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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.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.