In his 1990 autobiography Miles, the celebrated and famously demanding trumpet player Miles Davis reflected on some of the best musicians who played with him in the studio and on the road. One of them was legendary drummer and Chicago native Jack DeJohnette.
“Jack,” Davis wrote, “could play drums like a [expletive] in a groove.” It was “a certain deep groove,” Davis noted, “that I just loved to play over.”
After a three-year stint with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, DeJohnette toured and recorded with Davis from 1969 to 1972 — a span that included the making and release of Davis’ most successful album, “Bitches Brew” (1970). “[B]ut he also wanted to do other things,” Davis recalled, “play a little freer, be a leader, do things his own way, so he left.”
Then 30, DeJohnette was more than a decade into a career that has now spanned nearly 60 years and included collaborations with most of the biggest names in jazz. A handful: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, George Benson and Herbie Hancock.
Speaking from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley, DeJohnette, who’ll perform Nov. 17 in an SCP Jazz concert with his Trio Beyond mates John Scofield and Larry Goldings — sums up his education under Davis in two short phrases: “Be prepared to play what you don’t know” and “Be in the moment.” Both have served DeJohnette — who turned 75 in August — well.
Growing up in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area of Chicago’s South Side during the 1940s and ’50s, DeJohnette was introduced to jazz at age 5 or 6 by his uncle, Roy Wood. A news broadcaster on WVON-AM and later a DJ, Wood had a large jazz record collection to which his young nephew had easy access. When he got a bit older, DeJohnette began attending jazz concerts at area clubs and theaters, including the Tivoli in Woodlawn and the Regal in Bronzeville. A classical piano student from an early age, he formed his own jazz trio in high school and began dabbling in drumming.
“It just called me, man,” DeJohnette says of jazz. “I just took to it like a fish.”
Although he is best known as a drummer, DeJohnette continues to play piano at some live dates and on select recordings.
“The drums and the piano are part of the percussion family,” he says. “I have to remind people of that. Anybody who plays a chordal instrument and knows harmony and theory, of course it helps you on both instruments. One feeds the other. It’s all rhythm. Everything is rhythm, man. Vibration. Nothing exists without that. Scientifically, all things we conceive in the physical and third-dimensional reality and beyond are all sounds. They vibrate. And to get sound, you have to have vibration, frequency.”
Possessed of a deeply curious mind, DeJohnette is a big fan of science — especially the science behind music’s restorative and healing powers. He is also a staunch advocate of silence. It is one reason he lives in the country, away from the noise and haste of New York City. He believes the dearth of silence in today’s world is detrimental to human health, both mental and physical. It also hampers creativity.
“Everybody needs silence,” says DeJohnette, a yoga practitioner. “Between cell phones and games and all that stuff, the human species is really in bad shape. Not enough space. There’s just too much information and too much going on. It shuts down people’s ability to make discerning choices, and also their ability to interact.”
From a musical standpoint, DeJohnette is a master of both. When he performs at Symphony Center, that mastery will be on full display — as will, no doubt, the pleasure he takes in doing what he does best: making meaningful music.
“It’s actually more fun because I’m older,” he says. “I’m just enjoying it more. It’s richer.”
TOP: Jack DeJohnette performs Nov. 17 in an SCP Jazz concert with Trio Beyond. Also on the bill: the Ravi Coltrane Quartet. | Photo: Wikimedia
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.