Jim Pepper was a Native American saxophonist who grew up in Oregon, producing music that fused jazz, pop and traditional Native music. Some of his songs found mainstream success—1969’s “Witchi Tai To” is the only song in the history of the Billboard charts to feature a Native chant—but Pepper died from cancer in 1992 at the age of 40.
Don Horn, who founded Triangle Productions 30 years ago and has been writing plays for nearly that long, is no stranger to theater that touches on local history or social issues—he’s produced plays about AIDS, the once-glamorous Hoyt Hotel and Gracie Hansen, an entertainer and eventual politician who was the queen of Portland’s nightlife in the 1960s. When he stumbled upon Pepper's story, he turned it into The Jim Pepper Project, an original show that explores how Pepper managed to meld musical styles that features a Native American cast, local stomp dancers and, of course, plenty of Pepper’s songs.
In advance of the show, which opens tonight, WW talked to Horn about Native American influence on jazz music, how he hopes to take this show into schools and tribal areas, and how the production is a “calling back of the spirits.”
WW: How did that first conversation with that person transform into the Jim Pepper Project?
Don Horn: I didn’t know anything about Jim Pepper. To be blunt, I’m very limited in the jazz world. I was raised on a farm and we listened to Lawrence Welk and we had the Beatles. Jazz wasn’t a part of my life. But I started figuring out Jim’s music and I started listening to all of his chants and hearing the jazz influences. I kept thinking, how did he know how to do the jazz and Native American chants? It seemed kind of weird. I went back and looked through where jazz’s roots were and where Jim’s roots were. I discovered that Native Americans and African Americans have parallel lives. Native Americans were being shipped out to the Caribbean at the same time Africans were being shipped here. They were both slaves. They were both called "negroes." That was weird to me, too. Duke Ellington’s sister said something that really rang true. She said that though Africans were given credit for jazz, it should go to the American Indians. That’s when I was like, “Really? Duke Ellington’s sister?”
Did you find her assertion to be accurate?
Yes, very much so. There’s a rhythm. Jazz is passed down generation to generation, and Native Americans tell their stories that way too. They also both have a lot of drumming and rituals. They’re very similar. This is new territory for me, but what I want to do is tell people about how one community can really influence another community.
How does this idea of cross-cultural influences emerge in The Jim Pepper Project?
We start with Jim in Oklahoma [where Pepper spent many summers], and his grandfather is telling stories. His grandfather was the last true Kaw. He said, "If I can’t give these to you for you to pass on, they’re going to die." If the traditions would have continued, Jim would’ve been the chief of the Kaw tribe. Jim took on the tribal chants and fused them with music, so they’re still alive today. He really ended up doing what his grandfather asked him to do.
In the show, Jim and his grandfather start telling stories—one story about an alligator and the rabbit. We show Jim’s life and his progression of learning. And then his grandfather says, “Let me show you why you love to chant,” and he shows him that tap is basically a stomp dance from tribal areas and tap is from African Americans.
Is this more of a musical than a straightforward narrative play?
It’s more of a play with music. My belief is that Jim’s a storyteller. It’s a show told through the eyes of Jim, and then pretty soon you get to meet the other two actors—one is a Native American that represents the tribes, and then there’s an African American who’s also mixed-blood Cherokee. Through the show, you start to see the similarities of these two. And Jim goes, “What I learned is what I did: I fused the two worlds together and did these songs.”
Jim died from cancer in 1992, but was his family involved in the development of the show?
His sister Karen has been really good about giving me information and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the people that Jim knew, people that actually played with him. Tom Grant played with him. Gordon Lee was a pianist for Jim for 14 years. Some of the cast members actually knew him, so they’re going, “This is kind of eerie. This is weird!”
Are they happy with how you represented Jim?
What they said was cool: “What you’ve done is actually helping our tribes remember their history, through what Jim’s grandfather told him to do: ‘Remember our history.’” One of the cast members said, “I don’t know if you know this, Don, but this is like the elders calling Jim back and saying ‘This is what you did for our lives.’ So it’s a ceremony, it’s a calling back of the spirits.
As a writer, that must be satisfying.
It’s weird, because I didn’t think that I was doing that, but it was really cool when they came to me because they told me in respect. They said, “That’s why we’re really involved in the show, because we want to teach people that Jim from Salem, Ore., went on to do what he did and that he carried on the tribal traditions and he did the stomp dancing, he did the chants, and now we get to do it, but hopefully other people will also do it. We want to go out to the tribal areas and teach people and maybe even go to the schools to teach kids that don’t know about this history. You’re doing what Jim was supposed to do without knowing it.”
Do you plan on going to those schools and tribal areas?
That’s truly what we want to do. Yes. We’ve been writing grants and trying to figure that out. That's not something I expected.
How does this differ from your previous projects?
We’ve done a couple of projects like this, but nothing that has the historical base that could influence people’s lives and teach people. It’s not a big show. It’s not a splashy show that has a bunch of dancers and people belting big songs. It really is just, “Sit down and listen to these stories and hear the Trail of Tears, basically.” We also have two stomp dancers, and Ed Edmo [who plays Jim’s grandfather] is, of course, an elder in his community, so people respect him. I didn’t realize how much tradition there is in the Native American community. It’s huge.
Every second Tuesday of every month there’s an elder counsel and the elders are respected and the youth are talking and respecting the elders. Young people don’t normally talk to their grandfathers, you know? No one spends time that way, and they really listened to the stories of old and tried to figure out how the two lives can mix. That’s what I wanted to do with the play, too, to honor the past and to look at the future. We need to keep these traditions alive because if they die, then we’ve lost this huge generational thing.
It’s also a piece of local history.
Having Jim come from Salem is a strong story. He came from basically nothing. Yes, he was heavy into drugs and yes, he was an alcoholic. But out of that, look at the respect that he has, even to this day. Especially with people in the jazz community. Maybe his life wasn’t the straight-and-narrow road that some people can take, but look what he did with his life. And I’m hoping that when we go out into the community, we can actually help people. Even when they come to see the show, they’ll think, “If he can do it, I can do it too.” No matter what evil things are inside, you can still be the winner that you can be.
GO: The Jim Pepper Project is at the Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., 239-5919. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays (no show Sunday, May 11) through May 31. $15-$35. Tickets here.