Alto saxophonist Art Pepper may well have been the earliest exponent of what would become known as West Coast jazz. At the end of 1951 and top of '52, Gerry Mulligan hadn't yet arrived in Los Angeles, Shorty Rogers was still emulating Dizzy Gillespie and Shelly Manne was still under the influence of Max Roach. But Pepper was at this moment in time his own man—there was no Charlie Parker in his playing, just a searing, high-register, laid-back sound in a big hurry.
Pepper's playing in December and January was cool but frantic, space-respectful but hell-bent to jump in, and lyrical without relying on the blues to make a point. Though Rogers was able to formulate the harmony-rich sound of West Coast jazz in October '51 in his ensemble arrangements for Modern Sounds, he hadn't yet iced his horn as a small-group soloist.
We know this from two key recordings—Popo, from December 27, 1951, and the super-rare Live at the Lighthouse '52, from January 6, 1952. Both dates were recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and both featured Rogers, Pepper, pianist Frank Patchen, bassist Howard Rumsey and drummer Shelly Manne—with trombonist Milt Bernhart and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre added on the latter date.
Popo (Xanadu) offers plenty of action—the spirited exchanges between Pepper and Rogers sound more like the blows of sparring boxers in a ring than musicians working on a stage. The individualism and ambition is palpable and contagious. But the real excitement comes 10 days later, as captured on Live at the Lighthouse '52 (Norma).
Live at the Lighthouse '52 is a hard-to-find album originally recorded live by Bob Andrews in L.A. and released digitally only in Japan. It's the missing link between Popo and Pepper's The Early Show, recorded in February 1952 at the Surf Club. Something happens to Pepper in January—a breakthrough, if you will. On prior recordings, Pepper is still developing and finding his way.
But at the Lighthouse in January '52, on tracks like Jumpin' at the Woodside and Keen and Peachy, Pepper's on fire. But it's a cool burn. Where we hear the big change is on the ballads—Yesterdays, These Foolish Things and Over the Rainbow—where his lines are beautifully chilled and glossy, like the hourglass curves of a '51 Chevy sedan or slow, curling waves rolling in a short walk down the beach.
In fact, on Over the Rainbow, Pepper's solo is so perfectly executed with imagination and soul that he knocks out everyone at the club by the end. Manne is still banging around bop style behind him, but Pepper just rises above the East Coast ghosting and delivers his finest version of this standard—even when double-timing for spells.
Pepper, of course, would find himself in trouble with the police by the end of 1952. A heroin user since 1950, during a stay in Chicago while in Stan Kenton's band—Pepper's addiction led to an arrest in Los Angeles toward the end of '52. He only escaped time at Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California when his father showed up in court ranting, and the judge gave in.
Pepper would be in and out of prison for drug use as the '50s progressed, but for 10 days around this time of year 61 years ago, he was at the Lighthouse inventing a new style of jazz—even if his bandmates didn't fully get it yet.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Popo here and here. As for Live at the Lighthouse '52, it's very hard to find. Part of it is available on Early Days, Vol. 1, a Norma vinyl release here. I'm not sure why this recording hasn't been released in the U.S. and is largely unknown. Perhaps Laurie Pepper can help.
JazzWax clips: Here are two tracks from Live at the Lighthouse '52:
Over the Rainbow...
Keen and Peachy...