He has been gone for fifteen years, but interest in the American Indian tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper seems to be building. Pepper’s music, full of vigor and allusions to his cultural background, has received attention akin to cultism in parts of Europe and seems headed toward at least a modest revival in the US. (See this January Rifftides piece.) In Portland, Oregon, Pepper’s home town, the journalist and historian Jack Berry produced for Oregon Public Broadcasting a mini-documentary about Pepper and wrote an article for the Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society. Here is a section of the article.
During the 1970s, at the height of the Black Power movement, a phenomenon called Crow Jim materialized. Some major black jazz musicians began insisting on an exclusive franchise; only African Americans could authentically perform the music. Pepper, who played with more white than black musicians, opposed Crow Jim, but he was also spared most of its consequences and was rarely spurned by black musicians. (Pepper’s mother Floy recalls saying at the moment of his birth: “How light is he? If he’s white, dip him in some chocolate. I want an Indian baby.”)
In the early 1980s, we worked for a time on a writing project. It was intended to show how the musical connection between, in his words, “the skins and the brothers” reflected a larger and neglected story, the way Africans and Native Americans collaborated to survive in racist America.
His singularity as a performer was the merging of two very different musical idioms, jazz and traditional Indian song. This made him difficult to categorize, one reason his recorded music is so difficult to find. It is probably more accurate to say that he played the two idioms side by side. The Indian songs are almost purely melodic, uncomplicated by the harmonic density of jazz. Most of the Indian songs come from tribes of the Southwest, where Pepper spent summers during his youth. He is better known by American Indians in that part of the country than he is to members of tribes in his native Northwest.
Apropriately for a historic journal, Berry’s article concentrates on Pepper’s ancestry and heritage, but it also has insights into his music. To read it, go here.
As for Berry’s film for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Art Beat, it has shown up in two parts on YouTube. Its historical sequences include Pepper playing his most famous composition, “Witchi-Tai-To.” At the end of Part 2, host KC Cowan interviews Berry about Pepper and a proposed festival devoted to Pepper’s music. “The Pepper music just keeps rollin’ along,” he says. To see the film, go here…and here.