The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

Jazz & Pop Magazine (1968)

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The following is excerpted from a real treasure: A 1968 interview with a 27-year old Jim Pepper, shortly after the release of the Free Spirits’ “Out of Sight and Sound” album. (With many thanks to Manfred Hamal, of Austria)

(Jazz & Pop Magazine, April 1968)

Don Heckman: Can we talk about your Indian background? Can you tell me about that?

Jim Pepper: Well, I don’t really want to get into it, you know, like that, except if you want to talk about the tune Witchi Tai Ta [sic]…

Don: Yeah, Where’d it come from?

ralphjim.jpgJim: Well, it’s what I remember from my childhood. I was very close with my grandfather; he’s a very religious person, and he sings a lot. He’s very musical. He sings and plays drums. He has this little drum. And Witchi Tai Ta is a song that I remember him singing from my childhood. The way I do it is not altogether the way he did it. It’s changed quite a bit, but the basic essence is there, and I’ve gone into Indian music pretty much. I have a few recordings of various Peyote musics, social songs and war dance songs, and that’s really quite interesting music.

Don: Did you have to change the meter?

Jim: When I thought about using it for a song, the way I sang it the first time is the way it stayed. I believe that the melody is in an eight-bar phrase, but the harmony part of the song is a seven-bar phrase, so it keeps overlapping. [For] future songs I’ll try to stick with the way that the Indians did them, and change the meter. You have to think of it as one, one, one, one. And if you think in 4/4 or 5/4, you/ll just get turned around.

Don: There’s no time marking at all.

Jim: No time marking, no. I’ve never seen any of the music written down, either. As far as I know, it isn’t written. It’s just, you know, handed down.

Don: Does it tend to use the pentatonic scales or …

Jim: It tends to use the pentatonic scales, but it’s not restricted to that. There are a lot of quarter-tones used. It depends on the song. Like a Peyote song is liable to go anyplace – slurs, glissandos…not necessarily going back to a note in the set scale. And the beat turns around, too. The beat turns around completely. [T]he music reminds me a lot of…say, some of Don Cherry’s lines. I don’t think he thinks in terms of one, two, three, four.

Don: Yeah, ’cause he doesn’t feel that he has to add extra beats at the end of a phrase to end it right.

Jim: Right, right.

Don: …like you breathe and like at the end of a breath.

Jim: That’s it, yeah. Then you’re off. Yeah.

Don: Peyote song, that would be a religious song, wouldn’t it?

Jim: Sure. And war dance songs, war dance music, is religious also. They’re actually prayers, asking for strength and…a successful trip.

Don: It sounds like it would be a groovy idea for an album.

Jim: Yeah, it would be. I’ve thought about that, about doing a whole album. It would take me a good few months to get it down, because it’s rather difficuIt music.

Don: Was there any other Indian cultural aspect to your environment when you were growing up?

Jim: Well, both of my folks are Indian. My father is a Kaw and my mother is Creek, and they both taught in the Indian service when I was very young. But then they got out into the world, and they’ve kept me up as much as they know of the Indian tradition. I really don’t know as much as I’d like to know, and I hope in the next few years to find out more about it. But it’s very difficult to find out about traditional things about the Indians, because it’s really almost all word-of-mouth, and the old Indians pretty much figure that it’s going to die out when they die. That’s pretty much the end.

Don: There’s a lot of political activism now among some of the young…

Jim: From what I read in the East Village Other and places like that, there is. But those are Indians like the… you know, Sioux Indians, the Ute Indians, I’m not familiar with them. I’m familiar with just my immediate tribes.

Don: Were the Kaws and the Creeks in Oregon?

Jim: No, they were put on reservations in Oklahoma. That’s where my family comes from, is Oklahoma. They migrated to Oregon.

Don: You were born in Oregon, though.

Jim: I was born in Oregon, yeah. I went to school there, high school in Oregon, college several places: Portland State, San Francisco State College, college in Utah.

Don: You studied English… But not music.

Jim: No. All the music I’ve learned I’ve picked up, just from an avid interest. I started out playing the aIto saxophone, just for a year, and then I went to the tenor. I heard Sonny Rollins and he really turned me around. So I started out playing jazz, but I’ve never studied any music. I’ve been very fortunate to be with good musicians, you know, like some of it’s rubbed off on me, which is good.

Don: What kind of playing did you do, like in your teens? Were you doing the usual kind of bands?

Jim: I was playing with friends, sessions, trying to play jazz tunes, and that’s pretty much all the playing that I’ve done. I’ve never really worked steady, you know, as a musician, until just the last couple of years, really, because either there wasn’t any work available, or the work that was available, I didn’t want to do.

Don: That can be an advantage, actually. Just play pretty much what you want to play.

Jim: I’ve always played pretty much what I wanted to play. I’ve always made my living other ways.

Don: When did you leave for New York?

Jim: Let’s see…maybe the interesting part would be I came to New York in 1964 and I lived here for just about four years, and then just recently I spent seven months back in my own town of Portland, Oregon, working there, and now I’m back here. Things have seemed to open up a bit so now I can play and work.spirits1.jpg

Don: How do you feel about playing…I mean, well, obviously you must dig it… playing with a rock group?

Jim: It’s limited, in a sense. First of all, I like playing Chris HilI’s music; I have been with him more or less from the start, when he first started to develop an interest for rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ve always liked his music. So that’s quite a thing right there, quite a help in playing the music. I understand it and I can pretty much play whatever I want to play, just lay it out. So it’s not like playing jazz, but it’s not like playing in a regimented rock group, either. Most of the horns that I’ve heard in rock music sound…well, I wouldn’t want to play like that. You know, I would…personally wouldn’t do it.

Don: Do you find that the social environment of a rock group is different from the social environment of a jazz group?

Jim: I’ve been fortunate in the last couple of years, like every band that I’ve been part of has been all good friends of mine, and the rock group that I’m in now… it’s just the same as a jazz group, as far as I’m concerned. Jazz musicians, I think, especially the younger jazz musicians, are changing quite a bit. There are not as many games being played as there were.

Don: I’ve had the impression that a lot of times jazz players are not as tight socially as some of the rock bands tend to be. I know a lot of jazz players who may spend some time hanging out with the other guys in the band, but it’s more likely they won’t.

Jim: Yeah. My personal experiences have only been with friends, so I really don’t know. I haven’t been out in the jazz scene at large, like playing with a whole lot of people, so I really don’t know. It doesn’t work that way anymore, I don’t think.

Don: What happened with the Free Spirits? Why do you think the group broke up?

Jim: There were various contractual difficulties and personnel… deficiencies. Just didn’t work out, and the music didn’t really go over to the people. It scared a lot of people, they didn’t understand what was happening.

Don: Was the original concept of the group that it would be more a jazz group or it would be a rock group?

Jim: Oh, I don’t think we ever reaIly talked about what we wanted to do. That was one of the problems. We had a few songs, and we did them; we made a record very fast, before we performed in public or played for any dancing. So it was quite a bit of chaos. The people were Larry Coryell, myself, Chris Hill, Chip Baker, and Bob Moses. There was just the one record.

Don: Do you think if you hadn’t had the contractual problems that the group might have stayed together? Or continued…

Jim: It’s hard to say. Knowing everybody’s personality, I don’t think it would have stayed together, because we were aIl young and really stretching out and it wasn’t the time for us all to be hung together. Everybody was stretching; Larry had his things to do and Bob had his things to do. I had my things and Chris had his. And it’s very unfair to have everybody stick together when they should be growing.

Don: How much time was it between when the Free Spirits folded up for good and when Everything is Everything got together?

Jim: It was about a year. Actually, we never did much as the Free Spirits. It was really a poor band, if there ever was one. Everything Is Everything was an arbitrary name that we picked when contract difficulties got so bad… we finished this record and contracts were so bad that we had to have another name for this record to come out. We’ve never performed as Everything Is Everything. As a matter of fact, we haven’t performed in quite some time, but we’re ready, we’re ready. We just haven’t had the work or the right management.

everythingis.jpgDon: When Everything Is Everything began to get together, was more of a conscious effort made to be rock or to decide that it will be jazz?

Jim: Oh, yeah. Yeah, there was more of a conscious decision that we wanted to make a rock effort and a commercial effort: you know, to really get with the people and everything. And to make money. More so with Everything Is Everything than with the Free Spirits. For awhile, the Free Spirits performed with just Bob Moses, Chris and myself, and then we would do a couple of jazz tunes, or I mean rock tunes in a very jazzy way, and then we would do a lot of free music, where we’d play for half an hour, an hour. And that was more jazz, and the people liked that. I mean, we felt happy about it, but it just couldn’t last, you know.

Don: What about all the talk about a jazz-rock synthesis? You’re one of the people that are always mentioned whenever anyone talks about tying the whole thing together.

Jim: Well, I really don’t have much to say about that. It’s just that there’s quite a bit of difference between rock and jazz and it’s very hard to mix the two. It’s really a side-by-side type of proposition.

Don: I’ve noticed even with say, Blood, Sweat and Tears, that they’ll do pretty much of a straight rhythm-and-blues tune…

Jim: A lot of bands will play rhythm-and-blues and pass it off as jazz. But there’s quite a bit of difference. I mean, what we’re playing isn’t jazz. I wouldn’t call it jazz. I’d call it rock ‘n’ roll, but I wouldn’t really call it… I don’t know what you would call it, really. But it definitely isn’t jazz.

Don: Hey, what about this whole black-and-white thing, especially as far as playing blues is concerned? Have you got anything to say about that?

Jim: Oh, I can have the blues just as well as any black, green or purple person, and I can play them, too, you know. I really don’t believe that just black people can play the blues or have a right to play the blues, or I don’t even know if they even discovered the blues. I hear a lot of blues in Indian music, or just any kind of music: in Eastern Indian music, American Indian music, and I’m sure there are many other kinds of music that utilize blues, too. I really haven’t had much trouble with black-and-white. Maybe being Indian or being darker than anybody else.

Don: Are you going to be able to do both? Jazz and rock?

pepper02schwerin-copy.jpgJim: I’m going to try to do both, as much as the schedule will permit, you know. Like I plan on playing with Larry. I don’t think he’s too interested in playing straight rock ‘n’ roll; and I’m going to play with Everything Is Everything, and there’s time for both, actually. And you never know what’ll happen six months from now, you know. But jazz music is my love, you know. That’s what I really would like to play. Yeah.

Don: Are you going to stay here in New York?

Jim: Yeah, Most likely. Most likely.

Don: Is the band going to work out of New York?

Jim: I don’t think we’ll be able to work with Everything Is Everything until the last part of March and April. That’s when we more or less planned on starting things. Where the most concentration of gigs will be, I don’t know. But for now, everybody in the band likes where they’re living, in Portland, Oregon. It’s a perfect atmosphere for living and playing. And that’s where everybody is, except for me. I just left there.

Don: At 27, do you think you’re about over the hill as a rock player? Or getting close to it?

Jim: That might very well be the case, but I know a lot of 27-year-old rock musicians, or people that would like to get into rock.

Don: Let me ask you the standard question. Where do you think jazz is going to go?

Jim: It seems like it’s just about ready to just roll over for the third time and die. But that’s hard to say. The rock music may help it out some, but the musicians themselves in their performance will really have to help. Maybe the younger musicians; if the older musicians move over, then something else will happen. I don’t think that people like to go to clubs and see Brooks Brothers suits anymore. Those days are gone, I think.

Don: I suddenly got a shocking realization that 90% of the jazz audience is probably pushing 40. And I thought, “Wow, what’s happened to jazz?”

Jim: Well, they’re going to have to reach the young people, that?s all there is to it now, because that other thing is where it’s at for something to survive.

Don: Does it seem promising to you? Jazz is where your commitment lies, really, and what… what kind of future do you see for yourself now?

Jim: I can envision people turning out to hear music, if it’s presented right, you know. And that’s about it. That’s all I have to say about it.

# # #

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Written by Bill Siegel

February 27, 2008 at 3:58 pm

One Response

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  1. I’ve been looking for this exact info on this subject for a while.

    Touch Up Kit

    January 29, 2010 at 5:11 am


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