Jim Pepper, the son of a Creek Indian mother and Kaw father, grew up surrounded by the songs and dances of the intertribal powwow circuit. He learned Native American Church peyote chants and other songs from his father, Gilbert Pepper, and grandfather, Ralph Pepper. Originally from Oklahoma, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was born - although he spent many summers back in Oklahoma with his grandfather's family. In the mid-1960s, he left home to make a name for himself in New York - which he did by exploding onto the scene with what may very well have been the first jazz-rock fusion band, Free Spirits.
That early, innovative group - with Bob Moses on drums, Larry Coryell and Columbus Baker on guitars, and Chris Hill on vocals and bass, along with Pepper on saxophone - recorded their first album, Out of Sight and Sound, for Rudy Van Gelder at ABC/Paramount in 1967. Following that, in the late 1960s, Pepper played in the Everything is Everything band, and his composition, "Witchi Tai To" - his most well known song - soon became the band's signature piece. Those early bands gained a reputation in the rock-and-roll clubs for starting their sets with 20-minute long, unaccompanied sax solos from Pepper, something rock audiences had never heard before. "Witchi Tai To", based on a ritual chant he learned from his grandfather, was a major crossover hit on jazz and popular Top 40 lists around the world, and has been covered by countless pop and "world music" musicians.
Pepper was encouraged by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman to dig deeper into his Native music and incorporate it into his jazz playing and composition (Cherry was well known for encouraging musicians around the world to look to their own indigenous music for inspiration). Pepper's first album under his own name, Pepper's Pow Wow, was released in 1971 on Herbie Mann's Embryo label, and includes his father, Gil Pepper. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pepper recorded with a vast range of jazz greats, including Cherry, Bill Frissell, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, Ed Schuller, John Scofield, Mal Waldron, and many others. On tour with Cherry, he enjoyed a particularly warm reception from African audiences who applauded his unique blend of Native American music and jazz. According to Cherry, "The response in Africa was tremendous when Jim would play one of the pow wow pieces he had written... They realized that here was something truly American."