Art Pepper's 'Straight Life' Goes Straight to YouTube Art Pepper was a self-taught jazz legend. He played with Miles Davis and was hailed as one of the greatest alto players to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Parker. He also spent ten years in prison on narcotics charges. Now his widow is turning his life story into a series of short films she's posting on YouTube.

Art Pepper's 'Straight Life' Goes Straight to YouTube

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The life of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper was the stuff of legend. His brilliance on the alto sax was likened to the great Charlie Parker. Also like Parker, Art Pepper struggled with heroin addiction.

Now, a quarter century after his death, Art Pepper's widow is making a movie about him. And she's posting the work in progress on YouTube.

Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE: Laurie Pepper's film is called "Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper." And in it, the saxophonist tells his own story.


ART PEPPER: Here I am going over this bridge where I used to go with my parents all the time.

VITALE: It begins with Art Pepper remembering the Southern California streets where he grew up as he gazes out the window of the federal penitentiary on Terminal Island at the city of San Pedro across the harbor.

PEPPER: 24t Street in Alamo where I lived for a long time. And then prior to that, I saw 30th Street in (unintelligible) where I lived for a long, long time, you know, even at an earlier age.

VITALE: Art Pepper's off-camera voice comes from cassette recordings Laurie Pepper made in the 1970s. On the screen, his stories are illustrated with documents, texts, drawings and photos, some of them animated, all assembled on Laurie Pepper's desktop. The images are layered, kaleidoscopic, almost hallucinatory. Laurie Pepper says she wants people who look at her film to see the world the way her late husband did.

LAURIE PEPPER: The stories, the things that he tells really did happen. But the way he saw them was the way a baby or a schizophrenic sees things. And so that's what I'm doing. It's not like it's some bad acid trip view. But there's an awful lot of animation and drawings and weird stuff like that because Art really saw the world like that. He saw the world differently than we do.

VITALE: Art Pepper was never diagnosed with mental illness, but his view of the world was shaped by his circumstances. He was a product of a broken family, raised by his grandmother. He was playing in Los Angeles clubs by the time he was 13. Not long after, he started shooting heroin.


VITALE: The saxophonist told his story in his harrowing 1979 autobiography, "Straight Life," compiled from the same interviews that make up the backbone of Laurie Pepper's film. When the book was published, Pepper sat in his Manhattan hotel room and tried to explain the statement that the best jazz musicians are also morally good. His response reflected the way he saw the world.


PEPPER: What I mean is like morally good is like, you know, if you brought them into your pad, they wouldn't steal your wives. When they ask, can I use your bathroom, they wouldn't, like, (unintelligible) bathroom for pills. And, you know, if they're going to steal, steal from a store.

VITALE: Art Pepper was in and out of jail. He disappeared from the music scene between 1960 and 1975. In 1969, he met Laurie Miller at Synanon, a Southern California rehab facility. They moved in together in 1972 and married. Laurie began to manage Art's career and he made a remarkable comeback, even though he went back to using drugs, releasing three dozen records in six years.


VITALE: After Art Pepper died suddenly at the age of 56 during a 1982 tour, Laurie Pepper says Hollywood producers approached her about making a movie based on his life. But she says they didn't really want her input, so she decided to make it herself.

PEPPER: Art was Art. He was a genius. He was really weird. He was totally himself at all times as most people like him are. And I didn't want that violated.

VITALE: So four years ago, Laurie Pepper took some classes in video editing and special effects. And at the age of 63, she began assembling her film with no budget at her home computer with volunteer actors and donated technical help. She says she expects to be done in about a year with the first of three hour- long films, one for each period of Art Pepper's life between his jail terms. She's not looking for funders, but she does want people to see the film. So she's posting clips from the work in progress on YouTube.

PEPPER: It was the only way that I could figure out to get it out to people, so that they could get an idea of what it was like.

VITALE: In one scene posted online, an actress playing Art's second wife alternates with Pepper's recorded voiceover.


PEPPER: She woke me up in the morning and said...

Unidentified Woman: Get up, Art. You've got a record date. It's a contemporary, 2:00 with Miles Davis' rhythm section. It's all set. My God, what did you do?

PEPPER: And I just flipped up because I hadn't been playing or been practicing or anything. And I hadn't touched my horns. And all I'd been doing at the time was using about a half an ounce of heroin a day.

FRED KAPLAN: It's not Ken Burns, you know? It is not a polished, well-lit documentary as we understand it. It's something a bit quirky, but it's about a very quirky guy in a very quirky business.

VITALE: Fred Kaplan writes a jazz blog for Stereophile magazine. He says YouTube is the right place for Laurie Pepper's film. And he says the music tells the story as much as the pictures.

KAPLAN: It's always dangerous to equate art with autobiography. But in Art Pepper's case, the two are one because he is using a song, especially ballads, slow ballads. He's pouring out the miseries of his life onto this ballad. And by using these songs as the background material, she enriches that, I think.


VITALE: The way Art Pepper turned his misery into music is the point of his widow's documentary.

PEPPER: That's how Art saved himself, by utilizing this pain and experience and making it into something that could be shared, that was rich and meaningful.

VITALE: Laurie Pepper says Art Pepper saved himself and he saved her too. When they met at Synanon, Laurie was 15 years younger than Art and an unpublished poet.

PEPPER: He's my muse. That's the only way I can look at it. When he came into my life, he gave me raw material. It was his life and him. The other thing that he did was he believed in me utterly. And so I became - you know, the - you make me a better person. I mean, it's corny but it's true. He made the best person.

VITALE: Laurie Pepper says she hopes her film does what Art Pepper said he wanted his music to do - to make somebody feel something.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


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