Jazz musician honored posthumously
Oregon Senate approves a resolution to honor Jim Pepper, who died in 1992
BY TARA MCLAINStatesman Journal May 20, 2005
The house had the kind of good medicine left by a larger-than-life spirit. Sean Cruz moved into his newly purchased Portland home a few years ago and thought it needed to be filled with music. Indian music.
Weeks later, he still was playing American Indian songs and buying dream catchers. A neighbor told him that it was the childhood home of Jim Pepper, the late Oregon-born jazz musician.
Himself fond of jazz, Cruz knew of Pepper's saxophone music.
Cruz began exploring Pepper's life, from his birth in Salem to the height of his career playing with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell and many others.
The circle of Cruz's discovery closed Thursday when the Oregon Senate approved a resolution honoring Pepper. Pepper's mother, Floy, was there to see a history of her son's achievements recorded in the state's record.
"He always felt unloved and unwanted in the United States," Floy Pepper said after the vote. "He found peace and success in Europe."
He finally is being recognized in his native land.
Jim Pepper recently was honored at the Portland Jazz Festival. On Thursday, a recording of his music was played to the four corners of the Senate chamber.
"I was sitting there thinking, he's come a long way," Floy Pepper said. "I'm so proud."
Floy and James Gilbert Pepper moved to Salem before World War II to work at Chemawa Indian School. They resettled in Portland, where Floy taught in public schools for several decades.
The family often would return to their native Oklahoma to visit family; Floy is Creek and her husband Kaw. That's where Jim Pepper learned the traditional songs of the Native American Church, said James Pepper Henry, the musician's nephew. Henry works at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
The song "Witchi-tai-to" features Pepper swinging the vocables of a sacred peyote song like a scat singer. The hit made the jazz and Top 40 charts in 1971.
The demo for Pepper's 1971 album, "Pepper's Powwow," was recorded in what now is Cruz's house.
"That house was a gathering place for lots of jazz musicians," Cruz said. "Now Jim's music is played all the time in the house."
Pepper died of lymphoid cancer in Portland in 1992. He was 50.
He has been posthumously honored by First Americans in the Arts and was inducted into the Indian Hall of Fame and Native American Music Hall of Fame.
At this year's Portland Jazz Festival, the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission named him "Jazz Artist of the Year." He also received the Bill McClendon Award for Excellence in Jazz, which was presented to his mother. Pepper's former bandmates convened to play his music.
"I was in the balcony," Cruz said, "and everyone was applauding during that long standing ovation. And the thought occurred to me that there ought to be a resolution about Jim's music."
Cruz works for Sen. Avel Gordly, a Portland Democrat who has served in the Legislature for 14 years.
As it turned out, she also was a Jim Pepper fan.
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