Lynn Darroch: The Legend of Jim Pepper (Stories on the Cutting Room Floor)

Sometimes you just have to leave something out, and here’s one of the stories we couldn’t fit into Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest about the accomplished and tempestuous Native American saxophonist, composer, and singer Jim Pepper, who grew up and got his musical start in Portland.

Imagine thousands of people, standing, swaying, some even crying, and all singing “Witchi-Tai-To” with Jim: “Water spirit feeling springin’ ’round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead,” sang Jim, and it was a spiritual experience for many in the crowd that late summer afternoon. But Jim wasn’t a spiritual guy; he was more earthy, liked women, booze, food, whatever made you feel good.

But he was angry too: once cursed an audience in Montana, screaming, “You mf-ers, don’t you know that Custer died for your sins!” Some performances were like opening a wound. Of Kaw and Creek descent, it was hard for Jim to walk in two worlds with one spirit.

But that’s what made him a hero—because sometimes he did.

Born in 1941, Jim grew up poor in a Vanport apartment with coal heat. One day he came running in from a game of cowboys and Indians with neighbor kids. “Dad,” he cried, “they won’t let me be the Indian!” So Gilbert dressed him in feathered powwow costume, and by god, they let him be the Indian then, and ever after, Jim always played the Indian. Even as a handsome four-sport star at Madison High, where he dated the prettiest girls and toured with the Young Oregonians, he’d dress in feathers for an Indian dance, change into a tuxedo for tap, then don his zoot suit to play with the band.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he’d always urge his friends. “Let’s go!”

But he was always an outsider, and Jim—lured by wild bop to Williams Avenue—gave up sports for the saxophone, which took him to New York eventually, where he became a jazz-rock pioneer with the pop hit “Witchi-Tai-To” in 1971. But music became too commercialized for Jim; compromise was never an option, and he retreated to Alaskan boat decks and dive bars, seeking there his path through two worlds.

Jim returned with a vision of Native music fused with jazz, so Jim recorded with his father, played powwows, and wrote Indian songs for jazz shows that were both sweet and fierce, full of healing and hate; love songs and war dances for a man twisting between two worlds. His band felt the tension: simple melodies that led to explosive bursts like the obsidian flash of a claw. I was afraid of him. But bandmates stayed because the music was bigger than the man.
Called himself Polar Bear then, humorous but dominant, and on a path leading him to Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and critical acclaim in Europe. Until he came home to die.

The last time I saw Jim, he was on a festival side stage. Brown felt hat over a head now bald from chemo, he walked with a stoop. But up close to the stage you could hear him: “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going,” sang Jim. “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

And the music was bigger than the man.

Don’t miss Lynn’s third and final blog post this Friday. Read his first blog post here.

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