I was first introduced to the music of Jim Pepper while studying for my undergraduate degree in Music at San Francisco State University. At that time I was listening to John Coltrane and also to pow-wow and Native American flute music. I knew there was a connection there but I did not understand how to make that connection in my playing and in my life.
I spoke to saxophonist Francis Wong at that time about my interests and he loaned me his copy of Pepper’s Dakota Song. That loan led me to research Pepper’s discography and eventually to Pepper’s performance of Coltrane’s “Naima” on Everything is Everything featuring Chris Hills. Hearing Pepper play “Naima” helped me finally make that connection between jazz and intertribal Native American music, a connection that set me on my own career as an electric bassist, cedar flutist, singer, and composer.
Pepper’s music sets a precedent in jazz and Native American music for the way he crossed back and forth between straight-ahead, fusion, avant garde, and many other styles. When I listen to Pepper’s playing and composing I also hear bravery and fearlessness. He understood the importance of “Witchi Tai To” as a peyote song but he also saw the importance of rearranging it into the new song that circulates globally today in so many different versions and styles. I feel grateful to have learned these lessons from Jim Pepper and I am happy that the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival will provide a space to remember Jim Pepper and to present new music inspired by him in the future.