John Engels: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Joan Gannij By

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On turning 80: "I have no sense of the time. I'm timeless. I'll keep swinging til it's time to go to the other dimension."
Drummer John Engels has the energy of two forty-year olds, which is pretty impressive, since he will soon be turning 80. He will celebrate this auspicious occasion with the Vogel Vrij (Free as a Bird) tour, a series of concerts at diverse venues throughout the Netherlands (with saxophonists Benny Golson and Benjamin Herman) which began in April and continues through October. A book was also recently published in Dutch: Hé Vogel, Wanneer Spelen We Weer?: Het Muzikale Leven van John Engels (Hey, Bird. When Can We Play Again? The Musical Life of John Engels) by Jeroen van Valk. Van Gennep Amsterdam)

On May 13 at the Bimhuis, Amsterdam's legendary jazz club, Engels will play with three groups: the Louis Van Dijk trio, his newly-formed John Engels Kwintet, and Barnicle Bill XL. The original line-up of the Louis Van Dijk trio will be reunited for this special event. Pianist van Dijk founded the trio in 1964, who collaborated with such international luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones and Slide Hampton. "I have fantastic memories with Louis," Engels reflects. "We could play what we wanted back then, and in our own way. We also had commercial work, so we could mix the water with the wine."

For the first time in his more than six-decade career, Engels has formed a quintet under his own name. This dream formation will pay tribute to the famous The Diamond Five, the group (featuring John) which created a furor in 1957-1961 in Amsterdam's jazz club Sheherazade. Celebrating its fifth anniversary is the Barnicle Bill Trio, the group that made its debut at a sold-out Bimhuis for John's 75th birthday concert. The band will perform in its extended version, Barnicle Bill XL. The program includes music by Theo Loevendie, composer and saxophonist, who has been a friend of Engels since the 1950s. He was originally meant to play with the band, but had to bow out because of health reasons. He will be replaced by Tineke Postma or Jan Menu. Loevendie has done arrangements for several pieces which he and Engels have performed and recorded in the past. This music has played an important role in the development of Dutch jazz.

I have seen Engels perform with a variety of musicians on the Bimhuis stage over the years. He is always immersed, engaged, elegant, and clearly in his comfort zone. When I visited him for a recent chat on a broad tree-lined street outside the city center, I had to smile that the Dutch translation of that street's name is Broadway. John loves New York, and his multi-roomed duplex is chock full of framed photos, records, CDs, books, instruments. A razzle dazzle collection of memorabilia worthy of a New York jazz archive, casually juxtaposed with cats: photographs, drawings, some plush animal versions. Although he doesn't cohabit with any at the moment, there are a few cheeky felines who come by for an occasional overnight and a bowl of food. After all, it takes one hip cat to recognize another.

When he heard that I was born in New York City, we jumped right into our love of the 24/7 energy and the endless events taking place in every part of town. He was instantly in his element, regaling me with one story after the other. "Mel Lewis said, John, you should come to NY. It was 1982 and I stayed for three months. He took me to all the places. Every Monday I was in the Vanguard watching and listening. We didn't talk about the drums or the rudiments of the music. We only listened, and we talked later. It's the most swinging town in the word. I'd like to go in a time machine, so I could go back to being 16 and be in NY. New York is the jazz mecca, as well as New Orleans, but for me the Bimhuis is the Jazz Temple." Engels has played on the Bimhuis stages for 40 years, and artistic director Huub van Riel reflects on the drumming dynamo: "I know very few musicians, especially of the older generation, who have remained so curious about developments in the music. Throughout all these years, John has showed up at an enormous variety of gigs, including the most adventurous new music, and he probably will continue to do so."

The first jazz concert John Engels ever attended was with his father at the KNW concert hall in the Hague in 1952. "I was 17, and it was with Duke Ellington and his Big Band, which featured two drummers. One of them was Sonny Greer, the other name I forget, but it was so fantastic. I thought, I've gotta do that, play the drums." he says with a broad smile. "But that was niks for my father, who didn't want me to go in the business. "There were already three drummers in the family: his grandfather, an uncle and his father. John was the oldest of 13 children growing up in Groningen (far north in the Netherlands), and like his sister and two brothers, would learn to play himself. "Nobody taught me," he says proudly. "I'm an autodidact." As he tells it, he left home at 17 and went to the Conservatory in the Hague. "The teacher, who knew my Daddy, said, 'play something.' I played a bit, but then he stopped me, saying: 'we have a problem. You're left handed. We have to turn the drums around, you need to wook with your right hand.' I said goodbye and, with all respect for the teacher, walked out."

He got his first break a year later when Pia Beck, a pianist who ran the Flying Dutchman club in Scheveningen (a beach town outside the Hague), hired him for a Mary Lou Williams gig. "All I had was a snare drum, high hat and a cymbal. I didn't know all the tunes, it wasn't so good, but I was a fast learner. She heard something in me." He soon crossed paths with Kid Dynamite, the legendary tenor saxophonist known for his Afro-Surinamese sound. ""I went with him to Dusseldorf and we played every night until the last client left. I was 18 and the only white player in the orchestra. I learned so much playing with him." After that, he did gigs with orchestras (big bands) throughout Europe. "We played from nine to midnight and then went to clubs where we jammed with young American soldiers. One pianist said I should go to America." Engels was developing his own style, and recalls: "We had two fantastic drummers in the Netherlands," citing Cees See and Wessel Ilcken as someone he admired. Like most fledgling musicians, he says he "took a little from everyone." If you ask him to describe his style, he says simply. "I make music. I just play the songs and keep it in sync, that's the most important thing. I like to give breathing space. For a solo, I improvise on the theme. I only have the melody in my head, except when I have a chance to play free. Free and happy. Now that's something else completely."

In the mid-60s he got immersed in the Dutch avant-garde scene with local visionaries Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, Martin van Duynhoven, Theo Loevendie. "I love Han," he says, referring to the iconoclastic drummer. "We've known each other for a very long time. He's a natural player, too. I played with Han, I did all the free things with him and Theo. I had to get used to the new direction, to play freer, open, with color. I love to play all kinds of music, but I wanted to develop in another manner, to go back to the roots, because the roots are important. I need five more lives for the music... and I still don't know anything. It's like the universum. There is no end." Over the next decades, the genial, high energy drummer played with the who's who of jazz cats. Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Don Byas, Arnett Cobb, Kenny Drew, Phil Woods, Woody Shaw, James Moody,Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, and many others. There were always after-hours jam sessions after their concerts at the Carré theatre and you never knew who would show up.

It might be easier to mention who Engels hasn't played with, although it is important to note that he and his band opened for Monk at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw in 1961. "I feel so privileged to have played with all those guys," he says quietly. "When you play with these people, you have the interaction with the inspiration." He maintains that the most important thing in the band is the rhythm section. "The bass and drums must click, you need to be on the same wavelength, it's like a marriage. Playing with Ron Carter, I felt something I've never felt before, and with Ray Brown, it was a fantastic experience. I met Buddy Rich twice at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Of all the million drummers, there's only one Buddy Rich; he and Mel Lewis are both great. But I like all the drummers: Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Art Blakey,Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins and much more. They are all natural players. I love to play with everybody. If this is in the right place (he pats his heart), that's the most important thing. I learned from them all, and what they have in common is the love of the music and the love of the instrument. Everyone is unique and has got something, but the most essential thing is personality....and respect."

"Whoever I play with, wherever I play, every time it's new. I start out stressed, and after four bars I know what's going on,. Then I go into another dimension and lose a sense of time. Playing music is about telepathy, taking it to another level even though you play the same phrases. I had that with Chet. When I was very young I wanted to play with Chet. I was at my lowest point in 84, (following his wife Erica's death), and I made a recording Chet Sings Again. He passed on my birthday, May 13, Shelly Manne too." He is very quiet now. We drink our tea in silence, probably remembering where we were that night when the fragile trumpeter drifted out of that Amsterdam hotel window. "Of course, he inspired me. I learned about concentration, and continuing to come up with new ideas. If I play something ten times, it's different each time. Chet opened a door for me, but it was another dimension."

Like most successful people who transcend age, Engels keeps his options open, constantly listening, learning. He confides that his intention "is to have fun, keep things light. I think broad, I'm open. I like to know what the young cats think. I love to give people a chance. I don't like to be negative. When I work with them, I try not to be hard. If someone's blocked I feel it right away. With drummers the first thing to ask, is do they have the swing? These days it's too much about technique. It has to be in sync, and you have to have soulfulness, emotions. I say to the young guys, if you play something, you have to tell the story. They play too many notes." What's next for this free flying bird? He shrugs and says: "I have no sense of the time. I'm timeless. I'll keep swinging til it's time to go to the other dimension."

Photo credit: Jeroen Hofman

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