Monday, January 18, 2010

Jack DeJohnette: Spreading Joy Through Music

Though Jack DeJohnette may be known to most as one of the preeminent jazz drummers, making notable contributions to groups led by Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, and Keith Jarrett, he sees himself as a messenger of peace and joy. Whether on drums, piano, or any other instrument, DeJohnette would most like to give people the inspiration to relax and find happiness in life, if only for the time they’re listening.

He originally fell in love with music through his uncle, Roy Wood, one of the first African-American disc jockeys in Chicago. He fondly remembers sitting by his uncle’s Victrola: cranking it up and then dropping the needle, with an “arm that weighed about ten pounds.” They’d listen to the great big bands of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie.

By the time DeJohnette was in high school, his uncle had moved to a jazz station, and he got to hear all the latest records as they came out. By that time, Jack had been singing lead in a doo-wop group, regularly competing in talent shows and playing in local dives, but he was inspired by the hip new jazz he heard through his uncle. DeJohnette remembers that back then, “it was cool to have jazz records in high school.”

As he became more invested in music, Jack found new outlets for his talent, playing piano in jazz and dance groups; and, in a real stroke of luck, the drummer from one of these bands left his kit at DeJohnette’s house once for several months, and he began to mess around on them in his spare time. He’d always been interested in the instrument and studied the drummers at jam sessions. With his interest growing, he got a few books and began to practice rudiments while watching television.

The work soon payed off as he started getting hired to play gigs on both piano and drums. It was after playing a bit with Eddie Harris that he finally decided to make drums his primary instrument. Harris told him one night after a gig, ‘you play good piano, but something else is happening on the drums. I play all the other instruments too, but I have to make one instrument be my voice. If you decide to stay with drums, make drums your main voice. You’re gonna be something and go somewhere.’

Working around Chicago and hanging at the clubs, DeJohnette took every opportunity he could to hang with the major artists who came through the city. Among these was John Coltrane, who played at a small club where DeJohnette regularly went to jam. When Elvin Jones didn’t show for the last set, the owner suggested the DeJohnette sit in. Coltrane and the other musicians didn’t bat an eye, and DeJohnette fit right in on “I Want To Talk About You” and “Mr. P.C.” During the set, he realized why Jones was so forceful on the drums, as Coltrane just “soaked up all of the energy and barreled forward like a train.” To his dismay, Jones showed up just in time to play “My Favorite Things,” thanking the young drummer for filling in.

It was Muhal Richard Abrams who pushed DeJohnette to take the leap and head to New York in 1964. As DeJohnette recalled, “a lot of people were afraid to come to New York because it was the big apple and really rough, and he just said ‘don’t worry. It’s just like Chicago, only more of it.’”

With that, DeJohnette took off on a Greyhound bus, taking only $27 and a Gretsch set of drums and cymbals with no cases. He’d initially only planned to stay for a weekend, but in that weekend, he went to Minton’s, jammed with Freddie Hubbard--whom he’d met when the Jazz Messengers came through Chicago–and was noticed by organist John Patton, who offered him a gig on the spot. With that boost to his confidence, DeJohnette felt he could make it, and decided to stay in New York indefinitely.

He became a regular at plenty of jam sessions, and as word got around that there was a hot new drummer in town, he began to get regular work. Within a few weeks, DeJohnette had enough money to get his own apartment on the Lower East Side.

His first big gig was in Jackie McLean’s band, playing week-long stands around the country in cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, promoting McLean’s latest record release.

DeJohnette soon got a chance to play with Coltrane’s new avant-garde group featuring Coltrane’s wife Alice, Pharoah Saunders, Jimmy Garrison, and Rasheed Ali. It was one of the most intense gigs he played in his life, and he found that Coltrane , and others of that generation, like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk, never gave much direction. “Not that much was talked about in the music. There was just an inner-knowing about things. The younger generation now is more accessible, but guys didn’t talk that much about it because they figured if you talked too much about it, you’d de-mystify it.”

Even on groundbreaking material like Bitches Brew, he found the music was a continual work in progress. Miles Davis would come in with a few sketches, or he’d ask DeJohnette to play a beat, and if Davis “didn’t say anything about it, it was okay. Most of the time he didn’t say anything.” Once the groove was where Davis wanted it to be, he’d direct somebody else to join in, and the music slowly came together in a free-flowing environment before being spliced into it’s final form by producer Teo Macero.

While Davis was putting together a distinct new sound, DeJohnette credited concert promoter Bill Graham for spreading their music to a wider audience by placing the Davis group on mixed bills at the Fillmore with such acts as Janis Joplin and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Then at the same time there was the advent of FM radio, which in those days was “wide open, and they started mixing up the music. They would play some Miles. They would play some Laura Nyro. They would play Jimi Hendrix.”

In fact, DeJohnette became a real admirer of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He extolled the talents of drummer Mitch Mitchell and praised his use of brushes on tunes like “Up From The Skies,” from the Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love. He even got a chance to jam with Hendrix “about a week before the Isle of Wight,” less than a month before his death. Sadly, DeJohnette wasn’t really in the mood at the time, and he passed on the opportunity, which he has been kicking himself for ever since.

Some of DeJohnette’s most memorable music has come playing in piano trios with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Having started as a pianist himself, hiring drummers to play with him, DeJohnette gained an understanding of what drummers can do for a soloist. “I kind of know what the drummer’s supposed to do, at least for myself anyway. It’s just about learning how to wait, and listen, and letting the music carry you, rather than trying to force something to happen.”

DeJohnette has also gotten into producing music through his own imprint, Golden Beams Productions. Inspired by Coltrane’s readings of Eastern philosophy and beliefs that music had a power for good, DeJohnette has used the label to put out music to be used as a healing force. “When you’re playing music, it’s more than entertainment. It has the ability to transport the player and the listener to some other places, so you can for an hour or so, relieve people of some stress and lift up their spirits through the music.”

The label has allowed DeJohnette the chance to experiment with genres and musicians he likes outside of the jazz idiom. The first of these recordings was Music In The Key Of Om, an hour-long synthesizer-driven piece, which has since been well circulated through yoga classes and hospitals throughout the country, helping people to relax. The second was Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, with Gambian kora player Foday Musa, a more groove-oriented album of duets soothing duets.

As DeJohnette continues to pursue new endeavors in music, he hopes to spread joy to all willing listeners. “If you can find a way to have joy when you make the music, you’re going to have something to give to the people to lift them up.”

Here are some extra anecdotes from the interview where Jack DeJohnette talks about playing with Sting and going to see Charles Mingus:

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