Born: 1941 | Died: 1992 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Jim Pepper, the son of a Creek Indian mother and Kaw father, grew up surrounded by the songs and dances of the intertribal powwow circuit. He learned Native American Church peyote chants and other songs from his father, Gilbert Pepper, and grandfather, Ralph Pepper. Originally from Oklahoma, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was born - although he spent many summers back in Oklahoma with his grandfather's family. In the mid-1960s, he left home to make a name for himself in New York - which he did by exploding onto the scene with what may very well have been the first jazz-rock fusion band, Free Spirits.
That early, innovative group - with Bob Moses on drums, Larry Coryell and Columbus Baker on guitars, and Chris Hill on vocals and bass, along with Pepper on saxophone - recorded their first album, Out of Sight and Sound, for Rudy Van Gelder at ABC/Paramount in 1967. Following that, in the late 1960s, Pepper played in the Everything is Everything band, and his composition, Witchi Tai To - his most well known song - soon became the band's signature piece. Those early bands gained a reputation in the rock-and-roll clubs for starting their sets with 20-minute long, unaccompanied sax solos from Pepper, something rock audiences had never heard before. Witchi Tai To, based on a ritual chant he learned from his grandfather, was a major crossover hit on jazz and popular Top 40 lists around the world, and has been covered by countless pop and world music musicians.
Pepper was encouraged by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman to dig deeper into his Native music and incorporate it into his jazz playing and composition (Cherry was well known for encouraging musicians around the world to look to their own indigenous music for inspiration). Pepper's first album under his own name, Pepper's Pow Wow, was released in 1971 on Herbie Mann's Embryo label, and includes his father, Gil Pepper. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pepper recorded with a vast range of jazz greats, including Cherry, Bill Frissell, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, Ed Schuller, John Scofield, Mal Waldron, and many others. On tour with Cherry, he enjoyed a particularly warm reception from African audiences who applauded his unique blend of Native American music and jazz. According to Cherry, The response in Africa was tremendous when Jim would play one of the pow wow pieces he had written... They realized that here was something truly American.
Not much has been written about the Native American musical contribution to the development of early jazz. But it's there - and you don't have to dig too deep to find it. Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek poet and musician, who studied with Pepper, says that Creeks had something to do with the origins of jazz. After all, when the African peoples were forced here for slavery they were brought to the traditional lands of the Muscogee peoples. Of course there was interaction between Africans and Muscogees!
A modern form of that interaction can be found now in the music of people like Jim Pepper, who based some of his pieces on traditional stomp dances, as well as on Native versions of Baptist hymns, in addition to the ritual chants of his grandfather.
Pepper's 1983 album, Comin' and Goin' (Island Records), features Cherry, Scofield, Frisell, Schuller, Nana Vasconcelos, Collin Walcott, and others from both jazz and the nascent world music genre. At the center of this cleanly produced and meticulously performed recording, was Pepper's soulful saxophone - a combination of gritty R&B, Coltrane-esque wails, plaintive chants, and earthy humor.
Drummer Reuben Hoch of the Chassidic Jazz Project (who had formed the group West End Avenue with Pepper in the 1980s), calls Pepper's sound absolutely unique... ridiculously fat and beautiful. Alaskan drummer Ron Thorne recalls that he also had this real, pure R&B side to him that few people knew about. A real, nasty, dirty, funky side. Recalling gigs in Alaskan dance clubs during the pipeline-fueled boom times, Thorne says of Pepper's band: They'd sneak in some straight-ahead jazz tunes and some fusion-oriented material whenever possible... damn, they were funky too!
But at the base of it all, there was always Pepper's sense of commitment to the power of music and to its message. The emotion most prevalent in his music, says mother Floy Pepper, is intense spirituality.
He spent most of his final years living and performing in Austria, where he was wildly popular. According to Hoch, they loved him in Austria... loved him. He never got that kind of recognition here. It's too bad... more people should know about him, they should know his music. Thorne remembers that Pepper complained bitterly about America's lack of support for jazz. That's why he went to Europe. It's a typical story - they've made movies about it, written books about it, how jazz musicians had to leave America. His mother has said that he did not find respect and acceptance of his music in America - but he did find it in Europe, where he was respected as a person and as a jazz musician. There he found peace.
Jim Pepper was posthumously granted the Lifetime Musical Achievement Award by First Americans in the Arts (FAITA) in 1999, and in 2000 he was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame at the 7th Annual NAMMY Awards ceremony. In 2005, the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Insititute and the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission named Pepper Jazz Musician of the Year at the Portland Jazz Festival.