Frank J. Oteri: I want to begin with your full name and what it represents.
JIT: My name is Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Impichchaachaaha’ is a house name from the Chickasaw side of my family. Chickasaws historically have house names and clan names. The exact way they work is a little complex, but generally a house name is very much like a European surname. So if this were the year 1857 or something like that, I would be known by both names. I would either be called Jerod of Impichchaachaaha’ or Jerod Tate. It would be interchangeable. I also come from what’s called the Shawi clan—which is the raccoon clan; that all comes my paternal grandmother’s side. My mom’s Irish.
FJO: You did not grow up on a reservation—
JIT: —Oklahoma actually doesn’t have any reservations except for the Osage people. Out of the 39 tribes that live there only one has a reservation, so most Oklahoma Indians don’t come from reservations. We have what are called statistical boundaries. We still live within a statistical nation and the boundaries are there. But it doesn’t function the same as a reservation that you would find in the Southwest or in the Plains.
FJO: So what was your first exposure to Native American music?
JIT: The American Indian music that I grew up with was both Chickasaw and what’s called Southern Style Pow-Wow singing. We were in Oklahoma with 39 tribes that are all very distinct. So I heard a lot of different styles. I went to events with my father, and I would hear traditional music from different tribes. At the same time, I also heard him practicing classical piano.
FJO: That’s a strange combination, and perhaps one that most people might find surprising.
JIT: The classical connection with Indians is still new and fresh, but it’s actually the Indian side of my family that’s classically trained. My whole inspiration for playing the piano was my father, who is a classically trained vocalist and pianist. Growing up, I heard him playing very serious repertoire—Bach and Rachmaninoff—and he just played it recreationally in the house. He continues to sing to this day. He performs in musical theater, and he sings for his church as well.
There’s some history that is really important: I come from a tribe that’s in Oklahoma right now, but we’re originally from the Southeast around the Mississippi area. The eastern tribes had very deep contact with European countries. It wasn’t really American contact yet. It was all with France, and Spain and Great Britain and the Scotch and Irish. That had been going on for a couple hundred years before there was a [United States of] America. In the removal in the 1830s, we were all moved to Oklahoma, and by that time, even before the removal, most of the southeastern tribes were actually like small empires. We still had very traditional ways—we spoke the language on a daily basis—but we also lived in houses that looked very much like Southern plantations and had a lifestyle that was very common to what a European lifestyle was. So we brought that over to Oklahoma, and we rebuilt our own schools out of brick. We had our own education system and part of that education system was European. So the fine arts were actually part of our lives for a few hundred years before I was born.
American Indians in general around the country have been involved in all of the other genres of fine art on a very deep level. We have very famous contemporary Indian painters, and they are using the classic Western materials that are not aboriginal to this country at all. So when you look at a painting, you see acrylics, or oils, or canvasses and it’s done with brushes on an easel. None of that is from here originally.
Another comparison I like to draw is that the two things that Indians are known for the most are beadwork and horses, neither of which is originally from here. We did a great job of stealing horses and making it a part of our culture. It was a huge boon for Indian country to have a horse, so we became incredible horsemen right away. And beads replaced traditional quill work. Beads were just a really neat new material we discovered. I believe they [originally] came from Asia. Indians are now world famous for beadwork which is an artform that wasn’t here a couple of hundred years ago.
FJO: And the majority of contemporary Native American literature is written in English.
JIT: Right. You won’t read any American Indian literature in our native languages. It’s all in English. And so it’s something that we all just take for granted because we all speak English in this country and so when people pick up a book, they’re not necessarily thinking to themselves, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the native language of that author.” We’re just reading it and enjoying the content, but the fact is that all of that material is totally Western material.
To bring all that around to the classical part, I think what’s happening with classical composition in Indian country is actually something that’s normal in the development of Western classical music. Generally music follows the other fine arts that have come just before it. It’s almost like classical music has been a reaction to cultural aspects of the time. Rather than being on the front of it, it’s on the tail. And then it’s this full-bodied reaction. That’s kind of how I see all that historically.
FJO: But to extend your analogy, English has become a universal language. Many people used to say that Western classical music was also a universal mode of transmission. But nowadays many argue that it, too, is a marginalized and culturally specific paradigm. At this point in time, there are tons of musical traditions with practitioners all over the world—jazz, rock, hip-hop, even seemingly really culturally specific genres like bluegrass, klezmer, or tango. And even the most culturally specific traditional music can be transmitted globally through recordings, although, for better or worse, mainstream American pop music has become the global sonic vocabulary.
JIT: Yes. Yes. I agree with that. One thing that is really cool is that Indians are involved in all those genres of music. For the last 30 years, Indians have been involved in all kinds of different rock forms and also different multi-cultural collaborations.
FJO: So is it ultimately the most effective medium to convey a contemporary message about a specific identity other than it? Why choose Western classical music as the frame for what you’re doing?
JIT: I find the history and the genesis of classical music to be incredibly fascinating. And pardon some of my historical mistakes in how I express this, but the way I view classical music is that generally it was born with monks in a Catholic church. On a more common level of thinking, these guys were singing traditional tunes. I equate that with the traditional music of my tribe: It’s the old music of a culture, a certain group of people with a standard set of tunes and music that was used for the mass and different occasions and that was it. And it was all learned orally. Then what happened was somebody got the idea, “Well, we’ve got so many of them that it’s getting hard to keep track of them.” So they started writing it down. That was the birth of what we call classical music. A shift took place, and that is why we’re now starting to preserve what we’re doing in a way that we haven’t done before. It’s a different way of treating it. Now that you’ve got it down on paper, you can actually do what is so unique to classical music and that is the idea of abstracting your own music. You’re taking your basic material and you abstract it. We’ve been doing this for so long, let’s add octaves now. Let’s add fourths and fifths and let’s start expanding. And I just see that as such a wonderful, natural, creative process that was born out of the Catholic Church. And I’m so thankful to them for doing that. Of course, it took a long time for anything to evolve, but it came from that creative and abstracting impulse within a folk music of the Catholic Church.
What’s so cool about that way of doing things is it kind of became this weather system that then could start shifting over to different parts of Europe and then to Eastern Europe and to Asia and Africa and, of course, over to America. You can abstract anything you want to. So now we can ask everybody in the world to participate in it. Bring who you are into this aspect of it. And that’s exactly what’s happened all over the place. The composers that we know the most are the ones that have brought their own cultural and nationalistic identity into that process and that way of abstracting in classical music. So I don’t see it as assimilating Western music. I see it as participating in this way of classical abstraction.
FJO: So it’s ultimately about the process of writing things down.
JIT: Yeah, it really is.
FJO: You came to composition rather late; you were 23.
JIT: Well, I have to admit I wrote one piece when I was 12 for a good friend of mine that I went to school with, Stephen Baird. It was for piano and tuba. But I lost it. It’s something I really wish I could find. But that’s the only piece that I tried writing as a kid. I would say it was a little on the George Winston side, kind of minor-ish stuff. Anyway, after that, it was just practicing piano.
Then my mother, who’s a choreographer, wanted to do a set of new ballets with her students at the University of Wyoming, and she just turned right to me and said would you like to write the score? I laughed when she said that. I was like, “You’re crazy.” And she’s like, “What do you mean I’m crazy? You grew up with all my dancing and in the theater. You know all this stuff. I’d love it if you wrote this music.” So I was grumpy and went off and just said there’s no way. But what I realized was that she’d hit me with something that I wanted desperately. Sometimes we deny something we want at first. I remember going right back down to practice Brahms and stopping. I started thinking and I just started writing music. I kind of secretly did that for about a week and then I came to her and said, “I’ve got music. I’m giving it a try.” We sat down and we talked about it and played through it, and she said that’s exactly the kind of music I want. She knew me; obviously I’m her son and so she had an idea of how I might compose. And so that’s how that began.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour ballet based on Indian stories from the Northern Plains and Rockies. What I didn’t do was use traditional tunes because I didn’t want to just start ripping off tunes from other tribes. I wanted to be careful about that. So [instead] I did stuff that sounded similar. It was more like [conveying] the ethos of it. In the middle of writing it, I was just so into it. It became very, very clear that that was something that I really wanted to do. So the ballet was premiered and performed and the Colorado Ballet performed it, which was really nice.
After that, I went right back to school. I was at [the] Cleveland [Institute of Music] as a piano major. I didn’t even know who [the composition professor] Don Erb was, but when I came back to school I went to see Dr. Erb and I said, “I’m a piano major here. You don’t know me, but I want to do this and I want to do it right.” And he said he was really concerned because double majoring is really difficult—it takes a lot of time and he generally discourages that. And I said I’m going to do it anyway, so I either do it right with you, or I just do it by myself. And he said, “Let’s do it then.” I guess he appreciated my audacity and my gumption.
Immediately I called my dad and I said that I need learn our tribal music. It was really great to have this splurge with Northern Plains and Rockies music, but I really wanted to focus on Chickasaw stuff. It was something I just took for granted pretty much as a kid. I didn’t really focus on it. But when I was composing, that’s when it became incredibly important to me. So I started learning our music.
That’s pretty much how that evolved. I feel like my parents both have given me the perfect way in which to express myself fully as a human being. I don’t see myself doing anything else. It just feels right.