Tribal Government & News

Play, workshop honor Native jazz musician Jim Pepper

10.14.2015 Brent Merrill Events, Entertainment

The Jim Pepper Project tour made its way to Grand Ronde for a performance in the Tribal gym on Friday, Oct. 2, and an acting workshop the following morning.

The original play was presented by Don Horn’s triangle productions! to honor the legacy of Native American jazz musician Jim Pepper.

The original production is touring Oregon’s nine federally recognized Tribes throughout 2015 and was designed by Horn to mix performance, history and music into one show. The project takes audience members through Pepper’s journey of becoming a world-renowned musical artist.

Pepper, who was a member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, gained fame in Europe and Australia and was a saxophonist, composer and singer who pioneered jazz fusion music. Pepper’s band, The Free Spirits, is acknowledged throughout the music industry for being among the first to combine jazz and rock.

Pepper gained worldwide recognition when he combined traditional Native roots into his jazz music. Ironically, much of Pepper’s fame and acknowledgement as a jazz performer came after his death in 1992 at the age of 50.

Pepper, who performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Lincoln Center in New York City, was posthumously honored with a Lifetime Musical Achievement Award by First Americans in the Arts in 1999 and inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Only four actors share Pepper’s personal story while mixing in an accurate history of Native American culture and outstanding musical performances. Ryan Cheng plays Jim Pepper and Maury Evans plays Pepper’s grandfather while Karen Kitchen and Salim Sanchez round out the cast as both storytellers and performance artists.

Kitchen sings and plays keyboards; Sanchez sings, plays the jazz drum and, along with Cheng, plays the saxophone during the event, which is part-play, part-musical performance.

The play covers Native American history in the United States from the early 17th century up to Pepper’s rise to fame in the late 1960s when his song “Witchi Tai To” climbed into the nation’s Top 100 pop charts, which to this day is the only Native American song to reach that status.

The performance began in Grand Ronde when Cultural Outreach Supervisor Bobby Mercier, along with Nakoa Mercier and Izaiah Fisher, opened the evening with a welcoming drum song.

Tour Manager Stephanie Mulligan welcomed a small crowd and thanked members of the Tribe’s Education staff who helped her bring the tour to Grand Ronde.

“This is about Native American musician Jim Pepper,” said Mulligan. “We’re going to mix in some live music and some historical background as well. I want to throw out some special thanks to Leslie Riggs, Kathy Cole and the fabulous Elaine Lane for helping me to organize this event.”

The actors walked into the gym singing and then took the stage for the performance that started with Cheng as a young Jim Pepper sitting at the feet of his Creek grandfather played by Evans, who is an enrolled Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“The chants come from within,” Evans said to Cheng.

Kitchen, who is an Osage Nation member, then sang to the harmony of “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language before sharing a story of what it was like for Native people encountering Euro-Americans for the first time.

Sanchez told the story of how synonymous African-American culture in the United States was and is with Native American culture. Sanchez performed an emotional rendition of the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was written by Wallace Willis who was both black and Choctaw. Willis was also a free man at a time when very few African-Americans were.

The cast shared with the audience the blending of the two cultures that was ironically both forced and discouraged by whites. The cast talked about how songs and chants in both cultures were passed down from generation to generation.

“I tell you these things so you will remember for me, so you will tell our people,” Evans said to Cheng – grandfather to grandson.

The play then comes back around to the life of Pepper and talks about his triumphs and tragedies. It traces his journey from when he was born in Salem, lived and grew up in Portland and how he moved to Alaska to get away from his fame, and then went to Europe to gain more fame.

“No matter what you endure, music will always heal your soul,” said Kitchen near the end of the program.

Cheng, as Pepper, then closes the show by saying, “It’s good where we’ve been and where we are going.” He was joined by the rest of the cast in performing “Witchi Tai To.”

Mulligan said the key element to the show is educational to many people.

“The commonalities between the Native American experience and the African-American experience is surprising to a lot of audiences,” said Mulligan. “There are things that we are not taught in our history. I think being able to put that forward and provide a little education in an interesting way, but also not shying away from the pain, is really important. It’s important to tell the story truthfully.”

Cheng echoed Mulligan when he said an accurate portrayal of history is paramount.

“It’s really important information for the next generation to get,” said Cheng.

Kitchen, who is the Title VII Indian Education Program director for Portland Public Schools, said windows of opportunity need to be taken advantage of when they occur.

“We are at a time right now when our voices can be collectively strong,” said Kitchen. “And we can move these efforts forward.”

Horn, who established triangle productions! in 1989, said it was his love of history and music that inspired him to write the play.

“Jim fused Native American chants with jazz and that’s what I tried to do with the show to prove to everybody that in your life, no matter who you are, you can make a difference,” said Horn. “I wanted Jim to be honored.”

“He (Pepper) really blazed a trail for a lot of us to play contemporary music and maintain our traditional spirituality in our music,” said Grand Ronde Tribal member and multiple Native American Music Awards winner Jan Looking Wolf Reibach in an interview leading up to the performance. “He was simply one of the groundbreaking Native American musicians of his generation and since. I have a great understanding of what he did.”

After the performance, everyone was invited to come back the following morning for an acting workshop that also was held in the Tribal gym.

The workshop’s goal was to be a safe, fun and interactive program aimed at getting people out of their shell and teaching those participating what professional theater actors do to get warmed up before performances.

Tribal Elders Renee Norcross and Beverly Kingbird brought a Native sense of humor to the workshop activities and Elementary School Lead Matt Bucknell and his children Matteo and Saleah brought a child-like wonder to the program.

Lead by Mulligan and actors Cheng, Evans and Kitchen, the workshop started with everyone singing a warm-up song led by Evans.

Throughout the morning Mulligan put the participants through exercises that worked everyone’s voices, posture and imaginations. Participants imagined passing a ball to each other and walking through fog, water, Jell-O, bubble wrap and wet cement among other things.

The workshop concluded with two groups of “families” that chose themes for the other family to act out. At the end of each chosen session that included zombies, acrobats, loggers, vampires and belly dancers, the groups would come together to pose for a “family portrait.”

“We’re connecting the body with your voice,” said Mulligan. “You’re telling a story.”

The workshop ended with a group shot on a cell phone.

Tribal Education Department Director Leslie Riggs, who became well known in the music industry as a drummer for several punk rock bands in the United States and Europe, green-lighted the performance in Grand Ronde.

“I thought this seemed like a really cool opportunity,” said Riggs. “One of the things that I’m really excited about is art and music, so I think this was an opportunity to bring awareness of his story and how he fit into the whole jazz scene. If it could show the way to some of our youth that might have an interest in playing music, I’m all for it. It can inspire anybody and that is the point.”