Jim Pepper (1941-1992)by Bill Siegel
Jim Pepper, the son of a Creek Indian mother and Kaw father, grew up surrounded by the songs and dances of the intertribal powwow circuit. He learned Native American Church peyote chants and other songs from his father, Gilbert Pepper, and grandfather, Ralph Pepper. Originally from Oklahoma, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was born – although he spent many summers back in Oklahoma with his grandfather’s family.
In the mid-1960s, he left home to make a name for himself in New York – which he did by exploding onto the scene with what may very well have been the first jazz-rock fusion band, Free Spirits. That early, innovative group – with Bob Moses on drums, Larry Coryell and Columbus Baker on guitars, and Chris Hill on vocals and bass, along with Pepper on saxophone – recorded their first album, Out of Sight and Sound, for Rudy Van Gelder at ABC/Paramount in 1967. Following that, in the late 1960s, after Gary Burton “lured” Coryell and Moses into his own band, Pepper and the remaining Free Spirits formed Everything is Everything, and Pepper’s composition, “Witchi Tai To” – eventually his most well known song – soon became the band’s signature piece. Those early bands gained a reputation in the rock-and-roll clubs for starting their sets with 20-minute long, unaccompanied sax solos from Pepper, something rock audiences had never heard before. “Witchi Tai To“, based on a ritual chant he learned from his grandfather, was a major crossover hit on jazz and popular Top 40 lists around the world, and has been covered in nearly 100 recordings by countless pop and “world music” musicians.
Pepper was encouraged by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman to dig deeper into his Native music and incorporate it into his jazz playing and composition (Cherry was well known for encouraging musicians around the world to look to their own indigenous music for inspiration). Pepper’s first album under his own name, Pepper’s Pow Wow, was released in 1971 on Herbie Mann‘s Embryo label, and includes his father, Gil (or “Gib”) Pepper. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pepper recorded with a vast range of jazz greats, including Cherry, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, Ed Schuller, John Scofield, Mal Waldron, and many others. On a State Deprtment tour with Cherry, he enjoyed a particularly warm reception from African audiences who applauded his unique blend of Native American music and jazz. According to Cherry, “The response in Africa was tremendous when Jim would play one of the pow wow pieces he had written… They realized that here was something truly American.” [emphasis added]
Not much has been written about the Native American musical contribution to the development of early jazz. But it’s there – and you don’t have to dig too deep to find it. Duke Ellington‘s sister, Ruth Ellington, once said that “All the credit’s gone to the African for the wonderful rhythm in jazz, but I think a lot of it should go to the American Indian.” And Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek poet and musician, who studied with Pepper, says that “Creeks had something to do with the origins of jazz. After all, when the African peoples were forced here for slavery they were brought to the traditional lands of the Muscogee peoples. Of course there was interaction between Africans and Muscogees!“A modern form of that interaction can be found now in the music of people like Jim Pepper, who based some of his pieces on traditional stomp dances, as well as on Native versions of Baptist hymns, in addition to the ritual chants of his grandfather.
Pepper’s 1983 album, Comin’ and Goin’ (Island Records), features Cherry, Scofield, Frisell, Schuller, Nana Vasconcelos, Collin Walcott, and others from both jazz and the nascent world music genre. At the center of this cleanly produced and meticulously performed recording, was Pepper’s soulful saxophone – a combination of gritty R&B, Coltrane-esque wails, plaintive chants, and earthy humor.
Drummer Reuben Hoch of the Chassidic Jazz Project (who had formed the group West End Avenue with Pepper in the 1980s), calls Pepper’s sound “absolutely unique… ridiculously fat and beautiful.” Saxophonist Dave Liebman, who says he learned a lot from Pepper in their younger Brooklyn days, also used the word “fat” to describe Pepper’s sound. Alaskan drummer Ron Thorne recalls that “he also had this real, pure R&B side to him that few people knew about. A real, nasty, dirty, funky side.” Recalling gigs in Alaskan dance clubs during the pipeline-fueled boom times, Thorne says of Pepper’s band: “They’d sneak in some straight-ahead jazz tunes and some fusion-oriented material whenever possible… damn, they were funky, too!“
But at the base of it all, there was always Pepper’s commitment to the power of music and to its healing message. “The emotion most prevalent in his music,” says mother Floy Pepper, “is intense spirituality.” World-renowned saxophonist Joe Lovano has said that he still thinks of Pepper and that he will sometimes ask himself, “What would Jim do now?” before launching into one of his own solos.
Pepper spent most of his final years living and performing in Austria, where he was wildly popular. According to Hoch, “they loved him in Austria… loved him. He never got that kind of recognition here. It’s too bad… more people should know about him, they should know his music.” Thorne remembers that Pepper “complained bitterly about America’s lack of support for jazz. That’s why he went to Europe. It’s a typical story – they’ve made movies about it, written books about it, how jazz musicians had to leave America.” His mother has said that “he did not find respect and acceptance of his music in America – but he did find it in Europe, where he was respected as a person and as a jazz musician. There he found peace.“
Jim Pepper was posthumously granted the Lifetime Musical Achievement Award by First Americans in the Arts (FAITA) in 1999, and in 2000 he was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame at the 7th Annual NAMMY Awards ceremony. In 2005, the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Insititute and the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission named Pepper Jazz Musician of the Year at the Portland Jazz Festival. In April 2007, his legendary silver Selmer saxophone, beaded baseball cap, leather horn cases, early LPs, and original sheet music were donated by the Pepper family to the Smithsonian Institution for National Museum of the American Indian‘s permanent collection. In October 2007, he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. And in 2008, the Paul Winter Consort recorded the CD, “Crestone“, which includes two versions of “Witchi Tai To” sung by John-Carlos Perea and which won a GRAMMY Award in the New Age Music category.
Pepper’s legacy lives on in bands like the Remembrance Band, made up of a somewhat fluid gathering of former Pepper bandmates around a core made up of vocalist Caren Knight-Pepper (Jim’s wife), and pianist Gordon Lee, and also including at times, bassists Ed Schuller and Glenn Moore (one of the founders of the band, Oregon), and guitarist Bill Bickford, among others. There’s the previously mentioned John-Carlos Perea, who has transformed several of Pepper’s song back to a more traditional song, the Albuquerque band, Red Earth, who described their music as encompassing rock, blues, hip hop, and “death metal” and credit Pepper as one of their main influences, Pura Fe and the a capella group she co-founded, Ulali, and many, many others who are keeping Pepper’s legacy not only alive, but modern and contemporary.
And, as anyone who said “I’ll see you later” to Pepper probably remembers, his response was usually, “No, I see you now!”
Jim Pepper, you sang to us: “Do not forget me/When I’m long gone/Because I loved you/So dearly, Sugar Honey.”
This if for you, Jim. We will not forget you when you’re long gone.
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