In conversation with jack dejohnette
By Ted Panken
"I've always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist," Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. "Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now."
At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a curriculum vitae that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. His most recent CD, Music, We Are (Kindred Rhythm), was recorded with an equilateral-triangle-oriented trio that includes the pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci. During the group's April performance at New York City's Blue Note, DeJohnnette propelled the musical flow from behind a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated a sampler and his own customized bells; he also played the melodica. DeJohnette conjured an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.
This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project that included Jerome Harris on guitar. DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music which, he says, "needed guitar and six-string banjo." Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of Afro-Iberian music: several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a group called the Latin Project, a clave-centric unit (with Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to an elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, in which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-'70s group, Lifetime.
Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 bandmate with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds to assimilate, digest, and incorporate into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.
"I'm more refined now, but much looser in another way," DeJohnette reflected in 2005. "I'm taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I'm free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me."
Your trio with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci evolved from a quartet engagement four years ago on which Jerome Harris played guitar. Talk about its evolution.
We played for the first time as a trio at the Panama Jazz Festival, after playing as a group with Jerome in Europe, which had given us experience playing together. We were getting these wonderful grooves, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we put aside some time, and last February everybody came to upstate New York, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. In the DVD that comes in the package, I think Danilo and John both talk about how the music reaches a certain level of quality and risk-taking when we all play together. They feel they can take off and do things that they don't do in other situations, because I've got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. Even when you play abstract, there is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection. There is some kind of groove even if you can't state it as in 1-2-3-4.
There's also a lot of color.
You don't usually hear Danilo Perez playing synth-keyboard.
Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we're not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion.
John Patitucci also plays the six-string electric bass in this group. A few years ago, you told me that you'd written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish flavor, and you were hearing John and Danilo's sound with that. Is that the base on which you're now ...
No. It's taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There's plenty of room, even when it's busy. So there's lots of space, and each night the music is totally different—we take different approaches, and we're not afraid to follow where it might go. We have a great time! Also, this group connects with its audience—we connect with each other facially, and that rapport connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there's a lot of smiles and body language going on between us. It's like a shared, intimate thing, and it comes back from the audience.
You played on Danilo's first record in 1992. Did you meet then? Had you known him before?
I knew of Danilo, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that, anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.
How do you mean that?
Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors, and so on. When we were touring with Jerome in Europe, he was inspired, in a way, to develop certain things that he's playing now. There's a sort of multi-directional pulling—John plays in one direction, I play in another one, and Danilo is pulling in two or three ways, but we all know where we are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.
Yeah. It's like breathing. It's fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it's boring.
If I recall correctly, you first recorded with John Patitucci in '96 or '97.
We first recorded with Eugene Pao, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I said to him, 'Hey, you and Danilo would sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.' I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.
Before that, they played with Roy Haynes .
Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.
In 2005, when this group launched, you were simultaneously presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Project, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez. There was the duo with Foday Musa Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix project with your son-in-law, Ben Surman . You recently did a month with a group of African musicians?
Yes. I actually did it last month at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritania, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abba. She's like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but mostly it's a desert - very hot, no electricity .... At any rate, Dave met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn't do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She has a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled-in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She's like a goddess there. This soulful African, Moroccan, sort of Mali-ish ... she's got a lot of things. She's powerful, man. She's got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights at the museum.
I also noticed on your website a month-long tour in Europe last November with a South African singer.
The project you're talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino Cinelu in it, Jerome Harris, and a couple of British horn players: Byron Wallen on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small group—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She's from South Africa, from Johannesburg. I heard Sibongile in London, at the London Jazz Festival, and I thought, 'Oh, man, I want to play with her.' We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. She's amazing. She has a classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. It's like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. Sibongile is very much into dynamics. She'd written some pieces. That first band had Danilo, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I'd like to do it again at some point. It's a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she's going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.
We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody's availability. Of course, I'm still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I'm working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczynski on guitar, and playing here I'd have Don Byron in the horn section, but if I go to Europe I'd have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.
Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.
That's changed. I want to play some more of my music. I feel the need to do that. Also, I want to write some new music. It's fun playing my music! I haven't been writing prolifically for a while, so that's coming back. The juices are flowing.
In the '90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That's not so much in the picture these days, is it?
Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they're struggling with that.
As are you, I'd think.
Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. We knew this release was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more by the Music, We Are trio, and also a group led by me.
As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Bill Frisell, and your New Age record, for which you earned a Grammy nomination, and which I'm sure has sold a ton of units.
No, not yet. But it's definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.
You're a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You're a force. What sort of people do you look for to play with?
I'm looking for people like David Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris— people who are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances. And like to interact. I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don't know about themselves. That's the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that's stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different colors, different concepts.
I'd like to ask you about drumming, aspects of your personality on the drum kit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, the 'dry' snare sound that's your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drum kit, how your identity developed, how it's evolved over the years? It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you'd want to respond.
Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I'm a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drum set is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. I develop my own cymbals also, which are basically the icing on the cake, and also the bells that I use. So I'm always searching for ways to enhance the color; I hear all kinds of colors and tones. One thing I've liked to develop, and am still working on, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I'm playing, there's a lightness, an uplifting spirit that happens. The cymbals, again, are basically the icing on the cake. The sticks also create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives the drum more of a tribal sound—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum can overshadow the rest of the band, because the wire snares that are underneath resonate when you put them on. Not using the snare gives more clarity, but when I do use the snare drum, it's pretty crisp. All in all, I just hear the drums as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar ...
At least this week, you're using a huge kit.
That's the kit I always use.
How many pieces?
An 8-piece kit.
Not including the cymbals.
I wouldn't count those as a drum kit.
So it's drums-and-cymbals.
Yes, I've been doing that for a while.
For many, many years.
Yes. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.
How did that evolve? In the '60s you weren't using so many components.
No. That came maybe in the '70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it's just more colors. There are two smaller mounted tom-toms, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drum set. So yeah, I love having those extra colors.
Are beats colors as well as pitches?
Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they're played.
Can you elaborate on your tuning system?
I try to tune the kit so it's in a range that doesn't clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abba, they sing in the same key all the time, so I actually tuned to a G dominant 7 scale. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I'll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.
How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?
Not enough. I haven't been doing that enough. Although with this group, I'm playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that when I write new compositions, since I use the piano to write.
Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.
It is. It's still my friend.
Your bio states that you started playing it at age five?
Around five, yes.
What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?
I had a piano teacher come by.
You had a facility for it?
Well, I had a piano.
Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.
I didn't get more serious about it until I was a teenager.
On the biography section of your website there's a photo of you as a small child with a toy saxophone. Where is that picture from?
That was at the Pershing Ballroom. That's the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did "But Not For Me", Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. At the time of the picture, I believe I was seven. This was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing ... I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I'm seven years old. 'How the hell did they know that?!' I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, 'Look at this kid, he's seven years old, and he's playing—he's listening to the record.' I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.
Getting that positive feedback from grownups.
Wow. They must have been like, 'Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.'
You also state on the site that your mother wrote the lyrics of 'Stormy Monday.'
So she says. She sold the tune to T-Bone Walker for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. 'Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.' Then they'd put their name on them.
Was she involved in music at all?
No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.
So your uncle was the inspiration.
My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.
At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?
When I was a teenager. About 16.
What was making you think that?
I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. It was something I was really good at, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, 'Oh, this is what I want to do.'
As a pianist, were you emulating Ahmad Jamal primarily?
When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner's stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who's still around. Also Billy Wallace.
He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter '50s.
Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.
Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?
Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.
Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?
Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like "One Finger Snap" and "Empyrean Isles."
Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?
I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist—and I'll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.
Was your trio with [bassist] Scott Holt and [drummer] Steve McCall ?
Yeah, that was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty, also.
He played with Ellington and Basie.
Yes, but he also was the drummer on Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with [saxophonist] Eddie Harris. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt College in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep's in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.
Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington's husbands.
He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because Aretha came with no band, and they wanted Eddie's band to play for her. Eddie said, 'Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.' The guy didn't want to cough up what he had. So Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, 'Yeah, by the railroad tracks ...' — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, 'I might get a band together; maybe I'll call you.' But she never did!
So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you've put it, Eddie Harris steered you towards concentrating on drums.
He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I'd be more successful at it—and as it turned out, he was right. When I came to New York in '64 or '65, I went up to Minton's, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, 'Hey, man, you got a set of drums?' I said, 'Yeah. 'Well, you got a gig.' That's when I decided, 'Ok, I'm going to make drums be my main instrument.'
What brought you to New York?
Of course! It was the mecca.
Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.
I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, 'Ok, let me out of here.' Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton's before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.
Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM . Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig ...
No, no. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal got the charter to form it. First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college [Wilson Junior College] together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, and another guy named James Willis. Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn't like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other's house every day. I'd go to his house, or he'd come to my house, and we'd play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say 'free'... I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.
They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.
Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.
You've also related a certain time when John Coltrane came to Chicago with the great quartet, and you were able to sit in.
Yes. I'd been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh's, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn't return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I'd played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, 'Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he's a good drummer.' John said, 'Ok,' and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.
Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?
No. It was the first time for that.
Was it a transformative moment for you?
Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energy level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I'm happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.
It's interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal, Roscoe, Jarman, Threadgill, Leo Smith—you're the only one who went to New York at the time.
A speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid '60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?
Maybe. I don't know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.
You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton's, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you went out with Charles Lloyd, which brought you to another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?
Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that's where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. There was music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I worked some with Betty Carter, and I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver, who was very influential—we became close friends and musical constituents. Once I played a concert with Betty, John Hicks and Cecil McBee, and then one with Charles, Gary Bartz , Hicks, and Cecil. Henry Grimes was around, Cecil lived on East 10th Street ... It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, 'When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you're going to get a call from Jackie.' I'd gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick , the Governor of Massachusetts. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn't even remember me ...
I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter ... was it Pete LaRoca on drums? But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then, I was playing with Charles for a bit, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I'd worked with Cecil, I recommended him. Charles asked me about pianists, and I'd heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. That became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.
Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon's Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and also Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.
In New York, all of a sudden you came in first-hand contact with all the drummers you'd been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony Williams . Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You've mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then ...
No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Before I hit the scene, Coltrane had worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin with Monk, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music.
When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who would deeply analyze and emulate what other drummers did, or were you the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that ...
More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations ... The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble, as well as solos. I'm not an analytical player. I'm more an intuitive player, really.
But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.
Well, yeah. But that sort of happens in the instant that I'm creating something. I'm not sitting down and saying, 'Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.' I just take it in.
Were you a big practicer?
Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could ... you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I'm ready to go. I didn't study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it's kept me working all of these years.
You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.
Yes. That's something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it's very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience playing with Keith ... If you look at my history, I've done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and also playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.
You joined Miles Davis in 1969 , and you played with him for two years—'69, '70, and '71.
Well, '70. I came back in '71 to play one or two gigs with him.
Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?
Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band ... yeah, that changed. It changed before I joined him, really. Between Elvin and Tony, I was already set up for that. Miles and Jackie McLean had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, 'Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummers.' Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He'd heard about me, so he came.
Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that,'Ok, now you've got to set this way ....' If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It's in the rhythm.
Did you box yourself?
No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn't want to get into it.
You have to keep your hands safe.
Yeah. No, no, I don't want to mess with that. But I'm big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the ... When guys are evenly matched, I like that.
Correct me if I'm wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new areas that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix. He said that Miles was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles' music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I'm paraphrasing it correctly.
Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles' music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.
One of the things Miles was trying ... I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I'm glad that they released the different nights.
You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn't present for.
Yeah. Because you can hear the development. Each night it was different. But Miles liked me because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I'd want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that's what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that's what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we'd already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.
With a music as nuanced as jazz, there's a difference between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-à-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.
Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there.
You were so known for your deep grooves and energy, but as the '70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?
I think it was. Manfred Eicher had this vision; he's a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, be it jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophon before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world.
You were on so many sessions in the '70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.
Those recordings with Miles ... Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, who extended that kind of creativity. He heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. As a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It's been very valuable, even to this day.
Sometimes artists experience a feedback loop, where you produce something, you reflect on it, and it might have some residual impact on your next step—it helps to build ideas incrementally. Did the experience with ECM refine your sense of playing the drum kit, or, for that matter, your evolution as a musician?
I would say in that sense, yes, that hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing and how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only via the sound quality, but the music that we were doing: people like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the Keith Jarrett Trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then, my records as a leader: Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refinements. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works ... to learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don't ring a lot. Because concert halls can be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they're constructed of, what type of walls and so on. You mentioned my being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that's something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.
Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, they changed tonally, became more abstract. I'd like to talk about why different groups took on the tonal personalities they did.
Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.
I seem to remember a Special Edition concert at the Public Theater on which Julius Hemphill played.
He filled-in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, and I take those charts when I go to universities and do orchestras. He did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I've had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Mick Goodrick , who was phenomenal.
A very different sound with that latter band.
Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio/Visual Scapes, Earthwalk, and Extra Special Edition . I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players. Then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.
It's interesting how you've stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.
Yes. We can talk about how that works on my label, Golden Beams, on which we recorded a duet between Foday Suso and I, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is light years ahead of anybody else I've heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He's a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We're going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that's a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.
When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?
Well, world music has always been there since the '60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records.
Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side ...
There was a lot of it going on. But I didn't get into it 'til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. But I really got into the Afro-Cuban thing, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez . I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That's what I like about playing with Danilo and John, as well as Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. I like to dance. We like to move. That's why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.
Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions. He's a great teacher.
But you've told me that you take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.
Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things independence-wise on the drum set which influence Danilo. Danilo says, 'Man, you were doing that.' I said, 'Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.' In other words, we're feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we'll discuss it, we'll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. 'Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let's try this and this.' So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn't get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that we explore.
Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your professional career, which spans about fifty years, you've been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you've been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock ...
Oh, I love it.
Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?
No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that's what I love to do. It's my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with today's climate the way it is, I expect there will be challenges in years to come. But I'm trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favourable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.
Ted Panken interviewed Jack DeJohnette on April 18, 2009