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Interviews

Jack DeJohnette: Time and Space

By Published: January 9, 2012

Growing Up Eclectic

All told, Sound Travels may be the most flat-out eclectic album of DeJohnette's career, and he wouldn't have it any other way. "It seems to me that people who are running around in their mid-60s or mid-70s now were around when [radio] programmers were eclectic—when FM was the new frontier," DeJohnette explains. "It was much freer that way. At this point, because of the way things are, you just don't worry about it anymore. Of course I was aware of time. You don't have to wait to get into the melodies and everything; they come right to you, right away, because most peoples' attention spans (not all peoples') are shorter.


From left: Miles Davis, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette


The only other record in DeJohnette's catalog that's as expansively diverse is an album he released in 1992 that has, sadly, largely fallen through the cracks. "That's Music for the Fifth World (Manhattan, 1992)," says DeJohnette, "but now no one knows about it because at that particular time, I couldn't get the personnel to make live appearances. And also, because it was electric and rock and Native American and all that, it was diverse and they [the record label] didn't know what to do with it. Because I wasn't signed to Blue Note here in the States—I had a deal with EMI in Japan, which leased its music to Blue Note or Manhattan—I was able to do it, thanks to the producer, Mr. [Hitoshi] Namekata. He was kind of a maverick, he liked the idea, that kind of stuff, and he supported me, so I had the funds to produce something like that, because that was a big production. I'm glad that was documented.

The eclecticism of the '60s/'70s— a time when it was possible to hear John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, The Byrds and Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd
b.1964
band/orchestra
in the same half hour, on the same radio station—has clearly not been lost on DeJohnette. Though being born during World War II meant he was already a busy professional by that time— first in Chicago, and then in New York, to where he moved in 1966, with the support of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams
Muhal Richard Abrams
Muhal Richard Abrams
b.1930
piano
, one of the key figures in the emergence of the Windy City's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—his early years were spent learning how to play in a wide variety of styles, before coming to jazz in his mid-teens. "I was getting into drums then, as well as playing the piano. Then I heard Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
's Live at the Pershing (Argo, 1958), and I started taking jazz much more seriously," says DeJohnette.

"I really started to apply myself to it, practicing three or four hours a day, and just immersing myself in the music—into jazz. I was playing all kinds of music at the time; I kinda dropped out of high school for about a year, and I started working professionally, playing jazz—first as a pianist, and later as a drummer. I was 18, 19, somewhere around there. There were so many great musicians and so many places to go hear the music ... and jam sessions; all the great musicians were coming through. We had an amazing array of diverse musicians in Chicago, too; we had Sun Ra
Sun Ra
Sun Ra
1914 - 1993
keyboard
, who I played with on and off when he was in Chicago; and Muhal Richard Abrams, who was really inspirational and helped me decide to go to New York. He was a mentor, and he hipped me to musical things and personal things. He created an alternative for musicians like myself and [saxophonist] Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell
b.1940
reeds
—and, later, [trumpeter] Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
1941 - 1999
trumpet
. So I had that aspect, and then regular gigs— blues gigs, show-tune gigs.

"But back to Ahmad; Live at the Pershing was sort of a pivotal record that made me sit up and think, 'Wow, that's amazing,'" DeJohnette enthuses. "I had a trio in high school, with other classmates, playing some of the tunes, like 'But Not for Me.' Another drummer left his drums in my basement, and there was also Vernell Fournier
Vernell Fournier
Vernell Fournier
1928 - 2000
drums
, who really fascinated me with his brushwork, so I went out and bought a pair of brushes and started practicing. I started playing with some jazz records, because my uncle was a jazz DJ, so I had access to them. I'd go to sessions to watch the drummers, and listen to records, and eventually I developed my drumming as well as my piano playing.

While DeJohnette eventually moved to New York—because, as he explains, "a lot of places were turning into Go-Go clubs, and I'd exhausted all the places to play, so New York, which was the Mecca, that's where you go"—he'd had plenty of memorable experiences in his hometown, like sitting in with John Coltrane. "My first encounter with Coltrane was in Chicago. I'd seen him many times, and there was one night when Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
hadn't made it back for the last set, and this was a club I'd frequently played at, sitting in at the jam sessions. I was able to hold my own pretty good, and by that time I'd been practicing with a lot of Miles and Coltrane records, like [the saxophonist's] My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961), which was a hit at that time.

"So the place is packed," DeJohnette continues, "and the club owner says to Coltrane, 'Listen, it's late, people are waiting, let's use Jack DeJohnette—he's good, he's a young drummer that plays at a lot of my jam sessions.' This would be early '60s, maybe 1962- 63. Anyway, John didn't question it, he just nodded his head, and I followed him up to the bandstand, and we played a few songs. And it was so great, because here I was playing with John Coltrane. I was a little nervous, but we played two or three tunes—I think we played 'I Want to Talk About You' and 'Mr. PC,' and a couple other things. We were about to play 'Favorite Things' when Elvin came in and thanked me for filling in for him. The next time I played with Coltrane was back in Chicago again, but later, in '65 or '66, and that was a totally different ball game, with [pianist] Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
1937 - 2007
piano
, [bassist] Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
1934 - 1976
bass, acoustic
, [saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
b.1940
saxophone
, and another drummer—the late, great Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
1935 - 2009
drums
."

By 1965-66, Coltrane was deep into his exploration of freer territories, but as much as his reputation at the time was for playing "out there," DeJohnette disagrees with popular thinking of the time. "I think it was less out there," DeJohnette explains. "What appeared to be out there for the people was more in there, because it was about the sound of the music. A lot of people were used to playing, to hearing an established 4/4 sound; all of that was in there, and of course, I was primed for the music that John was playing, having played with Muhal and Roscoe Mitchell in Chicago prior to that, and with Sun Ra. But it was about the sound that John was talking about. I remember John saying, 'I know it sounds raw and untogether, but there's something in the sound that I'm hearing.' And it was the collective sound of it that was what was happening. But a lot of people just thought it was avant-garde—everybody just playing and not listening. But Rashied was listening, creating this amazing multidirectional sort of turbulence or atmosphere where you could go anywhere you want.

"The thing is, most musicians who say they play free—let's take, for example, Keith [Jarrett]. When he's playing free, he's playing a structure. He knows where he's going; he's creating a roadmap. If you say it's jazz or free jazz, and you listen to something like Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
's Change of the Century (Atlantic, 1959), and people say, 'Oh no, that's free jazz,' no it wasn't—it was organized. The first time I heard it, people were getting into arguments about Ornette, and about no chord changes, but it's obvious, if you listen to the control he had on the saxophone, that he came through Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. He even went so far as to write some Bird-like tunes on Change of the Century. There was a pianist, Walter Norris
Walter Norris
Walter Norris
1931 - 2011
piano
, and it was funny, because when he asked Ornette what he wanted, Ornette said, 'Just play how you play.' [chuckles] That's all he wanted; all he wanted was for Walter to be himself."

DeJohnette even goes so far as to draw comparisons between the sound of so-called free jazz and contemporary classical music. "The thing about free jazz, and I explain this to people: people will go sit and listen to classical music—something written that sounds like free jazz, and they'll listen to it. There's a context—written versus something played spontaneously which, if it was written, people would listen to in a different way. It amazes me. 'Oh that's not jazz, it's free jazz; they don't know what they're doing.' And yet, if someone transcribed it and put it in a classical context and said, 'This is so-and-so, and it was written by so-and-so,' people would sit down and listen to it seriously."


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