Skip to main content

Laurie Pepper, Wife of Late Saxophonist Art Pepper

Laurie Pepper is the wife of the late alto saxophonist Art Pepper, who died in 1982 and was considered to be the greatest alto saxophonist of the post-Charlie Parker generation. Laurie Pepper has just produced a box-set compilation of Art Pepper's music, called Art Pepper: The Hollywood All-Star Sessions. Terry talked with Pepper on the occasion of the updated version of her husband's autobiography, Straight Life which he wrote with the help of Laurie.

27:44

Other segments from the episode on June 15, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 15, 2001: Interview with Joyce Johnson; Interview with Laurie Pepper; Review of the film "Our song."

Transcript

DATE June 15, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Joyce Johnson discusses her book "Door Wide
Open" about her relationship with Beat author Jack Kerouac
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Writer Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac in 1957 through their mutual friend
Allen Ginsberg. Johnson and Kerouac were lovers for nearly two years. When
they met, Johnson was 21 years old; Kerouac was 35, and not yet famous. But
while they were together, his novel "On the Road" was published, and he was
transformed into the spokesperson of the Beats. Much of the time that Johnson
and Kerouac were lovers, he was traveling or living in another city while she
stayed in Manhattan. During those times, they communicated through letters.
The letters they wrote each other are published in Johnson's book "Door Wide
Open," which has just been published in paperback.

Johnson is also the author of an earlier memoir called "Minor Characters,"
focusing on the period when she knew Kerouac. But she couldn't quote from his
letters in that book because Kerouac's widow withheld permission, and it
wasn't until 1998 that his estate sent her copies of the letters she had
written to him.

Last year when "Door Wide Open" was published in hardcover, I asked Johnson
what first attracted her to Kerouac.

Ms. JOYCE JOHNSON (Author, "Door Wide Open"): He was the most unusual person
I'd ever met. He had an incredible memory. He told great stories. He'd had
amazing adventures. And he had a kind of sweetness and melancholy about him
that were also very, very appealing and an ability to take a lot of pleasure
in small, everyday things. You know, if I made him a bowl of Lipton's pea
soup, I was a great cook. He was, you know--he totally charmed me when I met
him.

GROSS: Now you met him through Allen Ginsberg...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...and shortly after you met, he was off on his travels again.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of the early letters in your book is one he sent you from
Tangier, and I'd like you to read an excerpt of it.

Ms. JOHNSON: Sure. This was in early March 1957. He wrote it just as he was
nearing the coast of Africa. He'd been on a freighter called the SS Slovenia
for about a month.

(Reading) `All during the trip I ate alone at a huge, white tablecloth with
one mysterious Yugoslavian woman, Matahari. We had a dangerous storm 500
miles out, and almost foundered. In all my years as a seaman, I never saw my
ship bury its nose in mountain waves and plunge up into other valleys like a
rowboat. It was awful. We had to flee south and lose a day. During this
ordeal, I heard the words, "Everything is God, nothing ever happened except
God," and I believed and still do. Kierkegaard and the storm together made me
see this luminous, peaceful truth.'

GROSS: Now I found your response to his letters so interesting because here
he is, you know, traveling around the world, having these, like, grand
adventures and you're, you know, working in New York and trying to deal with,
like, your life vs. his life and how different they seem. Read us an excerpt
of your response to him.

Ms. JOHNSON: OK. (Reading) `I thought a lot about your letter, about your
finding God in the middle of the storm. I can't really comprehend that. I
want you to know that about me. I scramble from day to day, hour to hour, and
I seldom stop to ask questions because when I do, I find everything in the
world senseless, without reason, and it terrifies me. I'm not defending
myself, I'm simply telling you this. I look at your way with wonder, but
there's nothing I can say to you about it except that. And in the meanwhile,
I moved two miles downtown to a new job not too different from the old one.
And you move across the ocean to another continent.'

GROSS: In a way, while he's having this big adventure, you know, going to
northern Africa, your adventure is in part being with him, knowing him.

Ms. JOHNSON: Absolutely. That was a big adventure for me. But also my
adventure, as it turned out, was also being in New York in that whole
wonderful period and discovering all these very, very gifted people who are
all converging on downtown Manhattan: painters, poets, photographers, actors.
It was sort of an amazing scene. It was a very, very good time to be in New
York.

GROSS: You know, although Kerouac sounds really excited and invigorated in
the first letter he sends you, his letters start to sound more depressed not
long after that. Let me ask you to read an excerpt of this March 1957 letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: (Reading) `There are many dull expatriate characters here I try
to avoid mostly, not too many good vibrations in Tangier. And the Arabs, very
quiet, send out no vibrations at all. So I spend most of my time musing in my
room. Somehow can't write here, but anyway, that can wait. What I'm actually
doing is thinking nostalgic thoughts of Frisco. Not too interested in this
Old World scene, as though I'd seen it before aplenty.

`Anyway, in early April, I'm off by myself to Paris--the others can join me
later to get cheap garret--then London, Dublin, Brittany. Then I try to get
job on freighter, work my way back this summer. I just don't seem interested.
Got too much to do in America. Shouldn't have come at all, of course. So
I'll likely be seeing you in New York, in July maybe. Look forward to seeing
you; lonely here. Don't like whores anyway, and no girls speak English.
Mostly fags abound in this sinister international hive of queens. I've had
everything in the books: smoked opium, ate hashish. Don't want any of it.
Just musing in my room, lights out, face sea, moon, liquid lights of anchored
ships in bay. Good enough.'

GROSS: How did it make you feel to have him complaining about the whores?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it certainly made me feel weird. It was as though he had
forgotten that I was his girlfriend, you know, and he sounded as though he was
writing to one of his buddies. I didn't know what to make of it.

GROSS: Were you surprised that here he was in this place that he'd worked so
hard to get to and he didn't like being there, and he was saying maybe he
shouldn't have come at all, and he was telling you all these other places he's
going to go to and sounding very depressed?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I was surprised because he had really been looking forward
to this trip immensely, and planned to spend many months in Tangier and then
spend a good part of the next year traveling in Europe. But I soon learned
that this was sort of a pattern of Jack's. You know, he would--before he went
to a place, he would fantasize about it and think that it was going to be
wonderful and the solution to all his problems. And then he'd get there and,
inevitably, the bad vibrations would set in because wherever he went, he took
his troubles with him. And I think by that time in his life, there was no
place in the world where he could really be happy or comfortable. Nothing
worked for him.

GROSS: In the letters, he always seems to want to be in the place that he
wasn't.

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right. To see something new and strange.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I'm wondering how that affected you. For instance--I mean,
he'd invite you to come and be with him in San Francisco and then he'd write
and tell you he was leaving for Mexico. He'd invite you to Mexico, and then
he'd decide, no, no, no, he had to go to New York. And so you were always
having to change your plans.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it certainly complicated my life immensely, and it was
very disappointing 'cause I wanted so much to travel myself. And I also, you
know, had to take steps in order to prepare myself to travel, such as giving
up my job or saving money or giving up my apartment. So I had a very
complicated summer the summer of 1957 when I was thinking, first, that I would
join Jack in San Francisco, and then later in Mexico City. I was particularly
disappointed about not going to Mexico City.

He had gotten the Asiatic flu in Mexico City, and was going back to Orlando,
Florida. And from there, he planned to come to New York in time for the
publication of "On the Road." He thought it might be kind of interesting to
be around for it.

GROSS: And he was...

Ms. JOHNSON: He had absolutely no notion of what awaited him.

GROSS: Right. Well, he was around for it. In fact, he was staying with you
at your apartment...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...the day that famous review by Gilbert Miltstein(ph) came out in The
New York Times. Would you describe what it was like to go with him at
midnight to the newsstand and pick up this review that basically made him a
star overnight?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it was nothing that Jack was prepared for. I mean, he
could barely sort of take it in. You know, it compared him and his importance
to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Miltstein said what Fitzgerald was to the Lost
Generation, Kerouac would be to the Beat Generation. And he made him the
spokesman for a whole generation. He kept reading it and sort of shaking his
head and saying, `Well, I think it's pretty good. What do you think?' I'd
say, `Yeah, it's really good.' And then the next day, the phone started
ringing and never stopped.

GROSS: Not all the reviews were positive, like Truman Capote...

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, definitely.

GROSS: Yeah. Describe some of the bad reviews.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I would say, by and large, the reviews "On the Road" got
were hostile, humiliating. Very insulting things were said about "On the
Road." For example, Truman Capote said, `This isn't writing, this is typing.'
I mean, I can't think of any American writer who endured such consistent abuse
from critics and reviewers all through his career. And it was very, very
devastating for him.

GROSS: How did he take the bad reviews?

Ms. JOHNSON: They made him very depressed. Of course, he had a tendency to
be depressed. And the only way he seemed to be able to get himself through
this period was to step up his drinking, which was already pretty heavy.

GROSS: Soon after that review in The New York Times, he left New York. And
soon after he left, you wrote a letter to your friend Elise(ph), and I'd like
you to excerpt that letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: (Reading) `I dig ironing his shirts, cooking for him, etc. It's
funny. It's not at all romantic anymore, but it doesn't matter. I love him.
Don't mind playing Mama since that's what he seems to want me to be. I may go
down to see him in Orlando. I've gotten kind of a left-handed, backwards
invitation. His mother seems to want me to come. There's no doubt in my mind
anymore that Mamma is the villain in the true classic Freudian sense.'

GROSS: Now when you said it's not that romantic anymore, what did you mean?

Ms. JOHNSON: I found myself in the position of almost having to take care of
Jack; to kind of get him through this whole experience that he was coping with
so badly. And it was a very unfamiliar role for me. I was only 21. But I
thought, you know, he would get through the difficulties of this period and
come out of it, but that's really not what happened.

GROSS: How did you feel being in this really unconventional relationship, yet
expected to do very conventional things for Kerouac, like cooking and ironing
and taking him home when he got too drunk?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, you know, everything seemed so crazy. We were living
such a strange life that it was almost a relief to iron a shirt. It was sort
of quiet and familiar, you know? Everything that was sort of quiet and
familiar and homelike had gotten to seem sort of exotic to me because the life
we were living was so strange.

GROSS: Now in this letter that you just read an excerpt of, you said that
there's no doubt that his mother is the villain in the true classic Freudian
sense.

Ms. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you mean by that?

Ms. JOHNSON: It became apparent to me that Jack really had not separated from
his mother. He was overly attached to his mother. You know, he planned to
settle down and live with her, which was something that was very hard for me
to understand, that she had too much of a hold on him for his own good.

GROSS: Was it her trying to have a hold on him, or was it him wanting to be
with her?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it worked both ways. I mean, she wanted to keep him with
her, and so that any young woman who came into his life was considered the
enemy; someone who had to be fended off, or driven off. At the same time, she
had always been a source of refuge for him during those years when he was very
broke and obscure and out wandering around the United States and was virtually
homeless. She provided a base for him, a place where he could come and crash
and write another book and keep his manuscripts and his letters.

So I think without Jack's mother, we might have had fewer Kerouac novels.
She--you know, she was important to him in that way, in a good way. But her
emotional hold on him was very crippling for Jack.

GROSS: My guest is Joyce Johnson. Her book "Door Wide Open" collects the
letters she and Jack Kerouac wrote each other. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Joyce Johnson. Her book "Door Wide Open" collects the
letters she and Jack Kerouac wrote each other during the two years they were
lovers.

How did fame agree with him?

Ms. JOHNSON: Fame did not agree with him very well at all. Part of the
problem was he didn't become famous in the way that he would have liked to
have become famous. So I think what he really had dreamed of was having a
real--you know, a literary success, which would have been much quieter, for
one thing. But instead of that, he found himself the spokesperson for the
Beat Generation, and this was not a role that he felt at all comfortable with.
It was something Allen Ginsberg, of course, could have played to the hilt.
But Jack was not very, very good at facing the public. He was basically a
shy, rather naive guy about the whole business, and it was very difficult for
him being on television and so on. It was frightening for him, and it made
him feel that he didn't know who he was anymore.

GROSS: Now you say that after he became famous, there was a pack of predatory
women that invaded your lives. What was it like watching all of these women
flirting with Jack Kerouac?

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, of course, I hated it, and it made me furious. And it was
as though, you know, I didn't exist at all. Suddenly, there was this swarm of
women around him, you know, because he was such a celebrity and so attractive.
And, you know, right in front of me, these women were throwing themselves at
Jack. It was very unpleasant to watch.

GROSS: You say that during this period, everyone wanted to, like, give him
pills or buy him drinks. He already had a drinking problem. Did it get
worse?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. It did get much worse. And, you know, I think he felt
that he had to live up to an image of himself that people had; that they
didn't really expect to see someone like Jack Kerouac who was a fairly quiet
guy, kind of an observer. They expected to see someone very extroverted, like
the Dean Moriarty character in his novels. So the only way he could
approximate that character was to get very loaded.

GROSS: And did he become more like Dean Moriarty when he did become loaded?

Ms. JOHNSON: He--well, you know, he became much more extroverted and outgoing
and talked more.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now you say that you grew up in a house without any alcohol
with the exception of Manishewitz Passover wine.

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: Were there things you didn't understand about his drinking?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I really didn't understand about his drinking. I thought
that, you know, if Jack could just sort of get through this period and settle
down and maybe have a real home somewhere, he could sort of straighten himself
out. And he kept wanting to stop drinking and he would make attempts, even
during this period. And in order to stop drinking, he would--you know, we'd
basically take the phone off the hook and stay shut up in the house for a
week. He always seemed a different person in a way when he'd stop drinking
for a while. And then, his innate sweetness would come out.

GROSS: How did you and Kerouac end up breaking up?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, we were--we went out to dinner--this was in October of
1958--with a bunch of artists we knew. And right before my eyes, Jack was
flirting outrageously with a woman whom I knew was very interested in him, and
I could sort of see the handwriting on the wall. And I'd seen this kind of
thing one too many times. And I just couldn't stand it. So I asked Jack to
come outside the restaurant with me. And I told him I couldn't bear to--and
that it was the end. I'm--I said to him--because it was the only thing I
could think of--`You're nothing but a big bag of wind.'

GROSS: What was his reaction when you told him you couldn't take it anymore?

Ms. JOHNSON: He said, `I told you. I told you. I didn't like--I don't like
blondes. Unrequited love's a bore.' You know, we were shouting nonsense at
each other. And then he stomped off into the restaurant and I went up the
block, and that was it.

GROSS: So that was really it.

Ms. JOHNSON: That was it. It ended very abruptly.

GROSS: How did he describe you in "Desolation Angels"?

Ms. JOHNSON: As middle class, sad and looking for something.

GROSS: He also wrote, `perhaps the best love affair I ever had.'

Ms. JOHNSON: Right. And he said that, `I had me a companion there.' And I
think that was a very important thing to Jack--the fact that we were both
writers. And a lot of our--a lot of the things we wrote to each other were
about our writing. And this was a novelty for him, to have a woman in his
life who was as interested in writing as he was.

GROSS: You say in your new book that you've had to protect your memories from
being swamped by Kerouac's legend. What are some parts of the legend that
don't fit with your memories?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, the idea that Jack was such a free spirit, you know,
mainly, that--this big example of freedom or this, you know--or that he was
this great Buddhist, those things. Because, you know, although he certainly
did go on the road, you know, deep inside him he wasn't free at all. He was
so knotted up and so miserable and so attached to his mother.

And Buddhism was something that was very important to Jack, and he--it was one
of those things he looked to to find some solution to what troubled him. But
he really misused it even though he had a profound intellectual understanding
of it. He used Buddhism to sort of rationalize all his problems and pre--and,
you know, `What was the point of dealing with them, since we're all going to
die anyway?'

GROSS: What did you think a few years ago of The Gap campaign of, you know,
`Kerouac wore khakis'?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, one thing that amused me very much about that campaign was
there was a--it was a picture of Jack wearing khakis in a photo shoot. It was
an old photo that had been taken for Pageant Magazine. A photographer had
followed Jack and me around the Village for a night, and I was airbrushed out
of it, almost as though I had never existed.

GROSS: That's really funny.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So you saw that photo without you on...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...on buses and...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...and posters...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...whatever. Oh, that's very funny.

Ms. JOHNSON: And I knew there was a ghost there. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. That's so perfect, because your first book was called
"Minor Characters."

Ms. JOHNSON: It was called--exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: And all about how the women were relegated to the status of minor
character in the Beat story.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's so funny.

Joyce Johnson, thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Joyce Johnson's book, "Door Wide Open," collects the letters she and
Jack Kerouac wrote each other. The book has just been published in paperback.
Our interview was recorded last year after it was published in hardcover.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, Laurie Pepper talks about living with the gifted, but
self-destructive jazz musician, her late husband, Art Pepper. She's just
produced a box set of his "Hollywood All-Star Sessions."

And film critic Henry Sheehan reviews "Our Song."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Laurie Pepper talks about her deceased husband, Art
Pepper's, life and jazz career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In spite of his self-destructive instincts, alto saxophonist Art Pepper
managed to leave behind an impressive body of recordings before he died of a
stroke at the age of 56 in 1982. He started his career playing with Stan
Kenton and Shorty Rogers. In 1950 he became addicted to heroin. Three years
later he was imprisoned on a narcotics charge. He spent the better part of
the next 13 years in prison; five of those years in San Quentin. In the late
'60s while he was in rehab at Synanon, he met a woman also in recovery who
became his wife. Laurie Pepper helped him resume his career and co-wrote his
acclaimed autobiography "Straight Life." Now she's helping to reissue his
recordings. The latest is a boxed set called "The Hollywood All-Star
Sessions."

Before we ask Laurie Pepper to talk about her late husband's life, let's
listen to a tract from the new boxed set. This is a 1980 recording of "You Go
to My Head," featuring Pete Jolly on piano, Bob Magnuson on bass, Roy McCurdy,
drums.

(Soundbite of Art Pepper song)

GROSS: Laurie Pepper helped Art Pepper re-establish his music career after he
got out of rehab. I asked her some of the obstacles she faced in convincing
clubs, booking agents and record producers to take a chance and work with him.

Ms. LAURIE PEPPER: This is interesting because when we moved in together
after Synanon, we did it because we wanted to be together and because I wanted
to work on the book "Straight Life." And I had no ambitions for him,
musically. And he--because he had none or he seemed to have none. He was
working as a bookkeeper at that time and he thought that getting back into
music would destroy him. And he was also very frightened of having to prove
himself again. My God, I mean, the amount of energy and passion that he put
into that--that that ambition took out of him was--you know, it was pretty
formidable, so he gave me the impression that he didn't want to play music
anymore. And so a friend of his got some jobs for him doing bar mitzvahs and
weddings, you know. And he was making his living doing that and then somebody
got him a job doing a clinic--a saxophone clinic at a college--or I think it
was a clarinet clinic, the first one. And there was never any idea that he
would be a musician again, touring. So that did not come from me. And to--it
didn't come from him, either. It came from outside.

GROSS: Did you get advice from other women who were married to jazz
musicians and who were managing or helping to manage their husbands' careers?

Ms. PEPPER: Yeah, and that happened around the Vanguard date, too. At that
time I didn't--see, when we went on that tour and went to the Vanguard, I
didn't know that that was going to me my roll. I really didn't see myself as
his manager or anything. I was just going along. And then I met Kako
Jones(ph), Elvin Jones' wife. And during this horrendous experience, every
evening Kako would lecture me about what to do, what to wear, how to act and,
as I said in my afterword to "Straight Life," how much power to take. And she
said, `All of it. All of it.' And she was one tough lady. She used to set
up Elvin's drums for him and order him around, this big, frightening guy. I
mean, it was really something. So I learned a lot from Kako.

Also, Phil Woods' partner, Jill Goodwin(ph); they came--she came over to our
house and we talked for a while. And she was wonderful. She was telling me
more of the practical aspects of managing, so I began to realize that that was
going to be my job.

GROSS: What did Kako Jones tell you about what to wear?

Ms. PEPPER: Well, at that time I was wearing jeans. I was wearing jeans and
T-shirts. That's all I ever wore. And she told me I had to dress better. I
had to look prosperous and I had to look elegant. Well, that didn't bother me
at all. And in a short time I went out and bought a lot of expensive clothes.
That was no problem for me.

GROSS: And for whose sake should you have looked prosperous and elegant?

Ms. PEPPER: Oh, well, for Art, you know, so that people would recognize that
he was important and that he made a lot of money and he had status and they
would pay us a lot of money. And, you know, I think she was right.

GROSS: Was it ever hard for you, as a woman married to a jazz musician, to
get respect from other musicians or from club owners or whatever? Were
you--were you treated as an individual or as the wife?

Ms. PEPPER: Great question. I love that question. Nobody's ever asked me
that question. Yes, it was horrible; not always. Sometimes it was just great
and people treated me great, but there were other occasions where I would have
to say, `Art, will you come and tell this person that they have to listen to
me; that I am speaking for you?' And so he would.

In Japan, especially, you know--I mean, in Japan, women are really invisible
and beside the point. And so because I was in charge of the sound for the
band, you know, and I was in charge of the sound guy in the various venues we
went to and I learned the Japanese words for louder and softer and stuff like
that. I mean, these guys would ignore me, utterly, and these--some of them
were kids, you know, a great deal younger than me, but I had to take Art by
the hand with an interpreter, and he had to say, `She is speaking for me.'
And, yeah, it was--it sometimes was rough.

The other part that was rough was that Art would complain to me about things
where he didn't like confrontations and he didn't like to complain. So I
was--had to be the bad guy. So he would complain about something. For
instance, he hated drummers to do double time during a ballad, but he wouldn't
tell them that. I had to tell them that. And if I didn't tell them that,
then they would play double time during a ballad. And if I did, they wouldn't
believe me, so it was kind of--you know, it was--yeah.

GROSS: So that put you in the position sometimes, too, probably, of looking
like `the nag.'

Ms. PEPPER: Oh, yeah. Oh, no. I was--I think I got kind of famous as being
a real, you know, tiresome bitch, but, you know, I kind of liked it. All my
life I'd been so nice.

GROSS: Would he ask you about tunes that should be in his repertoire...

Ms. PEPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or get your impressions of his playing?

Ms. PEPPER: Yeah. He--poor guy, he did. And I told him. He--generally, I
would be the one who would compile the list of tunes for an individual set.
He was usually too nervous beforehand to compile a good list. And what I
would see him do is go out and play a whole bunch of tunes that were all
pretty much the same kind of tune. And he agreed that there should be a
variation. In fact, maybe it was even Kako that told me that. I don't know.
At any rate--so I began to be the one. I would give him a list of tunes and
he would show it to the guys and that would be it. So he would do that.

There were times when I would suggest that it would be wonderful if he would
play a given tune. I would bring things home and play them for him, you know.
Yeah. There was a lot of that. That's part of what I was also talking about,
about the respect that he gave me; you know, the fact that he would discuss
these things with me, as if I knew what I was talking about. It was pretty
nice.

GROSS: My guest is Laurie Pepper. She's helping to reissue the recordings of
her late husband, alto saxophonist Art Pepper. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Back with Laurie Pepper. We're talking about her late husband, alto
saxophonist Art Pepper. Many of his recordings are getting reissued. This
from the reissue of his 1957 album "Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section."

(Soundbite of Art Pepper music)

GROSS: What was it like traveling with him, whether it was New York to play
at the Vanguard or Tokyo to play concerts there? He was on methadone
maintenance and he was using other drugs, as well, so what was it like when
you were on the road?

Ms. PEPPER: Hell. It was like hell. When we traveled in Japan, I had to
hide the methadone because no matter what, the fact that it was a prescription
item for him didn't matter; they wouldn't let it into the country.

GROSS: Methadone was illegal there?

Ms. PEPPER: Totally. Totally. We had a thing from the head of the Veterans
Administration hospital and we were told, `It won't do you any good in Japan.
You can't bring it in.' So we had to hide it. I hid it in a shampoo bottle.
Everytime we went through any kind of checkout in any airport--and there were
a lot of airports--I was shaking in my shoes that they would find it.

In addition, I had to constantly monitor Art's use of it because if he could,
he would take more than what he was supposed to. And I, generally, would
have to hide it or lock it up or whatever. I've talked to women--lots of
women who have been involved with men who were alcoholic or whatever and I
don't think I would have stuck it without that gift. The gift was the--well,
there was a few things. The gift was one of them. The other thing was the
way he treated me, which was very well. I mean, he gave me so much respect.
He never criticized me. He thought I was terrific. He told everybody I was
great. He wanted to believe that I was everything that he needed and told me
that I was and told everybody else that I was. And so I did it. And that
was a great learning experience for me, too, to find out what my capacities
were.

GROSS: There's one point in one of the sessions where he mentions you.
It--this is in the introduction to a song.

Ms. PEPPER: Oh, that's not too nice. Yeah. Right.

GROSS: No, it's not. In fact, why don't I just play it here?

Ms. PEPPER: All right.

(Soundbite from Art Pepper song)

Mr. ART PEPPER: My last album I was lucky enough to have recorded it with
Elvin on drums and George Cables on piano, and David Williams on bass, called
"Art Pepper, The Trip" on Contemporary and the record before that was called
"Art Pepper Living Legend" with the late Hampton Hawes on piano, Charlie Haden
on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. They're both for sale in the back by my
wife. Wave your hand, baby; that pretty little, sweet little Jewish freak
right there. That's my seventh woman. If I lose her, I'll go get an eighth.
And I hope she don't leave me because I needs her. Thank you. See you later.

Ms. PEPPER: That remark, which really was--that's about as low as he ever
got. And the reason was this. He had been using the money--this was before I
took control of the money, actually. He had been using the money that we had
gotten to pay off a counselor at the methadone program in New York to buy
extra methadone instead of using it to pay our hotel bill. I grabbed the
money and paid the hotel bill with it. He was furious. I also said I was
going to get that counselor in trouble. So he was very, very angry at me that
night. But that's about as bad as it ever got. Usually, if you heard his
comments on stage, he was lovely. He was lovely.

GROSS: I'd like to play some more music from the Vanguard sessions that have
just been released. And he plays "Cherokee" twice on this. The first time he
plays it, he talks about how, you know, no jazz musician is worth anything if
they can't play the heck out of this tune. And then he proceeds to burn
through it.

Ms. PEPPER: Right.

GROSS: We're gonna hear the second version that he plays. What were your
impressions of this performance?

Ms. PEPPER: When he--when I realized that he was going to play "Cherokee" on
that particular night, where he was just so totally dissipated, I couldn't
believe his nerve.

GROSS: Because he takes it at such a fast pace?

Ms. PEPPER: Well, he always took it at a fast pace. I knew what he was
going to do if he played "Cherokee." And the idea that he believed that he
could do that; that he could pull it off; there was no risk he would not take
on stage. He was amazing, so my state was he can't do it, number one, and,
number two, what nerve. What nerve. And then when I heard it, `My god, he's
doing it.' It--he was a hell of a ride, you know.

(Soundbite of Art Pepper song)

GROSS: That's Art Pepper. My guest is Laurie Pepper.

Art Pepper's health was not good in the last years of his life.

Ms. PEPPER: No, it wasn't.

GROSS: Was there a point where he assumed that he wouldn't live much longer?

Ms. PEPPER: I think he assumed he wouldn't live much longer when he was 10
years old, to tell you the truth. He--when I met him he told me he wasn't
going to live much longer. When I met him in Synanon, I mean, I think that
that was a refrain. I think he thought he had a limited time and I--when he
turned 50, I think he was utterly amazed. He was dumbfounded that he was
still alive. He just could not believe it, so he thought that death was
imminent. And when we began working on "Straight Life," one of the first
things he said is, `I want to get this done because I know I'm dying.' And
yet he had 10 more years at that time.

GROSS: Do you that since that `Hey, I'm gonna die real soon' was one of the
reasons why he kept going back to drugs 'cause he just didn't think it would
matter in the long run 'cause he didn't think there'd be an `in the long run'?

Ms. PEPPER: Yeah, I think that that was--at least it was a good
rationalization for him; that why shouldn't he get high? He didn't have that
much longer. He should live the way he wanted to. And he had a lot of
rationalizations for using drugs, but I think--you know, and the more I think
about it, the more it seems to me to be the truth that Art was so profoundly
troubled emotionally--and whatever they're learning these days about brain
chemistry or whatever--he was such a troubled soul and he suffered so. He was
so unbelievably sensitive to the stuff that most of us can deal with, that I
think he was self medicating all his life. I think he was just trying to ease
the pain and--because things were more real to him than they are to the rest
of us. Things were so intense to him and so he had a lot of rationalizations.
But I think, in the long run, it was the only way he could live.

GROSS: Did he die in a lot of pain?

Ms. PEPPER: No. No, he didn't. He died in so far as it's possible to know
you're dying and have it be an easy death. He died with very little pain. He
had a cerebral hemorrhage. We didn't know it. He had a headache and he
never, never had headaches. I get migraines, but he never had headaches, and
so I took him to the doctor. And it happened very quickly after that, but he
knew he was dying. He told me in the car as I was driving him to the
hospital, and he said he wanted me to know that he'd had a good life and he
wanted to thank me for what I had done. He felt that he'd done everything
that he had to do.

I told you that when the odds were against him, he rose to the occasion. And
I can't think of any more difficult occasion than your own death. He was
beautiful. You know, he was amazing--amazingly courageous. And he said all
these things. And then we were in the hospital and he was lying there on the
table, and his entire left side became paralyzed. And he told me, `You don't
know how scared I am.' And I just started hugging him and kissing him. And
he said, `That's what I need. I need love.' And he was--you know, he did the
hardest things so well, and he died well and he--but he knew he was dying for
so long. It was not a surprise. It was what he'd been waiting for.

GROSS: Did you have a sense that he really wanted his music to live on after
his death?

Ms. PEPPER: ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: That what happened to his music after his death was very important?

Ms. PEPPER: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, there's this great--I was listening
to some tape--live performance of his at some nightclub and he gave this
fantastic performance of something and the audience was just screaming and
yelling. And Art said into the microphone; he said, `That just goes to show,
you know'--he said, `That goes to show that you can cheat death. You can
cheat death.' And I just shivered when I heard that because that's what he
was up to.

GROSS: Laurie Pepper, recorded in 1996. She's just produced a boxed set of
her late husband's recordings called "Art Pepper, The Hollywood All-Star
Sessions."

Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews the new movie "Our Song." This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film "Our Song"
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band is made up of Brooklyn youth aged
eight to 18. After watching one of their performances in a New York City
parade, filmmaker Jim McKay decided to incorporate the band into the
screenplay he was writing about three 15-year-old girls from Crown Heights.
The result is "Our Song," which film critic Henry Sheehan calls one of the
most remarkable American movies of the year.

HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:

Lanisha, Maria and Jocelyn are three teen-age girls who've been fast friends
for nearly all their lives. At age 15, they go to the same school and are
members of the same community marching band, the Jackie Robinson Steppers, a
delightful conglomeration that specializes in sharp beats and cool steps.
They don't have any reason to think that they won't be friends forever, but
during one summer, somehow, they drift apart.

Out of what to American ears may sound like flimsy material, director Jim
McKay has fashioned a small, heartbreaking masterpiece with "Our Song."
While taking in all sorts of social realities that most movies usually miss,
McKay has kept his focus intensely personal. This isn't a movie, say, about
three black and Hispanic girls, poverty and pregnancy. It's about Lanisha,
Maria and Jocelyn, whose indelible humanity lives on long after the final
credits fade from the screen.

Naturally, within any trio of friends tensions are bound to emerge, especially
in the rumpus of adolescence. But it sometimes takes an outside force to
bring those tensions to the surface. In the girls' case, it's the news that
their high school will be closed for the upcoming year for asbestos removal
and they may end up in different schools. If the girls were going to stick
together, maybe it wouldn't matter that Jocelyn has been hanging out a little
bit with a couple of slightly more sophisticated girls, or that Lanisha and
Maria, who have some Hispanic blood, have been speaking Spanish to each other
as a way of communicating secretly in front of boys, a joke that English-only
Jocelyn can't join.

In this scene the three crowd together in Lanisha's tiny bedroom in her
family's project apartment. They're still bound by the intimacies of
childhood, sprawling into each other unselfconsciously, sharing daydreams,
idle chatter and ice cream. But if you listen carefully, you hear quiet
cracks of separation.

(Soundbite from "Our Song")

Unidentified Girl #1: Me, Keisha and Kim went to this ice cream store. I got
this flavor, mochaccino. It's like chocolate and coffee. Ya'll got to taste
that one. It is so good.

Unidentified Girl #2: I've never heard of that one. It sounds good.

Unidentified Girl #1: It is.

Unidentified Girl #3: You was with Keisha and Kim? You went after practice
the other day.

Unidentified Girl #1: You were busy doing pushups.

Unidentified Girl #3: Good one, Miss Mocharino.

Unidentified Girl #1: Mochaccino. It's like chocolate and coffee; like you,
Lanisha, mochaccino.

Unidentified Girl #2: I'm sweet, thank you. (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Girl #3: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Girl #1: Then you should be having some beans and rice ice cream
'cause that's your flavor.

Unidentified Girl #2: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Girl #1: I don't even know what ya'll are even saying in
Spanish.

Unidentified Girl #2: Jocelyn, you are like chocolate with a vanilla swirl.

Unidentified Girl #1: Hm-mm. Girl please. I'm full on chocolate. What are
you talking about? Dark chocolate.

Unidentified Girl #3: No, mocha. You're mocha.

SHEEHAN: McKay employs a number of subtle strategies to make his film so
ardently honest, but they wouldn't have done any good if he didn't have the
actresses to play the three girls. Kerry Washington, Melissa Martinez and
Anna Simpson, who play Lanisha, Maria and Jocelyn, are so good that, at times,
"Our Song" seems like a documentary. But while all three girls did grow up in
New York City neighborhoods often described as troubled, they are actresses,
not stand-ins. Washington, who gives the movie's most amazing performance is
highly trained and experienced. She played Julia Stile's best friend in the
undistinguished "Save the Last Dance." Oddly enough, "Our Song" can be
praised exactly as an anti-"Save the Last Dance," free of plot contrivances
and letting the characters dictate the action, rather than the other way
around.

"Our Song" is not so intimate that it excludes the Crown Heights community at
large. The dauntingly tall projects, the hot, oil-stained streets and the
jostling neighbors are all there; so, too, are some of the traps that catch
even the wariest girls, including pregnancy. But McKay avoids the trap of
treating pregnancy as a larger social problem for poor people, even when
one of the girl's discovers she's going to have a baby. What matters is how
she feels and what she's going to do.

Finally, you wouldn't want to miss the Robinson Steppers, who, along with
their charismatic leader, Tyrone Brown, play themselves in the movie. After
all the practices, you begin to thirst for a full-bore performance. Don't
worry. McKay doesn't let you down there, either.

GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register. "Our
Song" is playing in New York and LA and will open in more cities on June 29th.

(Production credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

How the Trump White House misled the world about its family separation policy

The Atlantic's Caitlin Dickerson spent 18 months filing lawsuits for documents to put together the story of the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families at the border.

42:55

After a career of cracking cold cases, investigator Paul Holes opens up

Veteran cold case investigator Paul Holes talks about pursuing killers and the emotional toll of obsessing over crime scenes and talking to victims of horrific crimes. He has a new memoir called Unmasked.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue