ballad that wasn’t a perfect combination of tenderness, grief, longing, and all the deep soul stuff he felt so keenly and came to terms with in his music. This time Here’s That Rainy Day is the tune he chose to shape and carry his intense emotion to an empathic audience. Smith’s solo here is pure and profound. Listen to Art’s comment on it.
From the sublime to something a little more basic. The fourth piece is another tune from “Living Legend.” Art called it What Laurie Likes, because I did. And I still do. I’ll never get so hip I won’t want to boogie. Art didn’t believe in categories, but there are always snobs who’ll sneer at a song with an overwhelming beat and a dearth of chords and label it, dismissively, “jazz-rock.” And that affected him, and he stopped playing it. right after this. Art had played “jazz-rock” in Synanon and regularly at casuals, tunes like Watermelon Man, Ode to Billie Joe, etc. Simple, solid tunes like these reminded him of jamming through those funky nights on Central Avenue, when he was just a kid, and people danced. Art ends the show as he so often did, with Straight Life. This version is as breakneck as can be. And thus the set has bebop bookends.
But wait! We get an encore. We get a blues. A real blues, a slow blues. Art owned the blues. He loved to play the blues, and I repeatedly demanded that he do so. So that day he gave me even more of what I liked. It was a perfect afternoon. The following year all hell broke loose as Art went on to conquer New York City and the world. It would be a rough ride, but I was young enough to like that, too.