Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns to Chicago

Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns to Chicago
Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns for the Chicago Jazz Festival Aug. 29. Flickr/imjackhandy
Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns to Chicago
Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns for the Chicago Jazz Festival Aug. 29. Flickr/imjackhandy

Jazz legend Jack DeJohnette returns to Chicago

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Born on the South Side, educated at what was then called the Chicago Vocational High School, Jack DeJohnette went on to become one of the greatest drummers in jazz history.

Now he’s back in his hometown, to kick off the 35th Chicago Jazz Festival.

Thursday night DeJohnette will play alongside a group of Chicago musicians who helped form his sound: Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill.

“Special Legends Edition Chicago” is the name of the concert, as well as a reference to a group/musicial project DeJohnette started back in the seventies.

But the gathering is also a nod to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians or AACM. Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill are members, and DeJohnette says the physical and experimental space they carved out in Chicago is what prepared him for “the world stage of music.”

DeJohnette’s presence on that stage is enormous. After moving to New York City in the 1960s, he played with most of the jazz giants: John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz and more.

In addition to his own extensive discography, DeJohnette appears on two game-changing jazz albums: Forest Flowers, performed live at the 1966 Montreux Jazz Festival by the Charles Lloyd quartet, and Bitches Brew, the 1970 album by Miles Davis.

DeJohnette says though he wanted to “be the best he could be,” he never imagined he’d wind up in the company of musicians he revered.

“Even today I still pinch myself and say wow,” DeJohnette said, “I played with these people!”

When I spoke with DeJohnette, he was on his way to a nine hour rehearsal for Thursday’s show. If that sounds like a rough schedule, the drummer says he got used to long days in Chicago.

“We used to play until four in the morning and then they used to have what they called the ‘breakfast jam’,” DeJohnette recalled. “Guys would get up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and play until two, three in the afternoon. I was playing music non-stop.”

DeJohnette started out on the piano but made the switch to drumming in high school. He says it was Chicago musician Eddie Harris who convinced him to stick with it. Harris thought he was a “natural” on the drums.

In his time, DeJohnette says there were plenty of places to play jazz in the city, whether a fellow musician’s house or the Jazz Showcase or Lincoln Center, the AACM space on 39th Street. And though his focus was on improvised music and composition, DeJohnette says he didn’t limit himself.

“I played blues, folk music and standards. I had quartets and quintets, backed up singers,” DeJohnette said. “So I had a broad spectrum of music I immersed myself in.”

Last year DeJohnette was awarded the prestigous Jazz Masters Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. At the age of 71, he continues to play in his long-standing trio with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, and record with emerging jazz musicians.

Likewise, DeJohnette thinks Chicago is still a vital place for jazz, pointing to the efforts of musicians like Mike Reed, who recently opened the performing venue Constellation.

And though it’s been awhile since he’s played with the musicians joining him at the festival, DeJohnette says it will all be fine.

“That’s the beauty of music,” DeJohnette said. “You can talk and talk and talk about it. But when you sit down and play it, it’s beyond description.”

“Special Legends Edition Chicago” takes place Aug. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. The Chicago Jazz Festival runs through Sept. 2.

Be sure to join Richard Steele Aug. 30 at 2:30 p.m. as he helps inaugurate the Von Freeman Pavillion south of the Cloudgate sculpture.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram