Twenty-two-year-old virtuoso pianist Austin Peralta died shockingly the day before Thanksgiving. Until now, details of the final hours of his life have been mostly a mystery.
See also: The Life and Death of Austin Peralta
His coroner's report, obtained by West Coast Sound, states that viral pneumonia was the most likely cause of death — aggravated by a series of chemical depressants including alcohol, morphine, and sedative drugs including Xanax and Valium.
When all of those depressants entered Peralta's body on the morning of November 21, 2012, they reacted in tandem with the underlying pneumonia to stop his breathing.
Peralta had apparently been running a fever and coughing in mid-October, which led to the development of viral pneumonia in the weeks prior to a live performance backing singer Natasha Agrama at the Blue Whale on the evening of Tuesday, November 20.
Peralta was reportedly in fine form that night, and the concert went well. Some of the show was recorded, including the evening's last number, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (above), a song Joni Mitchell added lyrics to after the death of the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus.
After the show Peralta went to Bar Marmont in Hollywood with a few friends including Agrama, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. Peralta invited Blue Whale owner Joon Lee to join them as well, but Lee was unable to go. He had several drinks, and the group posed for photos. Eventually Peralta convinced those friends he could drive, leaving Bar Marmont alone around 3 am.
Peralta's roommate reported to police that he got to their Santa Monica apartment around 5:15 am and awakened him while appearing to be intoxicated, and that Peralta had pasta to eat before going to sleep around 5:45. Around 11:30 he was heard “snoring” by his roommate, which a physician interviewed about the autopsy report pointed to as a signal of Peralta's respiratory system going into distress, in what the report described as symptoms similar to asthma.
Sometime after 1:00 pm, Peralta's roommate found he had turned blue and was not breathing. At 1:27 a 911 call was placed, and the Santa Monica Police Department responded, along with an ambulance. CPR and resuscitation efforts were attempted at the apartment and on the way to a hospital but were unsuccessful, and Austin Topper Peralta was pronounced dead at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center at 2:23.
At the scene the police recovered both prescription drugs and narcotics. The prescription drugs were Diazepam (Valium) and Alprozolam (Xanax), drugs within the benzodiazepine family of sedatives. The narcotics were morphine (in tablet form) and MDMA (ecstasy). The receiving hospital tested Peralta as positive for ethanol (alcohol), opiates (morphine), and benzodiazepines.
The toxicology report included with the coroner's findings showed a blood alcohol level of .09, which indicated, after medical review with a physician, a much higher level had been present in the hours prior. In addition to Valium and Xanax, the toxicology report also showed Promethazine (Sominex) and Nordiazepam, two additional benzodiazepine drugs. Both codeine and morphine were also present in Peralta's system, but no MDMA/ecstasy was found.
The autopsy report showed the weight of Peralta's lungs was more than double that of the average adult, indicative of severe congestion from the pneumonia. Peralta's brain was also 20 percent larger than average, which may help explain his prowess as both a musician and thinker at such a young age — a school essay shared by a teacher at Peralta's memorial was far advanced beyond that of an average teenager.
Deputy Medical Examiner J. Daniel Augustine's Opinion concluded: “After review of the available case circumstances, and complete autopsy with toxicology and microscopy the cause of death is attributed to probable viral pneumonia with reactive airway changes (airway remodeling). The effects of ethanol (alcohol) and multiple drugs are listed as contributory conditions. The mechanism of death is the result of respiratory depression, caused by the combined effects of the underlying natural disease processes and external factors (ethanol and drug effects). The manner of death is an accident.”
There was no indication of either foul play or suicide, and no one Peralta was with that last evening has been implicated by the coroner or the police in his death.
Peralta's memorial service on December 1 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica was attended by as many as 1,000 family, friends, and admirers. His parents lovingly described him as a “total freak” from his earliest years, and friends young and old, teachers, and fellow musicians shared stories and experiences of Austin Peralta's life.
Born October 25, 1990, he was a genuine musical prodigy, a precocious Santa Monica five-year old who literally stopped in his tracks the first time he heard Mozart. His teacher promptly told his mother, Joni Caldwell, of his peculiar interest. Caldwell purchased a Mozart CD almost immediately and two weeks later, after spending nearly every waking hour in intense listening, Peralta said, “Mommy, get me piano lessons.”
By the time he was 10, his ability was such that his father, Z-Boys skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta, told a visiting friend “my son plays piano now,” and in turn that friend asked Austin if he knew any standards. When the boy said yes, he asked him to play Cole Porter's “Night And Day” — and in short order found himself first amazed, then rolling on the floor in hysterical laughter as Peralta played a few bars of the melody, and then launched into a wild jazz improvisation — all the while never taking his eyes off him.
Shortly thereafter Peralta began sitting in with The Gerald Wilson Orchestra at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, which also began featuring the young pianist in his own shows. Peralta recorded his first album at age 14, his first major label album the next year, and in 2006 made an international splash as a 15-year-old appearing alongside piano masters Chick Corea and Hank Jones at the Tokyo Jazz Festival. He subsequently made recordings and live appearances in jazz, electronic, pop, film and classical music worldwide. His 2011 recording Endless Planets for the Brainfeeder label and producer Flying Lotus established him as one of electronic music's most-talked about new voices.
I first met Peralta almost exactly five years before his passing, and kept in contact with him until his tragic death. We shared discussions on a variety of musical subjects, helped him find Southern California gigs, and occasionally discussed life in general and his future in music.
In a city of both extreme hype and superior talent, his gifts were truly extraordinary. The world of music, and that of his family and friends, is a lesser place without him.
Stacy Peralta and Joni Caldwell have announced that a foundation will be established later this year in Austin's name.
See also: The Life and Death of Austin Peralta