Jim Pepper: Witchi Tai To

10 Feb

Remembering saxophonist Jim Pepper on the anniversary of his death on this day in 1992. Pepper was a Native American, whose mother was Creek and his father Kaw; Pepper’s Indian name was  Hunga-che-ada, the Flying Eagle. 

Encouraged by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, Pepper fused the chants he grew up with into his jazz. The most famous was Witchi Tai To (link above; lyrics below).

Pepper’s early group included drummer Bob Moses and guitarist Larry Corryell, but as he expanded his music, he did likewise with his playing partners. He toured Africa with Cherry, where his Native American pieces were particularly well received. Said Cherry: “The response in Africa was tremendous . . . They realized that here was something truly American.”

Unfortunately, Pepper did not feel the same warmth in his native country, and moved to Austria, where he felt his music was appreciated. Said his mother, Floy Pepper: “He did not find respect and acceptance of his music in America – but he did find it in Europe, where he was respected as a person and as a jazz musician. There he found peace.”

From a 1988 magazine interview with Pepper: “And American music, especially jazz, is the only real thing, after Columbus, America has had to offer the world in the way of culture. Europe accepts the musician first, and then they accept the music.”

Pepper was only 50 when he died of lymphoma. In 1998, six years after Pepper’s death, composer Gunther Schuller produced a tribute album to Pepper: The Music of Jim Pepper.

Witchi tai to, gimee rah

Whoa rah neeko, whoa rah neeko

Hey ney, hey ney, no way

Water Spirit feelin’ springin’ round my head

Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead


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