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Art Pepper - Notes From A Jazz Survivor
Umbrella Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 47 mins . M15+ . PAL


Much like the music he was famous for, Art Pepper’s tale is one that is intense, moody and complex. Considered one of the more visionary alto saxophonists in the game, Art Pepper figured heavily in the jazz scene of the '50s and made the transition easily into bop, before succumbing to the heroin that all too often became synonymous with the scene it not only fed, but fed on. The '60s saw Pepper imprisoned twice on drug offences before returning to the fray in the '70s when, in one of music’s more remarkable comebacks, he played with an intensity and passion that he had only hinted at a decade earlier. Perhaps some of our current popular artists could benefit from a little hard jail time (or at least their publicists)? That Art Pepper could survive for so long in an industry that is so famously unkind to its players is not only remarkable, but a testament to the tenacity of the man himself.

As fascinating as the Art Pepper story is, Notes From A Jazz Survivor does not go to any great lengths to tell it. Rather, it is, as the name implies, a series of notes and observations from the man himself recorded in a series of interviews just before his death in 1982 aged 56 years old. The interview footage with both him and the woman who is largely credited with saving him from himself, wife Laura (kind of like the Sharon Osbourne of the jazz world), is as candid as it is brutally frank. The main themes covered in the footage are his relationships with his wives and daughter, his contribution to jazz and his descent into - and his phoenix-like resurrection from - heroin addiction. Not only does Art shoot from the hip, he is also capable at times of both touching sentimentality and unabashed clarity. Three live performances are woven into the program (Patricia, Miss Who? and the hip Red Car) providing a little, but not much, insight into the man and his talent.

The unfortunate part about the documentary is it’s diminutive running time. Weighing in at just 47 minutes, Notes From a Jazz Survivor glosses over a lot of the more interesting aspects of Art's life, giving the viewer the impression that the story is somewhat incomplete. While actual footage of Art Pepper is no doubt a rarity, the documentary comes across as a little underdone and rather than giving a complete insight into the man and his saxophone, it comes across as lazily cobbled together from the footage that happened to be on hand.

Given the fascinating nature of the story and the extraordinary talent of the man in question, a more comprehensive approach and a more linear narrative would have been more appropriate and would have given the film a much less disjointed feel. If Notes From a Jazz Survivor is to remain the final word on Art Pepper, it is a shame it couldn’t have been handled with the care and reverence the subject deserves.


Given the nature of its origin, the transfer for the main feature is reasonable, although the picture often appears a little washed out. Given that the source material for this film is more than 30 years old and was hardly cutting edge to begin with, it is likely that any picture problems are inherent in the film rather than in the transfer. Film artefacts and film grain are inevitable and each is noticeable throughout. While most of the interview footage is of reasonable quality, the concert footage (shot at Paquales of Malibu just before his death) is not so great and unsurprisingly tends to suffer from bleeding and poor definition.

There is only the one Dolby Stereo audio option on this disc and at times it leaves a little to be desired. As with the picture quality, it is probably unreasonable to expect too much given the source material. In its defence, sound is reasonably clear and I experienced no problems in understanding what was said nor did I notice any synch problems. The concert footage, once again, is a little below par (a shame given its subject) but still ample for what it is trying to achieve, especially since so little emphasis is put on performance in the first place.

There's not much 1n the way of extras for this one. Aside from a discography (incomplete) that spans two pages, there is a single shot of four other Umbrella releases under the heading of 'Umbrella Prpoaganda'.

Although Notes From a Jazz Survivor seems to suffer from a lack of scope, it still remains a fascinating insight into the world of jazz and the people who make it swing. More emphasis on the music would have given the documentary a more rounded feel, but if you are a fan of Pepper or even just a fan of jazz in general, this documentary will give another, darker perspective on yet another one of the jazz world’s tragic personalities.

Alongside an impressive and innovative discography, if Notes From a Jazz Survivor is to serve as our only audio-visual reminder of Art Pepper’s contribution to jazz, then a jumbled handful of notes are better than no notes at all.

That the title is perhaps now somewhat outdated probably doesn’t bear mention.

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  •   And I quote...
    "As moody and as disjointed as the music that made him famous."
    - Peter O'Connor
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