(originally published in an earlier version by In Motion Magazine)
by Bill Siegel
Several years ago, there was a wildly popular radio hit, From A Distance, recorded, it seemed, in more versions and by more singers than might have congregated for a dozen renditions of We Are The World. Near as I could figure, then or now, the song tells us of a God who watches the world from such a distance that he/she can’t (or won’t – it was never clear to me which) see starving families, crying babies, homeless people, and senseless wars. I imagine this was supposed to be a “good” thing, based on the song’s popularity. A counselor told me that listening to the song might help me deal with some of my own inner demons. I guess he was saying I should distance myself from the problems of the world, and from my own ego-involved issues, and look at life “from a distance” – thus learning that my problems and concerns were pretty insignificant dust motes in an uncaring (but somehow still benevolent?) Universe. Instead, it just made me worry for the sanity of much of the human race whenever I heard more than two notes of the song on the radio.
Then, one day, I was listening to a tape of Native American jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper in my car. The song Comin’ and Goin’ came on, and all of a sudden it made so much sense! “It’s good where we’ve been, and where we’re going …” he sang in a calm, comforting, friendly voice. And yet, it was a voice that didn’t hide its sadness, tiredness, and hurt. I’d listened to the tape countless times before, and enjoyed it every time, but suddenly this one time it seemed to actually speak to me.
I’m not talking here about that sappy “It’s all good” drivel that so many people are quoting these days. Jim Pepper’s joy in life wasn’t about sweetness and light. You know from his music that it’s not “all good”. Life sucks sometimes. People hurt people, sometimes deliberately and maliciously. Babies die. Shit happens. Great clouds of evil drift over the planet and, as Spalding Grey has said, drift down at different times over different places and leave a trail of horror behind them. Sickness and pain chase us everywhere. But we’re alive. That fact alone seems enough reason for even a troubled Jim Pepper to celebrate and sing, “Waterspirit feelin’ / Springin’ round my head / Makes me feel glad / That I’m not dead”. Listen to him sing those lines in his internationally acclaimed Witchi Tia To on the Comin’ and Goin’ album , and notice the determined emphasis he puts on the words, “glad that I’m not dead.” It’s as if each of those words is capitalized and should be accompanied with a vigorous shake of a fist. “Glad (yes!) That (yes!) I’m Not (yes!) Dead (yes!)”.
So sure, maybe life sucks sometimes, maybe it’s so hard we’re not sure how we’re going to get through it – but we’re still here, we’ve made it this far through the shit, and we can count on moving on to new adventures. And on top of that, he tells us that this is a journey that we are all on together. In Comin’ and Goin’, he doesn’t sing of “I” or “you”, but says “where we’ve been, and where we’re going.” In other words, we’re all in this together. We share the journey, with all its pain and joy. Not “from a distance”, but side by side.
For these simple lessons – which I make no pretentious claims of having mastered – I feel I owe a lifelong debt to Jim Pepper. Plus, of course, for the gift of his music itself, on almost any level. The passion of it, the colors, the pure enjoyment of it and in it, the smile nearly every recording of his brings. Jim Pepper is, was, and always will be a wonderful gift to us – and rather than feel sad that he left this plane of existence too soon, I feel glad and grateful that he was here to give us the gift of his music and his message.
A while back, I received an e-mail message from John-Carlos Perea, a musician in San Francisco who was looking for some hard-to-find recordings of Jim Pepper’s, some of which I happened to have and happily offered to copy for him. Bassist John-Carlos says that “the American Indian musical tradition played an essential part in keeping the culture strong and vital over the years, and in order for it to continue, new forms of expression had to evolve to represent the changing face of American Indian peoples”. And so, Perea is looking to Jim Pepper and his music to help him, as he says, to use “the emotion and power of jazz to convey an American Indian point of view to as wide an audience as possible.”
So the music lives, because a young musician like Perea wants to take in all the Jim Pepper music he can get his hands (and ears) on, and integrate it into his own playing and composition. (Listen to the result on Gathering of Ancestors, Asian Improv Records, AIR 0041.)
Jim Pepper took the stylings of 1960s and 1970s jazz (and rock) and mixed it with music and songs he learned from his Kaw/Creek family. Some of his recorded songs came from grandpa Ralph Pepper, a Kaw peyote singer, and father Gilbert Pepper, who sometimes performed on stage with his son; some came from the Kaw powwow circuit; some from fellow jazz musicians; some from old jazz standards; and some from Jim Pepper’s own fertile creative spirit. All of his music combines serious passion with a mastery of modern jazz, a unique Pepper sense of humor, and downright joy at being alive in an all-too imperfect world.
Compare his saxophone playing to John Coltrane – the influence at times is obvious and undeniable. Compare his composition to Charles Mingus – it’s there. Compare his music and rhythms to the drums and dancing of a powwow – it’s all there. His experience and his influences, and the influence he had on others, are almost too wide to catalogue. He performed and recorded with the 1960s and 1970s jazz vanguard, including bandmates of Coltrane; he played in bassist Charlie Haden‘s Liberation Music Orchestra; he played with Ornette Coleman, Mal Waldron, Paul Motian, and Don Cherry (close friend, jazz and “world music” icon, father of popular singers Eagle-Eye Cherry and Neenah Cherry, and a Choctaw who, with Coleman, encouraged Pepper to return to the music world after several years in self-imposed Alaskan exile and incorporate his Native music into the jazz idiom); he played with Muscogee poet and saxophonist Joy Harjo; he played with his own hand-picked set of musicians – traditional and jazz-oriented, Native and non-Native, American and European.
Pepper is often credited with having organized, in the early 1960s, with drummer Bob Moses and guitarist Larry Coryell, the first of what would become known as “jazz-rock fusion” groups. That group, “Free Spirits”, frequently opened their club sets with unaccompanied (and until then virtually unheard-of) 20-minute saxophone solos by Pepper. He’s even rumored to have played the sax solo (with people claiming to have irrefutable proof that he did, and unarguable proof that he didn’t) on that eerie little AM radio hit of the mid-1960s, the Classics IV’s Spooky (“Love is kinda crazy / With a spooky little girl like you…”).
But whatever influences you can pick and label in Jim Pepper’s music – after all, nothing arises from a vacuum – it’s always uniquely Jim Pepper. Who else would – or could – do songs like balladist Jimmy van Heusen‘s Polka Dots and Moonbeams and What’s New on the same album as his own Dakota Song and Ornette Coleman’s Comme Il Faut? Or Rogers and Hammerstein‘s Hello Young Lovers on the same album as Witchi Tia To, a song based on one of his grandfather’s peyote chants? This is also the same man who recorded Somewhere Over The Rainbow and No War Dance; van Heusen’s It Could Happen to You and his own Commander G.A. Custer Git the Buzz.
Steve Riddle, a friend of Pepper’s, wrote in the liner notes for Pepper’s Remembrance CD (Tutu CD 888 152): “Jim approached music with an insatiable appetite and always wanted to share his discoveries with his friends. As solid artists do, Jim listened, he learned and he deeply regarded and respected other musicians who took their craft seriously. He certainly took his seriously, but he had a sense of humor which pervaded much of what he wrote, played and how he played it … He played with whimsey, with solid soul and deep feeling.”
In his music, Jim Pepper can start from anywhere, and quickly soar into a celebration of life – of both the good and the bad of it, the joy and the hardship, light and dark, what’s been and what’s going to be. Just try not to hear and feel the alternating joy and pensiveness in the opening minutes of a song like his own Bamasso. There is no “from a distance” in Jim Pepper’s music, no simple-minded, feel-good escapism. But at the same time, when the rawness comes in, it immediately feels organic to the music, rather than a hostile, in-your-face challenge. His music has been described as a mix of “English words and phrases with Indian lyrics, chants, nonsense syllables, and growls… (and) cornball country harmonies with multiphonics and far-out licks.” (We can forgive the talk of “nonsense syllables” – after all, when Pepper throws in “step on your nose / suck on your toes” at the end of a song, it makes you wonder if anything he is singing is meant to be taken seriously!) Yet, even when his horn shrieks and squawks (no, let’s not use those words – shall we say “soars”, instead?), as it does at times in Jumpin’ Gemini or Commander G.A. Custer, or in the middle of the lilting Don Cherry tune, Malinyea, he’s not pushing you away or exercising some kind of “Look-Ma-no-hands” pyrotechnics. Instead, you want to listen and nod your head in agreement. “Yes, Jim my friend, sometimes life hurts and we cry, and sometimes we laugh – and sometimes we find ourselves doing both at the same time. It’s good where we’ve been… and where we’re going.” That is, as long as we can go on that journey carrying the gift of Jim Pepper.
There’s no arguing that Jim Pepper was troubled and angry, in spite of the descriptions by friends and others who saw him as a “friendly, smiling bear”; he certainly had his share of problems with drugs and alcohol. He could show up drunk and combative at concerts, but always ready and willing to emphatically state the truth as he saw it, from the stage, whether by verbally berating what he saw as an overly complacent, mostly white audience or, more often, by blasting it out through his music.
The story is told of him showing up drunk for a concert held in a church, and in the middle of the hauntingly beautiful Love Chant for a Lakota Lady, he suddenly stopped playing to yell at the audience (which included the church pastor): “You goddamn motherfuckers … don’t you know that Custer died for YOUR SINS!!??” This is recounted in the liner notes to Remembrance by Pepper’s friend and promoter, Monique Goldstein. The day after the incident, Goldstein told complaining concertgoers, “…Jim was actually right. He had spoken the truth. He was in the right place to do so. He might – or might not – have chosen a different moment, but so what? Really, by doing this, Jim, drunk or not, was telling people something very important right then and there: That maybe they still weren’t able to hear the truth about him, his heritage, either by the way of his music, or by way of words from his heart and mouth…” When I commended Ms. Goldstein on her courage to stand up for what Pepper had said, rather than kowtow and apologize, she told me it wasn’t all that courageous a thing to do; she simply said, “Either you do it, or you don’t.”
One of the producers of the Remembrance CD (recorded at a concert in Austria), as well as of many of Pepper’s later recordings, Peter Wiessmueller, noted that “(T)hose who are looking for perfection are in the wrong place, and can experience nothing…” According to Wiessmueller, “he almost always played for his life … for his people and his tribe. All those who knew him well could not shake off the feeling that he was constantly driven by a deeply seated fear, the traumatic terror of absolute extermination, or to put it otherwise, the menace of losing his identity, which pursued him like a shadow.”
And why not? Here’s just one dramatic example of what that shadow contained: In 1996, erosion of the banks of Kaw Lake in Oklahoma exposed human bones, pieces of caskets, and shattered tombstones from old Kaw cemeteries. The lake had been created by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam on the Arkansas River. Before the flooding, the cemeteries had supposedly been moved to new, safer locations by a private contractor hired by the Corps. Corps records were no help in finding out who was responsible for leaving so many graves in the path of the new lake. Conspiracy? Incompetence? Racism? Indifference? Does it really matter? What matters is that the Kaw, like all Native cultures, are still being rolled over in the name of “progress”. The extermination continues – whether it’s murder of individuals, genocidal germ warfare, forced sterilization, or institutionalized indifference, the American Holocaust continues. Of course Jim Pepper had plenty to fear. And plenty to be angry about. Much of that fear and anger, along with balancing measures of hope and joy, are at the foundation of his music.
When I look at photos of young Jim Pepper included with his CDs, I see an incredibly happy, shining boy, taking immense delight in costumes, music, and dance. In one, he’s on the back of what appears to be a studio prop of a bucking horse, probably about six years old – gleeful. In another, a young tap-dancing Jim is dressed in spats and straw hat, cane in hand, striking a Gene Kelly-ish pose. And in another, a smiling 15- or 16-year old Jim is fully decked out in fancy-dance regalia, and posing with his grandfather, who holds a hoop drum. Sure, the photos were carefully chosen for the packages, but there’s a clear feeling that, growing up, Jim Pepper was born to smile. It’s not a mischievous smile, and it’s not a “say cheese for the camera” smile. It’s genuine and it’s joyous, and you can hear it in the music of the grown Jim Pepper. And yet, this was a man who, while deep-sea salmon fishing in Alaska, watched helplessly as several of his friends in another boat were washed overboard in a storm and drowned. As Muscogee poet Joy Harjo told me, “He was a sweetie, also beset by demons.” (See her poem to Jim Pepper’s memory, The Place the Musician Became a Bear).
Of course, it’s probably not a good thing to try to pick apart the fibers of Jim Pepper and figure out what made him tick. His mother, Floy Pepper, wrote: “It is necessary to view everything from the concept of wholeness rather than dividing it into parts … The circle of a human being should be of harmony and courage.” In the case of Jim Pepper, the harmony is right there in his music. And the courage is there in the very fact that he made that music.
Charles Mingus, jazz bassist and composer, wrote a piece titled The Man Who Never Sleeps. Friends would apply that description to Jim Pepper – because he could spend all night talking with friends and playing and listening to music. But even now that he’s been gone for years, his music is still wide awake – and his memory doesn’t sleep. What better legacy than to be still providing inspiration to young musicians and students – not to mention middle-aged listeners! – from San Francisco to South Africa (where a drummer once exclaimed “Jim is still alive, he is always with me!”). These are the ways that the gifts of Jim Pepper will live … and live. By playing his recordings. By integrating his lessons into our own lives. By continuing in the tradition of letting music fill our lives. By celebrating everything that Jim Pepper and his music stand for. Thanks to Jim Pepper – and to the musicians who played with him. And thanks to the current and coming generations who make sure his music survives.