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Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  740 ratings  ·  70 reviews
Not for the faint-hearted, Art Pepper's autobiography is painfully honest as the great saxophonist describes a life of drugs, alcohol and the occasional foray into crime, having spent five of his best years incarcerated in San Quentin.
Paperback, 558 pages
Published December 1st 2000 by Mojo Books, (first published September 1980)
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Back in my jazzbo days, I had this one Art Pepper LP. At the time, I didn’t know much about his life, but the album cover told a story in itself. There was Pepper: a shady-looking dude, his once-handsome features coarsened by years of hard living, a bare forearm displaying crude jailhouse tats. He looked more like an old carny than a jazz musician. Yet the music itself was in stark contrast to this rough exterior: unguardedly tender and deeply beautiful, it had no earthly business coming out of ...more
Aug 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is an oral history with Art Pepper telling his story in short chronological segments with interviews of friends and associates spliced in. While Pepper is famous for his jazz and jazz is part of the story, there is more about the drug and prison culture of California at the time. As Art speaks (you know this because the margins are justified) you adjust to his point of view which is best summarized on p. 424: “I’d known him in jail. He was a real criminal and dopefiend, so I trusted him.” ...more
Leah Polcar
I read a review in Harper's about another book written by Laurie Pepper (co-author of Straight Life ) about Art Pepper and at least 3/4 of this review was dedicated to discussing how amazing Straight Life was. I still have no sense at all how good the new book is, but a flat out advertisement encouraging one to read Straight Life could not have been more persuasive. I found it impossible not to be intrigued by the selected excerpts discussing Art Pepper's hideous childhood and introductio ...more
Jay Johnston
Aug 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: finished
I loved this book. At first I thought the writing style was going to be too simple, crude, straight-forward....whatever. But the STORY here is so gripping, so chilling, and yet so laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately, so very touching that I couldn't put it down. It's not for everyone.....if fact, it's probably not for most people. Summary - The book is broken into three or four sections. 1) An amazing historical view of early jazz from an insider. Art lost by just a handful of votes to Charlie P ...more
Jan 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing read - gritty, beautiful, sad, and pitchblack funny. You would have to go to Chandler to find an LA as simultaneously enchanting and repulsive.

Art is the ultimate charming asshole, spinning a story that soars and crashes thru a life wracked by self-doubt and bad choices, not the least of which was a heroin addiction that hobbled a brilliant career and left him spending most of the sixties in San Quentin.

But both God and the Devil are in the details. I am haunted by his descriptions
Michael Finocchiaro
I was talking about the Giddins book and my renewed interest in jazz to several friends and new acquaintances and all of them told me that I HAD to read Art Pepper’s fascinating autobiography (co-written with his last wife Laurie), Straight Life. They were so right! I blew threw the 400 pages like Art blowing through his alto on Art+11 and loved it. It is dark and scary but a good reminder of all the reasons NOT to go anywhere near heroin if you have any issues or hangups around self-confidence ...more
Ryan Van Runkle
Feb 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. This book is so heavy. I tell everyone about this book, especially musicians and art people and entertainment people. The down side about this book is its 500+ pages, like a tome. It's also excruciatingly painful at times. Pepper uses people, pimps people, but also loves people. This book is just so human and powerful. It's a great insight into the jazz scene and the Hollywood LA scene. The jail scene's there too. Pepper walks the line between depression and a deep sense of life erring on t ...more
Rick Barnes
Sep 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As brutal, as honest, and as alive as Art's playing. I met Art in L.A. in 1972 or 73, but I didn't know who he was. I knew he played jazz, but I didn't really know what jazz was. A mutual friend had brought him over to hear a few of my stupid little folky-ass tunes. Art didn't appear to be very impressed. After he left my friend put on the album, "Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section". I said, "Holy Shit! THAT'S the guy that was just listening to my tunes? Why on earth did you do that to me?" I' ...more
C. Michael
Jul 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Straight Life--The Story of Art Pepper
Art and Laurie Pepper
506 Pages
ISBN# 0306805588
Da Capo Press

Writer's Note: Straight Life--The Story of Art Pepper is 35-years old and is a well-established piece of jazz reportage not requiring further comment, which has never stopped me. I have written this piece for a two-fold reason: one, to provide All About Jazz some commentary original to the magazine, and to anticipate Laurie Pepper's long awaited memoir, ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman (Art Pepper Music Cor
Elliot Sneider
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Any lover of jazz, or of American history, or of character studies of people who live on the edge of society will love this book. I'm in awe at the way Art was able to navigate such a long life while taking risk after risk with his mind, his body, and his relationships. The writing is so candid you have to stop yourself sometimes while reading to remind yourself that this was a truly unique life, one that can teach us about the limits of human endurance but devoid of any lesson about how one sho ...more
Harriett Milnes
After reading about Art's rape of a woman that he met and drank with during World War II, I lost interest in his autobiography:

We talked and drank, and the time went by. She was pretty and I was very lonely. . . We started lying close and goofing around with each other, and time kept passing. . . And as we're walking, all of a sudden she says, "Well, it was nice meeting you. We'll have to get together again." I said, "What are you talking about?" Here I'd spent the whole day! We'd dr
Feb 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
pg 222, Art Pepper has just got out of prison for the 2nd time. though he has yet to commit a crime (they send you to federal prison for marks in 1957, no dope even needed). i've read some prety incredible books and bios about musicians, some standouts are joe strummers book, and miles davis' and frank zappas and etta james and john coltrane and bob marley and warren zevon and many others. all have some very special things about them, most forefront is artistry, drugs and outsider life, fucked u ...more
Barry Hammond
Nov 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jazz saxophone player Art Pepper was a self-formed talent of rare skill and sensitivity. He played in Stan Kenton's big band and went on to to numerous group and solo recordings as a player and composer. He was also a flat out junkie who did serious jail time in San Quentin and other prisons. This autobiography tells his story in his own words (with supplemental interviews with many of the people he knew on both sides of the law along with quotes from published interviews and magazine articles a ...more
Allan MacDonell
Apr 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Art Pepper's Straight Life may be the rawest autobiography anyone ever needs to read, drenched in drugs, sex, suicides, cult fiends, prison, mom issues, spousal abuse and rape, with a dash of jazz history. Pepper seems to pin the source of his human alienation on being a white musician in the black world of jazz, and being rejected by many African Americans in that world due to the color of his skin. But maybe the black musicians simply didn't like Art because he made himself so unlikeable. Everyone ...more
Andrew Cartmel
Feb 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Harrowing and engrossing, Straight Life tells the life story of Art Pepper, based on tape recorded interviews made by his wife Laurie. Who is Art Pepper? The "greatest alto saxophone player in the world." He was also a junkie who tragically spent a huge portion of his life behind bars thanks to a legal system which destroys a musician of genius just because he's an addict. I channelled some of my anger about this into my Vinyl Detective novel Written in Dead Wax, where my account of 1950s LA cop ...more
Jul 17, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: be-boppin' dopers
Shelves: jazznbeats
One of the hardest of hard-core junkies, Art Pepper would supplement his brilliant jazz career by stealing, lying and cheating to keep up an unstoppable drug habit. Even after incarceration he would bounce out and score again, get busted again and score some more!
The book has oodles of pictures of him loaded and looking ready for death. You've never seen so many torn-up addict pictures in your life. What gives his book three stars instead of five is his whiny tone all through the book. Typical
Jul 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Read this years ago but reminded about it by a list of books musicians have chosen about music. Reminded because it is not on the list yet it is wonderful. A wonderful book about jazz about los angeles about a life of mistakes about looking back. Art Pepper was brilliant. This is the list -
Jul 16, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Maybe as good an autobiography as I have ever read in many ways-- Pepper's wife taped his reminiscences, then supplemented them with anecdotes from friends and family, and interviews and articles about Pepper from Downbeat. The effect is something like a Dos Passos novel, but it wouldn't have worked if Pepper had been anything less than as candid as he allowed himself to be. In some sense I suspect that the honesty he showed came about as a result of his time with Synanon, and that turns out to ...more
Sep 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
" peace at all except when I was playing, and the minute I stopped playing there was nothing; that continual, insane search just to pass out somewhere and then to wake up in the morning and think, "Oh, my God," to wake up and think, "Oh God, here we go again." to drink a bottle of warm beer so I could vomit. so I could start all over again, so I could start that ridiculous, sickening, horrible, horrible life again- all of a sudden, all of a sudden, the demons and the devils and the wanderin ...more
Sean Conroy
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Born of a wandering dad and a teenage mom, indifferently raised by an emotionally distant grandmother, Art Pepper's memoir is a study of alienation. He discovered a love of jazz as a teen, but felt like a perpetual outsider in an idiom largely defined by African-American artists--artists he alternately admired and resented.

Like many jazz artists of his generation, Pepper started using heroin as a young man: a habit that damaged his reputation, his health, and led to stints in the L.A. County Ja
Joshua Klein
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Art Pepper’s autobiography/biography “Straight Life” is a gut-wrenchingly honest telling of the musician’s tumultuous and occasionally derelict life in and out of the west coast jazz scene at its apex. The book’s format and brutally candid style allows Art’s voice and gritty language to evoke graphic images from his life, even if it does read more like a crime novel than a jazz biography.

An important fact to be aware of before committing to this 500+ page biography/autobiography is that it is a
Dave Hartl
Jan 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
I read this book in the mid-1980s and never forgot it. I just re-read it and it lost none of its power and darkness. It's a love story between a man and heroin. As such, it's bleak. The basic conflict that drives your reading forward is the beautiful music this man seemed to effortlessly create, versus the horrors and sordidness of his life between club jobs and tours. Where did it come from? Art Pepper wasn't a "I play what I feel and know" artist, he was a "this is my escape from the hell I li ...more
Apr 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Overeager college students looking to get in touch with real life.
I came to this book via Terry Castle, author of "The Professor," a collection of feminist/critical essays, including a very amusing one about her relationship with Susan Sontag. Included in the book is a piece called "My Heroin Christmas," dealing with "Straight Life" by Art Pepper. Terry Castle loves this autobiography, an incredibly detailed chronicle about his magical, horrible, creative and heartbreaking time on this earth. She says part of her admiration comes partly from sheer fellow feeli ...more
Mark Everton
Apr 18, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Art Pepper is a wonderful musician - his elegant tone and graceful swing always puts me in a good mood. But his life - detailed here in a take-no-prisoners autobiography - is as dark and ugly as his playing is light and effervescent. This book was put together after Pepper's death by his 4th wife Laurie and she's done an excellent job as editor - carefully placing interviews with Art's friends, family and colleagues to help contextualise Pepper's own, sometimes outrageous, words. His description ...more
Feb 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Probably the most honest an accounting of the troubled life of a highly regarded jazz musician. This autobiography, with help from his wife, spares no dark moments or guilty admissions. Art Pepper repeatedly paid the price for his use of drugs and alcohol serving hard time in prison and with major health issues. Yet he stuck to his personal code of honor, never ratting on anyone to reduce his sentences and always staying honest to his music regardless of how high or strung out or sick he was.

Jul 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Art Pepper was a terrific and well-known alto sax player whose potential was probably never realized because he was a dope fiend. In this book, Art narrates his life story to his third wife, Laurie. He talks about playing jazz and how it gave him access to heroin. His addiction led him to prison on several occasions. Where the book succeeds is in painting atmospheres of the drug and prison subcultures. It is a great book about addiction. Because the book is written first person (it's a literal t ...more
Jul 02, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, american
Straight Life was narrated by Art Pepper to his wife Laurie Pepper who edited and organized the book for publication. That may be why his voice comes through in such a direct and personal way. Or maybe it's because Pepper was such a fanatic about honesty and truth in his musical expression, and that carried over into his story-telling. In any case the result is a book that is a very compelling read, frightening, disgusting, and sometimes very funny (esp. the Synanon chapters). Straight Life is n ...more
Kevin Tole
Nov 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
I consider myself very fortunate to have been lucky to have seen and heard Art Pepper play at Ronnie Scott's in the 80's before he died. The result of those sessions produced 'Blues for the Fisherman' which is right up there in my prized records of all time.

Art was ever the great alto player. Supreme. Whilst at the same time being the perpetual gauche teenager. This book does real justice to the man and his loves not the least of which was heroin. He said on stage that he'd been addi
Dec 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
this is the raw art -- the book is an (edited) transcription of tapes. so it's raw and the sentences aren't beautifully constructed but there's still a music to them as one would expect from art pepper.

one doesn't have to know a thing about jazz to appreciate the life art lived. in his book he describes with clarity: drugs, prison, and cults. he tells things honestly, though one must be careful not to confuse this with "truth" -- there is some balance achieved through the insertion o
Jay Koester
Like a few others, I rushed to find this book after an article in Harper's Magazine talked about it reverentially as one of the best autobiographies ever. I made it through all 500+ pages only because I kept waiting for it to hit me. It never did. Some reviews compare it favorably to William S. Burroughs' Junky. Personally, I got way more out of Junky in hundreds of fewer pages. There are lessons from Junky I still think about every week, years after reading it. I can't imagine I'll ever think o ...more
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American jazz musician noted for the beauty of his sound and his improvisations on alto saxophone, and a major figure in the 1950s in West Coast jazz.

Pepper in his teens played in Los Angeles bands led by Lee Young and Benny Carter, then joined the Stan Kenton band briefly before serving in the U.S. Army (1944–46). He returned to Kenton in 1947 and remained until 1952, the year he bega
“I guess it's like James Joyce when he was a kid, you know. He hung out with all the great writers of the day, and he was a little kid, like, with tennis shoes on, and they said 'Look at this lame!' They didn't use those words in those days. They said 'God, here comes this nut.' And he told them, 'I'm great!' And he sat with them, and he loved to be with them, and it ended up that he was great.” 3 likes
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