Drummer Jack DeJohnette casts a wide sonic net to perfect his skills
Jack DeJohnette had a couple of insights when he was young that helped him develop into one of the greatest drummers in jazz history – certainly one of the most diversified and prolific. The first was that he listened to all types of music when he was a child, and never felt the need to categorize genres: opera, country, R&B, jazz. He absorbed everything he heard – and didn’t compartmentalize the music – or the people who made it.
Second, DeJohnette started out on piano. The drums didn’t enter the picture until his days in the high school band. He studied classical piano privately at the age of four, and later at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. At a KNKX studio session in 2012, he explained to us how knowledge of the piano impacted his approach as a drummer:
"You know, I found out a lot about drumming from playing the piano. Its an orchestral instrument to me. The cymbals are like the sustained pedals, you know, they connect up a lot of things. So it helped me respond to the music in certain ways. But, the plus for me playing the drums was that I got to play with all these great piano players."
The laughter you hear in that clip was from his bandmates that day at our venue: pianist Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke. Two legendary musicians – and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. DeJohnette’s resume includes collaborations with some of the biggest names in jazz – a list that would take over five minutes to adequately cover. And his willingness and ability to cast a wide sonic net? That’s come in handy over the decades, too, in that DeJohnette is comfortable in whatever the setting and genre calls for.
While working as a sideman with major players, Jack created his own group early in his career – the DeJohnette Complex – which went through many fascinating incarnations over the decades. There have been many drummers in the jazz world that have served as influential mentors to up and coming talent: Art Blakey, Louis Hayes, Herlin Riley. Well put Jack DeJohnette high on that list, too. His bands New Directions and Special Edition helped launch the careers of musicians like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Chico Freeman, and others. Here’s a bit of song called "Third World Anthem" from one of those mid ‘80s Special Edition albums:
The same can be said of DeJohnette’s 2011 record Sound Travels. It was filled with young players finding their way, who are all now experiencing critical acclaim: Ambrose Akinmusire, Jason Moran. We’ll hear guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist/vocalist esperanza spalding’s interplay with DeJohnette on this song, called Salsa for Luisito:
While DeJohnette has welcomed artists into a “musical incubator” over the years, you’ll have no trouble seeking out work with peers at the top of their game. Take your pick: In the ‘60s DeJohnette played with John Coltrane, then found crossover success in Charles Lloyd’s quartet. The exploration widened with a three-year stint in Miles Davis’ band. Starting in the mid ‘80s, and continuing for a remarkable three-decade run, DeJohnette was in pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, along with bassist Gary Peacock. Listen to any of their albums together, and you’ll be treated to three masters of their respective instruments, as well as a unit with undeniable symmetry:
Another rewarding project was a series of collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny in the ‘90s, both in the studio and on stage. Here they are on DeJohnette’s album Parallel Realities:
After that DeJohnette continued his musical journey, working with Latin jazz stars, and in 2009, his record Peace Time won a Grammy for Best New Age Album. In 2012, when he turned 70, Jack DeJohnette was crowned a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Well deserved, for a man who has been a tireless advocate for the art form and played a role in some of the most revered music in the jazz canon.