Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson is a legendary drummer. He is a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band and also leads his own band, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. The Allman Brothers Band recently wrapped up after 45 years. Jaimoe recently discussed his approach to playing music, enlightenment and the impact of the Allman Brothers Band. For more info on Jaimoe, check out http://www.jaimoe.com/
You’re endlessly creative. I respect the way that you’re always trying new stuff. When it comes to your solo stuff, how do you approach it differently versus everything else?
It’s not really different. I got my first set of drums when I was in the 10th grade. I’m doing the same thing I was doing then. When I don’t have nobody to play with, I play with records, I basically practice my rudiments for speed and technique. If you don’t do that daily, man, it can slip away. If you don’t condition your body when you’re young to do things and keep it up, when you get older, a lot of things don’t function. Simply because you didn’t continue to do what you did to get you where you were at. I approach music by melody and sound. I don’t count, I never learned how to count, I used to hate counting. Marc and Butch, they can play all them different relays and stuff, but I play by melody. When I hear something, I respond to it. So, that’s basically what you call playing so different. It’s basic, that’s all I do. I mean, that’s what all the great drummers do. All the master drummers, they approach the music from the sound. When I’m playing with Butch and we’re playing some kind of solo. I hear one of them play a lick, I just extend it by playing something else.
So, you carve out your spot?
Yes and no. Relating to playing in my band, I stay away from the drum solos. I have a really good band. I have so much fun playing with the band that why solo? I don’t particularly care for them. I mean they are alright and I can play them, but I’m so much more for playing with the sound in a song. You can respond to it musically. No one can tell how well you do what you do if you’re sitting up there in a drum solo.
It’s the like connection and like interaction of everyone together.
The Allman Brothers Band has always been about how the way you guys combine all of your skills. How did the Allmans get going initially?
Well, Butch played in a marching band and he played in the concert band in high school, just like I did. In my school, I was like the rudiment champion. About maybe twice a year they had music conferences somewhere. Some of the bands, as many as could in the area, came to the conference and a few out of states. They had people to demonstrate the instruments. Most of them are connected with musical instrumental companies. Basically, I got the idea about how to play rudiments from this guy. I knew what the word rudiment was, but never really knew what it was about. There was one guy in school, Benny Lockhart, he was real good because he played trumpet from like the 5th grade through the 8th grade. Then in the 8th grade, he switched to drums. He could read, he was a real good reader. Basically, what you learned in school back then, you didn’t get a lot of drum lessons. You got a few, but you didn’t get as many as everybody else. I used to see people come in and they’d get a lesson. I never really had a lesson, maybe a couple. I found that the drummers were learning a bunch of marches. You’d practice your marches, because that was a big thing in schools in the south, back then. Not all of them, but probably 90, 98 percent of them. So I learned how to basically play my rudiments from people. This guy was at this music conference we had. You go to these different lectures all day long. There will be somebody who will test you and see how well you played. They would take the best players out of all the schools and have an all-star band. That was a lot of fun. Man, that was great. So, I guess that’s basically what I learned in school. You asked me about Butch. Butch was a fine leader.
Him and Marc, they’re great leaders. Butch played seven, eight years in the school band. When we got together, it really wasn’t anything. I went over to Butch’s house. One day, Butch and I got to talking and the next thing I know, I’m staying over at Butch’s all the time. I set my drums over at his house, and we used to practice. We didn’t particularly practice, not really practice, but we played.
And we just played again. We never really practiced anything about the band. The only one thing we ever sat down and practiced was, there was a song, “The Madness of the West.” It was on the first record we did for Clive Davis’ record label. Butch ruled out a 16 bar drum solo. If I remember the song, I believe it was played by a percussionist named Mark. He was from Jacksonville originally, but he worked in Nashville. The three of us played the part that Butch had written out, but other than that there was never anything except they’d say call and respond. Basically, when I graduated from high school, they told me there’s music theory or some shit. So I got some books. I was fine up until they got to chords, piano chords and that kind of stuff. I just kind of left it alone and looked at it whenever I looked at it. But, you know, I went on a job man and started playing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
You’ve always done things your own way.
Well, I don’t know if it was my own way or not, but it was what made sense. It was what made sense and what didn’t, what made things work, more so than my own way. If I did things my own way, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.
With the Allmans wrapping up this year, what do you feel is the place of the Allman Brothers Band in history? Musically, you guys carved out your own thing.
I think that the Allman Brothers Band made a hell of a lot of people happy with their music. It just amazes me. It’s like a fairytale or some shit.
What I think, musically, without all the popularity and that stuff, is that the Allman Brothers made a lot of white people aware, musicians aware of the fact that, if we could do it then they could do it. I think through watching us perform and do what we did. Ladies and men started really looking inside of themselves and trying harder and harder.
It is awesome that so many people are so positively impacted by the Allman Brothers Band. After all these years, you guys don’t just go through the motions. Every night is different. It’s got to be exciting to still get up there and create something different every night. How does your process work when you’re crafting set lists these days for Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band and for the Allman Brothers Band? How does that process work for you when you’re making a set list?
Junior Mack, the guitar player and singer, I usually have him and a couple other of the guys do a set list. We kind of mix it up, because it mixes better with the energy of the music. You play an instrumental and you do a vocal, and play an instrument and you do a vocal, maybe two vocals. If you do a couple instrumentals, it gives the singer a breathing spot. I’ll have the musical director, Paul Lieberman, make up a set and I get with Junior and see if it works. The Allmans, I’ve been saying, “Hey man, you know how you can play “Whipping Post” as the last ending song? It’s the most energetic song that we got, so why don’t we play it at the end of the first set?”
Play it in the middle somewhere, while the drummers still have some energy to be able to express themselves versus just the same old. You get in the habit when you do stuff like that to where you’re worn out. You get into the habit of playing the same old things that you played. A lot of it is like the easiest way to do it.
And that’s just not what happened, you know? But the other side always seems to take care of that if you get out of the way of yourself.
That’s the other side, when you get out of the way of yourself and just let the natural spirit word come through.
Yeah. Within the Allman Brothers Band, there are these epic jams. Would you prefer to have your set front loaded with longer jams, starting off with something like “Whipping Post” ideally when you have energy?
No, because everybody don’t warm up before they play. I warm up before I play, gaining better control. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been playing. There’s a lot of nervous energy. Everybody has it, not just musicians. Basketball players, baseball players, football players, lawyers, doctors,
That energy, everybody has that same energy. Most people are infatuated by musicians, even the athletes, because they think it’s just so great. How do they do it? How do they get there? How do they do that?
We all got the same energy, man. It’s an approach to a different thing. I’m sure that when athletes do their thing, they go off into that same zone that we do.
That zone, man, can be a dangerous thing. You figure out what it is and you learn how to control it. If you don’t, that’s how people get what they used to call the big head.
People start walking around thinking that everybody else is there to please and make sure that they look good doing what they do.
Yeah, that’s not what it’s about.
Being in the zone and not being in the zone. Oh, that is selflessness.
It’s not being a unit.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s about tapping into that force, but also thinking of the unit concept where you’re tapped into yourself, but you’re tapped into each other too.
Yeah, that’s awesome.
That first band, man, it was a lot of out of body stuff going on, man. Amazing stuff. You play a particular song. When you get to the end of it, you don’t remember playing the song. It’s like you’re looking around going, waiting for somebody to say, “Hey man, put your head where it’s gonna speak. Pay attention.” It’s like driving a car on a road. Ten years, and all of a sudden, you’re home or wherever you’re going. You go past the doughnut place, you go past the theater. That’s when the other side takes over. I hope I don’t sound crazy to you man.
No, you don’t. It makes perfect sense. It’s about being so tapped in. What advice would you give to musicians just starting out? What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Remembering what it is that my goals are, what I’m supposed to be doing. Not getting caught up in how many Mercedes or how many mansions can I buy, and all the rest of it.
Whatever your thing is, being true to that. Studying as much of it as you can. All your dreams and stuff, you find that you will discover and be happy about a hell of a lot of things that you never even thought about. Things just beyond your goals. John McLaughlin did an album called My Goals Beyond. You get through all your goals and then you start having new goals.
Don’t ever forget what it is that your dreams are. Don’t ever give up your dreams. You may have dreams, things that you really want do in your life. Don’t ever give it up. It may not come when you want it to, but it’ll come when you need it to.
Most of the things that I’ve gotten in life, a hell of a lot of them didn’t come. Maybe some time. Maybe I wanted them to, but it came basically when they need it. One thing about enlightenment, is when you get some information, you will not get the rest of the information until you’ve figured out what the information is that you’ve got. A person could go crazy, and I saw how a person could go crazy trying to figure out some stuff on drums. She’s just gotta pick out what makes it sound exactly just how she heard it. I’ve tried all kinds of sticking, and one day I realized from Tony Williams. Tony, he was fifty years old when he died. What a guy, what a God-sent person. Great guy, hell of a musician. He was a drummer. A lot of stuff that he did, more so than any other drummers that I studied, basically what he was doing was taking just all kind of different approaches to the rudiment of the drum scales. What you cannot copy is you cannot copy a person’s personality. You can do all of it, but you cannot capture that person’s personality. And that chord that you can’t figure out why I don’t sound like that, or why am I doing this. You can’t copy the personality in that.
Did you grow up in Mississippi, catching crabs and stuff? Walking back and mosquitoes eating you up and the rest of that shit. It’d make you think a certain kinda way about a certain kinda thing. If you didn’t, there’s a hell of a lot of things that you not gonna do, that somebody else did.
Yeah. It’s like all of your being and your essence, it comes out in your playing.
Everything you’ve been through. It’s you’re unique slant on things. People can study how you do it all the time, but they’re not gonna have that certain quality you know?
Yeah. With the Allmans wrapping up, what are your dreams and goals moving forward?
A lot of rest, a lot of accomplishment musically and with people, more so than anything.
Who would you want to work with that you haven’t yet?
Oh, anybody who can play. Everybody who wants to play, you can’t say that they can’t play. They’re just playing at a level that they can play at. They’re smart. They’re at a level they can play. Try playing at levels that you can’t. When you play with people who are just as good as you are, you’re not going to excel. You need to play with people who are better than you are.
In order to excel with people who are just as good as you are, everybody needs to be moving forward in terms of their learning. But, you know? I love playing music, man.
I guess I’d say more than life, but my people, my family and stuff. You have to put it where it’s at. Music is my emphasis. If I should die and come back, I want to be a musician.
There’s a lot of other things I like, like physical therapy. Mostly, I like things dealing with healing. I’m having a lot of trouble with my back, from a pulled muscle I got playing football. It’s crippling my knees, not so much that you get to the place where you’re bone-on-bone. It just hits a nerve a certain kind of way.
Yeah. That’s awful.
You don’t know when it’s gonna hit, unless you learn how to get rid of it with the therapy. Learn how to get through as much of it as you can. It’ll help you strengthen yourself and be able to power through it.
It’s interesting because you really do seem tapped in and like you were saying, if they ever been healing too and its like obviously you’ve got a very different viewpoint. It’s been fun seeing your overall outlook on things. You have a few solo shows coming up. I’d love to see your solo band live. I’d love to see how you change things up. It’s got to be fun having so many different creative outlets.
Mr. Gregory, he’s a lot of fun man. He’s got Marc Quinones playing in his band. He’s the percussionist with the Allman Brothers. We did a show in Las Vegas about three weeks ago and since Gregg added him to the band, and a couple of other guys. His band sounded good. Gregory was playing like a band member, man. His band is really tight.
That’s awesome. It’s just cool to be able to tap into so many different things, and being able to see how you guys approach things from a solo perspective. If you’re playing in your solo band, how do you approach Allman Brothers Band songs differently? I’m sure you like to switch them up, right?
Oh yeah. If you’re making a pot of soup and you’ve got onions and garlic, a cup of beans, a cup of rice, but if you put a carrot in there, chemistry changes. If you put a very small glass of wine in there, chemistry changes. Playing with different people brings different things to the mix, main ingredients into the mix. It’s all about chemistry.