Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

In Cultural Amnesia, which is one of my favorite late-night books, Clive James calls bebop "the post-war musical development which tried to ensure that jazz would no longer be the spontaneous sound of joy." He develops this criticism at length in the book's superb essay on Duke Ellington. James's disdain for modern jazz—by which he seems to mean the primary developments in jazz after 1950—can be summarized in five words: You can't dance to it.

There's truth to that criticism—but not enough to save it from being facile. In the first place, it was never jazz's ambition to be merely the "spontaneous sound of joy." The fact that it managed to be the sound of joy at all, ever, is one of the miracles of jazz, given the world that gave birth to it. But that world ended (thank god) with World War II and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement, when black America decided that if it could be called upon to die for its country, its country could be called upon to regard black Americans as equals. So James is being both facile and unjust by indicting John Coltrane, for instance, for not keeping us dancing through the fire hoses and the dogs of Selma, Alabama. Coltrane was an artist to the extent that he told the truth, and he would have been a liar had he played only joy.

Nevertheless! One must concede that jazz lost its hold on the popular imagination after 1960, and it's not unreasonable to suggest that one of the reasons—among many—for that loss was that you couldn't dance to it. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the two giants of jazz innovation through the fifteen years after the war, did not, for the most part, want to be danced to. They wanted, instead, to be heard.

But there was a fellow saxophone player out in sunny California who still knew how to swing.

Art Pepper, like many of his jazz contemporaries—including Parker and Coltrane—led a broken, desperate life (chronicled in harrowing detail in his autobiography, Straight Life). As a consequence, Pepper left behind a body of work that's tragically fragmented. But it's a body of work that calls out to be danced to.

Pepper didn't possess Parker's technical virtuosity (no one did) or Coltrane's artistic audacity, but he had a better gift for melody than either of them and a generosity to his playing that shouldn't be mistaken as a need to please, or as dishonest or dated. Art Pepper's music—often underrated, quite frankly, because he was white—is an American treasure, and the album that gives its title to this post, which offers us Pepper in studio with Miles Davis's now-legendary rhythm section (Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums), is a breathtaking moment in the history of American art.

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