John Koenig on Art Pepper

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Last week, I caught up with John Koenig, son of Lester Koenig, who founded Contemporary Records in Los Angeles in 1951. Lester and Contemporary were instrumental in preserving some of the finest music recorded on the West Coast in the 1950s and beyond. John is a cellist, attorney and Grammy-nominated producer. When I spoke with John, we talked about Art Pepper. John mentioned he had written an essay for Art Pepper's Live at Fat Tuesday's, an album featuring Pepper at the New York club on April 15, 1981 that was released on Spain's Elemental Records in 2015 and produced by Zev Feldman. After I read John's essay, I asked if I could share it with readers. John was happy to let me post it here:

In the four decades since Art Pepper returned to music after his years out of the public eye owing to incarceration and drug addiction, a great deal has been written about him as the iconic jazz alto saxophonist he was. And certainly after his re-emergence, the perception of Art as an avatar for the stereotypical crash-and-burn junkie jazz musician became so well-settled in the lore that the lurid details of Art's life have become at least as interesting to the public as his transcendent musical gifts.

Analyses of Art Pepper as a musician, scholarly assessments of his stature in jazz and the broad strokes of his story are ably dealt with elsewhere. What I am able to offer here are some of my own recollections of Art as I knew him—from my vantage point as the son of Lester Koenig (who produced Art's most iconic recordings of the 1950s, '60s and '70s) and as a producer myself who was lucky enough to have recorded Art. I also had a chance to work with Art purely on the technical side of music.

When I met Art in 1972, I had just graduated from college and was working at Contemporary Records. This was a couple of years before Art had reestablished his musical career after his years in prison and at Synanon, the drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, Calif.

The first time Art dropped by the office while I was working at the label, my father, Art and I sat at an old rickety card table in the back room, a shipping room and warehouse that doubled as Contemporary's recording studio where Art had recorded all of his legendary Contemporary albums. Over a lunch of Italian sandwiches, we talked about where Art saw himself and where he saw himself going now that he seemed to be getting his life together.

My first impression of him was of a reserved, soft-spoken, somewhat fragile guy. This surprised me; I had been expecting a wilder, more outgoing and dynamic character, given what my father had told me over the years about his harrowing, yet bigger-than-life story: prison, drug addiction and other horrors of life all too common to many mid-20th century jazz musicians.

For most of my childhood, I was aware of Art as the great West Coast alto player, perhaps the greatest of his day. And I'd heard my father and various musicians refer to Art as a heroin addict and convict. I suppose in my own childish imagination, I'd conjured an image of Art as an exotic, dynamic, swashbuckling figure. But confronted with the reality of the man when I actually met him in the flesh, I could see the damage the life he'd lived had done to him physically and emotionally. My naive image of him as powerful and mysterious melted away.

Art wasn't a particularly imposing figure to begin with. He wasn't a very big guy. When he walked, he shuffled a bit. His complexion was sallow; he didn't strike me as healthy or vital. After the ravages of drugs, prison and his assorted health issues, he didn't look quite like the Marcello Mastroianni clone whose face was so arresting on his '50s album covers. His voice was a little nasal and he droned a bit when he talked. His prison tattoos and his hernia, which protruded from his abdomen, were not the kinds of things unworldly young people like me saw every day in the early '70s. They were a little unsettling. But I remember also that he had a soulful, artistic way about him that seemed reflective of his lyricism as a musician.

Art wasn't one for small talk. He seemed guarded and uncomfortable in his skin that day, even though he clearly was very attached to my father. Maybe it was because we were “squares." I don't really know. Nevertheless, the conversation eventually settled on his plans to get back into music. He was happy to have been asked to conduct a clarinet clinic for college students out of state, but it was going to be unfamiliar territory for him and he didn't seem to know exactly what to expect.

He didn't have a clarinet, so my father volunteered my step-brother Shawn's modest junior high-school student instrument as a loaner. And after that was settled, they talked about various musicians he'd been playing with recently and opportunities that were developing for him to perform. And, of course, they discussed in the most general terms the idea of Art beginning to record again. Of course, he did return to recording, yielding four new albums my father produced (one of which, the Village Vanguard sessions, comprised several discs), and many albums for other labels, as well.

Art was a perfectionist. In spite of his musical stature, he seemed to have a nagging anxiety that somehow he wouldn't measure up technically and would embarrass himself in some challenging musical setting he might find himself in. This was, of course, nonsense. Yet in spite of this unfounded self-doubt, deep down, it was crystal-clear he had the solid conviction that he was a great musician. I chalk up his seeming insecurity to stage fright.

Everyone who plays music in front of strangers experiences some degree of nervousness. But having been around musicians all my life and having had a career as a cellist myself as reference, Art struck me as having more intense stage fright than most musicians I've worked with or observed or, indeed, that I've experienced. But this aspect of his psychology, while uncomfortable for him, did have the effect of making him demand a lot from himself. And this expectation of excellence extended to those he worked with, as I was to learn.

My father and I produced Art's album, The Trip, together. One of my tasks leading up to the session was to write out charts for some of the tunes. Art and I got together before the date and went over the charts. It turned out that on the one I'd written for Woody Shaw's Sweet Love of Mine, I'd made a couple of errors, (a small transposition error and another small rhythmic goof). When Art played what I'd written and it was wrong, he gave me a withering look that still stays with me today when I think of him. Of course, the mistakes were easily fixed and I revised the chart on the spot in about 30 seconds. But problems and mistakes clearly upset Art, whether he made them or someone else did.

Thinking back on that day, the thing I remember most was his intensity, his focus. You could see the wheels turning as he attacked the chart. His concentration as he played, processing the notes on the page, was definitely something for a young musician to emulate, and I was lucky enough to experience it up close. There was nothing casual about Art's approach to being a musician. When it came to music, Art was absolutely, totally involved and totally committed. It was life and death for him.

The other thing I remember from that day was his unbelievably beautiful sound heard from up close. His sound was crucial to him. It was truly his means of expressing his emotions. As rich and expressive as Art's sound was on record or amplified in a club, that sound was even more breathtaking from just a few feet away.

When he talked about music and musicians, Art didn't pull any punches. I remember one day in '72 or '73 when he came by Contemporary for a visit and heard some tracks by a prominent jazz artist, a household name, that my father and I were preparing for release. At first, Art was excited. He listened to the head and said to my father, “You're putting this out? Great." But then the music turned “outside" and so did Art's view of it. “It's ugly. There's no beauty to it. I can't stand it. It's awful." He had no speed governor on his criticism, as much as he respected my father, and no mechanism to soften the blow.

Art was not the most socially graceful person I've ever met. The first time I saw him after my father died was just before the memorial service, at which Art played with George Cables, Leroy Vinnegar and Shelly Manne. When I saw him, the first thing Art said to me was, “Could you write me a letter for my parole officer?" At the time, I hadn't seen Art in around a year and a half, as I had been living in Europe. Art's request—made at that particular moment—struck me as a bit abrupt, my father having just died, after all. But again, in my opinion, Art's difficult life from childhood onward had conditioned him to focus on taking care of himself. If he needed something done to make his way through life, he was going to focus on doing it. If he needed someone to do something to make it happen, he was going to ask.

Art was very sensitive guy, and I think he always had his antennae out ready to pick up on slights or insults. In 1980, I had him in the studio on a Freddie Hubbard date. The rhythm section was Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Peter Erskine. Freddie was late and so the guys just decided to play a little together. At one point, Stanley innocently said something to Art that Art interpreted as condescending. He called out a tune, a standard and said something to Art like, “You'll know this." Art interpreted this remark as a younger, successful musician sizing him up and assuming he was out of step with the times; he'd only know standards. I know that wasn’t Stanley's intention. I remember thinking at the time that Art had to have tortured the meaning of what Stanley had said in order to take offense.

But Art reacted. Sharply. I was in the control room, so I could hear everything they were saying. I thought we might be headed for some trouble, but in a few moments, the crisis resolved itself and everything was fine.

Art did have an unusually thin skin and his hyper-vigilance seemed to me to have been born of his feeling throughout his whole life that he was perpetually in danger of being attacked in some way; of being disrespected or having something else bad happen to him. Of course, Art's wife, Laurie, was steadfast in protecting Art from most of the insults life sometimes inevitably brings one's way. Consequently, from the time I met Art, I rarely saw one Pepper without the other.

Laurie certainly was indefatigable in bearing Art's cudgels. She was the Art Pepper Quartet's manager, but she was also Art's muse. I was with her many times in studio control rooms or clubs when Art was playing. Clearly, Laurie was always in the moment when Art played; she was uninhibited in showing how much she was feeling the music whenever she listened to him. And I think he could sense her energy and relied on it. If Laurie was grooving with it, he knew everything was good.

Altogether, Art Pepper the man was a confounding combination of elements. Indeed, he was one of the most complicated people I've ever known. His many parts were often incompatible and at odds with each other. I believe he was unsettled about life and why things developed the way they did for him. He felt things deeply, and he felt very few things more deeply than perceived slights. Certainly, he was unhappy about the difficulties that befell him along the way. He did adapt, but my impression is that he did not do so easily, and the pull of drugs was always lurking not too far away.

But through it all, he had his music. In spite of his predilections for gloominess and self-destruction, I think he took some satisfaction from his tremendous public adulation around the world and the satisfying musical affinity he had with his band. And it seems to me he also took satisfaction from the knowledge that by pushing himself to excellence, he'd achieved it. I think this is ultimately what made him tick.

—John Koenig, April 11, 2015

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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