Good Vibrations

The unique sound of Jack DeJohnette

Volume 117, No. 2February, 2017

Jack DeJohnette.
Photo: Carlos Pericás

In a career that spans five decades and includes collaborations with some of the most iconic figures in modern jazz, NEA Jazz Master and Grammy winner Jack DeJohnette, a member of Local 802 for four decades, has established an unchallenged reputation as one of the greatest drummers in the history of the genre. The list of creative associations throughout his career is lengthy and diverse: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter and so many more. Along the way, he has developed a versatility that allows room for hard bop, R&B, world music, avant-garde, and just about every other style to emerge in the past half-century.

Born in Chicago in 1942, DeJohnette began studying classical piano privately at the age of 4 and later took lessons at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He added the drums to his repertoire when he joined his high school concert band at age 14. By the mid-1960s, he had entered the Chicago jazz scene – as a leader as well as a sideman on both piano and drums. He experimented with rhythm, melody and harmony as part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians during the group’s early days, and later drummed alongside Rashied Ali in the John Coltrane Quintet.

In 1968, DeJohnette joined Miles Davis’s group just prior to the recording of “Bitches Brew,” an album that triggered a seismic shift in jazz and permanently changed the direction of the music. He stayed with Davis for three years, making important contributions to prominent Davis recordings like “Live-Evil” and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” (both in 1971) and “On the Corner” (1972).

During this same period, DeJohnette also recorded his first albums as a leader, beginning with “The DeJohnette Complex” in 1968 on Milestone. He followed up with “Have You Heard” in 1970, then switched to Prestige, where he released “Sorcery” in 1974 and “Cosmic Chicken” in 1975.

The mid 1970s were marked by a series of groups and projects – many leaning toward the experimental side of jazz, including the Gateway Trio (featuring Dave Holland and John Abercrombie), Directions (with Abercrombie and saxophonist Alex Foster), and New Directions (Abercrombie, with Eddie Gomez on bass). Special Edition remained active into the 1990s. DeJohnette has worked extensively with Jarrett as part of a longstanding trio with Gary Peacock. The threesome will celebrate its 34th anniversary in 2017.

In the 90s, DeJohnette’s led and recorded a touring quartet consisting of himself, Holland, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. The results were captured on the landmark recording “Parallel Realities.” In 1992, he released “Music for a Fifth World,” an album inspired by Native American culture that also included appearances by Vernon Reid and John Scofield. Given the diversity of players and styles that he had embraced by this point, DeJohnette was already describing his music in the 90s as “multidimensional.”

As the new century got under way, DeJohnette continued to look forward with a series of ambitious recordings and other musical projects. In 2004, he recorded and toured with two Grammy-nominated groups – Out of Towners, with Jarrett and Peacock, and Ivey Divey, which featured Don Byron and Jason Moran. He assembled the Latin Project in 2005, with percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Luisito Quintero, reedman Don Byron, pianist Edsel Gomez and bassist Jerome Harris. Other projects in 2005 included the Jack DeJohnette Quartet, featuring Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Harris, and the Beyond Trio, a group that celebrated the music of drummer Tony Williams, featuring John Scofield and Larry Goldings.

He also launched his own imprint, Golden Beams Productions, in 2005. His first two recordings on the new label were “Music from the Hearts of the Masters,” a duet recording with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso, and a relaxation and meditation album entitled “Music in the Key of Om,” featuring DeJohnette on synthesizer and resonating bells. The latter recording was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Age Album category. He closed the year with the release of “Hybrids,” a weave of African jazz, reggae and dance music that featured Foday Musa Suso and an international cast of guest artists.

Two live recordings emerged in 2006: “The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers” (Golden Beams), which captured DeJohnette’s first musical encounter with guitarist Bill Frisell at the Earshot Festival in Seattle in 2001, and “Saudades” (ECM), a 2004 London concert showcasing the music of Tony Williams featuring John Scofield and Larry Goldings.

DeJohnette continued to explore African music in 2007 via the Intercontinental project, a partnership with South African singer Sibongile Khumalo that included a successful European tour. Other initiatives in 2007 included studio gigs and tour dates with Bruce Hornsby, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. He also appeared on Michael Brecker’s posthumously released final Grammy Award winning album, “Pilgrimage.”

The touring continued in 2008, along with the recording of a trio album with Patitucci and Perez during a snowstorm near DeJohnette’s home in upstate New York. The sessions resulted in “Music We Are,” released in April 2009. DeJohnette’s “Peace Time” won a Grammy in 2009 for Best New Age Album.

The Grammy is just one of many awards that DeJohnette has received over the years, beginning in 1979 with the French Grand Prix Disc and Charles Cros awards. He has figured consistently in readers’ polls and critics’ polls conducted by Downbeat and JazzTimes over the past two decades. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music in 1991, and was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society’s Hall of Fame in 2010. Marking his 70th birthday in 2012, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship in recognition of his extraordinary life achievements and contributions to advancing the jazz art form, and for serving as a mentor for a new generation of aspiring young jazz musicians.

More than any awards and accolades, though, DeJohnette continues to make the creative process his highest priority. To that end, his most recent recordings are collaborations with long-time Chicago legends Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. A live recording from the Chicago Jazz Festival released on ECM is entitled “Made In Chicago.”

Last year, he debuted “Return,” his very first solo piano album, as well as the album “In Movement” on ECM with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison.

In 2017, DeJohnette celebrates his 75th birthday with a newly formed group called HUDSON, featuring Larry Grenadier, John Medeski and John Scofield.

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with DeJohnette to hear about his life in music.

Jack DeJohnette.
Photo credit: James Adams

Bob Pawlo: How did your remarkable journey in music begin?

Jack DeJohnette: My uncle, Roy Wood, was the first black announcer on an FM radio station in Chicago. He was a big jazz fan and later became a DJ and journalist. He was a big influence on me. I actually started with piano lessons and started playing jazz gigs on piano around Chicago. Then I had a combo and the drummer kept his drums in my basement and that’s how I taught myself drums. I practiced four hours a day on the drums, four hours on the piano. People talk about drums and piano like they’re separate instruments, but they’re really both part of the percussion family. I knew I had reached a certain level on drums when I went to see John Coltrane at a local club in Chicago. His drummer Elvin Jones was late for the last set. The club owner knew me, and the place was packed, so he said to Trane, “Let Jack play. He’s a good player. He plays at the sessions.” And so John nodded his head. I went up and played three tunes with the quartet. That was a big shot of confidence. But I didn’t decide to make drumming my main instrument until I came to New York in 1964. After checking in at the YMCA, I went straight to Minton’s, where Freddie Hubbard was playing, and sat in. John Patton, the organist, was in the house, and he told me, “Hey man, if you got your own drum set, you got a gig.” So then I decided to stay in New York and of course, I never looked back after that.

Bob Pawlo: Was this around the time you joined the Charles Lloyd Quartet?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, yeah. I had met Charles already and had been playing with him. I brought in Cecil McBee. Charles asked me about finding a piano player. I had heard Keith Jarrett playing with Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers, and Charles had heard Keith in Boston. So, we both said, oh yeah, man; let’s get Keith. And that’s how the quartet was formed. Our first album “Dream Weaver” sold over a million copies, I think. The group was my first international gig. We went all over the world, even to the Soviet Union. It was very, very pivotal for me in terms of international success and exposure.

Bob Pawlo: I want to jump right to the big question. What was it like to play with Miles Davis?

Jack DeJohnette: Miles knew how to pick the best musicians and get the best out of them. Everybody wanted to play with Miles. He brought the best out in you, and we brought the best out in Miles. He was a visionary, and it was always on to the next thing. It was a great place to grow. The “Bitches Brew” sessions were basically jam sessions that were recorded constantly. There were vamps and a few notes and a few melodies here and there. They just kept the tape rolling. Miles experimented with grooves, and when the grooves got right, he’d cue different people to come in and solo. We just came in every day and experimented with things.

Bob Pawlo: Buddy Rich once said that he could tell just tell by the sound of the bass drum who the drummer was. Many of my drummer friends say they can hear a recording for a couple of seconds, and just by the sound of your cymbals, they know it’s you. Is this something you worked on – to get a distinctive sound on your instrument?

Jack DeJohnette: I think that’s what all great artists do, develop their own voices. Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Harold Jones all had distinctive cymbal sounds. They inspired me to develop the same thing, and so I worked on developing that. I was further encouraged when I started recording for ECM Records. Manfred Eicher fell in love with the way I utilized cymbals, so he started emphasizing that in the recordings. The cymbals have overtones and microtones – and so do the drums, depending on how you tune them. I think of cymbals as like the sustain pedal on a piano. I even designed my own set of cymbals for the Sabian cymbal company.

Bob Pawlo: In your mind, how does the drummer provide chemistry in the rhythm section?

Jack DeJohnette: Drummers need to listen really well, inspire the other musicians, be a team player, and know when to provide the fire, the intensity and the dynamics to the group. Be prepared to play what you don’t know, which is what we all learned from playing with Miles. You know, when I play with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, we use standards as a jumping-off point for improvisation. And Gary, Keith and myself all played with Miles, so we carry that lesson with us when we play. It’s always the element of surprise. Expect the unexpected.

Bob Pawlo: You’ve been quoted as saying the great moments in music are when there’s no past and there’s no future; there’s only the now.

Jack DeJohnette: Well, that’s when you can improvise. That’s where the “a-ha” moments come from. That’s just what we’re connected to, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Some are more conscious of it than others. Music is supposed to lift people’s spirits up and provide healing and a sanctuary where people can kind of regroup or reevaluate where they are. This is one of the reasons I started recording music for relaxation and meditation. Right now there’s so much chaos going on right now that I felt people needed some music that helps them relax, revive, regenerate, and find ways to navigate the choppy waters.

Bob Pawlo: How does living in the beautiful area of upstate New York help you get in that space?

Jack DeJohnette: It helps tremendously. I live up in the woods up here. I’m close to nature, and it helps me have some peace of mind. It helps me write music and revitalize myself so I can go back out in the world and try and play some music to help balance the unbalanced vibrations that are bouncing all over the planet right now.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to musicians starting their careers in this day and age?

Jack DeJohnette: It’s much harder now for the young players to make a living at this, because we’re dealing with this copyright stuff that’s been going on with the streaming sites and the lack of royalties going to the musicians. You have to figure out how to use social media and get yourself heard. You have to be an entrepreneur, really. I’m involved in the Fair Play Fair Pay campaign to help musicians get paid when they’re heard on AM/FM radio. Local 802 is fighting to level the playing field for musicians in these difficult times, and my friend, the late Bob Cranshaw, did so much work on behalf of fellow musicians. Together, we can make a difference.

Bob Pawlo: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing to Local 802 members and to musicians around the world who are hanging onto your every word?

Jack DeJohnette: Just stay strong, and try and do the best you can. When you play music, have fun with it. Don’t let it become a job. I think the role of music is to make this world a better place. The world needs music, and it also needs musicians who carry a good intention, so that when you play music, you’re providing a service for humanity.