In a short time, Omnivore will be releasing a remastered version of the album pictured above. The Art Pepper Quartet. I always think of it by its original catalogue number, Tampa 20. I'm licensing it to Omnivore partly because they have a bigger (and younger) audience than I do, with my label, Widow's Taste, and I feel it's time let them hear what great jazz, great music sounds like. The Omnivore release will be on vinyl and later on CD. I was asked to write a liner for the CD, and writing about this album opened the floodgates. So I'm printing the note, in advance, here, certain that most of Omnivore's customers (who'll buy the vinyl) will never see it. And I want it seen.
The Art Pepper Quartet
I have to say it. Categorically. This album, recorded in November, 1956, is my favorite Art Pepper album.
Some people insist that the “old” Art Pepper of the 1950s, lyrical, elegant, ingenious, is the best. Others prefer the later, funkier, wilder, heartbroken-and-desperately passionate fellow I fell in love with. I adore him in all his permutations. But this album’s different: I could listen to this particular recording every day for the rest of my life. I love it. And not just because I own the master, though that’s part of it. The story of the the making and “rescuing” of The Art Pepper Quartet album is a glimpse into Art’s life, my life, and the jazz record business as it used to be.…
When Art died in June of 1982, I was so deep in grief. Condolence letters came in every day for months, and every day I sat and read them to Art’s picture, weeping. And I was broke. My own fault. I’d been handling the money—and, when Art’s career bloomed so beautifully during his last years, touring and recording, the money was so good. More than either of us ever had before, so naturally we spent it all. Art on cocaine, and me—band manager, secretary, travel agent, 24/7 nursemaid—on clothes and jewelry and restaurants. Because that was only fair!
So when Art died, I couldn’t pay the rent. I’m exaggerating. I got a refund for the plane tickets I’d purchased for an upcoming tour, and that money kept me solvent until I got a few temp jobs typing and editing. My rent was low. And I still had parents.
And my M.O. (I know this, now) is to go into action, any action all, wrong-headed or ingenious, when frightened, frustrated or unhappy. According to a diary I kept in ’83, I became obsessively persistent going after unpaid royalties. When Art was dying, he said, “At least I’ve left you well provided for.” I was out to prove him right.
One thing I did was research every album Art had done for which no royalties were paid, and one of those was “Tampa 20.” That was the original Tampa Records catalogue number of The Art Pepper Quartet. It was being marketed here and abroad in record stores—by bootleggers, as you’d suspect, but also by people who seemed, legitimately, to own it. I tracked them down, demanding that they prove they really owned it, royalty free. I asked to see a contract.
Bob Scherman, producer and original owner of the Tampa label, was still among the living. He had a house out in the Valley, not far from my collapsing cottage in Van Nuys. Scherman refused to talk to me. Then I learned that he was suing Alco Engineering and Entertainment who was likewise claiming ownership. They wouldn’t talk to me either.
But then Alco filed for bankruptcy—coincidentally in time for me to make a move—in 1983. I spent the early part of of the year trying locate the court-assigned bankruptcy attorney, Arnold Kupetz. He wouldn’t talk to me because, as I was learning, lawyers only talk to other lawyers. So I got a friend of mine, a lawyer, to write to Kupetz for me. When he didn’t even answer him, I called the office up repeatedly, once or twice a day, and I must have finally gotten through: In my diary I wrote, “He’s very rude.” He claimed he didn’t get my lawyer’s letter, so I read it to him on the phone and sent it once again and this time Certified.
By the end of the year, I’d bargained Kupetz down from $5000 to $1000 for Tampa 20, thinking I was slick. I scraped the cash together, paid, and in January, 1984, I brought Art’s old producer, Ed Michel, along to wander through the dark and damp and drafty tin-roofed Alco warehouse in downtown L.A. I needed Ed to help me find masters, “mothers” and every scrap of tape relating to my album—specific items Ed would recognize; I wouldn’t. A few weeks later, a small label, V.S.O.P. Records, bought the rest of the Tampa catalogue—of more than 40 west coast artists—for $1,500. Surprised to find one album missing, the new owner tracked me down, asking if I’d sell my single hold-out. Hell would freeze over first, I said. (I had told Kupetz if he put me in a bidding war, I’d sue the court for my back royalties and hold up everything.) V.S.O.P.’s Peter Jacobson and I eventually became good friends. And even though he got the better deal, financially (He’s another lawyer. He’s the one that’s slick.), I got the single session we both thought most worth having. This one.
What’s the appeal of this one?
It’s the physical embodiment of a precious moment, miraculously captured, when everything was perfect, all the circumstances—the band and music, the recording situation, but most importantly, Art’s mental state. In my life with him, I think I’ve heard the music of Art’s every mood, but never this one where he so simply soars, he sings. He is, in that moment, so uncharacteristically uncomplicated and so confident, more confident than he would ever be again.
He had reason to be. He was playing everywhere in 1956, was playing all the time. When I look at his discography, online, I see that he was in one recording studio or another every single week, sometimes more than once a day. The rest of the time he was performing in clubs. Combine that constant practice with his phenomenal gifts (and with this familiar band, especially Russ Freeman on piano) and beauty came so easy.
And it’s such a hopeful album. It just feels young. Recently freed from Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary and barely 31 years old in 1956, Art still believed he had a future. And he was in love. He’d just married his second wife, Diane—for whom he wrote the stunning ballad here. He recorded other albums during this short span, but those were more demanding, had more sidemen, more arrangements. This one must have felt so effortless. At least that’s how it sounds.
Twenty years later, near the end of his life, Art took more risks when he performed—rhythmically, harmonically, emotionally. Ed Michel has said that what gave Art’s later work its power was a feeling of “shared danger.” By then Art’s youthful confidence had been burned away by what his life became—an immolation in a world of drug addiction and incarcerations, and he came to know he had no future—just this crucial moment at the microphone. And, when he performed, he beguiled his audience, as he talked or played to them, into his overwhelming state of overwrought adrenaline, made us share his terror, glee, and the incendiary desperation in his derring-do. His intensity consumes us, makes us blaze along beside him.
Well, sometimes we don’t want to set the world on fire. Sometimes we want to lie on the grass, look up into the trees, and watch the branches dip and lift and wave their leaves against a sunny sky. Which brings us back to 1956 and “Tampa 20”, and…
In jazz circles Russ Freeman, the pianist at this session, is best known for his collaborations with Chet Baker. An obituary in The Guardian, 2002, praises that relationship, “it was Freeman who picked and arranged the tunes, and explained the harmonies to the trumpeter, who could not read chords, on their living-room piano. Baker's characteristic style - embroidering the melodies with delicate alternative lines - emerged in these sessions, and Freeman, providing a sinewy alternative to Baker's vaporous style, contributed an invaluable contrast.” —John Fordham
I like that word, “sinewy.”
Art (never the least bit “vaporous”) had been playing with Russ since 1949 and admired him tremendously. Russ had the same kind of respect Art had for a beautiful tune. Listen to the two of them on I Surrender Dear. For people who hate or don’t understand “jazz” (sometimes I’m one of them) this could be Lesson #1 on how to improvise, respectfully, on a terrific song, coaxing all the loveliness, sense, and swing out of a tune without altering its essence. What they did exemplifies “cool” in the best sense of the word. In fact, “Tampa 20” could be exhibit ‘A’ for what was known as “West Coast Jazz”. A composer and arranger, Russ also wrote some songs: best known—The Wind, recorded by Mariah Carey, among others. Russ went on to write film scores and produce TV commercials. I got to meet him once, and what a thrill to tell him that I loved him. What a nice man, kind and funny. He was 76 years old when he died in Las Vegas in 2002.
Bassist, Ben Tucker, also wrote some songs, and one of them, I’m Comin’ Home, charted for Mel Tormé in 1962 and has been covered by a lot of people, including The Spencer Davis Group(!) and Michael Bublé. Tucker had a long, illustrious career playing with almost every jazzman on the coast. Eventually he moved to Georgia where he bought some radio stations, and he continued playing music until he died at 82, in 2013. In a golf cart accident.
By November, 1956, he had already joined Art on 3 other albums along with drummer, Gary Frommer.
Art held his sidemen to high standards, and Gary met those standards. He was another West Coast guy, whom Art may have met, originally, in 1950, in Shorty Rogers’s “Giants” band. An online comment by someone who’d employed Gary later on described him as “kind of a walking disaster.” I met Gary, too. He was one of those good-looking charmers who (a girl can tell) promises to be a lot of trouble. He worked with Charlie Parker, and, during the ‘60s, with Henry Mancini, so he was a pro, and Art liked him, featuring him in his quartet with Hampton Hawes at the Surf Club in those days. Frommer died in Anchorage, in 2005, age 70, where, an obituary tells me, he was an active church member and a volunteer at his local library.
The preference in the fifties seemed to be for shorter songs. Maybe the record companies worried their customers would feel cheated if they didn’t get enough tunes on an album? Maybe they were hoping to get airplay? All the songs on Tampa 20 are very short, and that’s too bad. I’m sure these guys stretched out when they played the tunes in clubs. Well, good things, small packages, let’s start with Art’s Opus, since what’s true of that is true of every sweet track on the album:
It starts off casual, like a careless, friendly conversation: Art says: “Okay, like, here we are, here’s a song I wrote on the changes to I Got Rhythm, and we’re just going to play it for a little while.” And like Rhythm and like other standards, it has a basic structure: chorus, chorus, bridge, and final chorus. They play Art’s brand-new melody, and then they improvise. Art’s improvising’s so melodic as he crafts another lively little tune, a variation on the one he started with—which is a variation on I Got Rhythm. And, in his solo, Freeman does the same; he “writes” a flowing melody, and then Art & Russ play alternating “fours,” trading ideas, musically. Well, musically, I don’t know, it may be as complex as nuclear physics, but to me, to most of us who aren’t musicians, it’s just a lively, clever, and affectionate little tete a tete between a couple of good friends. Art and Gary Frommer have a little chat as well, before Art plays his melody again and takes it home.
I’ve mentioned I Surrender Dear. I love Russ Freeman’s so-delicious comping behind Art on this tune. That, and all his playing, reminds me of my first favorite piano player, Teddy Wilson, whom I heard on my mom’s Billie Holiday records. He was another melodist. They’re both angelic.
Then comes beautiful Diane. Art wrote terrific tunes. He wrote great ballads, and he wrote two of his best during that happy year: Patricia for his daughter, and Diane for his new wife, the woman who was supposed to “save” him and instead became a junkie, informing on him and sending him back to prison. Diane’s sad story doesn’t doesn’t tarnish, even a little bit, the jewel that is this love song: Art’s imagination immortalized her in a melody and gave the world some beauty for his pains. I love this tune so much. But it’s too short! I wish Russ Freeman had a solo on it.
All the songs but I Surrender and Besame are Art’s originals. Pepperpot is another little confab. with his band, an unserious delight, a darling romp. Art’s solo dances through the changes just like Fred Astaire.
Besame Mucho is my favorite tune on this, my favorite album. Years ago, when I played it for my artistic aunt, she called it “swoony.” Roughly translated, the title means “Kiss Me a Lot.” My aunt referred to it as “Kiss Me Too Much.” Because it’s saturated with romance. First, there’s that melody just made for dancing in the moonlight. But then it has the delicate but unrelenting funky Latin beat. So, it’s not just moonbeams, is it? It’s lust, as well. Held perfectly in check (which only makes it better). Russ and Art and Gary keep a tasteful, teasing balance between sophistication and salaciousness: Gardenias, cigarettes, martinis on the balcony, swaying bodies, satin sliding over, clinging to, a woman’s perfumed skin. And hot kisses ’til the end of time.
Blues at Twilight. I love the blues, slow blues, of every kind: poignant the way Billie sings them; raucous and lowdown, like Howlin’ Wolf. This one is classy. Those who know his music know Art owned the blues, and, in time, his blues, how he expressed his life, got steadily more deeply tragic, as he screamed them, moaned them, whispered them into his horn. But just because he wasn’t totally miserable in 1956 when he played this one, doesn’t mean that he, like all the rest of us, didn’t have a broken heart. You can hear him talk about it here. And listen to Russ Freeman’s solo. It just knocks me out. Nothing fancy. No weird chords or showing off. Simplicity, melody, truth.
Val’s Pal, another Art original, seems to have had some problems. There were a lot of uncompleted takes, indicating that Art wasn’t satisfied—until he finally was. I wish there was more studio chat recorded on the session tape. I want to know what happened. I like backstories.
Beginning in 1951, Val Valentin was an extremely popular engineer and producer in the record and the movie biz, and Art must have liked him to present him with a song. It’s just a little riff, probably never even written out. Art often improvised these “compositions” in the moment, on blues changes, and stuck somebody’s name on them when titles were required. During my time with him, I recall a bunch of other tunes like this one, original blues riffs Art awarded to the folks he genuinely liked and/or wished to cultivate and flatter. But maybe this one was really written for Val’s actual pal. One of those guys somebody knows who shows up at the studio with alcohol or drugs and doesn’t give his name.
Art died, earlier than any of his sidemen on this album, in 1982, when he was 56. But not before he’d had another full career in music—which he packed into the seven years before he died. Jailed repeatedly for drugs, and physically debilitated by his drinking, he cleaned up enough to return to live performing, touring and recording, while those other guys, were wise enough to watch their diets and play golf. But the short, reckless life Art had was the only one he ever could imagine living. And, at the end, he felt his hard times paid artistic dividends. He thought without them his work might lack essential depth, or beauty, or emotion; so he kept re-opening his wounds, himself, exploited all his pain and shared it with his listeners. I used to have opinions about that kind of attitude. Now I think it probably depends on who you are, and I think it worked for him, for the mature Art Pepper: He had the in-born genius and had honed his skills. He had an iron constitution. He had people who looked after him. He lived long enough to make it work.
Maybe I’m just telling you a story to justify how much I love this album, extrapolating from ambitious, optimistic things Art said to Downbeat Magazine in1956. From what he said to me when we wrote Straight Life. He told me that in 1956 he “had the world by the tail.” Well, Tampa 20 seems to be good evidence of that—of Art’s pretty, graceful, hopeful moment before his next incarceration (coming soon, in early 1958). His youth, his dreams, his confidence, have been preserved forever—on magnetic tape, on rusty metal mothers, ragged masters, and now contained, somehow, in digits: On The Art Pepper Quartet, Art is glowing with charisma, sweetness, promise, and élan, as he dances through this heavenly music, just like Fred Astaire.