Vol. 26 No. 1 · 8 January 2004
Perhaps Terry Castle should take Ben Ratliff's scepticism about Art Pepper's account of the recording of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section more seriously (LRB, 18 December 2003). The liner notes to the album state that he hadn't played for a few weeks not half a year and of course the three members of the rhythm section, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, were all heroin users themselves. This addiction did not prevent these talented jazz musicians from producing beautifully imaginative and melodic reinventions of popular show tunes and jazz standards. However, none of them was able to lead a jazz group for any length of time or to produce a complete musical vision such as A Love Supreme or Kind of Blue, both the work of musicians who had left their own heroin addictions behind some years earlier.
Vol. 26 No. 4 · 19 February 2004
John Heath is right to distinguish traditional Cretan music from the gritty urban (usually Athenian) recorded music of the 1920s and 1930s known as rebétika (Letters, 5 February). I was obviously hitting the ouzo. But in my own defence I find, consulting the liner notes of Greek-Oriental Rebetica: The Golden Years: 1911-37, that the words of my favourite rebétika song, ‘If I were the hem of your skirt’ (‘Hyotikos Manes’), are based ‘on a … couplet known not only in Istanbul but also various localities of Greece, e.g. Chios and Crete’:
If I were and if I were the hem of your skirt,
I would stoop and see what? The hole of
Vol. 26 No. 2 · 22 January 2004
Art Pepper was indeed, as Terry Castle has it (LRB, 18 December 2003), ‘one of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time’, ‘a deliriously handsome lover boy’ and ‘a life-long dope addict of truly satanic grandeur’ – though his was hardly ‘the most ravishing tone ever heard on alto’ (Johnny Hodges, surely). But Pepper’s extraordinary autobiography Straight Life is not to be read straight. Addictable to everything and anything, self-deluding as well as self-destructive, Pepper tells it not as it is, but as he needs it to be. He is, by his own account, not just a brilliant and dramatic improviser (true) but also the handsomest cat alive, the greatest lover, the hardest con, the most monumental addict. Terry Castle is distressed that Ben Ratliff should have cast doubt on this legend, focusing on his scepticism about Pepper’s account of the recording of Art Pepper meets the Rhythm Section, which Ratliff rightly ranks among the 100 most important jazz recordings. As Pepper tells the tale, he hasn’t touched his horn in six months, the mouthpiece has rotted away, and he has to patch it together with sticky tape. So, of course, he goes into the bathroom and fixes a huge amount, then turns up at the session totally unprepared, not even knowing the names of the familiar tunes that the rhythm section runs down for him. And, of course, he creates a masterpiece. Thus the legend, but the discography reveals that in the previous six months Pepper had participated in no fewer than 20 recording sessions, 11 of which he led or co-led himself. It was probably the most prolific phase in his recording career. Straight Life is celebrated, above all, for its honesty. As Castle allows, somewhat awkwardly, ‘even when an autobiographer is prone to distorting or embellishing the facts, it is still possible to locate some core emotional truth in the writing.’ But this honesty is a purely aesthetic quality. It has something to do with not sparing yourself. It has nothing to do with telling the truth.
Vol. 26 No. 3 · 5 February 2004
The breadth of Terry Castle’s musical taste is admirable, but ‘Cretan rembétika’ (LRB, 18 December 2003)? There is Cretan music and there is rembétika. Both are modal and improvised but they are quite different. Cretan music has a long tradition and is played on a fixed-instrumentation lyra and two lutes. It sounds like an Irish/Asian fusion. Rembétika is much younger. It seems to have developed early in the last century and is associated especially with the uncertain 1920s and 1930s in Athens and Piraeus following the exchange of populations. The bouzouki featured prominently but the instrumentation was not rigidly fixed. It was associated with the criminal world and its lyrics extolled the virtues of hashish and the miseries of lost love; the music you hear in tourist tavernas is its emasculated descendant. Rembétika is ‘My baby done left me’; Cretan music ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’