The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

“Jim Pepper: Indian on the Jazz Path” (by Michael Zwerin)

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by Michael Zwerinpepper051.jpg

[excerpts from International Herald Tribune article and liner notes to Comin’ and Goin’, Antilles/New Directions CD 7 90680-2; original publication date unknown, c. 1984-85]


PARIS — Jim Pepper’s new album, Comin’ and Goin’, includes a Creek stomp, a Kaw peyote chant, a Sioux greeting song and “Squaw Song”, written by his father. Supported by names such as Don Cherry, John Scofield, Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott, Pepper sings the title song, which includes the word Hung-a-che-eda (Flying Eagle), his Indian name.

Collin Walcott & Ravi ShankarAs a full-blooded Native American jazz musician, Pepper gets to field such lines as “Everythin’ cool, Kim-o-sabe?” Cool enough. He can handle it. Anyway he asked for it with an out-front attempt to give contemporary form to the music of his ancestors.

“I’m Creek on my mother’s side, Kaw on my fathers. They raised me urban,” he began, removing the aluminum foil headband and feather and wiping off war paint after posing for publicity photos last week. “But they also gave me a strong sense of pride in my culture. My father was a champion war dancer in Oklahoma in his youth.”sonny rollins

A rough and tumble 42, Pepper speaks as he sings and plays saxophone, with push, humor and a big bottom. “My grandfather used to chant in the Peyote language. My parents [his mother was a psychologist, his father a baker] moved to Portland, Oregon, but I came back to Oklahoma every summer and made pocket money chanting and war dancing. There’s like a pow-wow circuit. Then I heard Sonny Rollins on the radio.”

Most jazz musicians sooner or later feel the need to prove they can survive in New York where Pepper moved in 1964. Getting his “bop chops together”, he jammed and became friends with Larry Coryell, Randy Brecker, Bob Moses, Dave Liebman and other hot young lions of the day. He worked with Coryell’s jazz-rock group Free Spirits, with Charlie Haden‘s Liberation Music Orchestra, with Paul Motian‘s quartet. His own album, Pepper’s Pow Wow, produced by Herbie Mann for ABC, had “a fair amount of success” and his first singing effort, “Witchi Tai To”, an update of a Comanche song he used to hear his grandfather sing, became a To-40 hit in 1968. (The Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek still includes it in his repertoire.)

When he met the trumpeter Don Cherry, who is part Choctaw, he had another “skin” to blow with. “Indians say ‘skin’ like blacks use ‘brother’. I was always looking for Indians who can play jazz. Hey, we’re a really small minority.”

ornette.jpgOrnette Coleman was very encouraging. “My being an Indian really interested him. Ornette’s playing reminds me of Plains Indian music.”

In 1971 he left New York “for six months and stayed away for 11 years.” He taught school in Portland, worked odd gigs with bands in the Northwest and fished for a living in Alaska, where he began to do social work with Indian children.

“Alaskan Indians have retained more of their own culture than tribes in the lower 48, mostly because of their large number in relation to the total population. But their social situation is very bad, there’s a high suicide rate, kids drink and sniff glue. I told them how fantastic it is to be an Indian.”

“You can’t generalize about Indian music, it’s too diverse. I’m specifically interested in the music of the Plains Indians, my people. It consists of rhythm and melody, no harmony. It’s basically vocal with bells, turtle shells, deer hooves, rattles and so on. The Ponca Indians are my favorite, their music is pentatonic, almost Japanese sometimes. Escaped slaves went to hide and live with tribes like the Cherokees and Choctaws, who were located in the slave belt. You can hear the African influence in their music, call and response form for example.”cherry1.jpg

In Portland in 1979, Pepper got a call from Don Cherry, who exclaimed: “Man, I finally found you.’ve been looking for you for years.” They began to work together, toured West Africa together for the U.S. Information Service in 1982. Working with Cherry “gave me a lot of credibility in New York” and, making up his mind to pay the psychic price, he moved back there. He met Jean-Pierre Weiller, a young French producer who had just set up a small, independent American label called Europa Records that would treat artists with respect.

Comin’ and Goin’ has not gone very far very fast commercially, but Pepper is patient. “I’m creating my own music,” he says. “I’ve got a shot at creating my own destiny.”


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Written by Bill Siegel

March 9, 2008 at 3:00 am

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