Jack DeJohnette to celebrate 70th birthday at Newport Jazz Festival

Jack DeJohnette says of his long and prodigious career of performing with talented musicians, “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would get these opportunities. I’ve been really blessed to play with these incredible people.”

Chris Griffith

Jack DeJohnette says of his long and prodigious career of performing with talented musicians, “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would get these opportunities. I’ve been really blessed to play with these incredible people.”

Jack DeJohnette is celebrating his 70th birthday all year long and in some major ways.

The jazz drummer, one of the best ever to touch a kit, is finishing up a tour of the West Coast with pianist Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke. Later in the year he’s playing with both Keith Jarrett’s trio and the resurrected Gateway trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland. In between he’s taking a variety of groups to summer jazz festivals, including the one in Ottawa, where he’s headlining.


The most impressive event of all happens a few days before he turns 70. On the first weekend in August, DeJohnette will play the Newport Jazz Festival in three different settings. In addition to his working quintet, the Jack DeJohnette Group (with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, guitarist Dave Fiu-czynski, pianist George Colligan, and bassist Jerome Harris) he will lead the Jack DeJohnette All-Stars (with Colligan, guitarist Lionel Loueke, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Tim Ries, percussionist Luisito Quintero, and trumpeter Jason Palmer) and break out for a set of piano-and-drum duets with Moran.

“That’s going to be an exciting event,” DeJohnette says on the phone from a hotel in Eugene, Ore.

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Born Aug. 9, 1942, DeJohnette grew up in Chicago and studied piano as a youngster. In his teens he took up the drums, and he cut his teeth keeping the beat behind such Windy City masters as Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. With a distinctive sound, a sophisticated touch, and a willingness to play in many styles, from bebop to funk to world music, he’s been one of jazz’s most in-demand drummers over his career. He’s played with virtually every star in the genre, from Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean to Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, and has served as the drummer on albums as diverse as they are momentous, from Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” to Pat Metheny’s “80/81.” For the past 30 years, he’s also been one-third of the legendary trio with Jarrett and bassist Gary Peacock, considered by some to be the greatest trio in jazz history.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would get these opportunities,” DeJohnette says, surveying a career that goes back half a century. “I’ve been really blessed to play with these incredible people.”

DeJohnette has also found time to lead his own ensembles and put out dozens of albums under his own name. The newest, “Sound Travels,” released in January, traverses an eclectic assortment of styles and genres: Afro-Cuban, calypso, pan-global, hard bop, and New Orleans blues among them.


“Those are some of my favorite types of music,” he says when asked if there was an overarching concept for the album.

Unprompted, he launches into descriptions of each tune on the album. “Salsa for Luisito” was written with his percussionist in mind. “Sonny Light” is a calypso dedicated to Rollins, who loves the style. “New Muse” is an homage to the traditional, straight-ahead bop popularized by the Blue Note label in the ’50s and ’60s.

“Dirty Ground” had, as DeJohnette puts it, “a very interesting” genesis.

“I started writing a bass ostinato, then came up with the arrangement, and it reminded me of a good friend of mine, drummer Levon Helm, who just passed away,” says DeJohnette, who also plays piano on most of the disc, thanks to overdubbing. “In Miami I had a chance to sit in on one of his Rambles. We were playing together, playing some of the Band tunes with his daughter Amy. This piece was dedicated to him because I love the Band music and love the feel that he had — and also to New Orleans, that Mardi Gras feeling. I played it for Bruce Hornsby, who put lyrics to it.” Not only does Hornsby sing the tune on “Sound Travels” but he also now performs it with his own band, the Noisemakers.

“Sound Travels,” in fact, features an impressive roster of guest stars, including budding players such as Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding. DeJohnette says he had has made a conscious effort over the years to work with some of jazz’s promising young musicians.

“That’s the tradition of the music,” he says. “It’s stimulating to the older musicians, giving expertise to the younger ones, and the younger ones giving their energy and creative ideas to the older ones. There’s a creative exchange. It’s a process that’s necessary to keep this music going and growing.”

Steve Greenlee can be reached at Follow
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