Drummer Jack DeJohnette is having a very good year.
In January, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, widely considered the country's highest jazz honor. Subsequent accolades from the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in February and the Monterey Jazz Festival in September have underscored the importance of an artist whose 70th birthday in August has been celebrated around the world.
Even apart from the recent tributes, however, DeJohnette, who was born and raised in Chicago, long has ranked among the most stylistically versatile, technically accomplished, creatively unflinching musicians of the past couple generations.
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As he prepares to mark his 70th by returning to his hometown, with a rare reunion of his Gateway trio at Symphony Center, DeJohnette understandably has been thinking about his early years in Chicago — and how profoundly they shaped the artist he would become.
"Chicago jazz always had that vibe about it," says DeJohnette, quickly rattling off the names of local greats who inspired him: saxophonist John Gilmore, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, pianist Jodie Christian and dozens more.
"Legendary guys," adds DeJohnette, referencing pianist John Young, drummer Marshall Thompson and saxophonists Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons.
None, however, had as profound an impact as Chicago drummer Wilbur Campbell, an explosive soloist and unstoppable accompanist who practically personified the rhythmic eruptions of rough-and-ready bebop.
"Wilbur was really, really good to me, showed me some things," remembers DeJohnette. "Wilbur played vibes, too, so he knew what was going on in the music, but he was (mostly) playing drums.
"He had this amazing way of swinging, this amazing way of playing drum fills and solos that sounded all mixed up and garbled in a way, and he'd come out of them. …
"That influenced my concept on the drums, sort of a liquid, rolling kind of playing."
Having studied classical piano as a kid and having picked up drums largely on his own, DeJohnette clearly benefited from the sheer breadth of music swirling around Chicago at the time. One moment was transformational: the night in the early 1960s when he got to sit in with John Coltrane.
"McKee Fitzhugh had a place on Cottage Grove," recalls DeJohnette. "It was just a small jazz club, small bandstand and small piano.
"Coltrane played there. So one night when Elvin (Jones) didn't show for the last set, I was available, and McKee suggested I play, because the place was all set up.
"I went up and played three tunes with Coltrane, and he didn't question it. He went up and played it.
"That was a big shot of confidence. I couldn't believe I was on the stage with Coltrane. I'd been practicing and playing with the records; I knew the materials.
"So I held my own, and nobody looked at me funny."
DeJohnette also latched onto the experiments of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which in the 1960s began reinventing the way jazz was improvised, composed, performed and disseminated.
Pianist-bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams had led his Experimental Band before co-founding the AACM in 1965, and DeJohnette says he remains indebted to Abrams, and other AACM innovators, for welcoming him.
"People like Muhal, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and other musicians were looking for an outlet to play our music," says DeJohnette. "We used to do concerts in the attic of Jarman's house on the South Side.
"Muhal was a great mentor to a lot of us. … He found a place at 39th and Oakwood Boulevard, where we could present an alternative to the music avenues that were available.