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Jack DeJohnette: Painting With Sticks

George Colligan By

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GC: I would encourage them to take up a melodic instrument — although the drums themselves are melodic, if you learn how to tune them in such a way that they are melodic. But I would advise them to learn harmony, play guitar or piano, or vibraphone, and develop their reading skills. Learn the basic rudiments but then learn how to play music. The whole idea is that rudiments and scales are merely tools to help you develop your own language, and the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. It's unlimited. The biggest thing is to challenge yourself to come up with something different that you never played before that you won't play again. I realize that everybody has their vocabulary and voice and kind of lines that they play or rhythms that they play that you can tell their signature, but in that you come up with something different if you try.

GC: Right.

JD: Like Miles Davis, or Wayne Shorter for example; they have their style, but within that style, they manage to come up with new ideas out of it. And that's the challenge, not to be cliché but to play something and say, "Oh man, that's something different."

GC: There are so many jazz students that are learning jazz only in a school environment, but earlier generations didn't learn everything in a jazz program. They learned by playing local gigs or hanging out with older cats, [and] listening to records. Do you think that the aesthetic of doing your own thing was part of the environment back then?

JD: Well, that's what was inspiring, hearing those guys like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane and the freshness with which they played. Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, etc... They're continuously coming up with new ways of expressing their creativity through the music and I think that's still present today. I think the challenge for musicians is to have the courage to maintain their own voice. Now people can get more work if they play like somebody else.

GC: Right.

JD: And they might work less if they play like themselves and that's when I think musicians have to be more courageous. It's your voice, you know? That's how you sound. That's you. That's your identity, and try to develop that and make that work in different situations. That's how you get hired.

GC: Is that something you always had, that confidence? You were always comfortable with your own sound? I think that's how a lot of younger players understandably have problems with that. It's not being like an egomaniac; it's just sort of being comfortable on stage, comfortable with your own voice.

JD: Well, it has to do with your environment, like the environment I came up in; we hung out at each other's houses. There were a lot of jam sessions, so you got a lot of on the job training playing before an audience, getting feedback from musicians and the audience as to whether you were doing good. I spent a lot of time with a tape recorder. That and a mirror helped me a lot, a tape recorder playing the records and listening back to myself and then doing research and development on myself.

GC: Interesting.

JD: Like, "Oh, that's too harsh, oh let me change that, oh my touch is too harsh, its too forceful." So that helps, you know, you're listening back to yourself for critical analysis. I think that's important, as far as playing the drums, any instrument; just watching how your body is when you play, see where the tension is. Because the whole thing is to have the right balance of relaxedness, relaxation and tension in your body when you play and be totally there in the moment, and not somewhere else, but focused on the moment. And, if you're focused, you don't have to make yourself be focused. In this band, everybody's focused because this is a player's band, and it's a listening band, so everybody really listens intently to each other, and I think that's what helps. Everybody in this band has their voice, which becomes a unified collective voice in the music. Although it's my compositions, it's our music because everybody's bringing their ideas.

GC: That's why you assembled this band of myself, Rudresh Mahanthappa, David Fiuczynski, and Jerome Harris. You wanted everybody to contribute in their own way?

JD: I got that from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, to get musicians you can trust to govern themselves. I think the one thing that made musicians play well for Miles, and for Herbie; the musicians always knew Miles was listening to them, so they were playing for him.

GC: Many of the musicians who played with Miles that I have been around say that Miles rarely said anything about the music.

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