Jim Pepper :: Pepper’s Pow Wow

The first song you hear on Pepper’s Pow Wow is the first song that Jim Pepper ever heard. “Witchitai-To” is a Comanche chant that his grandfather brought home from his duties leading peyote ceremonies in the Native American Church. It first appears on the album as a faithful recreation of the way Jim must have originally experienced it: chants, foot stomps, a turtle shell rattle.

But then, the piano enters. Country rock chords, bright and deep, followed by drums and a warbly guitar. The chant begins again, this time to a soulful melody, before Jim sings a translation: “Water Spirit feelin’ springin’ round my head / Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead.”

“I’ve had people come up and tell me, like, incredible stories of how it’s helped them through difficult times,” Jim once said of the song.“The music soothes them. Music is a healing force.” One Jim Pepper fan told me that listening to the song on repeat helped him climb out of a pit of suicidal ideation. Its melody etches itself onto your heart the instant you hear it.

Jim released the first version of “Witchitai To” with an earlier band, Everything Is Everything, in 1969. He was playing saxophone in NYC and had been in The Free Spirits, considered by some to be the first fusion band. Fellow players Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry (a member of the Choctaw Nation himself) encouraged Jim to bring more of his Native American heritage to his horn playing.

“They said they could hear something already coming from me that was different from anybody else,” Jim told an interviewer.

Jim Pepper grew up in Portland, far from the tribal lands of the Kaw and Muscogee Creek nations he belonged to. “When we first moved to Portland, they didn’t have any respect for Indians,” Jim’s dad Gilbert recalled. “Jim was the only Indian in school at that time and they didn’t know he was an Indian. When they found out, well, they kinda gave him a bad time.” But Jim never backed away from who he was. When the neighborhood kids wouldn’t let him play the Indian during a game of Cowboys and Indians, Jim went home, got in his full powwow dress, and came back. He found an outlet for his irrepressible personality in school plays, tap dancing, and the saxophone, which he taught himself to play. People naturally gravitated to him. With his infectious smile and goofy pushbroom mustache, he was easy to love. 

After the first version of “Witchitai To” hit #69 on Billboard – the only song featuring an authentic Native American chant ever to chart – Jim landed a deal with Herbie Mann’s storied Embryo label. His band was made up of friends, like piano player Tom Grant from Portland and guitarist Larry Coryell, who he’d been playing with for nearly a decade. His dad, Gilbert Pepper, credited as a songwriter on the record, performs chants and vocals. Jim’s wife Ravie plays the flute.

Pepper’s Pow Wow, released in 1971, is not a jazz record. It’s a total history of American music as world music. Chants millennia older than this country flow seamlessly into rock, funk, country, and free jazz. “A Native American perspective of self esteem is always to consider the wholeness of life,” Jim’s mother, the educator Floy Pepper, once wrote. “It is necessary to view everything from the concept of wholeness rather than dividing it into parts.” Jim fully embodies that wholeness, whether he’s singing or blowing his horn. 

Most of the songs start with chants before a melody enters. Jim often translates the words into American vernacular. “I don’t care if you’re married, I will drive you home in my one-eyed Ford,” as Jim sings on “Newly-Weds Song.” It may not be an entirely faithful interpretation, but it is hilarious, as are the wordless whoops and shouts on “Rock Stomp Indian Style.” At various points on the record, he shouts out, like a rapper on a posse cut, the names of American Indian tribes: Winnebago, Osage, Pawnee.

By setting the words from Native communities in context of 20th century American music – electric blues, jazz, folk – Jim brings the listener into the fullness of Native American life. Native American music isn’t just sitting around waiting to be preserved for the future on a Smithsonian tape recorder. These words and rhythms belong to people who are right here, right now – fierce, yearning, laughing, loving, alive.

The porousness of time, community, and genre also show up in Jim’s horn playing. Despite the fact that Jim could absolutely destroy you with tone clusters – this was a guy who hung out with Cecil Taylor and shredded Coltrane’s “Naima” – he returns again and again to lush melodies, prizing tunefulness above all else. The melodies grow more powerful and seductive until, on the album highlight “Yon A Ho,” you are swept away by a tidal wave of voice, piano, and horn.

On any jazz record, these musical choices would stand as social commentary on their own, but Jim goes even further. He includes two covers of songs from Johnny Cash’s album Bitter Tears: The Ballad of the American Indian. “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums” were written by Peter LaFarge, a legendary chronicler of colonial legacies (see “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”) who, ironically, falsely claimed to be Native American himself.

In Jim’s hands, these spare and haunting folk ballads transform into jaunty country tunes, a slightly more distressing treatment given the subject matter. “Senecas” covers deliberate flooding of tribal lands to build a reservoir, while “Drums” is about Native American boarding schools, notorious sites of abuse and murder. As Jim sings them in his faux-Johnny Cash baritone, you can practically see the acid grin on his face, as if he’s saying: Have a good time, folks, but remember on whose graves you’re dancing.

The genre-melding on Pepper’s Pow Wow sounds more like the progressive, unclassifiable music being released today by International Anthem and others. This is everything/and music. But being ahead of your time is not exactly a blessing – it took Jim over a decade to make another album as a leader, and since his passing in 1992, his records have gone out of print (reissue labels take note). 

Everybody is invited to Pepper’s Pow Wow. It’s a foot-stomping, hell-raising party that celebrates coming together. And that coming together is steeped in both the pain of our shared history and the joy of being surrounded by the ones we love. Step on down. | j fecile

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