You may remember the tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper for “Witchi-Tai-To,” an American Indian peyote chant he learned from his Kaw grandfather. Pepper set it to music and it became a crossover hit. The song persists as a staple in the repertoires of pop and so-called world music groups on several continents. It has a place in efforts to raise Native American pride and awareness, for which Pepper, with his Kaw and Creek heritage, has become a symbol.
When I knew Pepper in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1960s, he had a big sound with rough edges and was primed to jam at a moment’s notice. He could be combative on the stand and off. The muscle and heft of rhythm and blues ran through his playing. He took chances with harmony, which is to say that he often refused to let conventional chord guidelines interfere with his conception. Looking back a few years later, it was easy to see that Pepper was primed for the rock-jazz fusion milieu he jumped into in New York in the middle of the sixties. Free Spirits, the band with Pepper, guitarist Larry Coryell, drummer Bob Moses, singer Columbus Baker and electric bassist Chris Hills, had an impact on rockers including Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. The 1967 Free Spirits album Out of Sight and Sound disappeared for years but recently resurfaced as a CD. Pepper worked later with such adventurers on the jazz frontier as Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Bill Frisell. Here’s part of a 1968 Don Heckman interview with Pepper:
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.
Discouraged by what he felt as low esteem for jazz in the United States, Pepper moved to Europe in his last years. He became popular there, particularly in Austria. He died back home in Portland in February, 1992, at the age of fifty. I have not seen Sandra Osawa’s highly praised documentary, Pepper’s Pow Wow,which seems impossible to find on DVD. If you’re interested in the VHS edition, go to this web page and scroll down. Few music outlets stock the albums Pepper made under his own name. One is 1987’s Dakota Song, in which he included sensitive performances of standard songs that demonstrated he wasn’t all swagger and boistrousness. Another is Comin’ and Goin’, recorded with John Scofield, Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos and Colin Wolcott in 1984. It includes a version of “Witchi Tai To” and just reappeared on CD at a confiscatory import price.
There may not be much of Pepper’s music available, but the folks at Harvard University’s radio station evidently have a substantial collection of it. They are billing what they call a Jim Pepper Orgy this Friday, January 12, from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm EST. It will be hosted by a woman with the intriguing name of Jesse Morgan Righthand. If you are in the Boston area, you can hear WHRB at 95.3-FM. If you are elsewhere, go to the station’s web site and click on “Tune In.”
Jim Pepper is often strong medicine. Strong medicine can make you well. If you’re hearing Pepper for the first time, let us know your impressions.