Art Pepper always sounds like a guy trying to scale the wall of a dam before they let the water out. There's an edgy, vulnerable feel to much of his work on the alto sax, and he played as though his time was limited. No album better captures Pepper in all his desperate glory than the Complete Surf Club Sessions (originally known as The Late Show and The Early Show).
Pepper was a West Coast musician who, like Dexter Gorden and Wardell Grey, came of age in the gritty clubs of Los Angeles' Central Avenue—before the arrival of cool jazz. With its mannered contrapuntal instrumentals and young photogenic players, cool transformed the West Coast's jazz scene. By the mid-1950s, cool jazz turned jazz into something of a fashion statement. In short order, the movie studios started snapping up the best jazz readers and players for film-score arranging and session work.
But before all that, there was West Coast bop. Like most alto players of the mid-1940s, Pepper was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker and other East Coast bebop pioneers. But unlike most West Coast jazz musicians of the period, Pepper burned with a sweet intensity. You can hear the artistic passion in Pepper's early playing and his struggle to survive and thrive. There's also a certain sensitivity to his tone, which is rare among bop players of the time, who tended to use prowess and speed to mask tenderness and self-doubt.
Pepper started his professional career in 1943 in Stan Kenton's band. Kenton—like Boyd Raeburn, Claude Thornhill and Woody Herman—favored intricate, brassy arrangements and high-powered musicianship. From its earliest days, Kenton's band was hell-bent on shifting audience attention away from the banality of dancing and focusing it on the more intensive art of listening.
Kenton turned the spotlight on his band's young instrumentalists and arrangers, many of whom were born and bred on the West Coast. The musicians were the stars, and they looked good, too.
After a brief stint in the army and playing as a sideman, Pepper rejoined Kenton in 1947 and remained until late 1951—a four-year period many consider to be Kenton's heyday.
Here's Pepper on his last days with the Kenton orchestra, from his autobiography, Straight Life (1979):
"At the end of 1951 I quit Kenton's band. It was too hard being on the road, being away from Patti, and I grew tired of the band. I knew all the arrangements by memory and it was really boring. I didn't get a chance to stretch out and play the solos I wanted to play or the tunes. I kept thinking how nice it would be to play with just a rhythm section in a jazz club where I could be the whole thing and do all the creating myself...
Also, the traveling got to be unbearable. At first I enjoyed it, but after a while, being nine months out of the year on the road, one-nighters every night... Sometimes we'd finish a job, change clothes, get on the bus, travel all night long, get to the next town in the daytime, check in and try to get some sleep, and then go and play the job...
Also I became more and more hooked and I went through some unbelievable scenes—running out of stuff on the road and not being able to score, having to play, sick, sitting on the stand spitting up bile into a big rage I kept under the music stand. I guess I looked sort of messed up. People started talking. Kenton became more and more suspicious. I imagined he knew I was doing more than drinking and smoking pot. So it seemed best that I leave the band and try to do something on my own, and I gave my notice. A lot of us quit at the same time. Shelly Manne quit. Shorty Rogers quit."
In truth, Pepper had to leave Kenton to serve a sentence of several months in prison for drug use. When he got out, Pepper played with Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne at the Lighthouse Club in Hermosa Beach in December 1951 and again in January 1952. In early February, Pepper put together his first group, the Art Pepper 4":
"I formed a group of my own. I got Joe Mondragon [on bass], and on drums Larry Bunker, who also played vibes. We worked out some things which we could do without the drums while he played vibes, or if he did a ballad I'd sit in on the drums and play a slow beat with the brushes. I got Hampton Hawes, an exceptional pianist. It was just a quartet, but it was very versatile."
On February 7,the group was booked for an extended stay at the Surf Club in Hollywood. On February 12, the early and late sets were recorded by a jazz fan. The result is the Complete Surf Club Sessions.
These sessions have always been my favorite Pepper recordings. You hear so many emotions at once in his playing. You hear Pepper's anxiety about being out on his own, you hear the pain of his drug habit, you hear the happiness about leading a group, you hear competitive tension among the players, you hear Pepper's fears about having to make ends meet, you hear his self-doubt, and you hear his rush to make a mark and be recognized by fans and critics. It's all there, in one CD.
Art Pepper made many great albums in the 1950s (Modern Art, in particular). But for me, none can touch the sweet heat of the Complete Surf Club Sessions. There are quite a few Pepper originals here, including Easy Steppin', one of my favorite Pepper compositions that for some reason he never recorded in the studio. Easy Steppin' has such a pretty, early-1950s West Coast sound—a spirited bop melody line mellowed by long Pacific sunsets and steady weather.
The Surf Club Sessions also is one of the great live jazz recording dates. There's a mood here that doesn't exist on many live albums.
Hampton Hawes is relentless on the upright piano, Larry Bunker drives hard on drums and vibes, Joe Mondragon pounds away on the bass—and we even hear Pepper play clarinet on a handful of tracks, sounding more Benny Goodman than Buddy DeFranco.
This CD is a delight from start to finish and a must for anyone who wants to know what the West Coast scene sounded like before Chet Baker's popularity changed the matrix.
The Complete Surf Club Sessions of February 1952 is available here. I warn you, the fidelity is a tiny bit raw (it's a live date), but I promise that the sound isn't really a factor given the art presented and the historic nature of the date. A month later, in March 1952, Pepper was in the studio for his first date as a leader. Surf Ride—also a must—is available here.
The only recording discussed above that's not in print in the US is the January 1952 Lighthouse session with Shorty Rogers. It includes a stunning Over the Rainbow that put Pepper on the map with critics. It's currently available as a CD only on the Japanese Norma label (Early Days, Vol. 1). Sadly, I haven't come across it here, which is a shame given its significance.
Wax clip: To see Art Pepper and Shelly Manne in Kenton's 1947 band, go here. Pepper is seated second from the left in the sax section. Manne, of course, is on drums. Listen to how challenging Kenton's arrangements were and how skilled and smooth the musicianship had to be. Kenton's sax section—and all of his sections, in fact—were tremendous. Kenton's theatrical conducting wasn't bad, either.