PAS Hall of Fame

Jack DeJohnette

by Rick Mattingly

Jack DeJohnette

At his PASIC ’95 performance, Jack DeJohnette started with the cymbals, rolling on each one in turn and then combining rolls and crashes, building in intensity, swelling and retreating in the manner of ocean waves. Gradually he started incorporating the drums—a tom roll here, a snare crack there. Soon he was bouncing rhythmic figures around the different components of the kit. He might play a rhythm on a cymbal, answer it with the snare drum, embellish it with the toms, counterpoint it on the bass drum. You couldn’t classify the solo in terms of a musical genre. It had the finesse of jazz, the power of rock, and rhythms that crossed all musical borders.

It was a perfect example of what DeJohnette calls his “multi-directional music.” “As a child I listened to all kinds of music and I never put them into categories,” he has said. “I had formal lessons on piano and listened to opera, country and western music, rhythm and blues, jazz, swing, whatever. To me, it was all music and great. I’ve kept that integrated feeling about music—all types of music—and just carried it with me. I’ve maintained that belief and feeling in spite of the ongoing trend to try and compartmentalize people and music.”

Jack is usually labeled as a “jazz drummer,” and gigs with Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, John Abercrombie, Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, and others have put him at the top of the jazz elite. But he has also worked with members of the rock band Living Colour and a variety of world music artists, and much of the music he has released under his own name defies easy categorization, save for the fact that there is always an emphasis on improvisation.

DeJohnette was born in Chicago in 1942. He began studying piano at age four and later took piano lessons at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He started playing drums with his high school concert band, and soon was leading his own groups and becoming in demand as both a pianist and as a drummer with R&B, hard bop, and avant-garde jazz groups around Chicago.

While in junior college he played with such future AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) members as Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman, and also had an opportunity to play alongside Rashied Ali in John Coltrane’s group. He moved to New York in 1966, where he played with Big John Patton and Jackie McLean. DeJohnette then gained widespread exposure during his two years in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which included pianist Keith Jarrett and released such albums as Dream Weaver and Forest Flower.

“That was an exciting time in my life,” DeJohnette says. “We were one of the pioneering groups of the jazz freedom movement, but we weren’t just playing randomly. We were trying to create a balance between abandonment and creative discernment. We were playing free, but always acknowledging the form, even when we were going outside.

“In terms of my drumming, I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. My style at that time was a mixture of Elvin [Jones] and Tony [Williams] and some other things. But I played piano, too, so I was very aware of the harmonic and melodic aspects of the music. That determined what I played on the drums.”

In late 1968 he joined the Bill Evans Trio, which included bassist Eddie Gomez and recorded The Bill Evans Trio Live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. He also worked briefly with Stan Getz in 1968, and recorded his first album as a leader, The DeJohnette Complex, on which he played melodica with Roy Haynes on drums.

That same year he recorded with Miles Davis, and in 1969 DeJohnette replaced Tony Williams in Davis’s group, appearing on the albums Bitches Brew, Live/Evil, and Miles Davis at Fillmore. While with Davis, DeJohnette played alongside, at different times, keyboardists Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, and percussionist Airto.

“Miles, at that point, was looking for kind of a Buddy Miles feel but with my technique,” DeJohnette recalls. “He wanted grooves laid down, but I was still free to take liberties within those grooves and make embellishments and permutations, which I did. And when I took a solo, I based it on the drum pattern and then extended it, came back to it, and took it out again.

“I was very fortunate to be with Miles through the transition from the swing and In A Silent Way period to the funk/acid-jazz period,” DeJohnette says. “All these influences were coming in, from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to Cream. We played some gigs opposite Sly & the Family Stone, which was a great double bill for Miles because he really wanted to reach that audience. The jazz audience just wanted to hear ‘My Funny Valentine’ and all the old standards. For me it was deja vu in a way because I had done the Fillmore circuit with the Charles Lloyd Quartet three years before, and now I was doing the same thing with Miles. So I was with two bands that were at the crest of a new horizon. It seemed like America was ready to open up to something freer and more creative.”

After leaving Davis in 1971, DeJohnette formed the band Compost, with which he primarily played keyboards and Bob Moses played drums. That same year, Jarrett and DeJohnette released the duet recording Rutya and Daitya on ECM. DeJohnette then worked with Stan Getz for a year before he formed his own group, Directions, which included guitarist John Abercrombie. DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland also played with Abercrombie in the trio Gateway.

DeJohnette had played extensively with both Abercrombie and Holland before the three of them came together in Gateway. “Dave and I used to play together every day in London before he joined Miles, and the two of us always had this rhythmic way of playing free with the time,” DeJohnette said in a 1995 Modern Drummer article. “John had been in my Directions band and we had done some different things together. But the three of us had never worked together. Manfred [Eicher, ECM producer] suggested we be a trio, and the chemistry between us was unique.”

Directions was followed by New Directions, which included Abercrombie, Gomez, and trumpeter Lester Bowie. DeJohnette and Bowie also collaborated on a duo album called Zebra, a world-beat influenced video soundtrack and CD. DeJohnette’s longest-lasting band was Special Edition, which featured a revolving cast of musicians that included at different times Gomez, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, John Purcell, John Hicks, Greg Osby, Howard Johnson, Rufus Reid, Mick Goodrick, and Lonnie Plaxico. Directions, New Directions, and Special Edition all recorded extensively for ECM.

Since 1983, DeJohnette has been a member of the Keith Jarrett Trio, along with bassist Gary Peacock. They are often referred to as the “Standards Trio” from the name of the group’s debut album and their focus on playing classic jazz standards—but not necessarily in standard ways.

“We’ll run down the melody at soundcheck, but we don’t know how we’re going to approach it that night, so it always stays fresh,” DeJohnette explains. “That was the whole idea behind doing standards rather than playing tunes that we composed and having arrangements. We wanted to concentrate on improvising.

“We had all been influenced by the Ahmad Jamal Trio with Vernel Fournier on drums,” Jack adds. “In fact, that’s what got me into drumming. We had all played in different trios, and I had also played standards as a pianist in trio settings and behind singers. So after Keith and I played on Gary Peacock’s album Tales of Another, Keith decided he wanted to form another trio. We recorded some studio things, and we recorded a lot of things live because some great things happen with us live. We said we would do it until it didn’t feel good, and all these years later it still feels good.”

In 1986, DeJohnette participated in an album called Song-X with guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Ornette Coleman. “That project was very exciting and experimental,” DeJohnette says. “We took it on the road and it was very interesting to see people’s response to it. Some people walked out, but most people were really excited. Pat was able to use his popularity to turn people on to someone as great as Ornette, which I thought was fantastic. I had always wanted to play with Ornette; I’d loved and respected his music for a long time.

“A lot of people would call that music ‘free jazz,’ but a lot of what Pat and Ornette were playing was actually written, and they would keep repeating it in such a way that it created a minimalist, high-energy, repetitive, trance-like thing. The drumming was very intense; in fact, that was physically one of the hardest record dates I’ve ever done. But it was really exciting playing with Ornette, who is a phenomenal pioneer of music, and I thank Pat for bringing it all together.”

In 1990, DeJohnette released the Parallel Realities CD, which included Herbie Hancock and Metheny. The three players subsequently toured, joined by Holland. Another major collaboration was a CD called Music for the Fifth World, inspired by DeJohnette’s studies with a Seneca native elder, Grandmother Twylah Nitsch. This project brought together Living Colour members Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun with guitarist John Scofield, Cain, Plaxico, and traditional Native American singers. In recent years, DeJohnette has also performed and recorded with Bobby McFerrin, Don Byron, Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcalba, and Meshell Ndegeocello.

DeJohnette has also composed soundtracks for TV and video, including a soundtrack in collaboration with Metheny for a PBS play called Lemon Sky; a soundtrack for a documentary called City Farmers by Meryl Joseph; and a video production with percussionist Don Alias on Homespun tapes, Talking Drummers. Jack appeared as a member of the Alligator Blues Band in the Blues Brothers 2000 movie.

In addition to his work with Jarrett in the Standards Trio, DeJohnette has recorded spontaneously improvised music with Jarrett on the CDs Always Let Me Go, Inside Out, and Changeless. He has also done projects with John Surman (Invisible Nature, The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon, and Free and Equal); Michael Cain and Steve Gorn (Dancing With Nature Spirits); and Cain, Don Alias, and Jerome Harris (Oneness).

In 2005, DeJohnette launched and toured with three new projects: the Latin Project with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, Jerome Harris, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero; the Jack DeJohnette Quartet featuring Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Harris; and the Beyond Trio, a group celebrating the works of Tony Williams, featuring guitarist John Scofield and organist Larry Goldings. In 2006 the Beyond Trio released the CD Saudades, a live recording of the “Lifetime and Beyond: Celebrating Tony Williams” concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The 2-CD set was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Recording.

In April 2005, DeJohnette released two unique projects: a duet with Gambian Kora player Foday Musa Suso called Music from the Hearts of the Masters, and a recording for relaxation and meditation entitled Music in the Key of Om, which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Age Album category. In October 2005, Jack released Hybrids, which blends African jazz, reggae, and dance music. In February 2006, Golden Beams released The Elephant Sleeps but Still Remembers, a live recording featuring DeJohnette and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Jack also appeared on Michael Brecker’s final album, Pilgrimage, and Bruce Hornsby’s jazz debut, Camp Meeting. DeJohnette’s most recent release is Peace Time, an hour-long continuous piece of music composed and performed by DeJohnette.

DeJohnette has designed several cymbals for Sabian, signature drumheads for Aquarian, and a drumstick for Vic Firth. In 1981 DeJohnette and Charlie Perry co-authored the instructional book The Art of Modern Jazz Drumming: Multi-Directional Technique, published by the Drum Center Publications. He released an instructional video on Homespun Tapes in 1992 called Musical Expression on the Drum Set, and in 1997 Hal Leonard Corporation released a book titled The Jack DeJohnette Collection featuring fourteen of his compositions. DeJohnette was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berkley College of Music in Boston in 1991.

At age 68, DeJohnette can truly be regarded as a drumming elder, except that by the time most people reach that status they have settled into an easily identifiable style filled with signature licks and phrases. As Peter Erskine once remarked, “I can play an Elvin lick, a Philly Joe lick, or a Steve Gadd lick, but I can’t play any Jack licks because he doesn’t have any. He’s always creating something new.”

Told of Erskine’s comment, Jack laughs. “I’ve got a couple of things that turn up now and then,” he admits, “but that’s good if nobody has noticed. It’s not organic to play licks. You have to be prepared to play what you don’t know. That’s one of the things I learned from Miles: It’s easy to play licks and things you know, but to play something fresh every time you sit down at the instrument is very challenging and difficult. That’s where the work is involved, but that’s also where the fun is—discovering new aspects of yourself.”         


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