He was the most colorful jazzman to ever come out of Portland, and today, 13 years after his death, Jim Pepper remains one of the most influential.
A saxophonist, singer and composer, music was the center of his life — a life shaped first of all by his native American heritage. Of Kaw and Creek descent, Pepper fused native music with jazz in what was arguably their first and most effective synthesis. His powerful style won him an international reputation before his death from lymphoma at age 50.
Often unsettling and edgy, his music became an inspiration for indigenous people who search for a way to walk in two worlds with one spirit, says Makah filmmaker Sandra Osawa. Her documentary, “Pepper’s Pow Wow” — which will show as one of several Portland Jazz Festival events scheduled to celebrate Pepper’s life and music — focuses on the central role indigenous song and dance played in his work.
From it’s opening sequence at a pow wow in Oklahoma, where we hear the eerie strains of the saxophonist’s “Caddo Revival,” to concert footage of his performance of the humorous “Polar Bear Chant,” the film portrays an urban Indian who grew up with ethnic pride and in touch with his roots. His power to disturb and inspire is evident throughout. In addition to interviews with Pepper and concert footage, the film tells his story through the voices of his mother, father and fellow musicians, including Portlander Gordon Lee.
Lee, a pianist, composer and jazz instructor, worked with Pepper for 14 years and will be part of the lecture, “I See You Now — Jazzman Jim Pepper” with Osawa and biographer Jack Berry. Lee will also lead an all-star band of former Pepper collaborators (Dan Balmer, Glen Moore, Carlton Jackson, Dennis Springer and Caren Knight) in a Friday night concert of his music.
“It’s incredibly happy, joyous music,” explains Lee, who has previously arranged the late saxophonist’s tunes for a variety of settings, including orchestral stages. “They’re very catchy melodies, almost nursery rhymes, although there’s a lot of sophistication behind them, a lot of counterpoint. (And) Pepper would always hire the hippest, most cutting-edge musicians to play them.”
Some of the biggest names in jazz today, such as guitarists Bill Frizzell and John Scofield, once performed with Pepper — not because he was an Indian playing jazz but because he was respected first as a jazz innovator.
In the mid-60s, with guitarist Larry Coryell and The Free Spirits, for instance, Pepper was among the first to develop jazz-rock fusion. His best-known work, “Witchi Tai To,” reached the Top 10 on pop charts in 1971. That’s a remarkable achievement for a man whose powerful sound surged between bebop and the fringes of free improvisation, bursting outside the mainstream like the sudden leap of a salmon. At its best, his music struck with the obsidian flash of a claw and soared with the majesty of his Indian name, “Flying Eagle.”
“The music is a healing voice,” Pepper says in Osawa’s film, and it’s easy to hear how “Witchi Tai To,” with it’s uplifting chord progression and hypnotically repeating phrases, was based on a chant from the peyote religion practiced by his grandfather.
At times, however, his performances were more like untreated wounds.
“You were really taking a chance when you went to see him,” recalls Lee, “because he was a very intuitive person, and at times it worked and at times it didn’t. But when it was good, people felt they had been through a spiritual experience.
“Funny thing was,” adds Lee, “he was not a very spiritual guy. Jim was an earthy guy who liked food and women and booze and everything that feels good.”
Those who knew him could tell from the beginning that Pepper would be no ordinary man.
“When I first met Jim,” recalls friend Ferris Peery, “we were in 9th grade at Parkrose, and Jim was a four-sport athlete, he dated the best-looking girl, he seemed to be in every play and then when I went home, Jim was tap dancing on TV! Later he and his father Gilbert were on TV again, Indian dancing! I’ve never seen a talent like that in my life.”
Pepper continues to be a force in the lives of those who knew him or play his music, an outcome he prayed for with rhythmic insistence the year before he died in “Remembrance”: “You must not forget me when I’m long gone because I loved you so dearly.”