Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pepper, Jim (James Gilbert II)

Saxophonist and composer Jim Pepper’s soaring solos and unprecedented use of Native American traditions in jazz earned him wide respect among his peers. Since his death, the public has become increasingly aware Pepper was a pioneer in what we now call fusion and world music.

(James Gilbert, II) also: Hánga Ciyéta (Hun-gah chi-eta) or Flying Eagle (The Gray Eagle passes [and we see him]); Tenor and soprano saxophonist, flutist, singer, percussionist, and composer, born in Salem, Oregon on June 18, 1941, died in Portland, Oregon 10 Feb 1992.

His mother, Floy Childers (b. Broken Arrow, Oklahoma 14 March 1916), is an important figure in the development of modern education techniques for Native American children and co-author of Maintaining Sanity In The Classroom: Classroom Management Techniques with the Alderian psychologists Rudolph Dreikers and Bernice Grunwald. She is an elder for the Turtle clan of the Muskogee Creek Indian nation and currently lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

His father, James Gilbert (Gib) (b. Kaw City, Oklahoma 1917, d. Portland Oregon, 1992) was a semi-professional saxophonist and bandleader, and a traditional Kanza (Kaw) Native American fancy dancer and straight dancer. He worked as a baker and also as a ship welder during the Second World War.

Both of Pepper’s parents were active as ballroom dancers and taught the style in Portland. Jim Pepper’s sister, Suzie, also studied tap dancing, is a powwow dancer and lives in Beaverton. Her eldest son, Jim Pepper Henry, served as a curator for the Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. and is the director of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. Her youngest son, Jesse Henry, is a groundskeeper in Beaverton.

“James Pepper” was the anglicized name adopted by the saxophonist’s paternal great-grandfather, Mokumpah, which means medicine powder or pepper. Mokumpah was he last traditional chief of the Kanza nation. In Kanza culture, this title is passed to first-born males, making the saxophonist third in the Kanza’s post-diaspora line of succession: the saxophonist’s nephew is the fourth. The saxophonist claimed that his ancestor took the name from a bottle of James E. Pepper whiskey, a popular brand in 1862, when the Kanza were relocated to Oklahoma.

When the United States entered the Second World War, the Pepper family moved from Salem, Oregon, where both parents taught at the Chemewa Indian School, to Vanport, a shipping community outside of Portland. Vanport was destroyed in a flood in 1948 and the Peppers relocated to Portland’s Northeast section.

Jim spent many summers with his grandparents in Oklahoma. His paternal grandfather, Ralph Pepper, was a Road Man in the Native American Church and conducted peyote ritual services. He also taught his grandson many of the chants that would later become a vital part of Jim Pepper’s musical legacy.

Pepper learned to both tap and fancy dance at an early age. “Fancy dancing” is the highly competitive and colorful style of dancing seen at large intertribal powwows held mostly in the American Midwest and Southwest. By the time he was twelve, he was dancing and playing saxophone semi-professionally in a group called the Young Oregonians that was sponsored by the statewide daily newspaper, The Oregonian. One of his band mates was Glenn Moore, bassist and co-founder of the group Oregon.

Pepper’s original ambition was to play professional baseball, but he felt his opportunities to compete were limited by his Native American ethnicity, so he took up a career as a musician. He worked in dance halls and jazz joints in Portland throughout high school and went to Brigham Young University on a full music scholarship in 1959, but was expelled after one year.

In 1964, he moved to New York City and quickly became known through his work as a sideman to established figures of the jazz avant-garde, including Archie Shepp, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman. It was Cherry and Coleman who are credited with suggesting to Pepper that he include elements of his Native American heritage in his music making.

Pepper was also a vital part of New York’s younger generation of young jazz musicians, which included Dave Liebman, Michael and Randy Brecker, Larry Coryell, Bob Moses, Jack DeJohnette, and Keith Jarrett, who shared the influences of both John Coltrane and the psychedelic-rock scene. In 1965, Pepper, Coryell, Moses, Chris Hills, and Columbus Baker formed the Free Spirits, a group that recorded a single album for Bob Thiele in 1966. The LP, Out of Sight and Sound, is widely acknowledged as being the first jazz-rock fusion album.

In 1967, vibraphonist Gary Burton hired Coryell and Moses and the remaining Free Spirits regrouped as Everything Is Everything. In 1968, they recorded an album of the same name that included a song by Jim Pepper, “Witchi Tai To.” The song was based on a peyote chant that Jim heard his grandfather sing in Oklahoma. The song had a surprising amount of commercial success, reaching 69 on the pop charts in the United States, and the top 20 in Canada. In 1969, the song was covered by numerous bands in the United States, Great Britain and Australia. That year, Pepper won first place in Jazz and Pop’s “Best Pop Tenor Saxophonist” category and was interviewed by Don Heckman for the magazine.

The folk-rock duo Brewer and Shipley recorded “Witchi Tai To” on their album Weeds in 1970 and the following year Pepper recorded his first album as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow, for Herbie Mann’s Embryo Record division of Atlantic Records. For unknown reasons, Pepper left New York later that year, moving back to Portland and then to San Francisco in 1973.

In this period, Pepper worked in a wide variety of musical settings, playing in funk bands in hotel lounges in Alaska during the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. He eventually put together his own band, Pepper’s Powwow, which went through numerous incarnations on the West Coast. The longest-lived version of band toured form 1975 to 1977 with guitarist Dave Haskell, pianist Russell Ferrante, bassist Ratzo B. Harris, and drummer Brent Rampone.

Pepper’s Powow disbanded due to financial difficulties, and once again he relocated to Portland with his girlfriend and business partner, vocalist Caren Knight, who also worked with Pepper from 1976 to 1990. At this time, Pepper took up a series of occasional jobs, including substitute teaching in the Portland public school system. He once claimed to have quit playing the saxophone to become a commercial fisherman in Alaska, but no evidence to support the claim appears to exist.

In 1980, Pepper was reunited with Don Cherry and toured Africa for the State Department, capped with concerts in Paris. Cherry had championed Pepper in Europe for years, playing “Witchi Tai To” for saxophonist Jan Garbarek and bassist Moore.

Garbarek and Moore both released versions of the song in the early 1970s to wide acclaim, helping establish the genre now called world music. This success, coupled with his appearances in Europe, prompted Pepper and Knight to relocate to New York in 1981. After touring with Charlie Haden and Carla Bley’s Liberation Music Orchestra in 1982, he replaced Bill Drews in the Paul Motian quintet, which included Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Ed Schuller, in 1983. The same year, Pepper recorded his second album as a leader, Comin’ and Goin,’ for Europa Records.

Over the next eight years, Pepper performed to enthusiastic audiences in New York, Portland, Alaska, and Europe. He was eventually able to form a fairly stable group around the core of Ed Schuller on bass and John Betsch on drums, with pianists Gordon Lee or Mal Waldron for jazz settings. In rock-fusion settings, he used Schuller, drummer Hakim Drake and guitarist Bill Bickford.

Pepper was involved in the group Cadona, which included Don Cherry, Colin Walcott, and Nana Vasconcelos. He also worked in duos with Mal Waldron, and various groups with trombonist Marty Cook. In the mid 1980s, Pepper included a Native American dance troop of four dancers and four drummers in a version of his band that toured Europe and Canada. His father was also included in the group.

In 1990, Pepper relocated to Vienna, Austria to start a new life in Europe, but discovered he had late-stage lymphoma. His attempts to fight the disease with both Western and traditional Native American medicine were unsuccessful, and he relocated back to Portland in 1991 where he continued to play music until very shortly before his death in 1992.

As is often the case with artists who make significant contributions in their disciplines, Pepper’s popularity has grown since his death. He was subject of two National Public Radio tributes in 1992, which were later combined into a single broadcast, and the 1995 film documentary Pepper’s Powwow by Sandy Osawa.

Tributes to Pepper have been recorded by saxophonists Chuck Florence, Frank Griffith, and Joe Lovano, bassist John-Carlos Perea, pianist/vocalist Tom Grant, composer Gunther Schuller.

Pepper’s legacy as a composer is kept alive by The Pepper Remembrance Band, which includes Ed Schuller, Caren Knight-Pepper, Gordon Lee and saxophonist Dennis Springer. The group has performed regularly at the Portland Jazz Festival and was featured at the induction of Pepper’s saxophone and rattle into the permanent exhibit of the Museum of the American Indian in April of 2007.

Pepper posthumously received the Lifetime Musical Achievement Award from First Americans in the Arts in 1999 and was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2000. He is an honoree of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and in 2005. May 20 was proclaimed Jim Pepper Day by the Mayor of Portland. In the same year the Oregon State Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 31 to honor Jim Pepper’s legacy.

Recordings as leader:

Jim Pepper’s Pow Wow (1971); Comin’ and Goin’ (1983); Dakota Song (1987); The Path (1988); Flying Eagle (1989); Remembrance (1990); Polar Bear Stomp (1991).

As co-leader:

The Free Spirits: Out of Sight and Sound (1966); Everything Is Everything (1968); Alaska Hit Singles (1984); Remembering the Moment (1987); Art of the Duo (1987); West End Avenue (1989); Carmargue (1989); Quadralogue at Utopia (1989); East-West Suite (1990); Afro-Indian Blues (1991)

As a sideman:

Larry Coryell: Coryell (1969); The Fugs: The Belle of Avenue A (1969); Cam Newton: Welcome Aliens (1979); Archie Cavanaugh: Black and White Raven (1980); Boib Moses: Love Animal (1967), When Elephants Dream of Music (1982); Charlie Haden/Carla Bley: Ballad of the Fallen (1982); Gordon Lee: Land Whales or New York (1982); Paul Motian: The Story Of Maryam (1983), Jack Of Clubs (1984), Misterioso (1986); Marty Cook: Red, White, Black & Blue (1987), Nightwork (1987); Mal Waldron: Mal, Dance and Soul (1987); The Git-Go at Utopia, Vol. 2 (1989)

Contributor: Ratzo B. Harris