Jack DeJohnette

2012 NEA Jazz Master
Jack DeJohnette
Photo by Dion Ogust

Transcript of conversation with Jack DeJohnette

Jack DeJohnette: 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. And sometimes, I won't respond, necessarily, to a rhythm or something that's played, because I want to give them space. But them, 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, as well as abstract things. But I love to sit and groove, and just milk it for all its got.

That's drummer and 2012 NEA Master, Jack DeJohnette. 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. This is the second of a two-part interview with legendary drummer, Jack DeJohnette.

A dynamic and versatile musician Jack DeJohnette creates a sound that is absolutely his own. He is one of the most influential jazz drummers of the 20th century both as a leader and as a sideman for artists like Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, and Sonny Rollins. An accomplished pianist as well as a percussionist, DeJohnette is known for his musicianship and his innovative sound. In part 1, we learned about Jack's coming of musical age in chicago and his early years in NYC, the influence of Muhal Richard Abrams, and his collaboration with Miles Davis, which culminated in the seminal album Bitches Brew. In Part 2, Jack DeJohnette discusses the various trios and bands he's led, the development of his independent record label, and his decades long relationship with pianist Keith Jarrett. I spoke to Jack DeJohnette soon after he was told about receiving  the NEA Jazz Master's award. We talked on the porch of his home in the Catskill Mountains. And, yes, those are birds you occasionally hear singing in the background. We pick the conversation with Jack talking about his instrument: the drums.

Jack DeJohnette: The drums are a percussive instrument and a musical instrument. You tune it. You have cymbals -- cymbals are the orchestra sounds, or the sustaining sounds that link rhythms that you play on the actual drum set. And a drummer has to comp like a piano player, as well. And, I try to do that. So I think orchestrally about my drum set. Well, I don't use a big kit like a rock-and-roll drummer.

Jo Reed: Eight drums, something like that? Is that about what you use?

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it's extended, because I have an 8- and 10-inch mounted tom-toms, which I like to tune in the bongo range, because I love playing with a hand percussionist. And it gives me-- I think of hand-percussion rhythms on the drum set, especially Afro-Cuban, and Latin rhythms. So, it gives me a broad palate, my drum kit. And I kinda tune it so it fits a pretty broad range of music. And I also use, and I've developed, I call bells; some people call them "resonating bells," which my cymbal company, Sabian, we co-created a line of cymbals for me, Jack DeJohnette Cymbals. So, sound is important. I like to create music with cymbals. So, I created these resonating bells, which I wanted to have something that allowed me to play melodically and harmonically in certain musical contexts, and these bells allowed me to do that. Actually, I wound up using the bells, actually, on my first recording on my label, Golden Beams, "Music in the Key of Om."

Jo Reed: You also did a number of records as a leader creatively. What happens with you when it's your ensemble?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, I have to ask myself, "What do you wanna do?" And, also, I write, like Duke Ellington and some of the other great composers, write for the personalities that are in my band. So, anyway, but getting into band-leading:  well, I first started leading a band-- I guess the first Directions band was done through my first producer, which is Orrin Keepnews. And a label called Milestones. And, of course, I did the first record with him, called "The Dejohnette Complex."

Up and hot...

Jack DeJohnette: And that was pretty historical, as it had my mentor on drums, Roy Haynes; and two bass players, Eddie Gomez and Miroslav Vitous, two great musicians and composers; Stanley Cowell, a composer and player, a great player; and Bennie Maupin. So, that was my first recording, and it also feature me on a wind-blowing instrument called the melodica. So, I've Orrin to thank for believing in me to experiment with things on his label.

Jo Reed: You're referring to producer, Orrin Keepnews. You did a lot of work with Manfred Escher, with Special Edition, Directions, New Directions...

Jack DeJohnette: Eventually, my first Directions recording was done with John Abercrombie and Alex Foster and Peter Warren. And that was called the "Cosmic Chicken." So, that was the first Directions band. And, of course, that went on after I left Prestige; Milestones was taken over by Prestige, and I did some more dates there. And then, I went to Manfred, and did the first record for him:  a duet record with Keith Jarrett and myself, called "Ruta and Daitya." Manfred was-- he viewed music like a production, like a film production. He was a classical producer, worked for Deutsche Grammophon and produced a lot of records. I think, sang in some choirs in Austria, when he was young, and he played bass. So, he played a lot of experimental music, but his musical palate was quite broad. And, so he was interested in recording some of the musicians who played with Miles, like myself, Keith, Gary Peacock. And it was great working with Manfred, which I still work with him, because he was always encouraging you to do the best creative output that you could. And he had an aesthetic that drew that out:  he loved spontaneity as well as fixed composition. And, what has it been, thirty years, I think, or longer than that. But, he's still considered one of the premier producers of new music, classical music, and jazz; I'd say world music. So, it's been really a very profound, very, very highly long-lasting creative relationship.

Jo Reed: Well, you have another long-lasting creative relationship with Keith Jarrett. You've been playing together for decades. Can you just talk about the alchemy that happens between you?

Jack DeJohnette: Keith is another one of those musicians that is considered, and is, one of the best improvisers on the planet today, in any genre:  classical, and jazz. You know, he and I met in the Charles Lloyd Quartet. And we got a rapport we instantly didn't have to talk about. It was just something that was-- maybe we'd been together in previous lives, I don't know. But there was just something, an understanding, that we had with each other. We could just go anywhere <laughs>, and we still do. And, it's just stayed intact through over 40 years now playing with Charles; and then, later, him with me, him playing the electric keyboards with Miles; and then, the trio.

Jo Reed: You, Gary Peacock and Keith Jarrett.

Jack DeJohnette: And, it's been great working with Keith, and Keith has been quite respectful of Gary and myself by advertising us as equal billing. And we just-- we never talked about how long we'd stay together; we just said, "As long as it feels good, we'll keep doin' it."

Up and hot, Prism.

Jack DeJohnette: And it keeps gettin' better and better, keeps growin'. So, it's been a magical voyage.

Jo Reed: You, Gary Peacock, and Keith Jarrett. You are doing the standards now.

Jack DeJohnette: The idea of coming up and playing standards was good, because instead of us all writing original tunes, it gave us common ground to go into these songbooks-- you know, the songbook-- and see what we could pull out of it. And we're still doing that. I mean, we do have periods where we do spontaneous improvisations, but was also do the standard book, and we've been finding new ways to play it. So, we continually do that. We've just finished a nice tour of Europe in July. We usually do the summer festivals in July.

Jo Reed: You've started your own production company, quite some time ago:  Golden Beams.

Jack DeJohnette: Yea. Golden Beams was an idea that sprang out from-- sort of an inspiration from my wife, Lydia, and my younger daughter, Minya. So that I had so many projects and ideas and things I wanted to do. This was set up to be an outlet for those things:  to play with different musicians that I had a rapport with.

Jo Reed: Do let's talk about "Music in the Key of Om," because that is also groundbreaking.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah. "Music in the Key of Om" was made for my wife, Lydia, who does vibrational healing work. So I made it for her; and then my younger daughter, Minya, who was, at the time, doing massage therapy. They both had these CD's, and people started commenting, like: "This is nice; you should put this out." And my older daughter, Farah, posed for the cover of that. And, it was made, and it got nominated for a Grammy. And it's still doing well. One of the things I wanted to get across with that:  there's a lot of so-called-- you know, it goes into the "new-age" category. And there's a lot of new-age music where people are playing music like-- you know, they're soloing, and they're playing a lot of notes. And sometimes, it's distracting. I wanted to make something that didn't do that, that the person could do yoga, or just meditate, or massage.

Up and hot, "Music in the Key of Om"

Jack DeJohnette: So that you just tune out, and it just takes you, grounds you, brings you to a place of peace where you can re-energize and rejuvenate yourself. And that's the space I went into when I recorded. So, it had that effect on me when I heard it back. And, as I was doing it, I was feeling that.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about the evolution with your trio with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci. How did the three of you come together?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, I did Danilo's first recording as a leader. And I played with John Patitucci on a Chinese guitarist, named Eugene Pao, came over here to record. And I said to John, "Man, there's a pianist named Danilo Perez. I think you two guys would sound great together." So, I hooked them up. And, as a result, they are half of Wayne Shorter's amazing Quartet. And, we played together and we decided, "Okay, let's do something with the trio." So, we decide, "Okay, we're gonna do this recording," because we had such a really, really great rapport together.

Jo Reed: And you produced this: Golden Beams.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, Golden Beams; yeah. So, we produced this project, and I'm the executive producer, Music We Are, and it was done up here, near Woodstock, in the Catskills. And I wanted just to capture that vibe that we had. And so, using studio techniques-- overdubbing and editing--we put together the tracks on this "Music We Are."

Up and hot...

Jack DeJohnette: And, unfortunately, we weren't able to tour a lot the following year with it, because Danilo broke his Achilles heel <laughs>, so he was out of commission for a while. But we did manage to play a week at the Blue Note, which was sold out for that week. And we played some of the music from that CD; and also, we played the Puerto Rican Jazz Festival.

Jo Reed: Danilo said that one thing that's true for all three of you is that you're all in love with the process of making the music.

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah, because we came with music, but somebody makes a suggestion:  "Why don't we change this?" Like Danilo made some changes to one of my pieces that enhanced it and made it better. Or John might do that. So, it was a collective musical process: we mixed it together. So, it's a democratic way of producing a quality musical statement, or statements, I should say.

Jo Reed: The other thing I thought was interesting-- and this is something that you said. You said, "We're not the average jazz trio: we use the colors." And you referred to seeing music in colors. Can you say more about that?

Jack DeJohnette: Yeah. I think it was Danilo who said that about the colors. But I think sometimes, when you say "colors," colors for me is-- sometimes the mood, or the harmonies, or the rhythms will evoke feelings, or maybe colors. And in music, sometimes, there are chords sometimes:  blue chords, or a red chord. Different people see different colors, when you talk about colors. Coloring the music. I'd say I use the term "coloring the music"-- like, if I play with somebody, I'm not just keeping time; I'm coloring the music like a painter using a palate. So, I'm using rhythm, sound, and tonalities from the pitches of my drums and the cymbals. So, that's why we refer to as "coloring music." I'm not always thinking in terms of colors. I'm thinking of the moods, I'm thinking the feeling. And, if it makes you move, that's the important thing. If it makes you move, that's what I want.  Because the rhythm, the mood -- when you can get the body to move, you bypass the intellect, which is all that starts processes, starts thinking. You go to the feeling. And then you break that down. And then the musician and the listener can open up to, sometimes, places of ecstasy. And that's what happens with groove music, you know, trance music, so-called "trance" music:  the repetition of something, and it takes you higher and higher. It just keeps growing. It feeds itself, or feeds the fire.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about how you're feeding the fire now. What's next for you? You have so many irons in the fire. What's next for you? What's next for Golden Beams?

Jack DeJohnette: Okay. When you mention Golden Beams, I'll address Golden Beams first, and then I'll talk about what's coming up next. The next projects that were done on the label was Bill Frisell--actually, a project that was in my archives. I record everything, every performance. And, while touring with Keith Jarrett, on a tour in Seattle, Washington, John Gilbraith, who hosts the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle--I had a day off in between, and Bill and I were able to do a duet concert, which was recorded and documented. And I pulled it out, and I listened to it, and I thought, "There's something on here." So, I sent it to Bill, and said, "Bill, what do you think? Can I put this out on my label? We'll work something out." And he said, "Yeah, go ahead." And then, I brought in my son-in-law, Pablo Ben Surman, who's a musician and sound engineer, and who's worked with me for many years, through his father, the great composer and multi-reedist, John Surman, another great affiliation. But, so Ben came in, and I brought him in, and I said, "Enhance this. Add some ambient sounds, add some colors to this." So, we co-produced that, and came out with "The Elephant Sleeps but Still Remembers." And then, I did a follow-up to the "Music in the Key of Om," "Peace Time." And that consequently got a Grammy. You know, that was really exciting.

Jo Reed: And your own projects?

Jack DeJohnette: Well, yeah. I was really surprised that it got it, and as a result of that, my wife, Lydia, who has a friend who's a nurse named Jeanette <ph?>, who works at two of the hospitals here, in Kingston. We were able to get both of these CD's played in the hospital:  in the patients' rooms and in the hallways. And we've had feedback on it that says it really helps the staff and the people who either might be dying or recuperating, you know, recover better. And also, there was a-- can we stop that for a second-- I just wanna get--

Jo Reed: And your own projects?

Jack DeJohnette: At the moment, it's pretty crazy right now. Just came back from Europe. My wife and I: we're co-managers right now and there's a lot going on with the NEA and I was  blessed with the opportunity to do a very special project to coincide with the NEA's ceremonies in New York. A good friend of mine, Chuck Mitchell, who's been involved in the music business and the record business for many years--he's done work with Herbie Hancock. We've known him almost-- over 40 years. And he said-- you know, we talked to him, and he said, "Well, you know, I'd love to see you do a great recording, and have it come out to coincide with the NEA ceremonies." So, he asked me who I'd like to get to produce it, and the one man I chose is a great, great, fantastic producer named Bob Sadin, Robert Sadin. And I worked with him on numerous occasions:  with Herbie, and on the Sting project, Sting's project before last, I guess. I forgot the title: something in winter. He did stuff with strings, and wind ensembles. So, I did, I played drums on one piece, only one, actually. And Bob was producing that. So, I suggested I wanted to get Bob. And, we had a meeting, and Bob was really excited to do it. So, I chose the musicians, and the musicians I chose were the younger I said, "Leaders or innovators of the future." And they are. Esperanza Spalding:  fantastic, all-around talent, actually. She sings, she writes, and she plays bass. And I actually played on three tracks of her next release, and then, Lionel Loueke, who comes from Benin, Africa, who's been playing with Herbie. I got a chance to play with Lionel extensively last January, with Michel Portal, who's a very talented, shall we say eclectic player. He's well known for his playing clarinet, Mozart; he plays Mozart. But, he also does jazz and new music experiments. And he plays all the reed instruments. So, we did a record of Michel's, with Lionel, and a trumpet player who I like very much, named Ambrose Akinmusire. These players have very individual voices. I also want to do a few tracks with Jason Moran;

Up and hot...

Jack DeJohnette: And, last but not least, Bobby McFerrin; and a great percussionist, who was recommended to me by Danilo Perez, named Luisito Quintero. So, that's the line-up. And I'm writing music. And, basically, a lot of it is, we talk about grooves. It's gonna be about grooves, because I do that so well. So, it's my turn to make a groove record.

Jo Reed: Final question, Jack: how did you find out you were named a NEA 2012 Jazz Master?

Jack DeJohnette: I was in London, at my mother-in-law's house. Wayne called and said, "Yeah, this is NEA. How are you doing?" I said, "I'm doing okay." He said, "Well, I've got some news for you that'll make your day a little bit better." And, he says, "You've just been awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Award." And, it took a little while. And, I said, "Oh, really." It was, like, "Wow." Then, of course, you know, you get a little bonus with that, financial bonus with that. And it took a little while for me, after I hung up. And my wife, Lydia, was, like, "Ahhh!" It took me a while for it to sink in. And then, I was, like, "Yeah!" I'm having a lot of time now to have it sink in:  a lot of people congratulating me, and it's really-- I really feel really blessed to have that honor.

Jo Reed: So well deserved, Jack; really. Many congratulations from us.

Jack DeJohnette: Thank you. And it's great to join the list of other great masters, to be worthy of that is really a great, great feeling.

Jo Reed: That was drummer and 2012 NEA Jazz Master, Jack DeJohnette. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from "Mirrror Image" from the cd The DeJohnette Complex composed by JD and used courtesy of Concord Music Group, Inc. and DeJohnette Music.

Excerpts "Prism" from the cd Setting Standards, composed by Keith Jarrett and performed by Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock, used courtesy of ECM Records and Cavelight Music.

Excerpts from "Earth Prayer" and "Michael," from the cd Music We Are, composed by Jack DeJohnette and performed by Jack DeJohnette, Danilo Perez, and John Patitucci, used courtesy of Golden Beams Productions and DeJohnette Music.

Excerpts from "Music in the Key of Om," composed by Jack DeJohnette, and used courtesy of Golden Beams Productions and DeJohnette Music.

Excerpts of "Indigo Dreamscape" from the soon-to-be-released cd Sound Travels, composed by JD 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. Next week, architect and public artist Meejin Yoon.

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 2: The 2012 Jazz Master discusses his approach to music.