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.
Andy Plymale says
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Jim Pepper tribute at the 2005 Portland Jazz Festival. It was a wonderful evening. Jim’s widow and vocal accompanist — Karen Knight Pepper, I think is her name — joined a band led by Jim’s longtime collaborator Gordon Lee. Jim’s mother and sister were in attendance, and Native American dancers were part of the performance, which at one point required the audience to join hands in a huge circle throughout the hall (the Unitarian Church downtown). It was a real treat to hear Karen sing — she sounded marvelous.
brice wassy says
i did a tour whith j pepper, collin walcot, d cherry & coco jean pierre
(Mr. Wassy is a drummer from Cameroon now living in Paris. See: http://www.amazon.com/Brice-Wassy/artist/B000AQ0TWI — DR)
Ted Trimble says
Jim Pepper was a close buddy of mine for quite a few years.I was his bassist of choice in Oregon for a while before we all moved to New York and we lived together there.We were family and I miss his crazy energy in this world. He had a spirit like no other I have met for Native people. He loved them.
james edwin olding,a.k.a. "jacques" says
jim was a good (if troublesome, friend–ask anyone who knew him) he was a guest on my broadcasts @ kboo-fm many times–and i have cassettes of them scattered about–the most memorable being one of the earliest, a performance that included john butler, guitar,ted trimble on bass, & jim peluso (status unknown), drums. my pal mr. butler(“JB”) was kind enough to burn me a cd of the master; he says it’s the most intense musical experience in his career; (& it happened at 11 am!)
james edwin olding says
i also did a discography for “jazzscene” that was picked up (gratis!) by some other rag i don’t recall the name of. it was on the web somewhere for a long time (i’m brand-new to this here machine, so i don’t know much) it contained a few inaccuracies that were never cleared up. i’m in touch w/ jack berry (wish he could get the damn book published!) & floy (in her 90’s& not doin’so well) & gordon lee (playing in cuba as i write)& caren knight (in NYC) &many of the wonderful players who worked w/ pepper. one comment, & this came “from the horse’s mouth”, it was ornette who initially encouraged jim to work from his cultural roots in the mid-60’s in nyc–i believe ornette himself has a bit of cherokee-in any case, it’s a bit of a turn on the”crow jim” idea.