The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

A Tale of Synchronicity

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Meditations on Jim Pepper, Chief Bey, Milford Graves, a Heron, and a Flock of Geese

Originally published by JumpArtsJournal, March 2005; also in AllAboutJazz.com, June 2005; excerpts appeared in PlanetJazz magazine, Winter/Spring 2005


by Bill Siegel
(July 13, 2004)

If anything is a coincidence, then everything must be; And if everything is coincidence, then surely nothing really happens by chance.

Item: One of the first times I listened to saxophonist Jim Pepper (“Comin’ and Goin’” from the album of the same name), I was driving on a crowded highway outside of Boston when a V of migrating geese suddenly whooshed up from below the median guardrail, so close to my open driver’s-side window that it was like they had come expressly for me. In fact, I literally felt for that fleeting instant that they did have me, that they were sucking me out through the window just as if we were all rushing into a vacuum — and that if I had just given into it my soul, my spirit if not my body, would have gone with them; for that fleeting instant the flying V was more real, and the speeding, growling traffic was more ephemeral.

schullermusicjpcd.jpgItem: Fast-forward about 15 years. As Gunther Schuller’s orchestral “Witchi Tai To” (from The Music of Jim Pepper, Tutu CD 888 204) was slipping into its final strains, and as I was making my way past the toll booth and onto the ramp leading to another New England expressway, the majestic figure of a great blue heron winged its way across the road just ahead of me.

Say what you will about coincidence, or even of a complete lack of connection between events — but even scientists will tell you that millions of light years of distance, billions of years of time, aren’t enough always to break the bond between paired (or as they put it, “associated” or “entangled”) atoms or sub-molecular particles — that what happens to one, simultaneously and identically happens to the other. Whether you’re looking forward in time or back, facing toward one end of the Universe or another.

I think Jim Pepper had it right, when he, Larry Coryell, Bob Moses, and Chris Hills named their proto-fusion 1960s band, Everything is Everything — or better yet, when he sang “Walkin’ to the East, Everything is beautiful / Walkin’ to the West, Everything is beautiful / Walkin’ to the North, Everything is beautiful / Walkin’ to the South, Everything is beautiful” (from “Witchi Tai To”). Everything is everything. And everything is beautiful.

Item: By the way, you can’t watch a great blue heron swimming across the sky without feeling like you’re up there with her. Simply cannot be done. Don’t even bother trying.0713_img_0005a.jpg

Item: Drummer Chief Bey was born James Hawthorne Bey, in South Carolina on April 17, 1913. He toured with Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway in the international Porgy and Bess tour in the 1950s, recorded with Herbie Mann (At the Village Gate, 1961), Art Blakey (The African Beat, 1962), Harry Belafonte, Pharoah Sanders, and others. He died on April 8, 2004, of stomach cancer. His wife, Barbara Kenyatta Bey, collapsed at her husband’s funeral and died nine days later, the day that would have been his 91st birthday and their 31st wedding anniversary. There are no coincidences. And everything is beautiful.

Item: Jim Pepper’s first album recorded under his own name, Pepper’s Pow Wow, was produced by Rudy Van Gelder for Herbie Mann’s Embryo label.

Item: Excerpt from PlanetJazz magazine interview with Chief Bey (Summer/Fall 2004) — In 1962 [Chief] Bey had just come back from singing on tour in Europe as part of the original cast of Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price and William Warfield. “I met up with Art Blakey and he asked me to come with him to help him make this recording and I thought it would be a pleasure. He asked me to get the drummers together, you know, all the drummers I got together for him. There were about five of us there.” The place was Rudy Van Gelder’s, the album is The African Beat, and the prayer that opens it is exquisitely recited by Nigerian drummer Solomon Ilori. “Solomon didn’t want to do it and I said to him, ‘Look, this is a step forward. You’re asking permission and you’re giving thanks to do this. It will make you. People will always remember you from this.’ So, he finally went and he did the prayer. It was a one-evening session but it was from night till dawn. The sun was coming up when we walked out of the studio and it was very tiring but afterwards, it was very rewarding.”

I’ve always believed in synchronicity, though I’ve never pretended to understand it (Carl Jung described it as “meaningful coincidence”). So when I opened a copy of PlanetJazz recently and saw a photo of Art Blakey’s The African Beat album jacket accompanying an interview with drummer Chief Bey, I knew something mysteriously meaningful was at work.

blakey.jpgIt was the first time I’d seen the magazine, and I picked it up mostly to see if it might be a good venue for a project I’ve been working at, on and off (though more off than on), for years — a tribute to saxophonist Jim Pepper. But there it was, barely an inch square – The African Beat — and even though the little picture was black-and-white, I saw the brilliant red of the original album jacket.

Item: From Graceland, by Chris Abani — “For the Igbo [of Nigeria], tradition is fluid, growing. It is an event, like the sunset, or rain, changing with each occurrence. The Igbo are not reducible to a system of codes, and of meaning; this culture is always reaching for a pure lyric moment.”

This story starts some 20 years ago, when I’d seen drummer Milford Graves in concert (once in solo performance, and once with bass saxophonist Hugh Glover — though I can still him hunched over that Brobdignagian horn). Both performances happened in very intimate surroundings, rooms with seating for barely 100 people, if that many, so each event was a truly magical experience that is nearly as clear a memory as if they had happened just last month.

Graves began his solo performance off-stage, chanting and whistling well before he emerged from behind the curtains at the far right. Gradually, his performance became more intricate, more advanced, as the whistling gave way to bells, the chanting replaced by slaps to his chest, and then by old African hand drums. Little by little, every few minutes, he would put down one old drum and pick up a newer one, never pausing, never missing a beat, never losing the rhythm.milford.jpg

At some point, the chanting and body-thumping transformed itself into shouts and cries. By the time he finished, he was furiously playing a mixture of R&B, hard bop, and rock & roll on a full modern drum set, complete with high hats and cymbals, all accompanied by a series of shouts and scat singing. The opening sounds of the whistling, the ringing bells, the chanting, the grunts and screams — all of this had seamlessly turned into what sounded like a full orchestra of drums. It was only when he stopped suddenly, like quitting a habit cold turkey, with no tapering off, and the silence overwhelmed the awe-struck audience, that we realized we had just been taken on a guided tour of the history of drumming, indeed of music — from the first humans who copied the sounds of their own hearts and the singing of birds, to bebop and rock.

It was a full-scale, full-throttle performance that seemed like it happened in an instant, but in truth had lasted closer to 45 minutes. It was a Grandmother Hurricane of drumming, and the audience was the little Caribbean island that it had inundated. It felt almost anti-climatic when we recovered our wits, lifted our jaws from the floor, and broke into wild applause and shouts.

blakely.jpgThe closest thing I’ve ever heard to that performance on record was Blakey’s The African Beat.

After that awe-some performance by Graves, I went home with his chanting turning over and over in my head. I had only been able to make out a few words from a shouted recitation that had punctuated the drumming at one point. “Tradition says…”, he yelled over his pounding of the drum heads, “Tradition says before the drum was…”, with the rest lost in the crescendo of his playing.

With those few words, I found myself writing a poem that began: “Tradition says/before the drum was the bird/was the bird came before the drum/was the bird’s feet the wing’s flutter/was the heart beat of the bird/came before the drum…” and went on to end with: “Tradition says/Was First the Drum/Tradition says/before the drum was the drum/was the drum came before the drum/The drum says/Comes the Drum.”

Some time after writing the poem, I was listening to The African Beat (for perhaps the one-hundredth time). When Solomon Ilori’s “Ife L’ayo” (”There is Happiness in Love”) — came on, I found myself reciting the Before the Drum poem and surprised myself with how it so neatly fit the rhythm of the recording, almost as if I had deliberately written it with “Ife L’ayo” in mind. (I had not.)

I subsequently had the opportunity to work with a jazz dancer/choreographer on a program that paired her original group dance to my recitation of the poem, with “Ife L’ayo” playing behind it all. After that performance, the dancer presented other versions of her choreography with different groups of dancers, but always with someone reciting my poem, accompanied by Solomon Ilori’s “Ife L’ayo”.

The poem itself is dedicated to Milford Graves, since he was the original inspiration. But it could just as easily have been dedicated to Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble, since it was their music that gave it life.

So you see, there is some “meaningful coincidence” going on here — bringing together a Milford Graves performance, a poet’s attempt at capturing the feeling of that performance, and Art Blakey’s The African Beat, all in a little black-and-white, one-inch square in PlanetJazz magazine’s interview with Chief Bey.

FOOTNOTE: Chief Bey was right when he told Solomon Ilori that his recitation of the opening prayer on The African Beat would “make him”, and that people would always remember him for it. Because here it is, some 42 years after the fact, and Ilori’s prayer (and his “Ife L’ayo”) is still working its magic. Thank you, Solomon Ilori. Thank you, Chief Bey. Thank you, Art Blakey and Milford Graves.

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Written by Bill Siegel

February 26, 2008 at 4:02 pm

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