A Fireside Chat with Jack DeJohnette
“ A lot of what I am involved in, the discipline of being able to improvise... and spontaneously create a sonic work of musical art in the moment. That is something I like to stay connected with. ”
A gal pal of mine turned me onto Bitches Brew (pre- A Love Supreme/Bitches Brew, I was an '80s new wave junkie). This eventually led to my purchase of Live-Evil (the most underrated and killing '70s Miles record). On both sessions is one Jack DeJohnette, who made his bones with the iconic trumpeter, but is best known for his integral role in what has become affectionately Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio. His discography reads like a jazz uber-saxophonists list: Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Lloyd, and Michael Brecker. As a leader, DeJohnette has been just as accommodating to aficionados of the tenor and alto, employing Bennie Maupin, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, John Purcell, Gary Thomas, and Greg Osby. On a recent visit through the Windy City, DeJohnette sat down with the Roadshow. Ladies and gents, the heaviest drummer of my time, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Jack DeJohnette: I was always drawn to it when I was a kid. My uncle was Roy Wood, a famous journalist and a prominent person in the broadcasting network. He was into jazz and I used to listen to his records and that kind of got me into jazz. And of course, I had piano lessons. I listened to all kinds of music on the radio, but I really got into jazz more seriously as a teenager and my uncle became a jazz teacher. I got into then. I think the first influences were Ahmad Jamal as far as piano was concerned and Vernell Fournier in the Ahmad Jamal Trio and it goes on from there.
FJ: What intrigued you about Ahmad Jamal?
JD: Well, Ahmad Jamal was always ahead of his time. In fact, he is such an important figure among a lot of other musicians, particularly Red Garland and Miles Davis. In fact, that particular trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier influenced the rhythm section that Miles had with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. You could hear Ahmad come out and do "But Not for Me" and "Billy Boy" and you'd hear Miles come out on his albums with some of the same songs that he heard Ahmad play.
FJ: When did you begin focusing on the drums?
JD: It was just naturally. I actually had a trio that used to play for dances and things like that and the drummer left his drums at my house. I would listen to my uncle's jazz records and go down to the basement and start playing drums. But with the records, I just became a natural drummer. I taught myself to play drums well enough to start working on both instruments. Eddie Harris hired me for a while and he said to me, "You play good piano, but you play better drums. You should make drums your main instrument." At the time, I wanted to do both. Eventually, when I came to New York, I got hired as a drummer by John Patton. I decided then that I would make drums my main instrument. Since I have had experience playing the piano, it gave me another kind of insight to playing the drum set in an orchestral manner.
FJ: Conversely, do you play the piano percussively?
JD: Sometimes, I play pianistically. I had trios and a quartet. I played with singers. I played solo piano around Chicago and all over the place. I played blues and I used to practice on both instruments all day long, but unfortunately, I didn't have the time to do that.
FJ: Elaborate on your approach to the drums.
JD: Well, I hear the drum set and tune the drum set as a musical instrument, so I tune it in intervals and I also create, with the help of Sabian, the cymbal company, my own cymbals. I look for a particular sound. I hear overtones and chords in the cymbals as well as the drums. I am hearing orchestrally. I guess one example would be the cymbals are to my drum set what the sustain pedal is on the acoustic piano. So I am hearing colors. I consider myself somebody who colors the music.
FJ: Let's touch on your tenure with the Charles Lloyd Quartet.
JD: Originally, we did do some things with Gabor Szabo and Reggie Workman and Gabor left to form his own band and I had been working previously with Cecil McBee in a variety of circumstances. I had heard Keith Jarrett play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and then Charles asked, "What about a pianist?" I told him Keith Jarrett and he said, "What about a bassist?" I suggested Cecil McBee and that's how that happened. It was a very interesting time that period, the mid-Sixties. The flower power generation and the civil rights movement and things like that were happening then. A music entrepreneur Bill Graham, who was really an amazing guy and had a lot of vision, was one of the first guys that decided to put together the new electric bands and bring some jazz crossover groups and put them on the same bill. When we first started with that group, Charles Lloyd, we went to Europe a lot and we had a couple of crossover hits. Charles had "Forest Flower" and "Sombrero Sam," so these became pretty popular songs and crossed over. And the band was really pretty experimental, but able to be experimental and communicate to an audience. We would do bills with Big Brother & Holding Company, which featured Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Al Kooper, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. We would do some of those kinds of things and so it was a pretty exciting period.
FJ: Did you leave Lloyd's band to play with Miles?
JD: In between that period, I freelanced a lot and I think I played with Bill Evans. Miles heard me playing with Jackie McLean and so I would always see Miles and Miles always had an ear out for drummers. Jackie had similar tastes in drummers, so whenever the word got out that a new drummer was in town, a lot of people would come around and check us out. So Miles came around to hear me play and consequently, Tony wasn't available to do some gigs with the band and Miles called me. The first time I played with him was with Wayne and Herbie and Ron Carter. I had played with Miles previously to the Bitches Brew period. It was pretty cool and a lot of fun.
FJ: Provide some insights into the man that has become an icon of this music and its culture.
JD: I think the first misconception is that apart from the fact that Miles had style and the fact that he was very much aware of his influence, not only on music, but on the artistic scene in general. First and foremost, Miles was serious about the music. He was really about that and he was really about listening to the musicians. He enjoyed listening to the musicians that he had play with him. Everything else was after that, the cars, women. Everything else like that was secondary, but the music was the first thing. It was his love. He could read people very well. He was very intuitive and later on in his life, got very spiritual. He loved the drums and he loved musicians who were thinking musicians and would think for themselves and provide him and stimulate him in a way and he in turn would do the same thing to the players. He had a point to his sound that brought together all the elements that were going on behind him.
FJ: How did your relationship with Manfred Eicher and his ECM label come to pass?
JD: Actually, it came through Keith Jarrett. Keith was telling me about Manfred. First of all, Manfred was a musician. He played bass. He was into choral music earlier in his life and so he is involved with music. He really loved classical music, but he also loved the avant-garde music. He wasn't so crazy about bebop so much, but he liked the offshoots of that and the things that came from that like Ornette and some of the other players, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, and Miles. So he had this vision. He had a vision. He also was fascinated with film, art films and things like that. He looked at recording music like a film producer would look at it, sounds and get the feel in the mixing. Capture the essence of good quality sound. Keith mentioned that here was this guy who brings his own microphones to the dates and so forth. Our first recording was Ruta and Daitya (with Keith Jarrett), which we produced ourselves when we were with Miles. We were out in California and a friend of mine had a studio and let us go in for three or four hours and we improvised this music and came out with Ruta and Daitya. Then after that, I started doing some more recordings with other people and then the Directions band was my first recording as a leader. Actually, Fred, Directions started before ECM because I was recording for Fantasy and Prestige. The Directions band actually started there and that had John Abercrombie, Peter Warren, and Alex Foster. That was the Cosmic Chicken album. That was the first Directions band. Then Directions again appeared with Directions on ECM, which had Warren Bernhardt on piano, Mike Richmond on bass, and John on guitar, and Alex Foster. That was the start of a series of Directions records. I started doing a lot of guest appearances with other musicians like Pat Metheny and Ralph Towner and John Surman and Jan Garbarek and the Gateway Trio. That was the suggestion of Manfred's that we do something with the Gateway Trio. Out of that came different combinations of different musicians. Later on, I had the New Directions band, which was really a great band with Lester Bowie, Eddie Gomez, and John.
FJ: Why didn't you record more with the New Directions band?
JD: It was just hard to keep everybody together. I loved that band. I miss Lester because he was such a character. He had great imagination.
FJ: You featured Arthur Blythe and David Murray in your Special Edition group.
JD: That was with Peter Warren. There were quite a few incarnations of that group because then Chico Freeman came in and then John Purcell. We had David Murray and then we had Howard Johnson and then Rufus Reid came in and played bass. That was Album, Album. Then came Greg Osby and Greg Thomas and Mick Goodrich. Then Michael Cain joined and stayed in the group for seven or eight years. Greg left and then I had a guitarist, Marvin Sewell, who came in and we did one album. It was called Extra Special Edition for the Blue Note label and Bobby McFerrin joined us for that. That was an experimental record and it was nice. Then I did some things with Michael Cain and Steve Gorn, Dancing with Nature Spirits and then Oneness with Michael Cain and Jerome Harris, who is with us here in Chicago and Don Alias on percussion.
FJ: When did the trio with Gary Peacock and Keith Jarrett become known as the Standards Trio?
JD: I don't know, I guess after we just started playing standards. I mean, the first record we did was a Gary Peacock album, Tales of Another. That kind of brought us together and then we decided to call it the Keith Jarrett Trio. No, actually, it was the three names really and then people started calling it the Standards, and Standards stuck with us because it had a double meaning. We all played standards and we had a standard level of improvisation and quality of music that was a high standard. So it had a double meaning. The other thing about it was that we were all tremendously influenced by the Ahmad Jamal Trio. We had that in common. The idea was that we could play standards and the idea was for it not to be a band, so rather than have arrangements, we did standards or free improvisation. You need a vehicle that we could use to create improvised music on. We said that we would do it until we don't feel like doing it. Twenty years later, we are still doing it.
FJ: The majority of the trio's recordings have been in a live setting. Why?
JD: Well, you get the spontaneity of the audience. Keith likes to document the developments of the trio. There is some magic you can capture. You take a risk. You never know what is going to come out. What makes it worthwhile is the challenge of keeping it fresh and trying to generate something that feeds ourselves spiritually, musically, and emotionally and also can feed our audience especially in the turbulent times we are in right now.
FJ: How is Keith's health?
JD: He is a lot better now. He is a lot better. He is playing great and Gary too. It has been really fantastic. Recently, I have been involved with, John Surman and I, it is interesting because in twenty-one years, we have only done three CDs. Occasionally, we would do some touring in Europe. I said to John that we needed to record live because what we do live is very interesting. So we did a tour a few years ago and recorded live and got something really great towards the end of the tour and came out with Invisible Nature. We are both similar. Of course, John and I go back a long time, so there is a relationship there, a personal one and a musical one. Our references are kind of similar. John uses electronics, uses sequences and things like that, keyboards, and so was I. He was doing solo performances and we got together and found that we sort of had something in common. We had a language and we spoke the same language. Also, we were involved in spontaneous improvisation, spontaneous compositions, as well as written ones. A lot of what I am involved in, the discipline of being able to improvise and create and spontaneously create a sonic work of musical art in the moment. That is something I like to stay connected with. I try to surround myself with musicians who are more than competent in that area. The Free and Equal with the London Brass, which was great to do.
FJ: Are you going to continue your association in Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet?
JD: Yeah, when something comes up and is interesting, we do a couple of hits, but only when it is special selected things. I am doing the rest of this year with Keith and I am also hosting the Montreal Jazz Festival this year. They have two artists over a two week period.
FJ: What are you featuring during your week?
JD: I am actually going to be doing something with Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland, and then a musician who is from Africa, but lives here in Chicago, Foday Musa Suso. He and I have been doing some duet stuff together, which leads me to the next thing I am doing. I have a website up now and I am starting a production company and producing my own products and my own music. That is one of the projects. Another one is a duet with Don Alias and I. I am also involved in healing music, relaxation music. I am doing some music for that area as well.
FJ: The times always seem to be behind you.
JD: It is just staying in the moment and staying attached to the musicians and what is going on with the world.
C. Andrew Hovan