The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

Caliban Magazine (1988)

with 3 comments

Another treasure! This one from the pages of Caliban Magazine (Ann Arbor MI). Compare some of Pepper’s answers to the Jazz & Pop interview from 1968 to see how some of his ideas matured, and how there’s some pretty clear differences in how he treats the two interviewers with his answers. Whether it’s a personal reaction, lessons learned in how much, what, and how to say things to an interview can only be guessed at – but it makes for interesting contrasts sometimes.

The interview was conducted by Caliban editor, Lawrence R. Smith, and his assistant editor, Doug Hagley. Caren Knight-Pepper also took part in the interview. With great thanks and appreciation to Manfred Hamal, in Austria.

from Caliban Magazine; 1988

Jim Pepper, whose Indian name is Hung-a-che-eda or Flying Eagle, was born in 1941, the son of a Kaw father and a Creek mother. He developed his saxophone style under the tutelage of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in New York City during the sixties. Pepper played with the Fugs, the Free Spirits, Everything is Everything, and more recently has headed his own band. The synthesis of African, Latin, and Native American roots in his music makes Jim Pepper one of the most exciting composers on the jazz scene today.

Smith: An essay in Caliban 3 claims that “The Native American cultures form the matrix into which the African, Asian, and European cultures fit.” Your music seems to be a fusion of African and Native American roots. Do you think the Native American cultures form the basic culture to which the others have contributed since? How do you see the relationship of the various cultures?

Pepper: With Native American culture, each section of the country is so different. For instance, the art of the Navajo and Hopi is totally different than art from Alaska, or art from the East Coast. There’s a wide variety of linear designs, colors, and those differences create a whole melange of styles. But I went to West Africa about four years ago, and saw art in Cameroon that I thought was Navajo. So I believe all these things could have fit into what was already here.

Smith: I realize that Native American cultures are widely varied, but there seem to be links, spiritual links, between the different cultures. Aren’t they closer to one another than they are to anything that’s European?

Pepper: Sure, there’s a link between all the American cultures.

Smith: You’ve just come back from a tour in Europe. Why is it, do you think, that American jazz musicians are more popular in Europe than the U.S.?

Pepper: I think the commercialism of music in America is so powerful, the network of the top forty is so overwhelming, there’s so much money to be made off that, that there’s no room for music. And American music, especially jazz, is the only real thing, after Columbus, America has had to offer the world in the way of culture. Europe accepts the musician first, and then they accept the music. There’s room for commercial music, pop music, jazz, and classical music in Europe. Whereas in America everything is so big, it’s so networked out in the top forty mentality, that jazz just gets squashed. You know, people here aren’t aware of jazz. There is no outlet for the real jazz.

Smith: What do you mean by saying that in Europe they accept the musician first, then the music?

Pepper: Jazz musicians have been so stereotyped since the New Orleans thing: playing in whorehouses, the dope syndrome, the drinking syndrome, the fact that a lot of the music came from black people. There just isn’t the respect that the Europeans have for jazz as a serious art form. I mean when I play jazz I don’t think I’m playing an art form or anything like that, but over there I have a feeling of being accepted as a serious musician, where I never have that feeling here in America. If somebody asks me if I am a musician and what kind of music I play, and I say jazz, it kind of goes right by him. But if I say that I am working in a lounge down the street with a local band he might have heard of, then he thinks I’m valid. If I’m just a jazz player who doesn’t have a job right now, or if I have to wait a month or two for something, then I’m a strange person. I’m just unemployed.

Smith: Do you think the Europeans have a better understanding of jazz as an art form, or do you think it’s the appeal of the exotic?

Pepper: Well, jazz has been happening so much over there since World War II, they have developed a real understanding of jazz, a knowledge of whether the music is correct or not, and whether it’s good or bad. They have a more open feeling toward avant-garde jazz, for instance. If you’re an avant-garde jazz musician in the United States you might as well fold up. But in Europe it’s different. Maybe they go to the extreme, because there are some players over there who couldn’t get away with anything here. But they can go to Europe and be accepted more readily.

Smith: “Avant-garde” in Europe is a positive phrase, but in the United States it’s very negative. Why is that true?

Pepper: You’re exactly right, but I don’t know why. I think Europe is about twenty years behind any kind of major cultural breakthrough.

Smith: Behind us, behind the United States?

Pepper: Yeah, behind us in music, in dress, in attitude. You have the feeling over there in places like Austria, Holland, Germany: it’s like the sixties again. It looks like the sixties, it feels like the sixties, but it isn’t.

Smith: If there’s a cycle, they’re either behind or they’re ahead of us. My son was saying when we were in Amsterdam this summer, that it looked like the Dutch hadn’t left the sixties. So you’d see that as retrograde, behind the times?

Pepper: Yeah, I see it that way.

Smith: Where do you think we are pointed now? Especially since the sixties had so much to do with – whether it was on a deep or superficial level, I won’t argue – trying to get back in touch, for one thing, with Native American cultures.

Pepper: That always seems to happen. Maybe in cycles, maybe not in cycles. I mean everybody jumps on the Indian bandwagon. You know, the spiritual thing. The Indians they seek out: it’s always the same ones. In a way that’s a drag, because there are a lot of people that haven’t been checked out. You know, a lot of old people. They keep going back to the AIM people, like Leonard Red Dog, people like that. For me, I see it like a movie. It’s crazy.

Smith: The AIMsters?

Pepper: Well, the AIMsters had a good thing. They’re coming back in reformed ways. I myself work for Leonard Peltier whenever I get the chance. But there are some AIM people that came back stronger, that came back more spiritual, and a little bit more organized. Trying to do something more concrete. I mean it’s impossible to give the land back. In America Indians can’t take that back. It’s 1988. It’s not happening. You have to have some sort of assimilation. But at the same time, there seems to be a real pride in American culture with the young people now. Which is great. It’s fantastic, it’s necessary. If people lose their culture, they die.

Smith: There also seems to be a vision – whether it’s an oversimplification or not – that the Native Americans were the first ecologists. Now that people have become more and more aware of the fact that the greenhouse effect is destroying us, they start looking for spiritual guidance, somebody to help them out.

Pepper: Well, I hope they find it.

Smith: You don’t think it’s out there?

Pepper: Yes, I do think the Native American spiritual thing is out there. I hope they do find it, because the whole deterioration of the planet has gone so far. Especially here around New York, the East Coast area.

Smith: It’s pretty bad in the Midwest too. It’s bad everywhere.

Pepper: It’s bad in Alaska even.

Smith: Well, if we change the whole world’s climate, there won’t be anyplace it won’t touch. You were talking about people who keep going back to the same Indians. What is the line in Ginsberg’s “Howl”? “Seeking visionary Indian angels who were visionary Indian angels…” Like Black Elk, I guess. Does everybody want to find a Black Elk? Is that the problem, romanticizing Indians?

Pepper: Yeah, it seems like they’re romanticized to the point where it doesn’t matter whether the person you’re speaking with is real or not. They’re getting hit on so much. But I know that throughout the country there are a lot of spiritual Indians that have never been contacted for their ideas. It’s always using the same people. It’s like somebody knows somebody, so they keep going to the same people. I think that could be changed.

Smith: Well, that’s the old spokesperson business. With outside people, especially reporters. you know, you become a spokesman for the movement. Then you get locked into that, and everybody else gets locked out.

Pepper: Yeah, that’s right. The others get locked out.

Hagley: But do they want to be locked in, do you think? Do they want a bunch of people to come and check out their spirituality?

Pepper: I think if you really wanted to find these people and talk with them you could, and groups of people too. I mean I’m a Native American and I keep meeting people that I have never known anything about. It’s totally fantastic. They were here then, are here now, and will be here tomorrow.

Smith: It’s funny, you were talking about the commercial music network, but there’s no network of people on the spiritual plane.

Pepper: There might be, but I’m not aware of it. It’d be nice if there really were such a network.

Smith: A spiritual conspiracy?

Pepper: A spiritual conspiracy, right.

Smith: Speaking of spirits, a lot of your music seems to evoke the ancestral spirits in one way or another. Or maybe the word is invoke. Do you think the ancestors actually have an influence on the living?

Pepper: I’ve always felt that. I feel it with my grandfather, for instance, and he passed away five years ago. But I know he felt that from his ancestors, and from his immediate family. I get that real strong feeling when I see old pictures, and when I see feathers and eagles flying.

Smith: William Carlos Williams talked about the dead never leaving; he said that the dead are always there. That’s a belief that Anglo-Americans typically think is superstition, but some other people think is true. Like me, for instance.

Pepper: No, I have a deep belief that the ancestors are there, that they’re living.

Smith: Can they influence events, or do they just influence us and we influence events?

Pepper: That’s hard to say. Take Long Island, for instance. Long Island has a lot of crazy things happening in various places. There are a lot of burial grounds out there, and I think these are influencing what’s happening today. You know, just a disrespect for the land. There are direct results from this disrespect for the ground, and the spirits are involved. These people are going crazy out there. It’s true.

Smith: Do the ancestors have the power to flush the bad stuff out, clean it up again, and make it go back in the right direction?

Pepper: It might be like a mirror. The people who are living there and are doing this might have the power to make something happen that’s good or bad. I don’t know whether spirits from the ground can make something bad happen or not. I hope not. I’d rather have it be good. But what’s happening there is a mirror of who’s living there and whatever they’re doing.

Smith: Since we’re talking about curses, which is people in the ground doing bad things, or at least doing something, one that has always intrigued me is the Pawnee curse, or the Presidential curse. That’s the one which has gotten every American President in twenty year cycles since William Henry Harrison, every President elected in a zero year. And Reagan was elected in a zero year; he was elected in 1980. He will be – if he lives to the end of his term – the first one to beat it.

Pepper: Well, he’s an actor.

Smith: The ancestors have been so powerful, and they’ve killed good ones along with the bad ones. Like Kennedy – there was an example of a good one who went down. What does being an actor have to do with it?

Pepper: He could die and his movies are still happening. It depends on your interpretation.

Smith: Or he could have been dead years ago.

Pepper: Yeah, I’ve seen him killed in a couple of movies. And there the fucker is, right on the TV. He’s a very special cat.

Smith: Yeah, I guess. Special in an evil way, or in a bizarre way. I just wonder why the ancestral spirits chose to cut out on us now. I mean, this guy was a prime candidate, at least as good as William Henry Harrison the Indian fighter.

Pepper: They tried, right? Ok? They tried.

Smith: They tried and it didn’t quite work? So the ancestors have powers, but limited powers.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: When you write lyrics to songs, do you consider them poems? Do you think of them mostly as the written word or do you think of them as sounds?

Pepper: If I take a song and it’s based on an actual chant, I try to find out what the meaning of the song was and then translate it very, very loosely in my own words, making it as simple as possible, as direct as possible. So, in a way, they are poems. Or I make my own song with a vocable – I call it a “vocable” – chant. And I might have something in mind. Like this song we’re listening to, for instance, which is a Caddo song that was influenced by Baptist missionaries. But they’re Indian words. It’s about the Great Spirit the Baptists call God. You can translate that into a very direct, simple thing like “Let’s try to get it together.” “Witchi Tai To” is an example. It’s a Comanche peyote song, one of many peyote songs that are sung at the time when water is passed around at a peyote meeting. I remember the song from when I was like three years old. My grandfather was always beating his knee and singing it. He was a peyote person for seventy years. But this song was one of the first songs that I ever remembered. When it came time for me to try to use my native music with jazz, this was the first song that I attempted. It was a song about water, so I had to make it simple and direct. You know, “Water spirit feeling springin’ round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead.” It’s pretty simple, and it’s direct.

Smith: So it’s a vision song?

Pepper: It’s a vision song. And it’s my little vision song. I’ve been lucky that a lot of people have heard this song and felt something, gotten some vision out of it.

Smith: You know, the version in the sixties that became popular…

Pepper: I sang the first version with a group named Everything is Everything. That was on the Vanguard label. But Vanguard had never had anything like that happen before. So they were very slow to get it out. Then it was picked up by Brewer and Shipley, and they had success with the song.

Smith: Brewer and Shipley got the air play?

Pepper: Yeah, they got a lot of air play. It was in the top ten or twenty.

Smith: Yeah, it was very popular. I remember the song well.

Pepper: But Vanguard didn’t know how to deal with it. They couldn’t get enough records out. So first it was Everything is Everything, then Brewer and Shipley, then I did a longer version on Atlantic that was played on FM stations. Now it’s being picked up by a lot of jazz players, just as an instrumental.

Smith: That song just seized everybody’s consciousness in the late sixties. Why do you think it was so popular?

Pepper: I’ll never know why. I mean, it got me too the first time I ever heard it, and I was three years old. I changed it around afterwards. But I really don’t know why it was so popular.

Smith: There might be some magic in it.

Pepper: There is definitely some magic in it. I just feel really happy that I was able to help let it happen. I’ve played that song I don’t know how many times and every time it has that feeling. I’ve had children born to this song. The mothers were so fascinated by it, they wanted the song played while their babies were being born.

Smith: It’s a birth song too?

Pepper: I guess it’s become one.

Smith: Were they Native American women?

Pepper: These were like sixties hippies.

Smith: Well, it wasn’t a popular hymn like Clapton’s “Layla” or Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, but it has retained a place every bit as important.

Pepper: It never had mass popularity like the songs you’re talking about, but in the subculture it was very popular.

Smith: There is terrific power in the song. I wonder if everybody knew it was a peyote song. I didn’t know that. I had no idea.

Caren Knight: People just thought it had some interesting words. They always asked Jim what they meant. People come up all over the world and ask “What does this mean?

Pepper: It really has had an effect in Europe. They like it.

Smith: It’s universal. It makes you feel happy in a deep and serious way. It has a powerful influence on you. I wonder if it’s the connection with the peyote experience. If people had known that in the sixties, it would have been twice as popular as it was.

Pepper: Yeah, and there would have been twice as many stoned people.

Smith: Let me go from “Witchi Tai To” to “Comin’ and Goin'” as an album. Why do you think “Comin’ and Goin'” has captured everybody’s consciousness so suddenly? I would guess that that’s your most successful album.

Pepper: I don’t know if it really has captured everybody’s consciousness. I’ve always had a bad time with record companies. When I first made “Comin and Goin'”, I hadn’t made a recording in years. I had taken a break from music for a while, from the whole business. “Comin’ and Goin'” was the first record of my own music that I had made in eleven years. And I made it for a small label in France called Europa. But that was during a time when the dollar was getting stronger, so the company went defunct. But the person who made the record now works for Island and has re-released it.

Smith: That’s how it got to Island Records?

Pepper: Yeah. I’m still going to give them a little more time to see what they’re going to do, but I don’t know if it’s going to go. I’ve seen some advertisements for it, but I’ve never had any statements come back to me on this.

Smith: That’s funny, because people I’ve talked to know about it. For instance, Michael Harper, the poet who lives in Providence, and knows jazz very well, was familiar with it. They all know that album. That’s typically the only one they know, but they all know “Comin’ and Goin'”.

Pepper: Well, that’s good. I hope it gets out there, because I have to make a living too, you know. But I have never seen anything back on this yet. Island wants me to do a sequel, and I have the sequel, but I don’t know who I’m going to give that sequel to. What I’d like to do is raise the money and record it exactly the way I want and then shop it around. But I don’t know if I can get that together or not. The way business has been done with me just hasn’t been to my advantage. I’m surprised sometimes when people know about “Comin’ and Goin'”.

Smith: You’re getting a lot of air play out in our area on a regular jazz station. Now, that may be one guy who likes you a lot and he’s the only one who plays it, but I hear you frequently on that station. So, presuming the awareness you are questioning, why do you think this album appeals to people?

Pepper: They just like the music.

Smith: A cynic might look at this, especially one who thinks that the sixties were bunk, and say that this comes from a different era. They might question its appeal for the eighties.

Pepper: Well, if somebody were to tell me that, I’d say that they were wrong. It was happening in the sixties and it’s happening now. I think it’s the kind of music that will last. It’s not fad music, and I’m not a fad musician. I’m a human being first, then a musician, and that’s my music. Those kind of people are number one, the old middle finger.

Smith: That’s right. Those are not my sentiments at all, as you know, but I deal with that kind of cynicism all the time. In fact, some people suggest that Caliban is a leftover from the sixties. Which is missing the point.

Pepper: Yeah, totally missing the point.

Knight: “Comin’ and Goin'” is special in the sense that the musicians on it are terribly special human beings. And when people play this album, from the first note on, they don’t take it off. That’s what’s special about it: the people on it.

Pepper: The people at Island keep telling me: “Don’t give up any of your Indian music. Give it to us.” They want to have the next Jim Pepper Indian record. Well, one thing they don’t understand is that anything I do is going to have some Indian stuff in it. Anything I do: it’s impossible not to.

Smith: You can only be “Indian” with us?

Pepper: Yeah, it’s crazy. These people are supposed to have some heart.

Smith: I’ve never heard that people on the business end of music had heart.

Pepper: I made a thousand dollars for that record, and I have received nothing since then.

Smith: That’s outrageous. It’s a masterpiece album. Something’s really wrong there.

Knight: We also just found out after years who owns the rights to the song.

Smith: To “Witchi Tai To”? You mean you don’t have the rights to it?

Pepper: No, I mean, I have the writer’s rights, but not the full publishing rights. This all starts back in the days when I was playing with Larry Coryell and a band called The Free Spirits. We had signed a contract with these New York shyster lawyers. That was when Janis Joplin was happening, and all the other bands of that period. The Free Spirits was a New York band made up of Larry Coryell, Bobby Moses, Chip Baker, Chris Hills, and me. It was a good band. So we signed a contract with these people. We were like really young; we didn’t know what was happening. After the band started to get some success, Larry had an offer to go with Gary Burton and left. We were primarily jazz players, but it was like a rock-jazz band. So that band evolved into Everything is Everything. Then I wanted to leave and go out on my own. I had a chance to record for Atlantic. But this old contract made it impossible for me to do anything. I had just written “Witchi Tai To” and a couple of other songs, and they said, “Well, if you give us the publishing rights to that, we’ll let you go.” And that was before it became big, before it was even recorded. So that’s what happened to that song. Then the song became what it is, and these people disappeared. Eventually it was sold to Motown, to Jobete. I just found this out about a year ago.

Smith: Motown? That is not a Motown type of song.

Pepper: They buy them up. The business is like that. The money is in the publishing. They buy up these songs and then just watch them happen. So I still have writer’s share, but it’s not full publishing rights. It was dumb on my part, but at the time I didn’t even know. That happened to a lot of people.

Smith: You said you played with the Fugs too?

Pepper: Yeah, I made a record with the Fugs too: “The Belle of Avenue A.” That was a long time ago. All I would do when I got up there was to go “blaaahhh” on the sax. Just play Albert Ayler. It was bizarre.

Smith: Were you there when the Fugs tried to raise the Pentagon five feet off the ground at the March on the Pentagon in 1967?

Pepper: I just played in their band a few times. I was a Fug, but I wasn’t a Yippie. I was still basically a musician.

Smith: Then you weren’t there at the March on the Pentagon?

Pepper: No, I wasn’t. But I was in the bus when a few strange things happened.

Smith: I’m sure you were all being pretty carefully watched. If you had said, “I’m only a musician,” they would have said, “Sure, sure.” They didn’t make real big distinctions like that in those days, if my memory serves me. That is, when the night stick came down.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: Do you identify with any particular contemporary writers? Native American or otherwise.

Pepper: Well, I read a lot. And I identify with the ones I’m reading. I like Simon Ortiz. And Joy Harjo. I like Andy Hope. And there’s a guy from the Blackfoot reservation, Jim Welch. A lot of it is pretty down, you know. But there’s not any one particular person I totally identify with. Maybe someday I’ll write myself.

Smith: You’ve thought about that? A novel or poetry?

Pepper: I don’t know. It’s just a vague thought in my head now.

Smith: Do you feel there’s a kind of give and take between the literature that you read and the lyrics that you write?

Pepper: No, nothing that I read influences my lyrics. Nothing at all. It depends on the song. The song influences what I write. The music influences the words. And vice versa, too. But there’s no one who influences me as far as lyrics are concerned.

Smith: So, when you write your novel, it’s not going to come out of your music? It’s going to be a totally separate thing?

Pepper: A totally separate thing, yeah.

Smith: We were talking about Thelonius Monk and Jack Kerouac’s idea of bop prosody. Do you think there might be some way Indian music could influence writing? Of course, a lot of Native American writers do try to find a way to bring the music in.

Pepper: Oh, I think it could, if real Indian music would be listened to. I definitely think it could influence writing. Because when you go to an outdoor pow wow, or something like that, music just gets under your skin and it gives you all sorts of thoughts. I think if the music were really heard, it could influence writing. Definitely.

Smith: That’s interesting, because a lot of what we’re talking about here is magic.

Pepper: There’s real magic in Indian music. People are just not aware of it. They’re so steeped in the TV culture, or “Boom boom boom boom.” Tom toms. The stereotypical idea of Indians. That’s not what it is.

Smith: It’s also the communal experience, which most people have not had. Everybody always laughs about the sixties, but one thing everyone seems to forget is those big rock concerts – excluding Altamont and the bad ones – where everyone was sharing everything and basically feeling very mellow and getting into it. It was a communal thing.

Pepper: That’s what a pow wow is.

Smith: Yeah, they were pow wows. They were communal experiences and they made people feel a lot of solidarity with each other. They stuck up for each other. It took away your selfishness, certainly for a period of time. It seems like a joke to people now, because greed is such a virtue in contemporary society.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: Real blues has magic too. That same kind of magic.

Pepper: Well, music has magic. I listened to some oom pah pah music in Europe, and I liked it. Of course, not a steady dose of it. I can hear it and it gives me a certain feeling.

Smith: But people resist the idea that there are special powers in blues music. My students typically think I’m crazy when I tell them that blues is happy music. You know, it wires you up, makes you feel more energetic; it doesn’t make you feel down. The same thing is true with “Witchi Tai To”. It wires you up, it makes you so happy you feel as if you could jump out of your skin. There’s nothing down about it.

Pepper: That’s right.

Smith: You said a while ago that a lot of Native American work you’ve been reading is real down stuff, but you music is mostly real up stuff.

Pepper: Yeah, I mean I’m generally an up person anyway. For me, the music has got to bring you up. But you’ve also got that tinge of sadness with it, which is the real human element.

Smith: Like “Lakota Song”? That’s a very sad song.

Pepper: You know, that song is supposed to be a happy song.

Smith: It’s hard to tell, because we only hear the Lakota language. Why didn’t you translate it?

Pepper: I don’t know why I didn’t. People ask me about this song all the time. It’s a love story that says when you go away, you must come back and you must think about me. Send something back. Something of yours must come back. When you get on your white horse and ride off into the sunset, either you come back or send your horse back. Something like that.

Smith: That’s a little bit sad. It has an ominous quality.

Pepper: There’s always a little bit of humor in these songs.

Smith: Oh, I see.

Knight: The rejoicing in the coming back. That’s the happy part.

Pepper: The original song, sung the Lakota way, is light and happy, and a bit more up tempo, but I felt it a different way.

Knight: When people hear it they always have tears in their eyes. Every time we perform it in Europe, the audience just gets choked up.

Pepper: Usually the song gets sung by a woman, but I sang it on my Enja record, “Dakota Song”. After we get through, I’ll play that version for you. But I want to play you my new record. I made this record for a small label in Austria, because I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to do anything like this over here. It’s more commercial and it’s real tongue-in-cheek. But I play some jazz on it, straight ahead stuff too. I do a version of a song that was popular in the fifties called “Running Bear”.

Smith: Yeah, I remember “Running Bear”. That’s a surprise.

Pepper: I redid it. I love it.

Smith: “Running Bear” was a joke song, even in the fifties, wasn’t it? Kind of tongue-in-cheek.

Pepper: It was like the Indian Romeo and Juliet. Ooogah, ooogah. Wooo wooo wooo. But I love it.

Smith: Who were the musicians that most influenced the development of your style and music?

Pepper: Well, I never played music in school. I was the kind of guy who’d be throwing rocks at the band as it went by. But I was a dancer. I used to dance at pow wows when I was real young. I tap-danced too. The tap-dancing brought me into contact with some decent music. Then I used to listen to the radio in Portland, this Salt Lake City jazz station. As soon as I heard Sonny Rollins, it caught my ear. I listened to him a lot. And Charlie Parker, later on Coltrane. Then I went through a whole self-education thing with musicians like Dave Brubeck, Shelly Mann – the West Coast style. But I was always drawn more by the hard bop school: Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Miles Davis. A friend of mine had a saxophone lying around, and the next thing I knew I had it. For some reason it was very easy for me to learn. It was a natural for me. I picked up my musical knowledge from older musicians I had known. Later on, when I started to get some skill with it, I moved to New York. One of my first big influences here, for my head and for direction in music, was Ornette Coleman. Don Cherry, too. I became very close to both of them. They really helped me and encouraged me, especially Ornette. He told me I should try to use my background, my ethnic cultural background in my music. He and Don could hear some of it already, just in my tone. I really started to think about that, you know. And “Witchi Tai To” was the first attempt to follow their advice. There have been so many musicians who have influenced me. Saxophone players, trumpet players, piano players. Monk. I love Monk. I play a lot of Monk. Now I’m having an opportunity to play with Mal Waldron. He’s probably the closest living thing to Monk. As a matter of fact, I just did a duo album with him on Enja. It’s going to be out in December. We play a lot of Monk. You know, the jazz music of the sixties was really powerful, compared to now. I think that most of the stuff I hear in the avant-garde now is shit. I really can’t hear Anthony Braxton, for instance. I think he’s just some weak bullshit, compared to what I heard in the sixties with people like Giuseppe Logan, Marion Brown, Albert Ayler. Number one: Albert Ayler. Number one, Albert Ayler; number two, Albert Ayler; number three, Albert Ayler; number four, Albert Ayler. What Trane was developing into, what Pharaoh Sanders was getting into was so much more real for me than what I hear now, although there are some people in Europe who are fantastic. For instance, there is a saxophone player named Peter Brotsmann from Germany. But there’s something about the American thing that came from the sixties. It was just so real, so fantastic, that the rest seems watered down. It’s like American coffee compared to espresso.

Smith: That’s a good analogy. I grew up listening to the jazz musicians of the fifties and early sixties. I used to go to the Five Spot and listen to Monk and Mingus. Mingus was my hero. Both of them were. But that was a different era. Nothing like that has existed since. And that’s not nostalgia, that’s just fact.

Pepper: That’s right. Even the bebop they played then was just stronger than what you have now with Winton Marsalis and those slick cats.

Smith: Slick was just the word I was thinking of. But slick is big, slick is what sells now. In the late fifties and early sixties the word “soul” was used to describe people like Cannonball Adderley and Les McCann. Later what was called “soul” music was Motown music. But there was soul jazz that had solid gospel roots. These guys were good musicians, they could be “slick” if they wanted to be, but what “soul” meant was that there was magic in their music. You couldn’t sit still and not be moved by it, unless you were an idiot.

Pepper: Cannonball Adderley’s band, when he was really hitting, compared to a band like Weather Report – that’s the difference between espresso and American coffee.

Knight: There’s something more important here than calling Winton slick. This new thing is more of a socio-economic and political statement. These new musicians are role models that encourage the young black kids to be clean and to be straight. The record companies love to promote these clean, slick acts, as opposed to what was happening before.

Smith: Yeah, this is Yuppie music.

Pepper: Yeah, but this image stuff doesn’t have anything to do with the music. It has nothing to do with the music.

Smith: It’s Yuppie music because the people who are buying those albums are Yuppies. I mean, that’s their ethic. That’s what they’re interested in. They’re not interested in the same voice or message that the sixties had, or the late fifties had: the counterculture. Going back to what we were asking about earlier, you could argue that the counterculture was characterized by an attempt to reach back to Native American culture to try to find roots. People were dissatisfied with what they were told their roots were, and they said, “These can’t be my roots, I want to find some other ones. There’s got to be something else there.”

Pepper: There’s got to be something more natural.

Smith: Yeah, something real.

Pepper: Well, thank God I can go to Europe and work. And I play what I want to play the way I want to play it. I wish I could do it here in the United States. Every now and then I can do it. But, being an Indian, for me to have to go so far away to work is really sad. Now I’m headed for Japan. That’s the next step for me now.

Smith: But wasn’t that also true in the thirties, the forties, and the fifties? Unfortunately, that’s not a new story.

Pepper: Right, it’s not a new story. Well, if they want it that way, that’s ok with me. I like to travel. I love it.

Smith: You could always talk about the prophet in his own land. On the other hand, it is unusual for a culture to reject so totally – as you said – the only original thing it’s produced: jazz and blues. We have to keep getting it back from them. The British rock ‘n’ rollers had to remind Americans where rock ‘n’ roll came from: black music. That’s really kind of pathetic.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: Obviously it has something to do with cultural racism.

Pepper: That has a lot to do with it. For sure.

Smith: And the idea that the only true culture is Anglo culture. All the rest of it is picturesque stuff that you show to tourists, but it doesn’t really count for much. Certainly the Italians have a strong interest in Native American culture.

Pepper: That’s good. I’m glad to hear that.

Smith: Pretty serious, too, I think. Of course, the Italians are the most political people in Europe.

Pepper: And they have the best food. The French say they’ve got the best food. Wrong! The Italians have the best food, French wine is number one, Italian wine is a close second. Something about the sun helps too.

Smith: You can go outside occasionally in Italy. Of course, the English – for all we make of Anglo culture – were always in a rush to get down to Italy and get some sunshine. They liked living there too.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: In your dedication to “Comin’ and Goin'”, you speak of your grandfather, Ralph Pepper, giving you stories, and a knowledge of your heritage. Can you name some of the stories?

Pepper: I can name a lot stories, but they’re all stories about family. You know, what might have happened to my uncle in a certain situation a long time ago. Stories about drunk Indians, stories about happy Indians. Family.

Smith: He wasn’t telling you Trickster stories and things like that, the legends?

Pepper: No, I learned those from some other people and books. But just the real thing, the real ground, dirt stories about family. Stories about my great grandfather. A story about how we got our name. It’s an incredible story. You know, Indians weren’t born with a name like “Pepper”, yet I come from full-bloods. My great-grandfather was a big man, a big tall strong cat. Big Indian. And he didn’t speak any English. The government had already put them on reservations in Oklahoma – back when it was Indian territory. So they got him and a few other people and took them to Washington, D.C., to sign away a lot of land. They duped them. When it came time to make their X, their mark, to sign away these vast amounts of land, they had a choice of their name. I have the same name he does, Hung-a-chee-eda, which means Flying Eagle. That name could have been phonetically written out, or he could have had a translation of his name, or a name of his choice. His favorite taste was this whiskey, James Pepper whiskey. So he named himself after whiskey, which is a bittersweet story. You can still get that whiskey down in Colorado and Texas. It’s a small company. I saw a bottle one time in a bar and tried to buy it, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. Those were the kinds of stories my grandfather told me. He never sat there and said the Great Spirit formed this or that from an eagle turd. None of that shit.

Smith: That’s only in books?

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: He also gave you a sense of continuity that a lot of people don’t have, the feeling that you’re still a part of what happened a hundred years ago.

Pepper: I was really lucky in that my parents, both of them, kept that going. They were the first ones in my family to move out of the reservation. My mother went to college. My father stayed in the BIA. That’s how they got out of Oklahoma to Oregon. So they assimilated but they never lost that ground, root feeling, which was good for me. I don’t know if I would have been playing if I had stayed on the reservation. Of course the reservation life is bad, but sometimes it’s even worse when you get to the city. Indians are so ostracized. And too many things are available there. In Alaska the kids are sniffing gasoline at eleven. They watch TV, even when they’re out in places like Yakutat. They see all this blond-haired stuff, everything they’re not. When they look in the mirror, they just can’t handle it. So immediately they go down. And the whole divide and conquer syndrome has been so beat into the situation for so many years that it’s hard for the Indians to come together. There is so much animosity from within, against each other. I mean, I feel political, but I’m not political out there like, “Give us our land back.” The only way I can beat it is through the music. It’s the only way that I can express something that’s positive.

Smith: There may be a more lasting contribution, after all, than political activity, which seems to be very ephemeral. It just seems to disappear.

Pepper: I’ll support something if I feel strong about it. I used to do work for AIM, but I saw the money go to the wrong places. They were running me around. I felt like it just wasn’t going anyplace. But music is a strong thing. If I can keep getting out the Indian music, it helps, number one, to keep me together, but if it can help some Indian kids to know that there is somebody out there who is doing something in a positive way, that means a lot to me. Of course, I’m still trying to make a buck, too.

Smith: You’ve got to live. It’s not asking too much to have some money coming back if you’re doing fantastic work like you’re doing. You’re not trying to become a millionaire.

Pepper: No.

Hagley: Are there a lot of Native Americans in New York?

Pepper: Yeah, there are a lot of them here, but I never see them. They’re a different type than, say, back in Montana. A lot of them are mixed with black people here. Shinacock. Mohawk and Iroquois. I don’t know these people. Well, I know a few of them, but they are so different from Plains Indians, like the people I knew back in Oklahoma or Oregon. The people here in New York are like Chinese to me. I don’t understand them, but I know that they’re out there.

Smith: Of course, if the truth were known, a whole lot of folks have Indian blood. For instance, almost all hill people, whether they admit to it or not, have Indian blood. But I’m not sure that genes make that much difference. It’s the way you think and the way you live.

Pepper: There are a lot of people out there with mixed blood. Don Cherry has a lot of Indian blood in him, Choctaw.

Smith: Charlie Parker’s mother was part Choctaw.

Pepper: Yeah, there’s a lot of mixed blood. There’s a good book I saw but I haven’t read, called Black Indians. As a matter of fact, where I saw the book was in Vienna.

Smith: It’s a German book?

Pepper: No, it’s an American book, but I saw the book there. It was translated into German.

Smith: Well, there are the black Indians in New Orleans.

Pepper: Chopatoolas. I love them. Do you like their music? “I’m a wild Chopatoola…”

Smith: They really do have legitimate connections to Indians, don’t they?

Pepper: Yeah, they’re part Creek.

Smith: But they’re not accepted by Indians as legitimate.

Pepper: That’s a very sore subject with some Indians. There’s a lot of prejudice among Native Americans. Against other Indians and against different races. Then there’s this business of “Oh yeah, my great-grandmother was a Cherokee. She had hair past her ass.” I’ve heard that story from almost every black cat I know. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because I’m an open person. But I guess the Indians are trying to use blood to establish a pecking order. People who are down try to find other people who are even further down. And that’s just bullshit.

Smith: It has always occurred to me that acknowledging the blood connections might be a positive first step in a country where you’re either black or white or Indian or Asian, and there’s no word for anybody who is in between. It’s a simple denial of history.

Pepper: Yeah.

Smith: If we quit denying history, maybe we could change things a little. Maybe not, I don’t know. My children, for instance, are half Asian-American, and half whatever I am. When they fill out a form they have to make their minds up; they are either Asian or Caucasian. You know, you pays your money and you takes your choice. There’s nothing that says “mixed” or any other alternative. The thing is that most of us fall somewhere in the middle. It seems to me that in Latin American countries – in Brazil, for instance – they have a whole bunch of different names for different combinations. So at least they acknowledge history.

Hagley: The darker you are, the farther down on the social scale, until you get to the Indians, and they’re the lowest.

Pepper: Yeah, the Indians are the real niggers down there.

Hagley: It goes from where you’re pure Spanish.

Pepper: Castilian.

Hagley: Then it works its way down, depending on how much Indian blood you have. But the funny thing is that the people who consider themselves Spanish will use all these Indian words. When I was learning Spanish there, I’d say, “Well, now, isn’t that an Indian word?” And they’d say, “Oh no, that’s not an Indian word.”

Pepper: It’s crazy.

Smith: On the other hand, even though this kind of distinction can be misused to establish a pecking order, we won’t have any chance to embrace our own true history unless we acknowledge our mixed blood.

Pepper: That’s right. In the U.S., they want to change history. They want to forget it.

Knight: Some tribes, like the Creeks down in the South, are keeping it together.

Pepper: Yeah, down in the Everglades. There are the Miccasukee and the Seminole, and then there’s the kind that I am, which is a Muskogee. They were the ones who went to Oklahoma. The people who stayed in the Everglades are real tough. They were never beaten. They really have kept their society closed. Creek is their first language.

Smith: It’s not an easy thing to figure out what is best. However, as you say, assimilation is a fact. With a few exceptions, like people in the Everglades, assimilation is a fact.

Pepper: Yeah, those guys are tough sons of a gun.

* * *

A note to readers — and to Caliban Magazine:

I don’t want this Web site to be about “stealing” material, but as far as I could tell from my research, it would appear the Caliban is no longer in existence. But I felt it right to credit them for the interview and to give other researchers the details to find it in whatever archives they access. If Caliban is still alive and well, or if the former editors are reading this, please forgive me for publishing this here without your prior approval. And please consider this a request for such. Any question, please feel free to contact me directly at . Thank you!

– Bill




Written by Bill Siegel

February 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hello Bill!

    Thank you very much for “publishing” this interview! A great possibility to read/hear Jim Pepper in OV!

    btw, the questions were asked by the editor of Caliban, Lawrence R. Smith, and his assistant editor, Doug Hagley.

    (1988) Contact information: P.O. Box 4321; Ann Arbor MI 48106

    Greetings from Vienna – Manfred!

    Manfred Hamal

    March 22, 2008 at 8:26 am

    • Manfred! Melde Dich bitte. Ich habe News aus Portland. Herzliche Grüsse aus dem Tessin. See you now! adrian

      Adrian Linder

      January 16, 2014 at 9:24 am

  2. […] head so I had to find out what it was. An interview with Jim Pepper here…Quite interesting… Caliban Magazine (1988) The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original Don't follow me…. I'm lost […]

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