“And yet I can’t imagine that you want me too”:The Spectacle of Whiteness and the Black Jazz of Art Pepper

Jürgen E. Grandt,

Georgia Institute of Technology

“Perhaps in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one’s origins are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which nevertheless help to make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire.”
- Ralph Ellison, “Living With Music”

“Oh well,
Imagination is silly;
You go around willy-nilly.
For example, I go around wanting you—
And yet I can’t imagine that you want me too.”

- Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, “Imagination”

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s standard “Imagination” was one of the tunes alto saxophonist Art Pepper recorded for his landmark album, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. The titular rhythm section was that of the first great Miles Davis Quintet, consisting of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones, and the January 19, 1957 recording session has since passed into jazz legend. Pepper, who had been anointed the rightful successor to Charlie Parker even before the latter’s passing, liked to play the role of the innocent kissed by sheer genius, and his famous collaboration with Davis’ rhythm section allowed his reprisal of the part.

He claimed that he had not touched his horn in half a year prior to the session, a prevarication that has contributed greatly to the mythical status of Meets the Rhythm Section. For both the artist himself as well as his fans, the album represents a pinnacle in Pepper’s career: “We played a lot of things I’d liked but never done. And I really moved them, you know. And that’s something. They’d been playing with Miles! And me being white! They were all real friendly and said that it was beautiful, and they dug the way I played” (Pepper and Pepper 195). Recorded the same year that saw the publication of Norman Mailer’s infamous The White Negro, the album is a milestone in Art Pepper’s life and career that appears to reflect at first glance Mailer’s archetypal white hipster. After all, the clever self-promotion of RMezz Mezzrow, whose Really the Blues had furnished the template for this kind of musico-racial passing narrative, had inspired Mailer’s “white negro.” And yet, Mezzrow’s pose of the “voluntary Negro” was one that Pepper had discounted early on (Mezzrow and Wolfe 56). Partly because Art Pepper is a study in pathological contradictions—he was a megalomaniac suffering from an acute inferiority complex; a racist who worshipped John Coltrane; a scopophilic misogynist who owed his career comeback and quite possibly his life to his third wife, Laurie; a reprobate career criminal and life-long drug user capable of creating heart-wrenchingly beautiful music—his life and art do not fit neatly into any of the prevalent critical paradigms of whiteness. Neither minstrelsy, the passing narrative, the love-and-theft model, nor whiteness as a system of (triple) privilege fully explain Pepper’s negotiation of whiteness and blackness. In his discursive transliterations of jazz, Pepper instead dramatizes whiteness as a confrontational spectacle which, paradoxically, aims to authenticate his performance of what he himself perceives to be an indubitably black art form.

According to Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacular, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images. . . . The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm—a world view transformed into an objective force” (12-13). At the root of the debasement of human life Debord diagnoses in capitalist societies is the deplorable fact that “[a]ll that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” giving the visual an all-pervasive reach (Debord 9; Kauffman 228). In this realm, sound is thoroughly and utterly co-opted, and even the music of the 1960s counterculture is reduced to mere gestures of “purely spectacular rebelliousness” (Andrews 93-95; Debord 29; Noys 398). Debord’s rather facile dismissal of sound ignores that music, and improvised musics in particular, originates in social interactions that seek to renegotiate time rather than image. Jazz improvisation especially entails the embellishment of the passage of time (as does storytelling), and is therefore a social act that can, at least occasionally, subvert the dominance of image over sound. This is partly the result of the very nature of jazz itself. Sterling Brown, the eminent literary critic and jazz connoisseur, contends that jazz is “an American language” where “the performer’s color does not matter” because “[o]f all the arts, jazz music is probably the most democratic” (24).

Even so, Art Pepper’s self-awareness of his whiteness at the Meets the Rhythm Section recording session is but one of myriad instances in the history of jazz where race does matter. One needs only to recall that the first group to make a jazz recording was the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, that Paul Whiteman—the irony of his name is palpable—crowned himself the “King of Jazz,” that Bennie Goodman a decade later became the “King of Swing,” while Edward Kennedy Ellington and William Basie were relegated to “Duke” and “Count” respectively within the aristocracy of jazz, Lester “Prez” Young notwithstanding. Lest Sterling Brown’s idealistic take on its performance mislead, E. Taylor Atkins reminds us that “few cultures are as concerned with ‘authenticity’ as jazz is” (32).

During the bebop revolution of the 1940s—the decade in which Pepper came of musical age—the (white) editors of Metronome magazine, Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov, coined the term “Crow Jim” to denote the increasing currency of “authentic” blackness that sometimes resulted in reverse discrimination (Lees 197-98; Gerard 8-9). Thus, jazz probes the tensions sounded in the perpetual exchange of meanings between white and black, imitation and authenticity, appropriation and innovation, the past and the present, freedom and structure, the New World and the Old (including, of course, Africa, even Asia). As Nicholas Evans puts it, jazz “always involves race, nationalism, and related concerns because it heightens the audibility, palpability, and even visibility of the cultural sameness and difference of whiteness and blackness” (18). Thus, jazz has historically been an art form that, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that all of its originators and major figures have been African Americans, reveals a dynamic if often contested or denied interface between whiteness and blackness. To be sure, if jazz is indeed something of an enclave, a greater cultural territory has always surrounded it where, as Valerie Babb argues in Whiteness Visible, “whiteness is more than an appearance; it is a system of privileges accorded to those with white skin” (9).

What happens, though, when whiteness ventures into the enclave of jazz? In this arena, whiteness is not only challenged, but sometimes even becomes a liability as it loses the privileges that are accorded to it customarily and tacitly in most other arenas of society. As Adam Shatz notes, “The search for the great white hope is as much a tradition in jazz as it is in boxing,” but is quick to add, “The romance of black authenticity, in which writers white and black are both complicit, is another” (38). Enhancing the interplay between whiteness and blackness, jazz may indeed be a democratic art form, although not quite in the harmonious way as Sterling Brown maintains. Eliding the archetypal roles that recur in discussions of white involvement in black musics—from the black-faced minstrel of yesteryear to the Wigger of today—the case of Art Pepper points to a much more complex relationship between black and white, sound and image, music and spectacle (Black 229-31; Early 404-7).

Art Pepper was born on September 1, 1925, in Gardenia, California, to abusive, alcoholic parents of German and Italian descent. Temperamentally a loner early on, little Art exhibited an extraordinary musical talent and started taking clarinet lessons at age nine. Switching to alto saxophone at fifteen, Pepper began to frequent the bustling jazz scene thriving on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, where he was more often than not the only white musician on the bandstand, honing his chops alongside the likes of Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. His timing could not have been better, as the jazz scene received a tremendous boost when Charlie Parker’s eighteen-month sojourn introduced a revolutionary new music, bebop, to the West Coast. However, on February 11, 1944, despite his best efforts to fail the physical examination, Art Pepper was drafted into the army and called for basic training at Fort MacArthur, California. He was devastated: World War II had abruptly cut short what had looked like the beginning of a promising jazz career. The alto saxophonist had just gotten his first big break the year before when Lee Young, Lester’s brother, recommended him to Benny Carter. To be hired by Carter, considered by many to be the top altoist in jazz at the time, would have been a major accomplishment for any young jazz artist, but it was particularly significant for a seventeen-year-old white musician who played the same instrument as Carter. Unfortunately, Pepper’s apprenticeship did not last long: Carter’s orchestra was about to embark on a tour of the South, and Pepper was given his walking papers: “Benny told me it would be too dangerous for the blacks and the whites both for me to go along. I couldn’t understand why I had to leave the band and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he later remembered (Pepper and Pepper 49). Thanks to Carter’s connections in the business, however, Pepper landed a gig with Stan Kenton’s all-white big band—until the draft notice came.

After basic training Pepper was transferred to Camp Butner in South Carolina, to be trained as a combat engineer and shipped off to the European front. While in South Carolina, he learned that his former employer, Benny Carter, would perform with his orchestra in nearby Durham, North Carolina. Arriving at the box office, Pepper was astounded to find the word “loge” on his admission ticket. In his 1979 autobiography, Straight Life, Pepper recalls that particular night as his introduction to the meanings of race in a segregated America: “When Benny had told me I couldn’t go with the band down south I didn’t understand it. I had been all around Central Avenue for years as a kid. I couldn’t understand what he [the man behind the ticket counter] was talking about, and my eyes were still closed at this time” (58). Perplexed, young Art took his seat in the balcony, only to discover that his neighbors were all white, whereas the dance floor below was all black. Fortified by a few drinks, he decided to sneak downstairs to be closer to the music and his former band mates, and in the process unwittingly transformed his whiteness into a confrontational spectacle:

I walked real fast and as I approached the stand I could feel the people staring at me, and then they started moving and all of a sudden they just closed me in. All of a sudden there was a circle of black people around me and they were saying, “What are you doing down here? What are you doing down here, white boy?” I said, “I used to play with this band. I want to say hello.” They said, “You get outta here!” And they all started yelling. One guy screamed, “You killed my grandparents, you son-of-a-bitch, you white bastard! You beat my grandparents to death, you son-of-a-bitch!” I said, “I didn’t kill anybody! I didn’t do anything!” But they kept raving, so I got mad. I shouted, “I don’t want to hear any of your fuckin’ shit! I didn’t do anything to you!” I was raging, “I used to play with this band!” I think I hollered, “Benny!” And he jumped off the stand and ran down there. The ushers were saying, “You’ve got to get out of here! Someone’s gonna kill you!” Benny comes up to me and says, “Oh, man!” I said, “What is this? What kind of shit is this? I just wanted to say hello!” He said, “This is what I was talking about before. I thought you knew about these things.” I was crying by this time. They despised me. They wanted to kill me. Benny said, “There’s nothing I can do, man. Come around after. We’ll see you outside, around by the bus.” The ushers escorted me out. (58-59)

The spatial symbolism of Pepper’s initiation into whiteness is telling: the up-and-coming jazz musician finds himself distanced from the art form he so passionately embraces. White privilege accords him what many of the day would consider the best seat in the house, both literally and figuratively elevated above the black masses below. At the same time, though, Pepper’s balcony seat is furthest removed from Carter’s orchestra on the opposite side of the concert hall. Both horizontally and vertically, the white alto saxophonist finds himself excluded from what Ralph Ellison would call a “true jazz moment,” the dynamic interaction between the musicians and the dancers (267). But when Pepper attempts to bridge these gaps between himself and that moment, he finds that he simply does not belong. Ironically, it is the music of Benny Carter’s orchestra, this music called jazz, that reverberates in the chasm between the whites-only balcony and the all-black dance floor. The spectacle of the discovery of Pepper’s whiteness supplants, in his memory, the sounds of the music that are emanating from the stage of, fittingly, a theater.

In contrast, the Central Avenue scene where Pepper had honed his chops was a haven of racial tolerance. Looking back three decades later on his apprenticeship, he describes it with rueful nostalgia: “There was no black power. I was sixteen, seventeen years old, white, innocent, and I’d wander around at all hours of the night, all night long, and never once was accosted. I was never threatened. I was never challenged to a fight. I was never called a honkie. . . . It was a whole different trip than it got to be later on. . . . It was such an open, such a free, such a beautifully right time” (Pepper and Pepper 42-43). At least in his recollections, Central Avenue was a place where “[e]verybody just loved everybody else, or,” Pepper adds tellingly, “if they didn’t, I didn’t know about it” (41). To be sure, musical competence was ultimately the determining factor whether any jazz musician would be called onto the stand to jam. At the same time, though, the recollections of many of Pepper’s black mentors and companions somewhat differ, not surprisingly, from the idyllic harmony Pepper remembers. For instance, Lee Young, one of his earliest and staunchest champions, speaks of a pervasive racism in 1940s Los Angeles, as do many others (Central 68-70, 86). And Pepper’s running buddy Dexter Gordon was acutely aware of the subversive socio-political implications of the music African American artists were creating in a city that was de facto segregated and policed by notoriously racist law enforcement: “I really think it was the start of the revolution, the civil-rights movement, in that sense, because that’s what the music is talking about. This is all the young generation, a new generation at the time. And they’re not satisfied with the shit that’s going down. Because they know there should be changes being made. . . . And we were putting our voice into what we thought was about to be the thing” (qtd. in Gitler, Swing 311).

Pepper, however, did not think of his music in these politicized terms, neither then nor later. To him, jazz was simply an art and a craft, the pursuit of beauty. Walking in the footsteps of Mezzrow, Pepper later remembered: “At the beginning, when I was very young, playing on Central Avenue, I asked someone about [altoist] Willie Smith and that he looked so white, and they told me that he was a seventh-grain negro, and I remember wishing that I was. I wanted to be black because I felt such an affinity to the music” (qtd. in Case 19). For a time, he even practiced the vernacular and demeanor of his black Central Avenue pals in front of a mirror but never found the courage to imitate them in public (Pepper and Pepper 44).

The way Pepper tells it, the confrontation with the visibility and liability of his own whiteness in the Durham theater caused him to scrap permanently whatever intentions he may have harbored of becoming a voluntary Negro. Beginning in the 1950s, Pepper perceived a dramatic sea-change in the jazz community that only intensified during the radical ‘60s: “Jealousy has hurt jazz. Instead of trying to help each other and enjoy each other, musicians have become petty and jealous. . . . And the black power—a lot of the blacks want jazz to be their music and won’t have anything to do with the whites. Jazz is an art form. How can [an] art form belong to one race of people?” (113). Lew Tabackin’s recollections of learning his craft as a young tenor saxophonist in the clubs of Philadelphia confirms that the political climate within the jazz community was indeed changing. The quiet, soft-spoken Tabackin, nothing like Pepper in terms of personality, lifestyle, and temperament, echoes the Californian’s assessment that black self-assertion did indeed present a challenge to the white jazz musician in the early 1960s: “When I was playing, as a local up-and-coming player, I played in a lot of those more black-oriented establishments. I was like the odd man out. Then, almost overnight, there was the beginning of a revolution. There had come a separation in the black clubs where I was trying to learn. At one point it was really a very happy thing, but then at a certain point it became a problem for a white guy to play in the black clubs” (qtd. in Stokes 41).

As for Art Pepper, his self-consciousness of being white in a field dominated by African Americans transformed into rabid racism during his imprisonment, a transformation that would pave the way for his later dramatization of whiteness as spectacle. The alto saxophonist, like so many other jazz musicians of his generation, had picked up a debilitating heroin habit after his discharge from the military, which led to a series of convictions and parole violations. Though California prisons were still segregated when Pepper was incarcerated the first time, later stretches confronted him with an inmate population of which a significant portion was African American. Serving three years in San Quentin beginning in 1961, Pepper found that “the blacks were good to their people, but I started forming a dislike for them in jail because I thought, ‘Here I am, a guy that played jazz, had black friends. Why wouldn’t they talk to me, help me out? Because I’m white? I’m not a Mexican. The Mexicans help me.’ . . . Not like the blacks’ sign—that raised fist that excluded me” (Pepper and Pepper 271).
The prison philosophy that Pepper adopted—to him, the worst offense anyone could commit was to be a “snitch”—did not cause him to become a member of any of the various cliques, intensifying his feelings of alienation and inferiority and his chronic paranoia. Even so, he came to be impressed with the solidarity of some of the groups and splinter groups controlling inmate life in San Quentin, particularly the Native American group, the Black Muslims—and “the Nazi party” (303). Though he is uncharacteristically evasive in Straight Life regarding the exact circumstances, it must have been during the two sentences he served in San Quentin in the 1960s that he began to soak up white supremacist ideology (Gordon 181-82; Maxwell 483-85). He even “started fantasizing [about] forming a white vigilante committee. People who’d stick up for the white race and not lay down and take all this hate that’s coming from the blacks. Who’d be men. Who’d be proud of our heritage. The blacks were proud of their heritage. I envied them that. The whites were like little babies. They couldn’t do anything. I was ashamed of being white” (Pepper and Pepper 338). However, Pepper lacked the nerve to implement his plans beyond the occasional ranting and raving with like-minded ex-cons. Instead, he turned his shame into a confrontational dramatization of whiteness as spectacle.

Upon his first release from San Quentin after serving three years, Pepper formed a new, all-white quartet, which he deliberately booked in black clubs. The following account from Straight Life about a gig at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop is representative of Pepper’s dramatization of whiteness as spectacle:

It was an almost all-black club, run by black people, and I went in there with an all-white band. They had all-black bands all the time. But people were making these little remarks about whites and honkies. People would come in and say, “What do we got here? Where’s the brothers and sisters at?” And they’d tell the guy that was running the place, “Say, blood, what is this up theah? What is these guys tryin’ to do? That’s ouahhh music, Black music.” And we had to put up with all that shit. And they say white people can’t play jazz, but I disproved that, you know, because I played jazz, and all my white people played jazz. I had Bill Goodwin on drums, a great young drummer; I had Frank Strazzeri, an Italian, on piano; and I had a Jew, Hersh Himmelstein—he’d changed his name to Hamel—on bass. I’d call out his introduction, “Hoishie Himmelshtiiiiine!” I used to wig out announcing him. (310)

Pepper’s over-the-top dramatization of whiteness as spectacle—a spectacle for which Himmelstein’s Jewish background is particularly conducive, his boss’s flirtation with white supremacist ideologies notwithstanding—follows his parody of African American Vernacular English. Pepper’s parody of the vernacular in this context points also to a more complex layering of meaning and music, the spectacle of whiteness and the blackness of jazz. Parody is, according to literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, “a bitextual synthesis” (33). Here, the synthesis conjoins the ostensible authenticity of the customers’ racialized discourse with Pepper’s equally racialized discourse announcing his band’s lineup from the stage. As Hutcheon continues, parody “is both a personal act of supersession and an inscription of literary-historical continuity. . . . A new form develops out of the old, without really destroying it; only the function is altered” (35-36). Clearly, Pepper’s account is a personal act of supersession. It also constitutes affirmation though, as it inscribes musico-historical continuity: at least in Pepper’s estimation, what his all-white quartet was playing at the Jazz Workshop and elsewhere was authentic jazz music, a music Americans of African descent invented and developed. Thus, paradoxically, the spectacular incongruity of its leader’s on-stage antics authenticates his quartet’s black jazz. “Even in mocking,” adds Hutcheon, “parody reinforces; in formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself, thereby guaranteeing their continued existence” (75).

Pepper’s account of the confrontation between black audience and white spectacle hence implicitly confirms that to him, jazz, even the jazz sounding from the spectacle of the altoist’s lilywhite quartet, is indeed “ouahhh music, Black music.” In a sense, then, this scene is the mirror image of Pepper’s experience years earlier in the Durham theater. The spatial symbolism here ironically reverses the roles of listener and performer of two decades before: now, his quartet on the elevated stage dramatizes a spectacle of whiteness before a black audience. As such, Pepper’s all-white quartet enacts Debord’s theory of the spectacle, in which the spectacle is “both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world—not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality” (13). At the same time, in both episodes the confrontational spectacle is visual—the sight of the sole white soldier engulfed by a sea of menacing, violent blackness in Durham, and the sight of hyperbolic whiteness on the stage of the Jazz Workshop. But also in both episodes, it is jazz music that transcends the racialized body and tolls a subversive critique of any ideology of racialized essence, even Pepper’s own.

Perhaps what Pepper acknowledged as the transcendent powers of jazz can explain in part why he, at the same time that he was imbibing white supremacist propaganda behind prison walls, came under the domineering influence of John Coltrane’s music. Though incarcerated, Pepper jammed fairly regularly with other inmates, most of whom were black, and many of whom were following the gospel of Coltrane’s latest, daring forays into free jazz. Pepper came to worship the tenor saxophonist: “But what I really wanted to do was play like Coltrane” (Pepper and Pepper 375). And, much to the chagrin of most of his champions who had looked to him as a viable alternative to the relentless drive and urgency of a Charlie Parker, he abandoned almost completely his earlier highly individualistic style, characterized by a somewhat hesitant attack, very nuanced dynamics, and a lithe sound that made his lines appear to float above the changes, even in ultra-fast bebop vehicles like his signature tune, “Straight Life.” Even as he was dramatizing his quartet’s hyper-whiteness as spectacle on the stage of the Jazz Workshop and elsewhere, his playing had already incorporated many of the trademarks of his idol: the altissimo screams, the slurs, the fierce attack, the exploration of atonality, and the trademark “sheets of sound” (L. Porter 132-36). In 1964, he stridently defended in a Down Beat Magazine interview with John Tynan the new music of the free jazzers around Coltrane and of his own all-white quintet, music which many of his old fans decried as “ugly”: “It’s a thing of the times. You’re ridding yourself of frustration, of hatred, of suppression, every other thing. It’s just complete freedom of expression” (9). His devotion to Coltrane’s music was such that he even switched, if only briefly, from alto to tenor saxophone in order to emulate his mentor better.

The adulation of all sounds Coltrane hence constitutes yet another parody: “the very act of parodying invests the Other with both authority and an exchange value in relation to literary norms”—and, indeed, musical ones (Hutcheon 77). For Pepper, the black Other personified by John Coltrane remained the ultimate authority, even and especially as he was flirting with white power. Thus, while the spectacle of whiteness deliberately shaped his demeanor and outlook, it paradoxically also enhanced the blackness of the Coltrane-inspired music he was playing.

Before long, Pepper changed his tune yet again and transformed himself into a hippie: he let his hair grow and sported a beard as well as several home-made earrings, chased “artsy-craftsy chicks,” and tried to integrate his Coltranesque tenor sound with the new wave of rock (Pepper and Pepper 355). It was not until he joined Buddy Rich’s big band in 1968 and happened to play bandmate Don Menza’s alto in the hotel room one night that he shook off Coltrane’s powerful spell. In a famous passage from Straight Life, one that Pepper recycled many times for interviews and liner notes, he casts his artistic rebirth as an offspring of concomitant liberation and obliteration: “Then I realized that I had almost lost myself. Something had protected me for all those years, but Trane was so strong he’d almost destroyed me. That experience—it lasted about four years that I was influenced so much by John Coltrane—was a freeing experience” (Pepper and Pepper 375, 311-12, 353-54). Although he returned to the alto as his main instrument and readopted his earlier, “cool” style that had made him famous, the Coltrane influence would remain salient in his playing, on all instruments, alto, tenor, and even clarinet. His drug abuse continued unabated, however, and eventually he realized he had to get help if he wanted to live, checking himself into the experimental and controversial Synanon commune for almost three years. There, he finally kicked his heroin habit, although he would continue to consume alcohol, cocaine, and methadone in enormous quantities up to his death. It was also at Synanon that he met his third wife, Laurie, who became the driving force behind his comeback in the 1970s. Though he no longer dramatized whiteness as spectacle in his performances as he had done the previous decade, he still felt Crow Jim dog him at each and every turn, as his wife confirms: “it wasn’t always paranoia (as I first believed) because the bad vibes he got from many black musicians—sarcasms, slights, willful incomprehension, onstage shenanigans—were not usually imaginary (and were not a response to anything he, personally, had done). And he was incredibly sensitive to that stuff. Always expecting it” (486).

His “sensitivity” sprang at least in part from his firm belief that jazz was indeed black music at its root and at its core. Even though jazz, perhaps more than any other American music, complicates, interrogates, and subverts received notions of authenticity and is, as critic David Wills puts it, “a music born of the impossibility of absolute racial definition” (139)—and despite Pepper’s insistence on the transcendent nature of jazz itself—the altoist believed that the sounds he was producing were indeed indubitably and authentically black. He acknowledged, repeatedly, that jazz was an art form that had originated in the African American community and that African Americans had developed it; it is one of the very few constants in his character, a constant from which he never wavered. His very first exposure to jazz as a teenaged saxophonist, even before he immersed himself in the Central Avenue scene, was already fraught with the problem of cultural property and propriety: “Johnny Martizia was a guitar player; Jimmy Henson played trombone. I got together with them at their house to play. Johnny would strum the guitar. He told me, ‘These are the chords to the blues, which all jazz emanates from. This is black music, from Africa, from the slave ships that came to America’. . . . I asked him if he thought I might have the right to play jazz. He said, ‘You’re very fortunate. You have a gift.’ I wanted to become the greatest player in the world. I wanted to become a jazz musician” (Pepper and Pepper 40).

Consequently, throughout his autobiography, Pepper juxtaposes the spectacle of his whiteness—a whiteness that is always visual, physical, never, significantly, ‘musical’ in any sense—with the blackness of the music he plays, a blackness, at least as he tells it, that black jazz musicians like Benny Carter or Miles Davis’ rhythm section conferred and authenticated. Accordingly, Pepper’s story comes full circle with his oft-repeated anecdote of fellow saxophonist Sonny Stitt sitting in with his band at San Francisco’s famed Black Hawk. Prefacing the account of the epic musical battle by likening Stitt to James Joyce and placing him on a pedestal alongside the original alchemists of bebop, the ensuing duel over the changes of “Cherokee” had Stitt soloing first:

He played, I don’t know, about forty choruses. He played for an hour maybe, did everything that could be done on a saxophone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played had he been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one of those looks, “All right, suckah, your turn.” And it’s my job; it’s my gig. . . . He’d done all those things, and now I had to put up or shut up or get off or forget it or quit or kill myself or do something. I forgot everything, and everything came out. I played way over my head. I played completely different than he did. I searched and found my own way, and what I said reached the people. I played myself, and I knew I was right, and the people loved it, and they felt it. I blew and I blew, and when I finally finished I was shaking all over; my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming; the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but he just kind of nodded, and he went, “All right.” And that was it. That’s what it was all about. (476)

Thus, what “it” is all about for Pepper is not only to “play myself,” a self after all originating from a white body, but to have that musical self measure up to the standard set by the larger-than-life example of Sonny Stitt without being merely imitation. And once again, just as it did in the Durham theater, just as it did at the Jazz Workshop, the sound of jazz transcends the spectacle of the racialized body. But also once again, Art Pepper’s jazz requires the validation of a black audience—represented in this instance by Stitt—to be authentic, to be truly art.

It is thus perhaps no coincidence, nor should it come as a surprise, that Pepper the bandleader, consciously or not, himself practiced Crow Jim in the last phase of his career. In a 1981 interview, Pepper tried to explain why he fired pianist Milcho Leviev and replaced him with George Cables, who would become the reedist’s accompanist of choice and as close a friend as the difficult Pepper would have in his final years. In the interview, Pepper commends “that basic feeling like George Cables has even though he was a classical player when he was young. He has that basic feel of the blues, that indescribable thing—like anything he plays, especially a slow blues which we’ll have to play tonight, the way he does it, well, that’s it and that’s what I have and there’s no telling where it comes from” (qtd. in Pepperell 176). When the interviewer comments on a certain, albeit productive, tension between the playing of the conservatory-trained Cables and that of the self-proclaimed natural genius Pepper, the latter responds evasively, “Yes, it’s that basic thing. The piano player that I was using—Milcho Leviev—he’s a great piano player but he’s a classical player, that’s his thing, and he’s from Bulgaria so he didn’t have that thing, you know” (176; emphases added). Therefore, wherever “that indescribable thing” may come from, it could not possibly be Bulgaria; it may be available to an instinctual talent like Pepper, but Leviev, though like Cables classically trained and endowed with a technique approaching that of an Art Tatum, has the misfortune of an eastern European birth and, unlike Cables, of a white skin. (That Cables was also the pianist in the quartet of Pepper’s old Central Avenue pal Dexter Gordon must have been another bonus.) As Laurie Pepper confirms, “George is just good. And George is black, and that was really important to Art” (487).

In the interview above, Pepper recycles a common cliché, one that perceives the European jazz musician as an idiosyncratic spectacle of whiteness, doubly exiled by race and nationality from the “authentic” roots of jazz. Consider, for instance, a 2001 Down Beat interview with clarinet maverick Artie Shaw. Shaw contends that American jazz musicians, presumably both black and white, express “a relaxation, a looseness” in their music. “That’s natural” elaborates Shaw without the slightest trace of irony, “because if you look at Europeans, they don’t do much of anything like Americans—they don’t even stand the same way” (qtd. in Silsbee 38). Expatriate singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, on the other hand, disagrees with Shaw, even though her statement reverberates with ironic echoes of Pepper’s account of his all-white quartet at the Jazz Workshop: “I get a lot of static having these European players with me and the fact that they’re white. When the black musicians come to Paris . . . it’s always, ‘Sister, whacha doin’? You gotta come back home. When you gonna come back and start playin’ with your brothers?’ And, ‘Whaddaya doin’? They can’t play for you; they can’t give you that rhythm.’ But they do, and I like it and we do have a good musical communication. It’s not about color. There’s no difference, no difference at all” (qtd. in Stokes 123). Ironically, Swiss big band leader George Gruntz both confirms and refutes Bridgewater’s claim about the colorblindness of jazz by highlighting the spectacular anomaly of his whiteness: the title of his recent autobiography echoes Mailer and Mezzrow in introducing Gruntz as Als weisser Neger geboren: ein Leben für den Jazz (Born a White Negro: Living for Jazz).

Thus, the white jazz musician continues to be perceived as an incongruity in need of some sort of authentication in order to account for, defend, justify, or obfuscate his or her whiteness. This is the case despite the fact that today, even in the United States, the majority of jazz players are in fact white: the NEA Research Division Report #43, issued in 2002, found that in New Orleans, after all the mythical cradle of jazz, almost three quarters of all working jazz musicians registered with the local union were white in a city with a population that, pre-Katrina, was over one-third African American (Jeffri 7). Thus, contrary to Pepper’s nostalgic memories of Central Avenue as an a-racial idyll, jazz is not and has never been an enclave immune to the larger meanings and ramifications of whiteness in America. As Valerie Babb points out, “Like other racial categories, whiteness is more than a classification of physical appearance; it is largely an invented construct blending history, culture, assumptions, and attitudes. From a descent of various European nationals, there emerges in the United States the consensus of a single white race that, in principle, elides religious, socioeconomic, and gender differences among individual whites to create a hegemonically privileged race category” (10). In Art Pepper’s case, his solidarity in whiteness with Hersh Himmelstein (a.k.a. Hamel), making the bassist the spectacular subject of his introductions at the Jazz Workshop, enacts this single white race monolith.

As a consequence, Crow Jim was not nearly as detrimental to Pepper’s career as white privilege was conducive. The fate of fellow alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, who is in many ways a foil to Pepper, best exemplifies this. Although born two years after Pepper in Memphis, Tennessee, Criss’s parents had relocated to Los Angeles in 1942, where he, too, frequented Central Avenue and shared the bandstand with Pepper many times. Unlike Pepper, who had a highly distinctive style from the very beginning, it took Criss a few years to transform the overwhelming Parker influence into a language of his own. But like Pepper, Criss had a unique, immediately distinguishable sound from the start. Criss’s mature playing displays a much cleaner articulation, clearly superior technical agility matching that of Parker, and an arguably more daring, though always blues-based, improvisational inventiveness than that of Pepper. Also unlike Pepper, Criss espoused an exemplary work ethic and a polished, professional demeanor, never dabbled in hard drugs, and was generally introverted and reserved. Yet with the demise of Central Avenue, Criss’s opportunities dried up as well. Neither his race nor his brand of jazz with its strong gospel and blues tinges fit into the commercial mode of so-called West Coast Jazz that the (white) jazz press was beginning to hype and that propelled the likes of Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and, if to a lesser extent, Art Pepper to stardom. “Those with the power,” Criss later mused guardedly in a British fanzine, “were pushing a certain type of record—a brand of music that most of the dedicated Negro musicians didn’t want to play and weren’t asked to play anyway” (10). Like so many other African American jazz musicians, Criss eventually had to relocate to Europe to find work but, plagued by homesickness, soon returned to California. The few albums that he did record every now and then for American labels never received the proper promotion (B. Porter 4-5; Gitler, liner notes; Gioia 121-27).

On November 19, 1977, Sonny Criss killed himself. Even his closest friends assumed for many years thereafter that the unspoken frustration he had been experiencing for most of his career prompted his suicide, even though he had just been booked for a tour of Japan. However, his mother eventually revealed that her son’s suicide was the result of the unbearable pain from a spreading stomach cancer that he did not have the funds to have properly treated. “He kept still about it and worked for as long as he could,” Lucy Criss said simply (qtd. in Gioia 129).

In stark contrast, Art Pepper saw his career resurge that very same year. After his release from Synanon in the early 1970s, admirers slowly egged him back into the business. In 1977, he recorded again as a leader and embarked on a tremendously successful tour of Japan—the very same country Sonny Criss was scheduled to visit at the time of his suicide. A recording contract with the Galaxy label followed, and the 1979 publication of Straight Life made him into a minor international celebrity even beyond jazz circles. Comfortable in his new role as “jazz survivor” and flattered by the fawning adulation that the white jazz press heaped upon him, he had no reason to resume performing whiteness as outrageous spectacle. He continued to tour and record extensively both at home and abroad until he died from a cerebral brain hemorrhage in 1982. That same year, he was voted into Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame. In the quarter century since his passing, Laurie Pepper has expertly and industriously promoted the legacy of her late husband. The Art of Pepper website offers links to purchase T-shirts, posters, books, and CDs, and its companion-site, Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper, contains a blog where Laurie details the progress on her production of a feature-length docudrama based on Art’s memoirs. Several massive box-set CD reissues as well as The Art Pepper Companion, a collection of liner notes, interviews, and articles, have also been published in recent years.

Art Pepper’s thriving posthumous career—and, in contrast, Sonny Criss’s relative anonymity—is reflective of a cultural and socio-economic landscape where “[t]he spectacle, being the reigning social organization of a paralyzed history, of a paralyzed memory, of an abandonment of any history founded in historical time, is in effect a false consciousness of time,” as Debord states in his devastating critique of Western societies addicted to the spectacular (114). Thus, Pepper’s transliterations of whiteness obfuscate a historical time in which, if not for Milcho Leviev but decidedly so for Art Pepper, white privilege extends even into a realm where blackness is deemed an asset. But at the same time, Art Pepper’s dramatization of whiteness as visual spectacle is, at least to a degree, belied by the improvised sounds of his own music. Even at the Jazz Workshop, his music navigates a much more heterogeneous, multicultural, and, perhaps, more democratic soundscape (in the Sterling Brown sense). Jazz, Pepper’s own jazz included, can therefore provide a counter-narrative to a cultural marketplace and social hierarchy that champions the spectacular and, at least in America, is still fraught with the legacies and ramifications of raciological thinking.
Thus, what the strange saga of Art Pepper and his dramatization of whiteness as spectacle tells us today is that jazz, played by black or white musicians, does have the power indeed to call into question and subvert petrified systems of raciological categorization, forging the terrors of American history into beautiful art in a figurative space where, as Langston Hughes’s trumpet player knew, “[t]rouble / Mellows to a golden note” (lines 43-44). It is this figurative space that the music of Benny Carter’s orchestra occupied that night at the theater in Durham, the same space occupied by the music Art Pepper created with Miles Davis’ rhythm section. “Music and sound,” Les Black optimistically argues, “open up the possibility of combining new forms of human expression that pries open, however temporarily, the territorializing logic that reduces evident multiculture to racial essences. . . . Sound provides an opportunity to move beyond the visually governed time-space coordinates of racial segregation” (267). The sounds of jazz, however, are not merely utopian desire or disengaging escapism; jazz aspires indeed toward a figurative space of freedom, while recognizing that it also issues forth from a politico-cultural territory that continues to reinscribe whiteness as a governing norm. It is in this recognition that jazz music makes possible a critical encounter with and subversion of the visual orchestration of whiteness’s social power. But ultimately, whatever transcendence jazz can offer within its figurative space of freedom is only temporary precisely because jazz is also an American art form: sooner or later, that mellow, golden note fades and the song has to come to an end. Willard Jenkins, one of the few black members of the Jazz Journalists Association, noted recently, “Yes, Jim Crow lives, he has a thirst for jazz, and no blizzard of ignorance or avoidance is going to bury his miserable ass” (1). Thus, what the strange saga of Art Pepper also reveals is a confirmation of Mark Anthony Neal’s diagnosis of a set of slightly different symptoms: in contemporary American culture, “Once again, we’re back to ownership: ownership of possibilities, language, and experiences, if not blackness itself” (188). The imaginative sounds of jazz continue to probe critically the exchange and interaction of properties guarded, claimed, rejected, transformed, or appropriated by white and black visions staking out overlapping territories. Or, as Johnny Burke’s lyrics put it, “Have you ever felt a gentle touch and then a kiss, and then, and then / Find it’s only your imagination again?”


1. Endlessly repeated in reviews, biographies, and even liner notes, Pepper’s claim can easily be refuted by consulting his discography alone: late 1956 had been the alto saxophonist’s most productive phase to date, and January 14, 1957—just five days prior to the Meets the Rhythm Section session—found him in the studio co-leading a recording date with vibist Red Norvo for the Blue Note label (Selbert 525).

2. For whiteness and minstrelsy, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft (9-25); for Mezzrow’s passing narrative, see Gayle Wald’s Crossing the Line (53-81); and for whiteness as privilege, see Valerie Babb’s Whiteness Visible (7-45) as well as Michael Alan Sacks and Marika Lindbolm’s “A Room Without a View” (129-31).

3. Musicologist John Blacking sums it up thusly:

Because in music the code is the message and unwritten music can only be produced by social interaction, in the analysis of oral traditions the musical product cannot be isolated as a niveau neuter from the performance meanings it has to those who are making it and perceiving it. . . . [M]usic is the result of intentional interaction, of processes of decision making in society, and both the music and the social interaction are parts of a system of shared communication, or cultures, and so an analysis of what is shared and who shares it is fundamental to understanding the musical product. (189-90)

4. One version of the genesis of bebop argues that its much more complex harmonies and often mindboggling speeds were a deliberate attempt of its African American originators to keep white imitators off the bandstand during jam sessions. Jazz lore is indeed replete with stories of white musicians invading the uptown nightspots in early 1940s Harlem to scribble down furtively on their shirt cuffs the brand new licks the black jazz artists on stage were inventing—part of what Amiri Baraka has accurately identified as “the Great Music Robbery” (DeVeaux 351-52; Baraka 331). Accounts of the participants in the birth of bebop vary. Predictably, white musicians—Art Pepper among them—tend not to recall any race-based discrimination and emphasize that the litmus test was always musical ability, while black artists, especially if they sense that their interlocutor is sympathetic, will sometimes intimate that the increasing chordal and rhythmic complexity was indeed a deliberate attempt to contain white imitators (Gerard 23-26). In jazz historiography, the issue of race is closely linked with the ongoing debate over the evolution of bebop. Some students of the music, like Gunther Schuller, see bebop primarily as an aesthetic response to the worn out clichés of the big band era. Others, like Amiri Baraka, insist that bebop grew out of a more explicitly militant political stance of its black creators (Gennari 475-98). Arguably, Scott DeVeaux’s analysis is the most nuanced:

Entrenched patterns of segregation, both in the music industry and in society at large, automatically gave white musicians a nearly insuperable advantage in the mainstream market, blunting black ambition and forcing it into new channels. Bebop was a response to this impasse, an attempt to reconstitute jazz—or more precisely, the specialized idiom of the improvising virtuoso—in such a way as to give its black creators the greatest professional autonomy within the marketplace. Bop was the twin child of optimism and frustration, of ingenuity and despair. (27)

5. It is certainly debatable whether the incident in the Durham theater Pepper describes did, in fact, occur. In typically self-contradictory fashion, he hints in Straight Life at his awareness of race earlier. He even once told Ira Gitler that he had been “a crusader at that time, really a crusader for the rights” while with Benny Carter’s orchestra (qtd. in Gitler, Swing 186).

6. Pepper quickly aborted his plan of forming a white supremacist vigilante committee because, as he claims in Straight Life, “there was no one to join me. The people that had the nerve and would be freethinkers were on this other kick of trying to undo the injustices they felt their parents had done. I was alone” (Pepper and Pepper 338; emphasis added). Even so, an undercurrent of racism lingered. His autobiography, taped in the 1970s, contains repeated condemnations of miscegenation, complemented by Pepper’s Melvillean obsession with the whiteness of the skin of his early sexual conquests (30, 32, 33, 56, 280-82, 298-300, 337, 407). Robert Maxwell is therefore much too myopic in declaring that the altoist’s hatred, fueled by white supremacist ideologies, “lacks a namable object, so effective is the deprivation of his political lexicon,” but he is correct in observing that “American prisons make the false finding and naming of that object necessary, and even easy. . . [R]acist pathology whipsaws Pepper between confidence in and disbelief of his place in the world of the hip, between hate of hatred and hatred itself” (487).

7. It was during that particular prison stint that Pepper began to have his skin tattooed. His right arm sported a skeleton with a beard brandishing an opium pipe and tragedy and comedy masks, his left arm Snoopy and Linus as well as the god Pan (Lewis 22). The tattoos’ dark ink thus enhances the whiteness of the racialized body, though Pepper deliberately did not display them after his career took off again in the mid-1970s (Gilroy 22-23). Even so, the circumstances under which Pepper acquired his tattoos lends credence to Gayle Wald’s assertion that the “visual epistemology of race must constantly be amended and performed so that it can hold on to its status as truth” (94).

8. Every jazz performance, in a sense, is a parody of the melody and chord progression of so-called standards—Pepper’s own “Straight Life” after all uses the changes of “After You’ve Gone”—or of formative musical influences. For a more in-depth discussion of jazz improvisation as parody, see musicologist Ingrid Monson’s “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation” (289-92).

9. A particularly instructive example of Pepper’s attempt to adapt the Coltrane influence into his own individualistic style are the live recordings made in 1977 at New York City’s Village Vanguard. Fronting his own quartet with his favorite pianist George Cables, the Czech-born Jiri “George” Mraz on bass, and Coltrane’s former drummer Elvin Jones, Pepper displays all the characteristics of Coltrane’s mature style. “More for Les,” a tune written in waltz-time (a favorite time-signature with Coltrane) and dedicated to Pepper’s most significant booster, owner of Contemporary Records Lester Koenig, features a clarinet solo that clearly echoes salient Coltraneisms. That Pepper’s sheets of sound are far and few between in this particular solo is much more the result of the clarinet’s different, and much more challenging, fingering system than of aesthetic choice. Likewise, the nasality of Pepper’s tone, especially in the upper register, sounds less like a deliberate emulation of Coltrane’s soprano sound than a result of a weak clarinet embouchure.

10. Consequently, Pepper would proudly declare that he had been misidentified as a black player in blindfold tests (Leviton 112). However, I have been unable to unearth any evidence to back up his claims. Even so, Leonard Feather’s famous blindfold test with Roy Eldridge in the pages of Down Beat is perhaps the best example of how jazz music defies racial essentialism. Throughout his distinguished career, Eldridge had repeatedly expressed his firm belief that white and black jazz musicians had distinctly different styles and that he could easily distinguish between them. When Feather took him at his word and administered the test, the trumpeter, nicknamed “Little Jazz” by his peers, was either noncommittal or wrong much more often than he was right. Listening to Billy Taylor’s recording of, ironically, “All Ears,” the seventh of ten selections, Eldridge’s irritation mounted: “I liked the pianist. Couldn’t tell who was colored and who was white. They could be Eskimos for all I know,” he admitted and had to concede defeat in the end (Feather 12). By implicitly aligning the indigenous (and of course non-white) peoples of northernmost America with the epitome of whiteness, Eldridge inadvertently exposed his confusion even more.

11.Straight Life actually consists of transcripts of countless hours of tapes Laurie Pepper began making in 1972 and continued through 1979. Art’s account of the jam session with Sonny Stitt came in response to Laurie’s very first question when taping began, whether he believed he was a genius (L. Pepper, Afterword 478-79). Laurie once commented that her husband “talks like Gertrude Stein would have written if Gertrude Stein had been a junkie jazz musician,” and the rave and typically rather overhyped reviews of the autobiography likened the alto saxophonist to Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and, most curiously, Malcolm X (qtd. in Lewis 22; Giddins 6).

12. Cables would read the eulogy at Pepper’s funeral in 1982. Neither the sprawling Straight Life nor Laurie’s afterword mentions Leviev.

13. In one interview, and in keeping with the authentication of his music by black musicians, Pepper actually credits Criss, rather than Menza, with bringing him back to the alto when he was struggling with the overwhelming Coltrane-influence: “He made a trip all the way to Shelley’s Manne-Hole [a Los Angeles club] to hear me play. I was playing tenor at the time, and he came in alone with this great big dog. . . . He didn’t go there for any reason, to get anything—just to listen. Afterwards, he said, ‘You sound great on tenor, but alto is your instrument’” (qtd. in Case 18).

14. An alternative to Pepper’s confrontational spectacle of whiteness to which other white jazz musicians have sometimes resorted, but one clearly not available to the egomaniac Pepper, is the parody of the white self. For instance, George Gruntz is more conscious of the possibilities of parody and satire as a musician and arranger than the somewhat unfortunate title of his autobiography may suggest. A showstopper at many George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band performances is East German-born Ernst-Ludwig Petrowski’s free jazz rendition of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The spectacle of “Tex” Petrowski strutting to the center-stage microphone, wearing his signature ten-gallon Stetson hat, his alto screaming at forte fortissimo, owes musically as much to Albert Ayler as it does visually to John Wayne. Or consider the Italian American organist Joey DeFrancesco’s 1999 album Goodfellas, whose packaging parodies all the clichés of Hollywood’s mafia epics, from the patina-tinged black-and-white cover photograph showing the band smoking cigars after a meal of spaghetti, garlic bread, and red wine, to the over-the-top liner notes by Pete “Vinnie the Nose” Fallico. That the title track of an album dedicated to Italo-Americana is in fact a slow blues straight out of the Home Cookin’ kitchen of Jimmy Smith rather than the vegetable garden of Don Vito Corleone only intensifies the parody.

15. It is certainly no coincidence that Toni Morrison begins Playing in the Dark, which probes the oftenfalse consciousness of time of Euro-American literature, by analyzing Marie Cardinal’s account, also a spectacle of whiteness in its own right, of a Louis Armstrong concert (v-xiii).

16. Jenkins’ observations here are part of his reflections on the international controversy following the abrupt and unceremonious dismissal of Stanley Crouch as columnist for Jazz Times in the spring of 2003. Crouch’s incendiary column under the title “Putting the White Man in Charge” was a polemic against white privilege accorded by white jazz critics to white jazz musicians (Crouch 28; Broecking 16; Jenkins 1-5; King 37-39; Shatz 52). How explosive the issue remains today is evidenced by a March 22, 2004, panel discussion on racism in jazz and jazz criticism, organized by the Jazz Journalists Association: unlike the transcripts of all previous panel discussions sponsored by JJA, this one remains, as of this writing, password-protected on the Association’s website and is accessible only to accredited members.


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Wills, David. “Jazz Annotations: Negotiating a Discursive Limit.” Paragraph 21.2 (1998): 131-49.

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