Jack DeJohnette can fool you. His outward appearance is often in contrast to what is going on underneath. Take his drumming, for example. Jack is totally relaxed behind the drumset. His movements are conservative, and he often doesn’t even work up much of a sweat. But don’t be misled. Jack’s manner while playing comes from total mastery of his instrument, a great deal of power, and complete control of that power. His intensity is channeled into the music, rather than being wasted on physical flamboyance. Visually, only Jack’s facial expressions reflect his intent. But forget the visual. music is to be listened to, and you can hear the intensity in every note Jack plays.
When speaking with DeJohnette, a similar contrast occurs. Soft-spoken and unpretentious, Jack’s manner belies the depth and seriousness of what he says. Jack knows exactly who he is and what he stands for, and this knowledge gives him a self-assurance that doesn’t demand an overbearing personality. Jack DeJohnette’s laid-back demeanor may indeed fool you at first, but beneath his mellow exterior there is an intense fire burning, fueled by knowledge, experience and integrity.
RM: In a down beat article about twelve years ago, you said, “The way I see it, music and the music business are in a terrible mess.” How do you feel about that now?
JDJ: It’s about the same as it was when I made that statement twelve years ago. It went up for a while, and there was a sort of false feeling that there was some real money to be made with the crossover music and the so-called “fusion” music. The record companies thought they could package it and make jazz sell a million copies an album. With certain kinds of it they did. People like George Benson and Herbie [Hancock] made that crossover, and the companies thought they could do that with jazz all the way down the line—mainstream jazz and so forth. But it didn’t happen the way they thought it would, and a lot of artists were dropped. The jazz musicians had decided, “Well, if the rock ‘n’ roll cats can make 75-thousand dollars a night, so can I.” And even when some of the musicians did make some really good crossover records, they were in competition with the already- established rock groups. So they may have cut into a little slice of that audience, but the return was not the same. American record companies really got nervous. They couldn’t maintain a consistent level of accessible jazz.
It’s getting harder and harder to keep this music accessible to people. There are a few commercial radio stations that are trying to do it, but they are having trouble. The public radio stations and the college stations have more or less kept the music on the airwaves in America. But the pressure is on these stations to get funding; to get people to send money to keep them on the air. And the record companies—the economy is really forcing the serious issue of survival of the fittest. That’s what we’re all up against right now. I suppose the people who are well established won’t be hurt by this, but for the people in the middle, and the ones just starting out, it’s really an uphill battle. We just have to hang in there until it levels out. I’m not saying it’s going to get better, but it has got to level out at some point. Then we’ll have to start all over again and be more careful about what we’re doing. So right now, you just have to have a strong sense of dedication, as you have always had to have with this music. You have to persevere with it and determine how much you really need to make a living. You may have to take a regular job, or try to do other things besides music, or take gigs you wouldn’t normally take. I feel that’s the only way you can survive in it, because that’s the decision I made. I don’t just take one area and run it out all the way. I like to keep a diverse mixture all the time so that I’m free to keep things moving. But in that freedom of movement and diversity, there’s consistency.
We Americans have been sort of spoiled to have anything and everything without really valuing anything. We have to look at everything and make wise choices about what we’re doing so that we can make everything count without wasting anything. I think the music industry needs to support the artists through these rough times, instead of giving up on them if they don’t make it right away. That’s what’s wrong with this country: they want everything right away. Instant gratification. You know, with jazz—like anything of quality—you have to start somewhere and build it and work with it and nourish it and try to keep it going. You have to know that it’s a long-range investment and not an instant overnight success. The problem with overnight success is that a lot of times, you’re not ready for it.
RM: One thing that I have seen changed over the last few years is the number of smaller record companies—such as ECM and a lot of the independent labels—who do seem to be committed to the artists and to the music.
JDJ: Yeah, there are more records being made now than ever. That’s a big problem in itself. There are so many records out now the market is being saturated. European companies are distributing here; Japanese companies are distributing; there are small American labels; there are people doing their own records on their own labels—everybody’s making records. The competition is very stiff. There are outlets for people working on small, limited budgets, but they are going to have to take serious precautions to put their money where they can get the most out of it, instead of just putting it all over the place. You have to make very serious decisions about what your priorities are. People who are seriously committed to persevering with their art in spite of the recession will be forced to make those decisions.
RM: A lot of people who try to keep high artistic standards in the face of the economic realities get frustrated and depressed. How can one deal with all of this in a positive way?
JDJ: Well, you just have to be realistic about it. You have to work with a concept, keep a small budget, and strive to make that concept grow. Like ECM has a concept, and I think that’s one of the things that grabbed the listening audience and made ECM stand out from the rest of the jazz labels. And one of their main objectives was to maintain a high level of creative output with the people they dealt with. I’ve always been of the belief that if the other jazz labels had had a similar concept, they might still be in business today.
You have to keep your perspective. When I decided to pursue the avenues of music that I wanted to deal with, I just asked myself: “How much do I need to make to survive and be in a position where I’m not under any pressure to play a certain type of music for financial reasons?” Fortunately, the times were right and the company believed in that type of thinking and supported it. I think that’s the kind of attitude you have to have, but not everybody feels that way. The general attitude of most people is that jazz, in its purest form, is something that only a few select people can understand. So it got to the point where musicians were saying, “It’s not jazz; it’s ‘people’ music.” When you identify what it’s for, then there’s a market.
RM: Some musicians have said, “I don’t want to talk about my music; I just want to put it out there.”
JDJ: The reason we have to talk more about the music now is because of competition and advertising. We’re in such a media age right now. There’s stuff coming at you all the time. Look at all the ads you have in your magazine; there’s all kinds of stuff. So when you are selling a product on the market, you have to tell the people why they should be interested in that product. You really have to be specific and clear about what it is you’re doing, what you’re presenting, and why it is important that your way is something that people should check out. If you want them to come to something, you have to reach out and give them a reason to come. They have to feel that you’re trying to communicate with them, and that you’re not talking down to them, or that you feel that what you’re doing is above them. So these things are important. You have a product—music, art—and you are trying to sell it. And hopefully, when you sell that, there will be an interaction going on. You will share the music, and it will be an experience. It’s important that the people go out with something not only in their heads, but also in their hearts, emotionally. That lasts a long time, and will make them come back again and remain fans of yours.
RM: When jazz musicians do achieve a certain amount of success, a lot of people in the “jazz establishment” start putting them down, and saying, “That’s not really jazz.” I often wonder if there’s a form of self-fulfilling prophecy going on with these people who are convinced that jazz is never going to be successful.
JDJ: There’s that whole attitude that a jazz musician has to be scuffling, scraping pennies, not part of the mainstream of life, and yet maintain artistic integrity. And so any of us who have ever played with a more commercial sound have felt a pressure to defend it. There was this conflict between maintaining a so-called “jazz-mentality consciousness” and compromising the music to make a better living. The musicians were just saying that they were fed up with having to worry about where the next meal was coming from, and they were making an attempt to better their station in life. If you can play music, why shouldn’t you make a decent living for yourself? So there’s a clear rationale for making that decision. People like Chick and Herbie are trying to keep a balanced thing going between both. They genuinely like to be free to do both types of music. There are some people who say you can only do one thing or the other. But you have choices. This is America, and there are lots of choices.
Jazz runs a whole gamut, you know. There is Latin jazz, funk, soul, straight ahead, avant-garde—we have all these terminologies which people use to identify what they’re talking about. But the term “jazz” can fit a whole lot of different categories. We get into debates about whether some music is pure jazz, or if it’s just watered down music. But if there is some improvisation in it whatsoever—no matter how simple—then it’s still a form of jazz. Some artists’ music is not as adventurous as it would normally be, and so they call that commercial jazz. So you can sell 10- million records and still be considered jazz. But then Miles and Coltrane each captured a huge audience, and they didn’t need to compromise their music because it was so strong and so powerful. But, you know, when you put your music out there, you’re subject to criticism. We all know that. But the artist has to make a choice about the music he is going to play, and then he has to live with it.
RM: One of the decisions you have made is to blend a lot of different elements into your music. How do you go about merging an outside element into your own concept?
JDJ: Let’s say I’m pursuing a reggae piece. I research the reggae totally, because I know there are people who are going to check to see if I’ve done my homework. Even if I’m going to take the reggae feel outside of its normal context, I still want to pay respect to that feel, and show that I respect that type of music. It’s like the Sketches of Spain album that Miles and Gil Evans did. They extended the colors but still paid tribute to the tradition of the music. As long as you take care to keep some kind of connection with that underlying tradition, you can communicate the extension of it. That’s what we’re doing: extending previous musics that have gone on before us. We’re extending them and recycling them; giving them a new suit of clothes to make them come out differently. You can attract peoples’ attention to a particular direction by drawing on other things. But you have to have a clear idea of how you can communicate in different directions so that the public will still know where you’re coming from.
So based on those kinds of things, you try to research and do something that will grab at the public’s tastes. You have to know what’s out, and what’s doing well and what’s not. For instance, when the first Special Edition album was made, that was a period of time when there was a lot of nostalgia going on. “Zoot Suit” had that sort of ’30s and ’40s big band feeling, and right away, people began to notice it. Even though the music was an extension of that feeling, it gave people a point of reference they could relate to right away, and it turned out that that album drew a lot of attention. It made Special Edition a more sought-after group than the other groups I’ve had. So I’m just trying to keep my finger on the musical, sociological and political pulse of the world. You’ve got to be part of the world. You have to deal with it, one way or another, and I try to deal with it.
RM: To go back to your analogy of giving the music a new suit of clothes, I can still tell that it’s you wearing the clothes. But with some people, it’s more like they are wearing a costume, complete with mask, and you can’t tell who or what is under it. How do you respect a style without losing yourself in it?
JDJ: That’s a hard thing to talk about because it’s an intuitive process. You have to know how far to go with it. The two things you have to be aware of are knowing what the composition is saying, and knowing what direction you want the improvisation to go. Basically, you’re talking about feeling. You have to trust your intuitiveness, because that’s one of the things that made people like Miles or Ahmad Jamal as great as they are. They knew how far to take it out, and then when to put the brakes on. People are given that gift, and they have developed it. In that spirit, I’ve tried to get a balance. Sometimes it’s better to be a little imbalanced to get the concept across of what you’re trying to do. To get your ideas out, you sometimes have to go out beyond the limits. Other times, you might have to do the opposite. It’s a highly individual approach.
RM: Doesn’t it also have a lot to do with having a strong sense of identity? If you know who you are, then you know how to use influences and make them part of you.
JDJ: You have to have some sense of where you are in relationship to the world, and how you fit into it. Writers, painters, musicians—anybody in the creative field has to have that to give that personal stamp to whatever they do. It’s also that sense of knowing when you’re on to something; that automatic radar that tells you,’ ‘This is it .” That’s the magic that happens in all creative people. Some have it in higher doses than others, but there’s that thing that tells you that you’re on the right track. Of course, you get feedback from other people, and you use it as a gauge. Some people don’t need that, but I’m sure other people wouldn’t bother playing if they didn’t have that feedback.
RM: How does one develop a sense of self awareness?
JDJ: I think all the great musicians heard things they liked, and tried to emulate them. Copying the people you look up to is a good way to develop as long as you know it’s a transitory stage. You’re using that as research; studying the solos to see how a person did something. Some people can pick it up just by listening; others have to go to the books. As long as you know it’s to help you get more a sense of yourself—to help you find what you’re looking for—then it’s okay. But a lot of people stop there, and they become imitators. That’s the danger of copying. You should just use it for research; check it out and then move on.
When you say you’ve been influenced by someone, it should mean that you took certain things from that person’s style to help you find your own direction. It’s a chain that goes on, and you can’t avoid it. Nobody can come through here and say that they didn’t come from somebody else. It’s just totally impossible to say that you came from nowhere; that nobody influenced you. We’re influenced by everything. It’s how we grow; how we develop. We can’t get away from it.
I once heard a recording of Jo Jones playing a solo, and his solo went from the ’30s all the way up to today. He was really playing music, and I heard all kinds of things. Like, I heard where Philly Joe came from. Philly, of course, came to prominence with Miles. I really liked the way he took the rudiments and made them swing. And a lot of Jo Jones was in the things that Philly played. Then Art Taylor came along and incorporated Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. He developed a style of his own which made him one of the top drummers, and he was one of my favorites. And then we had Roy Haynes, who was such an individual that a lot of people didn’t understand what he was doing sometimes. A lot of what Elvin played was influenced by what Roy played, like turning the beat around and not playing the hi-hat on “2” and “4” all the time. Roy has a lot of finesse, control and imagination. Then Tony [Williams] came along with a combination of Elvin, Roy, Max, and a little Alan Dawson. After hearing Alan play, I think he and Tony influenced each other. And then of course Max was a pioneer of the drums. He was able to play and spell out clearly the composition, the form, everything. And then Art Blakey, of course. The swing man. Always hard driving and in control of the music. These are all people who are still involved with the art, and they are all complete musicians. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I’d be where I am now. We have to learn from them; pass this legacy on. We carry it on, recycle it, redefine it, and keep breaking new ground with it.
RM: I remember an analogy I once heard: The words we are speaking are the words we learned by imitating our parents. But we can then use those words to express our own thoughts.
JDJ: Right. That’s good. You see, you need analogies like that to make it clear to people who have an intellectual concept of music. They get so caught up in the thinking process, they lose sight of the feeling. So you have to give answers that will lure that intellectualism and pull it down to the realm of the intuitive. Finding your own direction is hard to describe, but it’s a process of finding out that you have something to offer, and then putting yourself in the right situations. You have to work hard to develop it and give it room and space to develop in. It’s usually your peers and the public who sort of give you that confidence to continue on. You don’t just do it for yourself; you like to do something that can relate to more people than just yourself. It’s a circle—you give something and get something back. But you have to believe in yourself that you have something to offer. You have to find out if you do, and it’s usually the people in your field who will point that out. It can also be a listener who doesn’t have any technical knowledge about music, but likes it because of the mood it creates. So again, it’s all based on feedback. You need feedback to know how the music is communicating. Most people don’t do things solely for their own benefit. We don’t hear about people who are tremendous but who turn their back on the public at large.
If you want to find out how good you are, and whether you can meet the challenges, then you have to put yourself in the environment where the competition is really stiff. Only the best players survive. One of the problems you have now is that there are not that many places for a young musician to play steadily and provide a decent living. So there’s always compromise involved. You have to go into the studios, or play with show groups or top-40 groups just to survive. Musicians are their own representatives to other musicians. When players hear other players who have something happening, they will say, “Hey, there’s another one. Check him out.” So you have to be in the environment, and basically, the Mecca of all of this is New York City. No matter whether it’s music, art or whatever, all of the best people live in the Northeast. It still is the nucleus. So whether they live there for the rest of their lives or not, everybody has to deal with New York when they need to. I realize it’s expensive to live in New York. After you’ve paid your dues you can make your decision about whether you want to stay there or not. If you’re successful, you can work from anywhere. So many musicians don’t live there anymore. They live in the suburbs, or in another state, and only come to New York when they need to. I realize it’s expensive to live in New York, but all of us, invariably, had to come to New York because we were serious about wanting to be the best we could be. And the best musicians still reside in New York. You have to find out how really serious you are about it before you get into it and find out that it’s not easy. And now it’s harder than ever for musicians. So you have to find out if it’s what you want, and you have to decide about things such as having a family and traveling on the road—these kinds of things. You have to think about other people than yourself. When you are getting your thing together, it’s a very selfish kind of situation. You have to take a lot of time to practice and research your instrument, and you just really don’t have time for anything else. Once you get it to a point where you can get involved in other things than music, then that’s something else. Then you have room to bring these other things into your life. So these are serious considerations, and you have to find out about them.
RM: I’ve heard people contend that for every successful musician, there are ten equally talented musicians who never made it, and the only thing that set the successful player apart was that he got a “break.” Do you think that’s valid?
JDJ: Like I said before, you put yourself in the nucleus of the environment, and then you find out if you are good enough to warrant “breaks.” Nobody’s going to give you anything just because you look great or whatever. It’s about your abilities. It’s as simple as that. Some musicians know how to be political and they know how to talk to people, and so you say they got a “break.” But they worked at it. They made a connection, but the bottom line is having the talent to back it up. If you’re serious about work, you call people up and say, “Look man, call me if you need a drummer.”
RM: Your name is well established; you al ways do well in the polls. Some people might look at that and figure you have it made; all you have to do is answer the phone and you can work as much as you want.
JDJ: [laughs] I don’t work that much, actually. Part of it is by choice, and part of it is because it’s difficult to get decent work in America. Most American musicians will tell you that’s why they are in Europe so much. They make better money in Europe because there’s an audience there that appreciates the music and supports it, as opposed to here. I’d like to see it broadened a bit more in America. It’s very difficult because, as we talked about earlier, if not for the college and public radio stations, the music wouldn’t manage to survive even on the thread that it’s managing to exist on now. The hardest thing with this music is to set up college concerts. All the budgets are being cut back at the colleges, so they’re being a little more picky. But at the same time, they’re trying to get a little more quality. Somewhere in an intermediate price range they can get three or four good groups for what they used to spend on one rock group. One rock concert would completely wipe out their entertainment budget.
So I don’t work that much in America. I try to make at least one cross-country tour a year, if it’s possible. Sometimes I’ve had to cancel a tour because financially, it just wouldn’t make any sense. This Spring we have a new Special Edition album coming out, called Inflation Blues, which is apropos. I don’t want to speak about it because I think it will be a surprise. It came out real good, and I’m curious to see how it does. So anyway, we are planning a Spring tour, and hopefully, we will go across the country. I would like to keep Special Edition visible because that’s one of my priorities, and everyone’s really committed to the band at this point. I realize what’s going on with the economy, and with the realities of this music, but the group has so much potential. If the funds would allow it, I would use three horns, but the economy is such that I have to rotate one of the horn spots. David Murray did the last tour of Europe with us, and he played fantastically. And Howard Johnson has been working with us. I would like to use David, Howard and John Purcell together, be cause I think highly of all three people. So I’m in this dilemma; there are a lot of players I love, and I want to be able to play with them, but I have to be realistic as to what’s really possible financially. I try to keep things flexible so I can get to play with all of them, and I think everyone understands the situation.
Sometimes the situation works out where I can use three horns. I used three horns last December in New York at Fat Tuesday’s. I don’t appear in New York clubs too often, so I decided to do a week there to let people know I’m still around and still serious about my music. If people don’t see you, they wonder what’s happening with your music. You don’t have to be on the scene all of the time, though. It’s better to make a statement and then let that statement send out waves. I make it a point to make the live performances quite different from the records, even though we may play some of the material off the records. I’d like to get noted for the treatment of the material live so that people will want to come and hear me live because they know it will be a special occasion. I’m taking great care to make sure that people feel that care has been taken with the presenta tion. When they come to hear the group, it’s not just something thrown together, but something that’s been given a lot of thought. It’s a special kind of happening.
RM: I wish more musicians took that kind of care. If my wife and I go to hear a group, and there’s a cover charge and a two-drink minimum, we don’t want to spend that much money just to hear some guys having a jam session.
JDJ: If you have a presentation, people appreciate it. It pays off in the long run. There really has to be special care taken with the quality of the music; with the length of the solos based on the strength of the soloist. That’s important, so to that I’m committed. I’ve made a commitment and I’m trying to hold onto that and make it happen.
RM: Speaking of the gig at Fat Tuesday’s, often when a band has three horns, and they all solo in the same tune, I get tired of hearing that tune after a while. It’s not so much because the soloists aren’t interesting, but because the rhythm section is basically doing the same thing throughout the tune. But at Tuesday’s, I was really impressed with the way that you would change the whole feel of what you were playing each time a different person soloed.
JDJ: A great example of that was Duke Ellington, who had the ability to keep it interesting and hold the audience’s attention, whether it was one soloist or three soloists. And one of the things he used to do in his writing was to set up each personality. His bands were not just made up of session players; each player had a strong personality. So when Duke wrote a section to be played behind a soloist, it was tailormade for that soloist. Care was taken so that each time a different soloist played, the color of the piece changed. The listener didn’t get bored from hearing just the same ensemble riffs in back.
I like to keep that kind of diversity going on. So each time another soloist starts, Rufus [Reid] and I shift to get into the mood of whichever soloist is playing I’m like a designer, you might say, and each soloist requires a different design. So it’s just being sensitive that each player is different and needs a different sort of backup; a different kind of support.
We don’t always have everybody solo on every tune, but I don’t mind every soloist soloing if they can be interesting, and people are not yawning. When soloing, say what you’ve got to say and then get off of it. Move on and let somebody else have it. Don’t overindulge. In that way, you keep it interesting and people don’t find themselves thinking about how many soloists there are. I’m well-aware of the pitfall of having more than two people solo, but I pride myself with the ability to keep shifting the moods, as opposed to keeping it consistent all of the time. Even if there’s a basic mood underlying, I try and keep that while embellishing other rhythms, moods and colors on top of that basic pattern.
The other thing we have that is interesting, I think, and keeps people from getting bored, is that the instrumentation is always changing. Sometimes it might be three clarinets; sometimes it might be a clarinet, an alto and a baritone; sometimes it’s tenor, trumpet and alto. That way, we have a lot of contrasts and colors. So Special Edition has the capability of changing its clothes all the time.
RM: You’ve neglected to mention one of the group’s most obvious assets: the ability of the leader to play keyboards as well as drums.
JDJ: [laughing] Oh, of course. I was so wrapped up in the other aspect, I forgot. Right, keyboards—acoustic piano, a Casio MT70, which I use sometimes, and the electric Melodica. So between all of those, it’s hard to get stuck in one thing. There is a basic sound, but there are a lot of different shades to that sound. And so I’m trying to keep developing in the area of shadings, to keep ourselves, as well as the audience, constantly interested in what we’re doing.
Let’s face it: even with a drummer-led band, the emphasis is really on the music. the presentation of the music; the compositional aspect of it. Because no matter how great you solo, people can’t walk out of the club humming your drum solo. I want people to go out saying they enjoyed the music. The drumming, of course, is part of the music, but the whole thing is very important. And so it’s important that when you’re a drummer leading the band, you have to present a program that’s enjoyable. Art Blakey is very much aware of that, and it’s one of the things I’m trying to do. Of course, I want people to enjoy the drumming, but I want the people to remember that they enjoyed the compositions and the presentation, so that they come back to hear Jack DeJohnette’s music, not just the drumming. I try to direct the music so that I blend into my band, rather than dominate it. I think maybe I do dominate it, but I dominate it by infiltrat ing it in a way that nobody is overshadowed. That’s a lesson that a lot of drummers have to learn.
There are only a few drummers I know who made hits with drummer-led bands. One of them was Cozy Cole with “Topsy,” in the ’50s. He was one of the only drummers to have a successful hit record, with a simple, burlesque-style drum solo as the spotlight of the tune.
RM: Even the hits that featured drums usually had a good melody in addition to the drum solo. “Sing, Sing, Sing” had more to it than just the drums, and even the ’60s rock tune “Wipe Out” had a melody. And people want to hear Buddy Rich play “West Side Story,” not because that’s the only piece he solos on, but because the whole arrangement is so good.
JDJ: Oh yeah, underlying all those things is some kind of melody that someone can hum. You have to hook the drums up with something else. That’s the reality that we, as drummers, have to realize. The drums have to be coupled with another, melodic, instrument. If you scrutinize it, you find that you come back to that common denominator.
The attitude with drummer-led bands used to be that the drummer was always out front. I think drummers are now more sensitive to the fact that they have to present music, as well as their solo capabilities. Elvin is very good with that. He strikes a balance with his other musicians. He plays at their level. He can’t play with them the way he played with Coltrane because they don’t have that kind of superior intensity and gift that Coltrane had. Elvin really had to have an exceptional capacity to just keep up with ‘Trane, and he managed to do that quite well. But then when Elvin started his own bands, it was a different ballgame. I was impressed the first time I heard his group with Joe Farrell and Jimmy Garrison. It was nice! He never overplayed; you could really hear the trio and how Elvin accompanied and comped, and how tastefully he played without giving up any intensity. And I took that to heart. I know there were times previously when I had been as guilty as other drummers of getting overzealous sometimes. You wind up forgetting about the soloist. You are somewhere in your own trip, and the soloist is somewhere else, and there is a conflict of interest at that point. So you have to remember that you are accompanying and supporting, as well as supplying the aggressive spark.
RM: You were in a similar position to Elvin. You came out of a very intense situation with Miles Davis to lead your own groups.
JDJ: I had to learn how to be a leader. I think I was sometimes guilty of overplaying because I felt the musicians needed a boost, or if there was a space there, I felt that I had to fill that space. But when you have musicians who know what they’re doing, you don’t have to be so aggressive. And then with the soloists, you let them set that up. But you’re there, wherever they go. Then they feel like they’ve always got somebody supporting them. They don’t have to overplay, and you get more out of them. Everybody benefits. But you’ve really got to have top quality people to be able to do that, or at least people who have the potential to develop to that level. That’s how it was in Miles’ band. He’d set the pieces up and we’d just play them. There would be no discussion about it, other than how the piece would be conceived and how the form should be played.
RM: Earlier, you discussed your goals for a live performance. What are your goals when you record?
JDJ: It’s the same concept. You take time and preparation to put your best foot for ward. You have to take care to make sure that the record presents a representation of what you’re currently doing at that point. Each record documents your growth and development—or non-development, [laughs] We always hope it’s for the better, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. But I try to keep a consistent level of quality to each record and performance.
I like to hear records where you can tell that the tunes were really put together, and the soloists were really concentrating, and the musicians were playing as though this might be the last time they ever got to play. That’s something you don’t hear a lot because it has become so easy to make records. Because of multi-tracking, you can go in and lay something down, and three months later you can go in and do it over again. In the early days of recording, you just did it. You had the pressure of having only so much time to do it, and you couldn’t go back and clean up this and that. Multi-tracking can be good artistically if you know how to use it, but a lot of people spend too much time doing something over and over. Usually, if you have to do it more than three times, you’ll never get it. If it’s a written part where every thing has to be perfect, that is when you use it. But as far as getting a feel or a mood, that should be together enough so that even if there’s a slight mistake, it’s okay. Especially if that mistake adds a little something special to it.
RM: Listening to your music, I wouldn’t guess that you do any overdubbing.
JDJ: On this new one we did. With the multi-tracking we had the freedom to create something bigger with fewer people. We had two people overdubbing parts to get a big section sound. So I have nothing against multi-tracking. I like it, but I think it should be used with the utmost discretion.
RM: So you were just using it in the section parts?
JDJ: Right, the arranged parts.
RM: But not in the places that required in terplay, such as the solos.
JDJ: Even if you overdub a solo, you are interacting with someone.
RM: Except it’s only one way. You can re spond to what’s on the tape but the tape can’t respond to you.
JDJ: Well, yeah. But if you have a track that has a great feeling on it, you might not get that feel again. I think it’s good to strive for a better solo. Maybe you were a little out of tune, or you flubbed a couple of notes, or maybe it just wasn’t what you had in mind. So that’s where multi-tracking is useful. At least you can salvage the parts that were good.
RM: You play with a great deal of intensity, and yet you always seem to be relaxed.
JDJ: That’s the key to doing anything that requires some exertion. You have to concentrate on keeping a balance between tension and relaxation so you don’t burn yourself out. All the musicians who do that are able to extend themselves beyond the limits and play for hours and hours.
High intensity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s loud all the time. No matter if it’s a ballad or a fast tempo, it can have an intensity underlying the music that gives it a presence. And you get energy and intensity from having an intent with your music. Intent, coupled with the concentration of focusing your energy, is very important. Anyone who has that kind of control will tell you that you have to be relaxed so you don’t cut off the blood flow to your muscles. Some people do it naturally, but others have to work on it because the tendency is to tense up when the music becomes emotionally charged. So you have to work at calming yourself down. Listen to the music outside of yourself, removing your self from it as a player and becoming a listener. You can take off a lot of the tension by doing that. Also, you can use a mirror to watch yourself practicing and see where you are tensing up. Make yourself relax. Each person is made different, so you have to see at what point you get tense, because that cuts off the circulation. When you’re relaxed, you can let all of the energy and intensity carry you, instead of you being a prisoner of that intensity.
RM: One of my teachers proved that to me dramatically. He put on some music and told me to start dancing to it. Then he turned off the music, but told me to continue dancing. Within a few seconds, I started getting very tired and it became difficult to keep going, but when he turned the music back on, it got easy again and I was able to continue for quite a while.
JDJ: It’s true. The player has to learn to be like the listener when performing and learn how to receive that energy. Then you get a recycling kind of thing; a kind of energy that doesn’t drain you, but does the reverse. It enhances the energy you already have, and that’s the key to it. You become attuned to that creative flow—that force— that’s constant all the time. We have to open ourselves up to it, but it’s always there. You have to be able to let the music carry you, and you flow on top of it.
This is where you have to develop enough proficiency on your instrument that you don’t have to think about what you’re playing. You feel the music. The thinking process and the intuitive process become coupled into the creative idea. And when you open up to that, you don’t have to think about what you play. Your mind is like a split-second computer. Before you think of something, it’s happening; it’s already out. You’re reacting spontaneously. That’s the highest part of creativity. You’re interacting with each other spontaneously. Something happens—somebody creates a groove—and you’re able to go with that groove, and it’s all happening at the speed of light. This is what makes the creative process such a phenomenon. It’s happening right there, and it will never happen again the same way. You get that spontaneity, and that’s the whole key; that’s what we want in improvisational music. That’s the joy of it. I think that’s why people are drawn to it, because spontaneity is missing from our everyday lives. So many things are predictable: you are going to get up at a certain time; you have to go here; you have to do that; you have to do certain things in certain ways every day. I think people are drawn to jazz because of the element of surprise. That’s something they don’t get in their daily lives. So I think that’s the element that draws musicians as well as listeners; it’s being there right when it’s being created.
When you make a record, you capture that fraction of a second that the spontaneity happened. But consequently, if the record becomes successful, the solos and everything become like classical pieces. People start singing the solos the way they are on records. And that’s when you can say that jazz is one of America’s true classical musics. It is a music to be respected, just as the European classical music. There are a lot of creative contemporary composers for classical music, and the so called “avant-garde.” And a lot of the creative people in that field know about the improvisational aspect, and they write compositions with space for a soloist. And then you have people like (violinist) Itzhak Perlman who has done some things with Shelly Manne; musicians who know about different musics and do not want to be confined to just one area. People who are not afraid to take chances.
We’re playing world music more than jazz. Music, to me, is world music. It’s man who separates it and tries to isolate it and confine it to certain areas and certain definitions. Musicians like myself, or Chick, or Keith, or Miles, look at music as a world music because we’re interested in all kinds of music. When you listen to all kinds of music, then you’re not thinking of it in terms of “jazz” or “African” or something. I use the term “multi-directional” because I’m interested in all kinds of music, as most contemporary musicians are. So when I say “multi-directional,” I don’t have to say, “Yes, it’s avant-garde,” or “Yes, it’s this,” or whatever. It all fits under the umbrella of being multi-directional. Musicians don’t really like to give their music a name, but unfortunately, the industry likes to have classifications. So we have to deal with that, but at the same time, maintain the freedom to explore different areas of music.
RM: Traditionally, music is defined as being made up of three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm. Drummers are often accused of only knowing about the rhythmic element.
JDJ: I think there is less of that today. Most of the young musicians that I meet tell me that they are studying marimba, or guitar, or piano, or theory, or something. One should look at the whole spectrum of percussion. You should play an instrument that deals with harmony and melody too, such as marimba or timpani. If you are going to say that you are a percussionist, you should be able to play those instruments. Even when you’re playing drums, you’re playing melody, harmony and rhythm too. You have tom-toms, you have cymbals—you have colors to play. You are playing tonalities; you’re playing harmonies. I still hear stories where people say, “This guy doesn’t know a thing about music. He’s just banging away.” But the drumset is an instrument just like guitar or piano. Sometimes, drummers get carried away and they tend to dominate through volume. When they do that, they destroy the musical professionalism of the whole piece. So if a drummer is really concerned with playing music, he has to be in balance with what’s going on musically and dynamically. But that takes time, experience, working, listening, and getting constructive criticism.
RM: Some people feel that drummers are more concerned with technique than musicians who play other instruments.
JDJ: I don’t think that’s true. I think that can be a problem on all instruments. Young musicians coming up now are looking at people like John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola, and there’s a lot more emphasis put on going to the schools and more emphasis being put on technique. You should only have as much technique as you need to play what you hear conceptually. Other wise, you have a lot of technique but nothing’s happening. You must have a sound; a tone; a touch. Those are things that are overlooked by people who are striving so much for speed. I think what’s most important with this music is the feeling. If someone can play one note with emotion and feeling, then that’s a good starting point.
RM: Sometimes I think the problem is that people think that the word “technique” just means “chops.”
JDJ: There is a lot of confusion about that. There are a certain amount of people who get off on pyrotechnics. “Hey man, did you hear that technique? He was really fast!” To them, that means mastery of something. And some people are satisfied with that. But when you couple that with feeling and emotion, that’s something else. Yes, there’s all kinds of technique. There’s technique for speed and there’s also technique involving one’s ability to feel the music and be concerned with the sound of it. That’s what made Louis Armstrong, or Miles, or Coltrane, or Elvin, or Bill Evans recognizable. They each had a distinctive touch, or tone, or feeling about phrasing. That’s what gives music so much variety. That’s something one has to develop through life experiences. You can play all the great runs and fills, but if the feeling’s not there, something is missing. You’ve got surface technique, but nothing to back it up with. No depth.
RM: I know that you’re involved in various educational activities. How did you get involved with that?
JDJ: When I was going to college, I was going to major in music. But I was so turned off by the way they taught music education in the university, that I completely gave up on it. After that, I didn’t even think of teaching; I was more into playing. But eventually my wife, Lydia, suggested that I try it. So I took a couple of students, and once I got into it, I saw that I had a certain feeling for teaching an aspect of the creative process, in terms of trying to feel the music through a basic knowledge of form. Also trying to develop a total concept. I did that by playing electric piano bass lines with the left hand; solos and chords with the right—creating a playing situation for the drummers. Mainly I worked with drummers who had been through books, but who came to me because they wanted to learn how to play. Books can’t teach you to play; you have to experience it. So that’s something I tried to provide.
Then I did some things at the Creative Music Institute at Woodstock, and I found that I liked working with the energy in a workshop of 20 to 30 people. The more I got into it, the more I developed a concept of how to do it. Consequently, I started doing some residencies around the country. My workshops would cover such things as composition, improvisation, solo forms, group interplay, and ensemble work.
So from the years of doing those kinds of things, I thought it would be interesting to try and do some instruction on tape. Lydia and I started a company called Multi-Directional Music, and this is something I’d like to see developed to its full potential. We started out with three tapes: I did one on the art of accompaniment; Dave Holland did one dealing with contemporary techniques and improvisational studies for bass; John Abercrombie did one for the intermediate guitarist who wants to deal with improvisation. Each artist comes up with their own concept, and the tape becomes a personal statement. This is a new area, and it’s one that has to be developed, but we’re real excited about it and once it catches on, I think it will be sensational.
RM: The thing I liked about your tape was the lack of dogmatism involved. You show the drummer what some of the options are, and how each one will sound.
JDJ: That goes back to the multi-directional concept. You have choices. That’s the whole beauty of it—you don’t have to be locked into one thing. If you have knowledge about these different things, then you can do whatever the situation calls for. Or you can mix different things together. So the whole idea of the multidirectional concept is to give options to people, because they usually don’t have options given to them. All of the artists who are doing tapes are trying to give a broad scope—a perspective—on trying to deal with the creative process.
You have to realize that in the last ten years, we’ve had another generation of kids come up, who may know a lot of things technically, but who are not necessarily sophisticated. That’s why there is a great effort with jazz educators and musicians like myself to convey the traditions of this music. So much is available to these kids. On the one hand, it’s great because they have so many choices that they will be well-rounded and able to go into different areas. But on the other hand, it’s a problem too, because in order to be well rounded, you still have to be able to specialize in any of the areas that you deal in. So that takes a lot of experience and knowledge.
It’s an interesting time. For the older musicians, we have to do more research, because the young kids coming up know more than we knew when we were 15, 16, 17. So we have to really keep in touch with all these new things that are happening. Some of these things are new to the kids who are coming up, but not to someone who knows the applications over the last 20 or 30 years. So you have to keep everything in perspective as to what is new and what has just been reshaped and transformed into a more contemporary design.
RM: I know that this company, Multi-Directional Music, is not the first time you have been involved in handling your own business. Artists used to never get involved in business, but over the past few years, I’ve seen more and more artists become involved with it.
JDJ: There’s a lot of work involved, and you have to know what you’re doing. If you don’t know the language of law and business, you can make very costly mistakes. There has been a trend in the last few years for musicians to own their own publishing, or even open their own businesses and record companies. They see both sides of it, but it’s a lot of pressure. You’re worried about playing the music, booking the gigs, writing music, running the business, and it really pulls you. I’ve seen musicians try it, and then give it all to someone else to do. When you do it yourself, you realize what you’re paying for when you hire someone else. But you always feel that if you do it yourself, you will do a better job because you know exactly what you’re presenting. With someone else, there’s the danger that they will not represent you the way you think you should be represented. So you have to weigh those things.
My wife Lydia has been my business guide and partner through all of this. Some people can do it all by themselves, and handle it. But I’m so wrapped up in the art that I need somebody to keep me in balance with the reality of the music business, and Lydia does that for me. Without her, I’d be in big trouble. She has been helping me make decisions about my career for years, and inspiring me to take risks with certain things that I was a little apprehensive about. She’s really great, and I love her immensely. We’re a good team together.
It’s a lot of hard work, and it never ends. There are a lot of people who have supposedly made it, but it depends on what you mean when you say “made it.” If you can pay your bills and stay out of debt, I would say you’re doing okay. If you see the realities, you will appreciate the music more when you go out to perform it. When we play the music, we realize what a privilege it is to have that opportunity to perform. Each time I get a chance to play, I realize that it’s a real treat to be able to do something that people want to see and hear, and to be able to make a living at the same time.
by Jack DeJohnette
If you are a beginner, you should start out by learning the basic swing beat and adding the basic coordination, independence, and playing the hi-hat on two and four. There are still a lot of drummers who play the traditional ride cymbal rhythm with little variation, and it doesn’t necessarily sound outdated. It’s how one plays it that matters.
As you start to listen to more contemporary drummers, you will notice that the ride cymbal pattern changes. Changing the rhythms or the accents is just another way of coloring the time without breaking the swing, or the groove. And each person who plays that way—changes the cymbal rhythms around—does it differently. Even if two people read the same notation, their feeling will interpret that, and it will come out differently. And that’s the beautiful part about it: You can take a concept and give it to a group of musicians, and each one will interpret it a different way. Each way will be as different as the individuals are, and yet will be based on a similar concept. So there are a variety of ways you can turn the rhythm around. It’s challenging. The following cymbal rhythms are taken from the beginning of the piano solo of the piece “Moon Germs,” from the album Moon Germs, by Joe Farrell. (CTI 6023)
After learning to break up the swing on the cymbal, the next step is to then break up the rhythm between the hands and feet, again, without breaking the groove. The idea is that you don’t have to keep the swing strictly on the cymbal. You can shift from the cymbal to the bass drum and let it take over the groove, or you can play something between the snare and the tom-tom and let them take over. As long as you keep a connection of swing, you don’t just have to stay on the cymbal.
I always try and think of the drumset like a piano, with the cymbals being like the sustaining pedal. You can hit the cymbals and let them ring while you play something on the drums. And when you listen to a drummer, you can focus on the player’s left hand, or right foot, or whatever, but you’re hearing the whole set. It’s just like with a piano—you can focus on the left hand or the right hand, but you hear the piano; the whole instrument. In other words the whole is made up of many, just like the body is made up of lots of little cells. It’s the same thing with the drumset, so when you break up all these patterns around the set, you’re just shifting the emphasis, or the tonal color. But there is always a connection, no matter what you are doing. There is a rhythm going on somewhere in the complexity. By breaking up a basic rhythm between the different parts of the set, you can create a different color and that helps to keep it from getting boring. The following examples show how a basic rhythm can be divided among the different parts of the drumset.
The idea is to utilize all of the traditions. Sometimes you will want to use the more traditional swing rhythm on the cymbal with the hi-hat on “2” and “4.” Other times you will want the more abstract style with shifting cymbal accents and rhythms split between different parts of the drumset. It’s all according to what kind of music you’re playing and where you think it fits.
Musical examples from: The Art of Modern Jazz Drumming, by Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Perry. Copyright Drum Center Publications. Used with permission.