Jim Pepper Tribute at the Portland Jazz Festival
“ We as Indians have lost a lot of land. One thing that we still have is our music, and our music should never die...When I try to put my native music into jazz, I use rhythm, melody, and add harmony to it. ”
The huge pipe organ on the stage at Portland, Oregon's First Unitarian Church was imposing, even awe-inspiring, but that wasn't the cause of all the buzz among the 400-plus people in the audience on Friday night, February 11. They were there to kick off the Portland Jazz Festival with a tribute concert dedicated to Native American saxophonist and Portland son, Jim Pepper. Pepper was known for taking the songs and rhythms of Native America, and integrating them with African and Latin jazz to create a wholly new music.
The audience was treated to a rousing celebration of the life and music of Jim Pepper, who passed away in February 1992, at the age of 50. The concert titled "Remembrance after one of Pepper's many compositions inspired by the powwow social dances and Native American Church peyote chants that he grew up with was arranged and led by longtime Pepper pianist and friend, Gordon Lee, and featured Caren Knight-Pepper on vocals along with Pepper alumni Dennis Springer (sax), Dan Balmer (guitar), Glen Moore (bass), and Carlton Jackson (drums). The group played a wide selection of Pepper's compositions, including "Remembrance", "Squaw Song", "Comin' and Goin'", "Caddo Revival" and more along with, of course, "Witchi Tai To", complete with audience participation.
Knight-Pepper's haunting vocals carried Caddo Revival to heights only suggested by the majestic pipe organ that served as backdrop. Springer's sax explorations led Floy Pepper to note that he was one of the only sax players she'd heard who can evoke her son's spirit. Pianist Lee told the audience that he never sang while playing with Pepper, although Pepper continually encouraged him to. But one can easily imagine that his old friend would be proud of the way Lee's heartfelt voice carried him as he accompanied Knight-Pepper on some of the songs and chants. Bassist Moore, after recounting junior high school stage performance memories with the young tap-dancing, zoot-suited Jim Pepper, played a solo piece with bow dedicated to his childhood friend. Balmer's guitar work gave the night's performance a deep blues/rock/R&B feeling, and Jackson's drumming spoke for the tradition of dance that lies at the bottom of much of Pepper's composition.
Opening the night's activities was a performance by the Native American Four Directions Dance Troupe, who returned before the second set and then again at the end, to lead the audience in a social round dance that snaked through the auditorium and into the lobby, before leading everyone back to their seats for a raucous and highly appreciative ovation.
Saturday night's portion of the Pepper tribute weekend featured a screening of the award-winning 1996 documentary, Pepper's Pow Wow, produced and directed by Sandra Osawa and Yasu Osawa. In the film, Pepper says, "I try to combine the music I learned from my grandfather, my father, cousins and other people I try to combine that with American jazz...Native music is rhythm and melody. So is the music that the black slaves brought here. What happened is that they added European harmony to form jazz. When I try to put my native music into jazz, I use rhythm, melody, and add harmony to it. Or, as he told a group of students in Tuba City, Arizona, "rhythm, melody and sweet har-moh-neee.
The Pepper tribute weekend also included panel discussions with reminiscences and insights into Pepper's music from Knight-Pepper, Lee, and Sandra Osawa, and others who had their own stories to tell about Pepper's days in Portland. On Saturday night, the Pepper's Pow Wow film was shown to a standing ovation from the SRO crowd. Inspired by the weekend's events and the enthusiastic audiences at the concert and the film screening, producer Osawa said that they are now considering a more complete DVD version that would include more from the several hours of interviews and performances that had been edited down to the original one-hour film.
Also on the Saturday program, was a two-hour workshop on Native American music, Earth Music: An Exploration of Native American Music and Culture, which delved into the roots and practices of Native music and its impact on the wider American culture. The workshop demonstrated and discussed traditional dance, singing, drumming and storytelling, and how it related to the music of Jim Pepper. He was very conscious of the impact of his music on his Native culture, as well as on non- Native cultures and he was aware of the responsibility that entailed. Alaskan drummer Ron Thorne has said that "Jim was on a mission. He used music as a foil to reach out and embrace his people. He talked about what he might be able to do, through his music, to have a positive impact on Native Americans. In the Pepper's Pow Wow film, we see Pepper telling the Tuba City students, "We as Indians have lost a lot of land. One thing that we still have is our music, and our music should never die.