Jim Pepper: Jazz and Native American Melodies

March 2016

Jim Pepper's Selmer "Balanced Action" Saxophone.  26/6293

by Michael Pahn
​The original article, from the Smithsonian Collections Blog, can be found here

True story: Native American musicians have been involved in jazz from its earliest days. Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’Alene) was the first “girl singer” to front a jazz big band in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Musicians such as “Big Chief” Russell Moore, Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Parker, and many more self-identified as being of Native American heritage. In the 1960s, Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper played with many of the greats of the free jazz scene, including Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, and was a member of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra in the in 1970s.  


Handwritten musical score to "Witchi-Tai-To," by Jim Pepper.  From the Jim Pepper Sheet Music Collection, NMAI.AC.062 

Aside from his remarkable musicianship, Pepper stands out for having brought Native American musical ideas into jazz itself. Pepper’s mother was Creek and his father was Kaw, and he grew up listening to his father’s father sing Native American Church peyote songs and traditional Kaw melodies. These influences stayed with him, and years later found their way into his composition “Witchi-Tai-To,” which was built around one of the peyote songs Pepper learned from his grandfather. He first recorded “Witchi-Tai-To” with the jazz-rock fusion ensemble Everything is Everything, and it found commercial success upon its release in 1969, reaching #69 on the Billboard Pop chart. Pepper recorded “Witchi-Tai-To” again in 1971 on his record Pepper’s Pow Wow, which featured giants of the jazz fusion scene including Billy Cobham and Larry Coryell, as well as American Indian singer-songwriter Peter La Farge.


Jim Pepper's Selmer "Balanced Action" Saxophone.  26/6293

Jim Pepper continued to be active in both jazz and the Native American cultural community until his death at the age of 50 in 1992. His family donated his saxophone and several of his beautiful handwritten musical scores to the National Museum of the American Indian in 2007.

Pepper made a lasting impression on jazz musicians, Native and non-Native. For example, saxophonist and poet Joy Harjo honored Pepper in her recording “The Musician Who Became a Bear: A Tribute to Jim Pepper” from the Smithsonian Folkways recording Heartbeat 2: More Voices of First Nations Women.  

Michael Pahn is a Archive Specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center