The great Kaw/Creek saxophonist Jim Pepper was born today in 1941. His career covered jazz, pop, R&B, psychedelic rock and indigenous music and he is best known to '60s pop music fans as the composer of "Witchi-Tai-To". He also played clarinet, flute, sang and tap-danced.
Pepper grew up in Portland OR and his first band of note was the Free Spirits, a mid-'60s NYC-based group that was one of the very earliest to explicitly fuse rock and jazz. The group also had Larry Coryell, Bob Moses & Chris Hills as members. They made a killer album in 1967 for ABC Records called Out Of Sight And Sound. Despite the fact that the album was a memorably insane and fun fusion of pop and horns that pre-dated that Blood, Sweat & Tears dreck (not to mention Miles Davis), the real story is the band's far-out jazz-rock explorations that didn't see the light of day until much later. The band's LP painted them as more of a "pop" band but that was because label execs didn't think they could market the long improvisations the band was doing live at the time. (Check out '67 recordings the Free Spirits Live at the Scene and Bob Moses' Love Animal, containing most of the Free Spirits line-up, both released decades later).
His friends Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman encouraged him to reflect his Native roots in his music and "Witchi-Tai-To" became a pop hit and was covered many times (including an unreleased version by The Supremes!). After a stint in the Free Spirits offshoot band Everything Is Everything (and appearances on recordings by Classics IV and The Fugs) he focused on a career as a jazz artist, working with Cherry, Mal Waldron, Dewey Redman, Bill Frissell, Nana Vasconcelos, Coryell, Hamid Drake, Colin Wolcott, Charlie Haden, John Scofield, Paul Motian and many others. He also played at pow-wows, continued to heavily feature Native concepts in his music and was a supporter of the American Indian Movement. He spent his final years in Austria.