For Jack DeJohnette, A Chicago Homecoming Brought A Reunion With Old Friends

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Jack DeJohnette (center) called in fellow Chicago musicians (from left) Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Larry Gray and Muhal Richard Abrams to play on his new live album, Made In Chicago. (Courtesy of the artist)
Jack DeJohnette (center) called in fellow Chicago musicians (from left) Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Larry Gray and Muhal Richard Abrams to play on his new live album, Made In Chicago. (Courtesy of the artist)

Drummer Jack DeJohnette is an NEA Jazz Master who's played with everybody. He helped Miles Davis invent jazz-rock in the 1960s and '70s, and he's been the anchor in Keith Jarrett's trio for decades. But DeJohnette's latest album, Made in Chicago, takes the 71-year-old drummer back to his old stomping grounds and reunites him with some of the musicians he played with in Chicago growing up.

DeJohnette currently lives outside Woodstock, N.Y., but in 2013, the Chicago Jazz Festival invited him back to his hometown to headline Jack DeJohnette Day — and he knew just who he wanted to play with him.

"I didn't have to think," DeJohnette says. "I immediately, these are the people who came up. This is an opportunity to do this ... celebrate with my friends, who are great legends in their own right."

One of the musicians joining DeJohnette onstage at the Chicago Jazz Festival was pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

"We all were on the scene," Abrams says. "And we all played a lot with each other. That's just the way it was in Chicago. We used to get together to play in an original manner. That included Jack and a whole host of people."

Among those people were woodwind players Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill — boundary-pushing composers, improvisers and leaders of their own ensembles — who also joined DeJohnette for the 2013 reunion. The drummer first played with them in basements, attics and neighborhood clubs when he was a teenager in the early 1960s.

"Chicago was a fantastic hub of eclectic music," DeJohnette says. "There were lots of clubs everywhere. You could work on the weekend, play from 9 to 4 in the morning, then there would be breakfast jams. There were a lot of places to play and develop, and a sort of camaraderie among the Chicago musicians."

In 1965, that eclecticism and camaraderie led to the formation of an artists' collective: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Bass player Larry Gray is not a member — his background is in more mainstream jazz — but he was asked to join his elders on stage for the Chicago Jazz Festival performance and its live recording.

Gray appreciates the AACM's main precept, that its members present music that's different from what's come before. "They definitely moved outside the normal parameters of jazz, and because improvisation was such an intrinsic part of it, it's very different from any Euro-based kind of music," Gray says. "That's what made it unique, I think."

Like many of his AACM peers, DeJohnette has made a career of playing music of all kinds. Saxophonist and flutist Threadgill says that breadth is the drummer's great strength.

"We're not playing no traditional repertoire," Threadgill says. "Jack knows how to play both. He can play traditional repertoire and he can play this. A lot of times [you have] drummers that specialize in playing a lot of freer compositions and freer approaches, then you get a whole group of people who can only play the structured stuff ... Jack's above all that."

DeJohnette has "the musicality and the skills" to play music of all kinds, says his bandmate Henry Threadgill.
DeJohnette has "the musicality and the skills" to play music of all kinds, says his bandmate Henry Threadgill.

For all of these musicians, Chicago connections run deep. Saxophonist Mitchell co-founded one of the best-known ensembles to emerge from the AACM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He remembers spending many hours jamming with DeJohnette in college and says their level of communication hasn't changed.

"When you can make a good strong musical connection with people, that's always there," Mitchell says. "That's not often that that happens. I say if you can find somebody you can make music with, that's a special thing, so you should try to keep it going."

For Abrams, long-time connections mean that musicians can have an unforced appreciation for each other's individuality. "We've been associated a long time, and we just come together and play music," Abrams says.

For his part, DeJohnette takes a different comfort in longevity.

"It's great that we're all still around, and everybody's playing music with the wisdom and youthful vitality and energy and passion," DeJohnette says. "We've still got things to say."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jack DeJohnette has played drums with everybody. He helped Miles Davis invent jazz rock in the 1960s and '70s; he's been the anchor in Keith Jarrett's trio for decades. But on his latest CD, "Made In Chicago," the 71-year-old musician goes back home and reunites with some of the people he played with in Chicago when he grew up. Howard Mandel has the story.

HOWARD MANDEL, BYLINE: Jack DeJohnette lives atop a mountain outside Woodstock, N.Y. Two years ago, the Chicago Jazz Festival invited him back to his hometown to headline Jack DeJohnette Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK DEJOHNETTE: Thank you Chicago fans for you love and your heart and support.

MANDEL: And he knew just who he wanted to play with him.

DEJOHNETTE: I didn't have to think. I right - immediately just these are the people that came up. Now, this is a great opportunity to do this; come back to Chicago, be celebrated with my friends who are great legends in their own right.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK DEJOHNETTE SONG)

MANDEL: Joining DeJohnette on stage was pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS: We all were on the scene, and we played a lot with each other, you know. That's just the way it was in Chicago. We used to get together to play in an original manner, and it included Jack and a whole host of people.

MANDEL: People like woodwind players Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill; boundary-pushing composers, improvisers and leaders of their own ensembles who also joined DeJohnette for the reunion. The drummer first played with them in basements, attics and neighborhood clubs when he was a teenager in the early 1960s.

DEJOHNETTE: Chicago itself was a fantastic hub of eclectic music. There were lots of clubs everywhere. You know, you'd work on the weekend, you'd play from, like, say, 9 until about 4 in the morning and then there would be like breakfast jams. There was a sort of camaraderie with all the Chicago musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: That eclecticism and camaraderie led in 1965 to the formation of an artist's collective, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians or AACM, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Bass player Larry Gray is not a member. His background is in more mainstream jazz, but he was asked to join his elders onstage for the Jazz Festival performance and its live recording. And he appreciates the AACM's main precept that its members present music that's different from what's come before them.

LARRY GRAY: They definitely moved outside the normal parameters of jazz and because improvisation was such an intrinsic part of it, it's very different than any kind euro-based music. That's what made it really unique, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: Jack DeJohnette has made a career of playing music of all kinds. Saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill says that range is the drummer's greatest strength.

HENRY THREADGILL: We're not playing traditional repertoire so Jack knows how to play traditional repertoire, and he can play this. A lot of times, these drummers that specialize in playing a lot of freer compositions and freer approaches, you know. And then you get a whole group of people that can only play the structured stuff - Jack, he's above all that. He's got the skills and musicality to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: The Chicago connections run deep for all of these musicians. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell co-founded one of the best-known ensembles to emerge from the AACM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He remembers spending many hours jamming with DeJohnette in college and says their level of communication hasn't changed.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Jack has that energy, you know? That's what we explored together a long time ago. But I'd say if you find somebody that you can really make music with, that's a special thing, you know. So you should try to keep it ongoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOHNETTE: You having fun?

(APPLAUSE)

DEJOHNETTE: Yeah, we are too. You make us feel real good.

MANDEL: To Muhal Richard Abrams, longtime connections mean that musicians can have an unforced appreciation for each other's individuality.

ABRAMS: We've been associated a long time, and we just come together and play music.

MANDEL: Jack DeJohnette takes a different comfort from longevity.

DEJOHNETTE: We're all still around and everybody's playing music with the wisdom and youthful vitality and energy and passion. You know, we still got things to say.

MANDEL: DeJohnette and his "Made in Chicago" quintet will hold another old-school, new music reunion this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.