Born August 9, 1942, in Chicago, IL; son of Jack and Eva Jeanette (Wood) DeJohnette; first wife, Deatra; married second wife, Lydia Ann Herman, August 4, 1968; children: Farah, Minya, and Erica. Education: Attended Wilson Junior College, Chicago, IL, 1959-60. Addresses: Publicist-- c/o Warner Bros. Publicity, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Pointing out the far-reaching talents of Jack DeJohnette, Down Beat' s Bill Milkowski labeled the jazz musician "swinging and brilliant no matter what context he's in." The versatile artist has been a drummer, keyboardist, pianist, composer, and producer involved in numerous jazz projects. His work with John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, John Abercrombie, Keith Jarrett, New Directions, and Special Edition underscores the fact that he is one of the most coveted drummers of the modern jazz era.

Jack DeJohnette was born August 9, 1942, in Chicago to Jack and Eva Jeanette DeJohnette. Although his parents enjoyed music, DeJohnette was influenced at an early age by his uncle, Roy Woods, to take a particular interest in jazz. A jazz disc jockey who later became vice-president of the Black Network of Broadcasters, Woods owned a collection of 78s that included recordings by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday; he encouraged DeJohnette to play the albums on an old Victrola. "I couldn't even read--I was about three or four at the time," DeJohnette recalled to Chip Stern in Down Beat, "but I could tell what record I wanted to hear by the label, and the distance from the end of the record to the label."

DeJohnette was four when his mother and grandmother decided he should study piano with Antoinette Rich, the leader of an all-female symphony orchestra in Chicago. Rich was struck by the youngster's perfect pitch, which she discovered when DeJohnette performed on the kazoo. Becoming proficient on the instrument at an early age, DeJohnette was only five years old when he played the kazoo on stage with T-Bone Walker at a Chicago jazz club called the Persian. The kazoo, however, remained secondary to his classical training, which was continued under his next teacher, Viola Burns. Though he studied the piano for ten years, DeJohnette lost interest in early adolescence.

DeJohnette returned to the piano as a high schooler, when he heard Fats Domino play his classic song, "Blueberry Hill." Though he began taking drum lessons at the age of 13 in order to join the high school band, he continued to pound out 1950s hits on the piano at home. From 1957 to 1965, he exhibited his talents as a pianist in various jazz bands around Chicago. "At that time you didn't have to come to New York City because there was so much music in Chicago," DeJohnette recalled to Stern. "There used to be jams going on all the time.... There were so many great musicians in Chicago--the scene was really happening."

Also during this time, the musician began taking drums seriously, and in studying other percussionists, he found his greatest inspiration in Max Roach, whom DeJohnette felt was a complete musician. He also took courses at the American Conservatory of Music, played avant-garde gigs, performed with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) Big Band, and discovered his social consciousness when he was prohibited from fraternizing with the white people in the piano bars where he played on the North Side.

But DeJohnette also had some stellar moments in Chicago. "The biggest thrill I got when I was playing in Chicago was the time Coltrane came to town," he told Stern. "There were many beacons, but in jazz none shone so brightly as John Coltrane.... His music was a projection of love and peace; it was medicinal; it was a healing force." DeJohnette became Coltrane's drummer in 1962, but he felt he had exhausted all of his opportunities in Chicago; he left for New York City in April of 1956 upon the encouragement of his first wife, Deatra.

That same year, DeJohnette joined Charles Lloyd, whose group was the first jazz band to play the Fillmore. A member of one of the most popular jazz groups of the late 1960s, DeJohnette stayed with Lloyd until 1969, when he recorded Bitches Brew with Miles Davis. He joined Davis in 1970, and DeJohnette's reputation burgeoned as one of the most highly respected of world-class drummers with the recording Live-Evil.

After his stint with Davis, which ended in 1971, DeJohnette began a series of groups made up of like-minded musicians. "I call what I do 'multidirectional music,'" he explained to Jeff Levenson in Down Beat, noting the eclectic approach that he evolved, which had a pop appeal but still qualified as good jazz. Although the group Compost was formed in 1972 with some friends, DeJohnette confessed to Howard Mandel in Down Beat that the music was too cerebral and experimental to be commercially successful.

The musician's next efforts fared better. During the late 1970s to the early 1980s, he formed Directions with Alex Foster, Mike Richards, and John Abercrombie, and the New Directions, featuring Lester Bowie, Eddie Gomez, and Abercrombie. In addition, he made recordings under the ECM label as a leader, beginning in 1976. With the formation of the ensemble Special Edition and the subsequent release of Album Album in 1985, DeJohnette found his greatest response. "Of course," he told Mandel, "[Saxophonist] Arthur Blythe was hitting then, and David Murray was hitting--they were both in the band--and the World Saxophone Quartet was hitting, and there was a play called Zoot Suit on Broadway, and my tune "Zoot Suite" on the record--which is also on Album Album.... The timing of that first record was just right."

Over the years, the make-up of Special Edition varied, but the prestige of the group, led by the man chosen top drummer in seven consecutive Down Beat readers polls, was fixed with the albums Irresistible Forces, Audio Visualscapes, and 1992's Earth Walk. "Special Edition hones the venerable dialectic of group over individual, sounding grand and expansive, but still lean and mean," declared critic Fred Bouchard in Down Beat. People contributor Eric Levin stated that DeJohnette and Special Edition deliver "thrilling virtuosity and freshness, a tempestuous ride across the frontiers of jazz-rock fusion, where the terrain is by turns slippery and sinister, eerily beautiful, sparkling and convoluted."

The success of the Special Edition albums prompted DeJohnette to keep the format of assembling highly talented musicians, and in 1990 he recorded Parallel Realities, a decision that was not without some risk. Josef Woodard expounded in a Down Beat review that "all-star outings can be thrilling blowing sessions. They can also be stillborn by virtue of crossed signals, battling humility (or hubris), or a confused sense of direction. The mating of DeJohnette, [Pat] Metheny, and [Herbie] Hancock turns out to be something altogether different, a highly original project in which the elements come together in a marvel of empathy."

In spite of his many musical projects, DeJohnette found time to author The Art of Improvisation in 1981. The multifaceted, award-winning musician has made a home near Woodstock, New York, with his second wife Lydia Ann Herman--whom he married August 4, 1968--and his daughters, Farah, Minya, and Erica. He has found additional creative inspiration in this wooded setting to make his music both aesthetically pleasing and consciousness-raising.

"That's what's so fascinating about jazz," he remarked to Levenson. "It's that you have individualism within the collective context, but it works democratically. We've got to get to the point where money is not the issue, but substance is. Everything now is based on dollars, not on compassion and caring. That's what we really need. We've got to get decent housing for people, get homeless people off the streets.... The demise of certain things always opens the doors to other things. There are alternatives coming. It's not as bleak as it seems. People want to hold onto things, to musical things, to bebop, to the mainstream, to whatever. We have to be able to be renewed. We have to keep renewing ourselves. When stuff gets too safe and comfortable, that's when it falls apart. We ought to come up with alternative ways of thinking."

by Marjorie Burgess

Jack DeJohnette's Career

Pianist, drummer, and composer. Began playing piano at age four and drums at age 13. Played at various clubs in Chicago, IL, 1957-65; moved to New York City in 1966; played with numerous musicians as a sideman and leader, including John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, John Abercrombie, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, New Directions, and Special Edition; writer.

Jack DeJohnette's Awards

Grand Prix du Disque, Paris, 1978; named top drummer in numerous Down Beat readers polls; named Most Influential Musician on His Instrument for the 1970s by Musician, 1980; NEA fellow, 1978; grant from CAPS composers, 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 12 years ago

There's no mention of his 2005 album "Music in the Key of Om." As a musician who also practices Daoist acupuncture and herbs, this music is a dream come true. So simple, so transcendant. Beautiful. Guaranteed to take you there.