this article was originally written for jazz’halo magazine (Belgium)
by Bill Siegel
“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.”
» Floy Pepper
“You must not forget me/When I’m long gone/
Because I loved you/So Dearly/Sugar Honey.”
» Jim Pepper
Few musicians, few artists — indeed, few people — represent the “circle of a human being” as well as Jim Pepper.
Friends, colleagues and fellow musicians have called him a “friendly, smiling bear,” and even “a sweetie.” They also say that he was “beset by demons,” that he was “constantly driven by a deeply seated fear, the traumatic terror of absolute extermination — which pursued him like a shadow.”
Jim Pepper’s music chronicles for us the courageous struggles of a man to bring his own “circle of being” into harmony.This was the man who could make songs like balladist Jimmy van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” into his own signature performance pieces; the man who could put standards like “What’s New” on the same album as his own “Dakota Song” and Ornette Coleman’s “Comme Il Faut“. Or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s romantic “Hello Young Lovers” together with “Witchi Tai To“, a song based on his grandfather’s Native American Church Peyote chants. The man who could use his saxophone to croon “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or a John Coltrane-influenced “Greensleeves” and yet challenge us with the insistent “No War Dance“. The same man who would group van Heusen’s “It Could Happen to You” with his own “Commander G.A. Custer Git the Buzz” on the same album.
This is the man who sang, “It’s good where we’ve been/And where we’re going…” in his “Comin’ and Goin’“. And the man who sang in “Witchi Tai To“: “Water spirit feelin’/Springin’ round my head/Makes me feel glad/That I’m not dead…” How many of us can celebrate life so fully — in the face of deep-seated demons and inner fears — the way that Jim Pepper did?
The music of Jim Pepper, years after his passing, continues to provide us lessons in life. Young musicians cite him as one of their primary influences — not just in playing the music, but in keeping alive the tradition of educating people, of expressing themselves through their own artistic media.
People who knew him, played and recorded with him, or just saw him perform, still talk about his energy, his infectious smile, the sheer joy of his music.
With Jim Pepper, the harmony and the courage are right there in his music. His is a lesson for all of us. Let us not forget Jim Pepper.
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