The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

Jazz and the Politics of Identity: The Legacy of Jim Pepper

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(an earlier version of this article was published by In Motion Magazine)

by Bill Siegel

“Identity is a set of currents, flowing currents,

rather than a fixed place or a stable set of objects.”
Edward Said

When Mescalero Apache jazz composer and electric bassist John-Carlos Perea
pereafirstdancecddisc.jpg was still in high school, a teacher had him listen to the music of John Coltrane. His reaction? “I said, ‘Wow, this guy sounds like he’s been listening to powwow music.(2)'” Perea, born at Dulce on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in New Mexico, grew up in San Francisco and began studying music at San Francisco State before graduating high school. By 2001, he released his First Dance CD (Aerep Music), with his own arrangement of Coltrane’s “Naima”, a haunting melody that Perea calls “one of the most beautiful love songs ever composed,” and reminiscent of Northern Plains Indians courtship songs. “My first giantsteps.jpgexperiences listening to jazz revolved around the music of John Coltrane,” he explains in the liner notes to First Dance. “It was through his music that I first began to hear the parallels between American Indian music and jazz and how the two could function together at the same time.(3)” (see End Notes for references)

While he was at San Francisco State, saxophonist Francis Wong, co-founder and Creative Director of Asian Improv aRts (, introduced Perea to Kaw/Creek saxophonist Jim Pepper‘s music. “After finding Jim Pepper’s music,” Perea recalled, “That was it.(4)”pepperppwfront.jpg

‘It’, for John-Carlos, was the idea that he could compose his own music, integrating modern jazz composition with traditional and contemporary Native American themes. “That first Pepper’s Pow Wow album, where he was mixing peyote songs with jazz and turning it into this whole country-jazz-Indian fusion thing, solidified the idea with me.(5)”

Since then, Perea has written, performed and recorded innovative compositions that meld the traditions of blues-based jazz with intertribal powwow dance music to create a new artistic vehicle for expressing the modern urban identity of many American Indians. “A lot of people think the only credibility in native culture is on the reservation, but that’s not true. We [urban Indians] are the bridge between traditional and modern knowledge because we walk in both those worlds. I’m trying to get people to see Indians in a different light, beyond the Atlanta Braves and the tomahawk chop thing or the cigar store Indian image.(6)”

In fact, his music is about more than just embodying the idea of a modern urban identity for Native American Indians, it’s also about helping to actually define that identity. It’s a fine distinction perhaps, one that is best expressed through the music itself — but we can get a flavor for it in Perea’s own description of his composition, “Blues for My Blood Quantum”, which he dedicates to “all the young bicultural Indian people in urban and reservation areas struggling with those Indian and non-Indian persons who are convinced that it is only Indians of full-blood descent who are the proper heirs to American Indian tradition.(7)”

At the foundation of “Blood Quantum” is a melody that Perea says incorporates “all the worst qualities of the more insidious American Indian stereotypes that have become accepted parts of our popular culture… to remind both Indians and non-Indians that by holding American Indian identity hostage to popularly perceived stereotypes of ‘purity’, we doom our culture to a quick death.(8)”

To Perea, the way to avert that cultural calamity is to consciously take control of the social forces that try to impose romantic or offensive identities on people. “Our strength lies in our ability to adapt in any situation while still abiding by the roots of respect for all things that are the cornerstone of American Indian philosophy,(9)” he says.

With his electric bass in hand, John-Carlos Perea is helping to create and build what he calls a “modern urban identity” through jazz — a music that has always been based on, and constantly invigorated by, the meeting, melding (and sometimes, clashing) of cultures. And, like the jazz pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s who self-consciously explored and integrated African rhythms and melodies into swing and bebop compositions, John-Carlos represents a new generation of artists who are doing the same with jazz and American indigenous music.

The reference to Jim Pepper’s influence is particularly important, for Pepper can easily be seen as the flash point for this new American urban generation. Pepper wrote and first recorded his renowned “Witchi Tai To” in the early 1960s, bringing together a group of (non-Native) rock musicians to transform the song into something entirely new. By the late 1960s, he had recorded the song with the group, The Free Spirits, one of the very first groups to play what was to become known as “jazz fusion”, with Bob Moses, Larry Coryell, Columbus “Chip” Baker, and Chris Hills. It was almost an immediate crossover hit for the group. Pepper’s recording of “Witchi Tai To” was inspired by ritual chants he heard from his grandfather, a Kaw Nation peyote singer, and it was soon being covered by an almost inconceivably wide range of musicians and groups — from Oregon to Brewer & Shipley, from Harper’s Bazaar and Seals & Croft to Jan Garbarek, from string quartets to chorale arrangements.

cherry1.jpgWithin a short time, Pepper was recording and performing several original pieces that relied heavily on Native music that he’d heard growing up or learned from the intertribal powwow circuit. Before this, there were only a few jazz musicians who identified themselves, or were identified, in any way with Native backgrounds (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Jack Teagarden, Lena Horne, and a few others come to mind), and even fewer who consciously incorporated this knowledge of their identity into their music. Those few exceptions might just prove the rule: musicians like Don Cherry (Choctaw) or Ornette Coleman, who were just beginning to explore some very non-mainstream sources for their creative inspiration; and such earlier token nods to “Indian-ness”, like Ray Noble‘s “Cherokee”, which doesn’t really evoke much of a connection beyond its title and some corny lyrics attributed to Charlie Parker.

“There’s Something Happening Here…”

dennis.jpgThe 1960s and 1970s saw a huge explosion of identity politics, coming out of the civil rights struggle and especially the Black Power movement, the new rise of feminism and “consciousness raising” groups, and — more apropos to our point here — a newly energized Native American struggle. At that time, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of (non-Native)pelletier.jpg Americans were hardly aware that there were any Indians left in America. Or if there were, so the popular thinking went, they must have been completely assimilated into the mainstream. But, by the 1970s, it was harder and harder to maintain that illusion. The occupations of Alcatraz (beginning as early as 1964, and continuing on and off through 1971), and of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in 1972; the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), especially with the protests at Wounded Knee in 1973; the FBI attacks on Indians at Pine Ridge in 1974 and the subsequent imprisonment on questionable evidence of Leonard Pelletier — all of these very high-profile events, and more, made it impossible for both Indians and non-Indians to ignore modern Native identity and cultures any longer.

cashtears.jpgSomething new was in the air — socially, politically and creatively. And in jazz, that new something was the mixing of Native ritual and dance music with traditional jazz forms and themes — on an equal footing, not just through token riffs based on TV or movie Western soundtracks. Many Indians in the 1960s folk music circle — most notably Floyd Westermann, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Peter LaFarge, among several others — were writing songs about Native history and the continuing modern oppression of their people. Johnny Cash, in his Bitter Tears album, picked up many of LaFarge’s songs and brought them to a wider audience, mostly within the country & western world. Then Bob Dylan, who had spent a good deal of time in the same folk crowd as Saint-Marie and LaFarge, recorded a couple of LaFarge’s songs, introducing a whole generation of rock listeners to the highly politicized lyrics of his music.

But, notwithstanding the self-serving polemics of neo-traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns — jazz did not end with Louis Armstrong. Just as history did not end, as some historians wrote at the time, when the Berlin Wall came down. While Cash was comfortable singing in the country & western tradition, and Dylan was creating his own still-undefinable sound, Jim Pepper took traditional and contemporary Native music and themes, and stirred them up with country, rock, folk, reggae, funk, and rhythm & blues — but always rooted firmly in the hard bop and free jazz forms. Jazz lives, it thrives, through the fresh blood being brought to it by experimenters like Pepper, who are not afraid of adding major new elements to the jazz palette.russell.jpg

Russell Means, a founder of AIM, defines that time in more cultural and political terms (although perhaps giving such exclusive credit to AIM might be arguable): “Before AIM, Indians were dispirited, defeated and culturally dissolving. People were ashamed to be Indian. You didn’t see the young people wearing braids or chokers or ribbon shirts in those days. Hell, I didn’t wear ‘em. People didn’t Sun Dance, they didn’t Sweat, they were losing their languages. Then there was that spark at Alcatraz, and we took off. We put Indians and Indian rights smack dab in the middle of the public consciousness for the first time since the so-called Indian Wars… [AIM] laid the groundwork for the next stage in regaining our sovereignty and self-determination as nation…” And Dr. LaNada Boyer, another leader of the Alcatraz occupation: “We were able to raise, not only the consciousness of other American people, but our own people as well, to reestablish our identity as Indian people, as a culture, as political entities.(10)”

But sovereignty and self-determination mean little or nothing if you don’t know who or what “self” is. At the same time that AIM and other overtly political groups were carrying out highly visible, headline-grabbing actions, there were other less heralded, quieter grass roots movements, and — of course — there were, and are, the artists giving voice through their various creative media to the need for, indigenous.jpgreclamation of, and in some cases re-creation of Native identities. Suddenly (or so it may have seemed to many people), it was “okay” to be Indian — not necessarily safe, of course, but people were becoming less and less willing to settle for hiding their identities, or less apt to ignore or dismiss those of others. Not only that, but you could “be” Indian and still play jazz or rock and roll, or write poetry, or dance ballet without compromising or even necessarily diluting your Native identity. This ran directly counter to the more traditionalist view that “real” Indians were either extinct, or very old men on forgotten reservations who were still practicing their old rituals, wearing loin cloths, and generally acting as if nothing had changed for them in the preceding centuries since European contact. Native identities could remain intact in the modern world, and Jim Pepper not only helped open that door, but remains a model for younger Indians who want to continue being who they are while still living in the modern world.

I use the word “identities” deliberately — as there is no such thing as one, all-inclusive “Indian” identity. Just as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to lump Portuguese culture with Polish, and cover it with the broad brush of “European”; or Egyptian with Zimbabwean and pretend that “African” describes both equally — so, too with the countless different Native American cultures, nations, histories… and identities.

And music was, as it always has been, a key player in the expression of personal and cultural identities, usually identities that must overcome difficult hurdles in order to be heard and recognized in today’s mainstream societies. Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor, put it this way: “You have to ask yourself: does music have a purpose, a social purpose, and what is it? Is it to provide comfort and entertainment, or is it to ask disturbing questions of the performer and of the listener?(11)”

Barenboim could easily have been talking about Jim Pepper, who masterfully (and subversively) covered all of those questions with his music. Whether delineating and expressing his own identity through lyrics that got his audience laughing (“I hates the man / that says all bears / shit in the woods / ‘Cause I don’t / ‘Cause I’m a polar bear! / Yes, I am!” — “Polar Bear Stomp”), proclaiming, in effect, that “Yes, I’m a bear — but don’t go making the mistake that all us bears are the same!” — or celebrating the diversity of Native identities and giving his listeners something to think about, through the simple, rhythmic recitation of the names of as many as 30 or more Indian nations in his “Squaw Song”.

This process wasn’t new — it had happened to jazz in the 1950s and 1960s with the self-conscious integration of African and Cuban (which itself implies a melding of African and Native American) rhythms and melodies into jazz by musicians like Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Pharaoh Sanders, Art Blakey, Max Roach and countless others (many of whom, in the process, found their identities by adopting Islam, which some had been exposed to in the search for their musical African roots).

(This is not to deny the fact that jazz originally grew out of the blending of African songs with the music slaves found themselves surrounded by in America — Irish sea chanties, English chamber music, Scottish folk songs… and, all too often ignored, the “Native people [who] were there too when everything was going down in Congo Square, ” as Muscogee poet and saxophonist Joy Harjo has said.

From Innovation to Foundation

There were, of course, many forces at work that culminated during that era to make all of this possible. It was not some New Testament-like, apocryphal story of a lone jazz man, wandering the streets at night, and suddenly having a musical revelation: “Aha! That’s it! I can combine my grandfather’s chants with jazz, and improvise on it! Why didn’t anyone think of that before?” History doesn’t work that way. Many factors come into play to create any given moment, and Jim Pepper and his music did not suddenly come into being from a vacuum (any more than bebop was some kind of unbidden, sudden flash of light for Charlie Parker one night as he bopped down the road to Damascus). The “lone man” theory of history doesn’t cut it.

The proof of the impact of this new movement in jazz is in the influence that Pepper and his music have had on contemporary musicians and artists like Perea and Harjo. Where Jim Pepper moved into the realization that he could bring those two sides of himself together through music, some of those who followed him are privileged to be able to start with that knowledge, or able to accept it as a given in their creative process at an early stage.

joy.jpgTo paraphrase Russell Means, before Jim Pepper there was little or no consciousness of Native America in the jazz world (in the music, if not in the musicians themselves); and after Jim Pepper, there is a world in which younger musicians like John-Carlos Perea can express, and even form, their Native identity through jazz. Harjo — whose music has been described as mixing American Indian, African, reggae, rock and jazz rhythms to create a “unique, if soft-spoken, brand of music” (Raintaxi Review of Books, Spring 1998) — acknowledges this when she says (in her Weblog,, July 10, 2004), “I have been mentored by friends… and by the spirits speaking through the music like Coltrane [and] Jim Pepper.”

Jim Pepper, perhaps more than anyone else in jazz, opened the door for a Native American infusion (some might call it a return) of cultural identity into jazz composition. With his music, it’s as if he says “This is Indian, AND it’s jazz. Listen up, people!” (Or, as the more genteel Barenboim puts it: “Music says, ‘Excuse me. This is human life.'” ) But even more so, Pepper underscores the role that jazz plays in the formation and expression of cultural identity — through his music, he says that “Indian” isn’t a very meaningful label, that there are many “Indians” of many nations, many heritages, many cultures — and they are all still here, still alive, still vibrant, still growing. And he is saying, through his compositions, that you can bring the rhythms and chants and melodies and lyrics of traditional and contemporary Native music to the world of jazz — that it is a natural, and undeniable, fit.

As John-Carlos Perea puts it, “The music of Jim Pepper has set a precedent for me as an American Indian jazz artist that allows me to perform the music and know that I have a history I can look back upon and draw strength from when I need it. “

Author’s Note — For More Information:

The music of Jim Pepper deserves much wider recognition than is traditionally given to artists on the so-called “fringes” of culture. Pepper, who passed away in 1992, left behind a musical / political / cultural / artistic heritage that continues to bear rich fruit through the music, expressions, and teaching of young artists like John-Carlos Perea and countless others like him — as well as through the continuing work of many of his friends and collaborators. Listed below are just some of the (many) recordings that I strongly and enthusiastically recommend to anyone who wants to hear and learn more about Jim Pepper and his legacy. (For a much more complete list of Pepper’s recordings, there are many online discographies, one of the better ones being “Jim Pepper Legacy in Recorded Music: A Treasure Chest“, by Jim Olding:

Selected Recordings by Jim Pepper:

  • Comin’ and Goin’ — Antilles Records (AN 8706), recorded and released 1983; re-released by Bellaphon Records (CD 5988827)
  • Dakota Song — Enja Records (CD 5043-34), recorded and released 1987
  • The Path — Enja Records (CD 5087), recorded and released 1988
  • Remembrance — Tutu Records (CD 888 152), recorded May 1990 at the International Jazz Festival in Munster (released 1994)
  • Polar Bear Stomp — Universal Music (CD 986 551-6), recorded May 1991, released 2003

Recordings by John-Carlos Perea:

  • Gathering of Ancestors — Asian Improv Records (AIR 0041), recorded 1999 with Francis Wong and Elliot Humberto Kavee, released 1999
  • First Dance — Aerep Music (AM 001), recorded 2000, released 2001

Jim Pepper Tributes:

  • Witchi Tai To — The Music of Jim Pepper — Tutu Records (CD 888 204), arranged and conducted by Gunther Schuller, recorded in concert 1998, released 2002
  • Pepper’s Pow Wow — a film by Sandy Osawa and Yasu Osawa, of Upstream Productions (available by contacting


1. Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations I Music and Society, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said (Ara Guzelimian, editor; Pantheon Books, 2002).

2. “Jazz Powwow”, Interview with John-Carlos Perea, by Jesse Varela; East Bay Express (Emeryville, California;; November 21, 2001.

3. Liner notes: First Dance, Aerep Music (San Francisco), recorded 1999.

4. East Bay Express interview, November 2001

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Liner notes: First Dance.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Alcatraz is Not An Island, PBS/KQED documentary, 2002.

11. Barenboim and Said, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.

12. Lyric from “Polar Bear Stomp”, by Jim Pepper. As sung on Polar Bear Stomp, recorded May 3, 1991; released on CD (986 551-6) by Universal Music GmbH (Austria), 2003.

13. As quoted by John-Carlos Perea; East Bay Express interview, November 2001.

14. Barenboim and Said, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.

15. Liner notes: First Dance.


Written by Bill Siegel

February 27, 2008 at 2:22 am

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