Jack DeJohnette

2012 NEA Jazz Master
Jack DeJohnette

Photo by Dion Ogust

Transcript of conversation with Jack DeJohnette

Jo Reed: That was drummer and 2012 NEA Master, Jack DeJohnette in a live solo performance at the 1997 Modern Drummer Festival.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Widely regarded as one of the great drummers in modern jazz, Jack DeJohnette's wide-ranging style makes him a dynamic sideman and bandleader. He has played with virtually every major jazz figure from the 1960s to the present day, including NEA Jazz Masters Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Abbey Lincoln. He's also an accomplished keyboardist: having studied classical piano for ten years before taking up drums. The Chicago-born New York-based Dejohnette has a playlist that goes for pages, but here are some highlights: He was a charter member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet; he played with Miles Davis's pioneering band in the late 60s early 70s, performing on the seminal album Bitches Brew; he has had a decades-long partnership with pianist Keith Jarrett, performing with him in various bands including the acclaimed Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette trio. He's led several groups , including Directions and Special Edition. All this, while he's enjoyed a diverse and successful solo career.

In 2005, DeJohnette launched an independent record label, Golden Beams Productions. He wanted an outlet for the broad range of creative projects. The label produced Peace Time, on which he is both featured artist and co-producer, which won a Grammy.  Jack Dejohnette is the recipient of many accolades and awards he's been named drummer of the year by many jazz publications and this year he named an NEA Jazz Master. I spoke to Jack Dejohnette soon after he was told the NEA award. We spoke on the porch of his home in the beautiful Catskill Mountains. And you'll birds and the occasional plane in the background. In this, the first of a two-part interview Jack talked about his musical influences, his affinity for jazz, and his early career. According to Jack, his love affair with music began in childhood.

Jack DeJohnette: I was drawn to music very early. My mother-- my uncle were musically inclined or shall we say creative people. I mean my uncle, his hobby was jazz; he loved music and my mother wrote poetry and songs.

Jo Reed: I heard she wrote, "Stormy Monday?"

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, she sold it to T-Bone Walker for $50.

Jo Reed: Amazing.

Jack DeJohnette: How about that? I was really on her case that that song came up for public domain, I'd go get it, but after a certain point they're public domain, you know, the copyright. But yeah, she wrote a lot of poetry. I used to put harmony to, you know, chords to her words and songs.

Jo Reed: And what music did you grow up listening to?

Jack DeJohnette: I grew up listening to everything, I mean jazz was a big part of it, but when I was a young kid, my uncle had a lot of jazz 78s, the lacquered records and we had an old Victrola, I used to play-- crank it up and put these uh.. Decca Records and OK and Columbia, you know, 78s of Duke Ellington and Louie Jordan and Count Basie and later on Dusty Fletcher, Slim Gaylord. I was fascinated by the music, you know, even before I could read I could tell by the label colors which record I wanted to hear. And also I started you know as common custom with families around that time in the ‘40s, mid ‘40s and into the ‘50s, you know you took music lessons. So I took piano lessons. And eventually I listened to the radio; we had a short wave radio and I used to listen to the European music; opera and folk music and in Chicago there was a lot of gospel, R&B. Yeah it was a big hub of a lot of eclectic music there; folk music, and I used to just listen to all of it. I never classified it, you know, I just used to like all these genres of music. There was a lot of influences around.

Jo Reed: When did you start playing jazz on the piano?

Jack DeJohnette: My uncle, who is Roy Wood.

Jo Reed: Who was a journalist.

Jack DeJohnette: Right, who got inducted in the Smithsonian and he actually was my influence of getting me into jazz because of his love of it. First he was historic, because he became the first black news broadcaster on what was formerly an all white station so he's kind of broke the color barrier there and then from there on he moved on and became a jazz teacher, before he became the journalist because of that, he had access to all the jazz records, because they were being sent to him, so I had access to them. So it was great for me, it was mine, you know, the money I saved from that. And when I was in high school I had a combo and the drummer left his drums in my house so I got into the drums naturally and I used to play with the records, my uncle's jazz records and so I found out that I was quite proficient at the drums, so that's when I started playing both instruments. So I used to practice every day because we had a house where I could play and my mother would go to work then I could play in the living room and I'd spend 3-4 hours a day on each instrument until I got them to a point where I was hired on drums as well as the piano.

Jo Reed: What was your first major gig? Was it with piano or was it with drums?

Jack DeJohnette: With piano. I was well known in Chicago as a pianist

Up with piano solo….

Jack DeJohnette: Chicago is a great town for all like I said before, all music, but for jazz, there was jazz all over the city and I was fortunate to have some great mentors to help me. Actually the late father of Deval Patrick..

Jo Reed: Who's governor of Massachusetts.

Jack DeJohnette: Pat Patrick was a mentor to me. He helped me learn chord changes and standard tunes. And when I came to New York later, he let me stay at his house so I could save enough money to get an apartment for myself.

Jo Reed: Well while we're still in Chicago, let's talk about Muhal Richard Abrams who was also you said a great influence.

Jack DeJohnette: Oh yeah. Muhal, he had an open door policy, I mean he room-- he lived in a rooming house and he had this small room with a bed in it and a piano. And he lived there and it was amazing; a self taught musician who went to the library and taught himself harmony and theory; how to play the clarinet; how to compose for orchestra. <Laughs> He used to say, "You don't need a lot of money to learn all this," you know, "It's free at the library."  But he applied himself. You know personal things in life, if I had problems I could talk to him about it as a sort of male role model and he encouraged me to come to New York later on and he said yea, he said man, it's no different than Chicago, it's the same thing there's just more of it.

Jo Reed: When did you make the switch to drums exclusively, when did you decide drums would be your main instrument; your main voice?

Jack DeJohnette: Well okay, that happened when I came to New York but prior to that, I was playing around Chicago on both instruments, and then I was pretty competent as a drummer and I was doing gigs there and I used to play jam sessions at a club on Cottage Grove again in Chicago's south side on 63rd as a club called McKee Richard's Bar & Lounge where a lot of groups used to play, Art Blake and the Jazz Messengers, Sonny Rollins and Coltrane played there. You know I used to play the jam sessions at this place and one night Elvin was late for the last set, and the place was packed; people outdoors, people waiting for the next set and McKee Richards said to Coltrane, listen, you know we got to go up, you know, let Jack DeJohnette, he's a good drummer, he plays jam sessions, but we need to go to the bandstand. So John didn't bat an eye, he just nodded his head, went up to the bandstand and I sat in and I played three songs, so for me, I was like you know, I've been playing at home with the record so I knew the material and it was such a big high for me because you know here's a John doesn't know me from Adam and the trust, I mean McCoy and Jimmy Garrison never looked at me like who is this guy, can he play, you know? It was like you know, completely trusted and of course I was able to you know hold my own until Elvin came back. And that was a- an incredible feeling, you know just to have that, you know, to have that opportunity to play with Coltrane and of course I was high for months on end after that.

Jo Reed: I've heard his intensity was extraordinary as he performed.

Jack DeJohnette: Oh yeah, he was not too many like him. Ravi, his son has that in his genes. He tapped into something very very unique and very very strong; very passionate and very very spiritual. It's been said he put the om back in jazz music.

Jo Reed: Now how did you establish yourself in New York?

Jack DeJohnette:  You know I had played with some of the musicians who came through Chicago from New York like musicians who played with Art Blakey's band I jammed with Freddie Hubbard and Reggie Workman so I knew some of them, and John Hicks and Don Pullen, and these two guys actually stayed at my house on their way up to New York so I made some connections, but when I came to New York I took $27 dollars and a drum set, a Gretsch drum set that I bought, no cases, threw it underneath a Greyhound bus and went up for a weekend and I checked in at the time, that's when musicians came for $2.75 a day you could stay at the Sloan Warehouse YMCA.

Anyway I went there at the first night I got there I went up to Minton's before it closed up at Harlem and who was playing there with Freddie Hubbard with another Chicagoan on piano, Harold Mayburn who actually was from Memphis, but spent a lot of time in Chicago and he was playing in the band and Freddie let me sit in with the band and I'll never forget that because he had been playing Max Roach and Max Roach would play with Charlie Parker and they used to play the fastest tempos ever and so Freddie called just one of those things, like one of those horse race speeds. Fortunately I could play it. It's like okay you coming to New York so that was the initiation. That's the initiation. Anyway, after that, I played two or three more tunes. So it happened to be in the house the great organist, John Patton, Big John Patton and he said to me, "Hey man, you got a set of drums, you got a gig."  I said, "Yeah I have some."  So I got the gig with him and I stayed at the Sloan House. Pat Patrick was in New York. I said, "Pat I want to save up some money and get an apartment," so he said, "Oh come, you could stay with me." He had a small apartment but you know, slept on the couch and I was able to save enough money for security and get an apartment so through the village help came.

Jo Reed: I remember reading you talking about visiting the Five Spot when you first came to …

Jack DeJohnette: Oh yeah all the great places were still going on; actually Birdland was there. When I moved, finally got an apartment. I found a nice apartment and it was around the corner from a place which was famous, a jazz club that had just opened up and in the mid ‘60s called Slugs in the far east <laughs>. Anyway, after I moved in, I went around to the Five Spot. The Five Spot was located on 3rd Avenue and 8th Street and I was lucky enough to go and see people like Albert Dailey, Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter and the Five Spot was fantastic because people like Monk and Wayne and Mingus could go play this place and you know, you play there two weeks, go in, if you did well, you'd stay for a month or two. So guys had a chance to develop bands because they were in one place, and kept playing night after night, so there was consistency so it was really really fantastic I mean I used to see Chick Corea and Joe Farrell and Roy Haynes there and it was a very fantastic place.

Jo Reed: The Charles Lloyd Quartet. How did that evolve?

Jack DeJohnette: Well you know I got into freelancing around in the city and actually playing at Slug's, you know, there were lots of groups who played there. I was sitting in one night, and Kenny Durham was playing. And I finished-- well after Kenny played his solo <laughs> he literally jumped off the stand, and turned around and said, "Where did this cat come from?"  You know and the Village is like word of mouth passed around, there's a new guy in town, or you know, there's a new drummer in town, there's a new horn player. So word got around and I'm leading up Charles Lloyd and Charles Tolliver had been playing in Jackie McLean's band and I bring this up because the Jackie McLean group preceded the Charles Lloyd Band and that band consisted of some really legendary players:  Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and myself, Charles Tolliver, and Larry Ridley on the bass and so we played, you know we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore and we played Pittsburgh and we played around New York City, we played Slugs and as a matter of fact, it was when I was playing with Jackie McLean at Slugs and Miles Davis came around to hear me play. It was at that time Jackie said to me, he said, "You're going to be Miles' drummer one day," because he said, "Miles and I have the same taste in drummers," and actually it was Jackie who discovered Tony Williams and Tony played with Jackie and it was Miles snatched him away. And he said, "Miles is going to be after you eventually," because the word had gotten around. It was so fantastic, you know, it's like a village, like- like in the indigenous world, you know, the village word goes around and so after that, I used to see Charles playing at Slugs and at the time he had a band with Gabor Szabo, the great Hungarian; legendary great guitarist from Budapest and the band, I think he had Reggie Workman and I think it was yeah, Pete LaRoca was on drums. And so that band split up and we decided, we talked about forming a new band. Then the subject came up of a piano player and I had heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Charles had heard Keith in Boston. So between us, we had both said, "Okay, we need to get this guy."  So we had a rehearsal at Charles' and that's when the quartet was formed and our first gig was at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore.

Love Ship up and hot

Jo Reed: That quartet is just phenomenal for so many reasons but it also really is one of the first crossover jazz ensembles?

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah it's one of them. At that particular time there was also, I just want to mention some other groups from that period, because it was a very fertile time of experimentation and the society. put it, I'll just interject, in between that time with Jackie and the time I got with Charles Lloyd, I also served my time with some fantastic vocalists. One was Abbey Lincoln and with a trio with Reggie Workman and Cedar Walton. And I also played with Betty Carter, the late, great Betty Carter and it was actually while I was over here that I left and went with Charles Lloyd, which she wasn't too happy about <laughs> but these are great training grounds for me, and especially playing with singers. As a drummer, you really had to be sensitive and dynamics was very very important so I learned quite a bit from that. I also learned a lot about dynamics from playing with Jackie too.

Jo Reed: You're a big drummer, but you're not a loud loud loud drummer and you somehow manage to do both.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah I mean my early days I was pretty raw, <laughs> so I got accused of that but many years since then.

Jo Reed: Time tempers us all.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, yeah in a good way; I've been fortunate, so far it's been pretty good.

Jo Reed: Now am I right with Charles Lloyd, you played the Fillmore East down in the Village?

Jack DeJohnette: We actually pre-empted the Miles going there. I mean that period too, we had that-- I'll just give a picture of what New York and what United States was at that time, and around the East Village, you okay there was a place called The Electric Circus and before that it was called The Balloon Farm and it was funny because groups like The Free Spirits. Groups used to come in there and experiment and I remember I went there one night and there was this group nobody heard, they weren't announced, and all of a sudden, they were playing some jazz, soft jazz. And then all of a sudden you heard, "Sing a simple song!"  "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"  And it was Sly and the Family Stone. They were trying out material unannounced just to see how people would react and of course everybody was like, "Who is that!?" And it was during that period, I think the Charles Lloyd Quartet, I think we had released Dreamweaver which we had a mild hit called "Sombrero Sam," a crossover hit on that. Like I said before, it was a fertile period and lots of different types of music and genres were crossing over, you know, and the public was really open to it. American audiences were really great. And of course, Charles Lloyd Quartet spent a lot of time in Europe and you know we did our groundbreaking appearance in the Soviet Union, which we have a document of that. Like a six albums that we did.

Jo Reed: Now Miles Davis, you were with him for two years?

Jack DeJohnette: Three years.

Jo Reed: Three years and you were, well first, tell me about, what was that experience like for you?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, you know, coming up in Chicago and having played with all these master musicians, great musicians, doing records and coming to New York and then play with these people that I listened to was, you know, I was like a kid in a candy store, I mean it was really, really exciting to play with the best and learn from the best, so I first got the opportunity to play with Miles when Tony Williams was not available with the band and we played The Vanguard a number of times and we played in Washington, D.C., and that band consisted of Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Herbie and you know, Miles was playing straight ahead stuff and I was still with Charles Lloyd Quartet and then I was with Bill Evans for a while, and that period I had been playing with Stan Getz and then with the Bill Evans and then Miles hired me, you know, from Bill Evans. At that point, Herbie and Ron had left, and Chick Corea and Dave Holland became the rhythm section. Wayne remained and then at this period was Miles' crossover period and I think it started with oh I guess well it started when Miles did uh Filles de Kilimanjaro, and then In a Silent Way and Miles started moving, you know, started new directions in music of Miles Davis and during these marathon recording sessions with his favorite musicians on the instruments and all in the studio together and I appeared on Bitches Brew.

Bitches Brew up and hot….

Jo Reed: And that was groundbreaking.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, I mean nobody thought, everything that Miles did, you knew was making some history. The music wasn't difficult but what it was, it was groove orientated music and he wrote sketches, little melodies, some chords, bass riffs and had the drums find a groove. When the groove was right, you know, meanwhile Teo Macero who was a great producer who put this stuff together and made sense of all the tracks that we did. You know, put all these things together so we would just do all these things and then play these grooves when these grooves were- get- get the right place, and Miles would cue different players to come in and play, solo, then he'd cue them out, you know, and then the tape would stop. Then we'd start something else. So, it was a creative work in progress, you know. And, it was not unlike, you know, Miles was really excited, because he had access to this big, big Columbia studio down on 53rd Street, or 52nd. And, you know, he could just create, on the spot, you know, and document it. So, it was a very, very, very productive period for him.

Jo Reed: Did playing with him affect the way you approached drumming?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, Miles loved drums. And, so, you know, I had to follow Tony Williams. So, I had all these other influences, but I had to bring my own, establish my own voice in it. And I was allowed to do that. And Miles, again, one of the great attributes to the greats, like Monk, and Mingus, and Miles, and Coltrane was that they trusted musicians. They hired musicians that could think for themselves. But, they had a way of bringing, just through their whole charisma, of bringing out the best of the musician. So, everybody would play their best for Miles; he had that kind of thing, or Coltrane. But, they had this kind of thing:  trust. So, he led by doing; in other words, he led by how he played his instrument, and a few times that he made comments, made suggestions. They were always good suggestions; they made sense. What I learned from Miles was what not to do, what not to play; sometimes, it's what's left out that makes more of a big impact than more. Sometimes, less means more.

Jo Reed: What kind of impact do you think your drumming had on Miles' work?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, to quote Miles, Miles said in his book, his autobiography-- that "Jack had played a kind of groove you just love to play over." 

Jo Reed: What did you say? You said something really interesting:  that playing is about listening and holding back until you're hearing what other people are playing, and giving them the space. I'm paraphrasing you, but giving them the space to do their own thing.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, I think it's important. The drums are a musical instrument, and they're tuned. And a drummer has the job of inspiring, bringing out of the soloist and the rest of the band things that they probably wouldn't do otherwise. You have to be a good listener; that's an important thing. Sometimes, I won't respond, necessarily, to a rhythm or something that's played, because I want to give them space. But then I may play something against the player to complement what they're doing, if it makes sense and it feels right. And that's an intuitive thing. Music is very intuitive, and listening is part of it. And, playing grooves; I love grooves; I love to play grooves. But I love to sit and just milk it for all its got.

That was drummer and 2012 Jazz master, Jack Dehohnette. Next week, part 2 of my conversation with Jack. You'll hear some wonderful music as well as Jack's thoughts on his long collaboration with Keith Jarrett, his groundbreaking composition, Song in the Key of Om, and his soon-to-be-released CD Sound Travels.

If you love jazz, don't miss the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Awards Ceremony. It takes place at 7:30 p.m. on January 10, 2012, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Along with Jack DeJohnette,  the NEA is honoring Von Freeman,  Charlie Haden, Jimmy Owens, and Sheila Jordan. The concert may be sold out, but you don't have to miss the action: we are webcasting it live! Go to arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information about this free event and live webcast.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from "Love Ship" composed by Charles Lloyd and performed live by the Charles Lloyd Quartet in June 1968, used courtesy of Forest Farm Music.

Excerpts from "Pharoah's Dance" and "Miles Runs the VooDoo Down" from the cd Bitches Brew, composed by Miles Davis, used courtesy of Sony Entertainment Music and Universal Music Publishing Group and East St. Louis Music, Inc.

Excerpts from "Home" from his soon-to-be-released cd Sound Travels, composed and performed by Jack Dejohnette used courtesy of Golden Beams Productions, eOne Music and DL Media.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening


Part 1: Legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette talks about his early career.