I’ve been reading Art Pepper’s Straight Life. It’s a junkie jazzman’s memoir which is more talked than written. It’s credited to Pepper and his last wife, Laurie. I imagine she turned on the recorder and he talked and talked and talked. There are many recollections from Pepper’s family, friends, and fellow musicians. It’s mostly interesting because of the period he’s talking about, all the great people he played with, and for being white playing a style pioneered and dominated by black musicians. Pepper is definitely a white man of his time—his views on race, not to mention women, reads pretty backwards now. The junkie/recovery aspect will be familiar to anyone who’s heard addicts talk. It’s a weird mix of boasting and contrition. They’re sorry for what they put those around them through, but can’t hide their pride in how far out they went without dying.
Pepper played with major figures like Dexter Gordon when he was still a teenager. Reading his book spurred me to listen to Gordon again. I wanted to rewatch Round Midnight—the great 80s Bertrand Tavernier film which stars Gordon as a fictional version of any number of expatriate American junkie jazzers in France—but could only find it on Vimeo in what looks like a copy straight from VHS. It was still worth seeing. It really nails what a chore it is to babysit an addict musician when he’s off stage. The art is no problem, it’s all the in-between time.
I went to Target and bought some 5×7 inch frames and knocked out ten portraits of jazz heroes. I’m no historian and have no interest where the borders of that music is. I chose people whose music was important to me and whose image wasn’t so iconic that a new portrait could look like nothing but a shitty copy. The first was of Pepper. Then Gordon. Then Anita O’Day—who wrote a junkie memoir similar to Pepper’s which is well worth reading—then Art Blakey, Ran Blake, Ornette Coleman, Fred Anderson, and Donald Fagen.
I rode to Reckless Records to sell some CDs and DVDs which I found in the last of my unpacked boxes. I don’t have a CD or DVD player anymore so I went through the box and took everything with no personal or sentimental value to see if I could get a few bucks for it. I made enough to buy a Lounge Lizards and a Dexter Gordon record.
Then I went to Rae’s house to paint her portrait. After a while her boyfriend, Khadi, came out from his office where he’d been teaching via computer. He saw the Dexter Gordon record and asked if he could put it on.
The next day was Juneteenth. I spent the morning making a couple more jazz portraits—Jeanne Lee and Roberta Flack—then rode to 47th Street to an ice cream place I’d been meaning to try. They were running a special—peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream for $6.19—in honor of the day. The sun was merciless and the line was barely moving, but I stayed. It was a festive atmosphere. Many people waiting were wearing shirts marking the occasion—FREE-ISH SINCE 1865—I DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN BLACK, I JUST GOT LUCKY—and some that were a little off-topic like BLACK THIGHS MATTER. The owner of the shop went down the long line and personally thanked each of us for being there. Then her son came out and asked for permission to film us as part of the seemingly endless queue. Just before making it inside the store after standing over an hour and a half, a little boy asked if he could skip ahead of me in line. I told him he could if he bought my ice cream. He didn’t understand but his mom laughed.
There was nowhere outside the shop to sit in the shade so I rode away a few blocks until I found a stoop of a shuttered store on 43rd Street and sat to eat. The cobbler and vanilla ice cream were delicious. Were they worth waiting two hours for? Who knows. I’m glad I did it.
That night I read some more of Pepper’s book. It made me grateful I never tried heroin. I bet I would like it as much as he did. The mistake all the addicted artists make is to expect to maintain the high of doing their thing when they’re not doing it. Down-time dooms so many. There’s no way to truly feel good when you’re not working. Some people can deal with the let-down, others can’t. It’s a mystery. But I’m sure that those heroes of jazz were able to make beautiful things in spite of smack and booze not because of it. It’s a wonder anything worthwhile got done while they were impaired; I need all my wits about me just to put pen or brush to paper.
Maybe that’s what made them geniuses—that they could do it no matter how badly they fucked themselves up, no matter the obstacles.