There’s more to the story of Jaimoe, the drummer formerly known as Jai Johanny Johanson (or “Johnie,” as his parents called him), than his long-standing affiliation with the Allman Brothers Band. Years before his fateful run-in with guitarist Duane Allman in 1969, the Mississippi native backed legendary Stax duo Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells, the 5 Stairsteps, Brenda and the Tabulations and other rhythm and blues. Curtis Mayfield, taken by Jaimoe’s mastery of New Orleans rhythms, offered him a job with the Impressions (he passed). In 1966, Jaimoe embarked on a 42-day tour with Otis Redding (the band took only a single night off); that’s him on Redding’s In Person at the Whiskey a Go-Go, the recording of a show that helped set Redding’s star in motion.
“Woody [Edward Woodson] was the drummer with Otis when I joined the band,” said Jaimoe, talking to the Advocate by phone from his home in Bloomfield, Ct. “He was the reason I was in the band.” Woodson, Jaimoe remembered, had asked Redding for a raise; the singer replied, “Ain’t going to be no motherfucking raise.” Redding’s sax player, Donald Henry (everyone called him “Cadillac,” after the car he drove on errands for the singer), told Jaimoe about the possibility of the drum chair opening. He started listening to records to get familiar with the songs. “I had just got into the hotel and we were talking, and Cadillac knocks on Woody’s door. He said, ‘Hey, Woody, this is Otis’s new drummer... Him and Otis were having a Mexican Standoff. It wasn’t the first time.”
Playing behind Redding, Jaimoe said, taught him a great deal about “timing.” It’s a nebulous term for a drummer to use, but it became clear when Jaimoe talked about Redding's cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” “At the end of the song,” Jaimoe said, “Otis would start going from where the tempo was to, like, where a train started. It would take off on a normal tempo and would go off like a speeding train... The mastery he had.” Redding used to teach his musicians what to play by placing his intimidating frame right in front of them, singing the notes he wanted, manning the trap set to demonstrate the groove himself or picking up a guitar. “He used his fingers like a capo,” Jaimoe said. “Guys were always saying, ‘You can’t play like that.’”
The two-drummer back-line, which Jaimoe said soulsters like Redding and Brown toyed with — both for the backup it afforded the band (in case of illness) and for the prestige it projected — followed Jaimoe into the Allmans, where he’s shared duties with Butch Trucks since the band’s inception, except for a few years in the ’80s when he and the group parted ways. Of the Allmans drum duo, the conventional thinking (not entirely accurate) goes like this: Trucks, as his name suggests, supplies the propulsion, Jaimoe the ornament. (Percussionist Marc Quinones joined the band in 1991.)
It’s clear when you listen to Jaimoe’s playing that he’s hyper-aware of the tonal qualities of his kit. “Making the music sound as good as you can make it sound without getting in the way,” Jaimoe said, referring to his technique. “When I was learning rudiments, I kept stopping. I hadn’t learned how to listen to the drum and listen to the rhythm at the same time. The drum has a tone when you play rhythms, but if you don’t learn how to listen to what you are playing with the tone, then you play something that you don’t want to play.” When Jaimoe got out of his school, he paid attention not only to what Roy Haynes and John Coltrane’s formidable drummer, Elvin Jones, would play, but also to what Coltrane himself was doing over the beat. “It was very rhythmic,” he said. “I could hear it without the tones.”
On December 17, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band (Junior Mack on guitar and vocals, bassist Dave Stoltz, keyboard player Bruce Katz, saxophonists Paul Lieberman and Kris Jensen and trumpeter Reggie Pittman), will release their first album, Renaissance Man, and kick off an 18-city East Coast tour with a performance at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville. The album treads through nearly every phase of the drummer’s career; there’s the churning ABB vibe on the opener, “Dilemna,” a minor-mode improv vehicle in 6/8, with a Hammond organ blazing and heaps of swing. (The Allmans didn’t have horns, but here they sound like they’ve always been missing on At Fillmore East.) There’s the Curtis Mayfield/gospel-inflected “Drifting and Turning,” straight-ahead rhythm and blues and funk on “Leaving Trunk,” some early ’70s jazz fusion on “Laurie Ann Blue” (not unlike Sea Level, Jaimoe’s mid-’70s ensemble) and a Latin-tinged cover of the Gregg Allman-penned “Melissa.”
Jaimoe said he’s heard people talk about those connections, but for him it goes further back. “That ‘Dilemna’ song: a lot of people say that’s similar to [the Allman Brothers’] ‘Whipping Post,’ but then that’s the Junior [Mack] side. He knows that stuff better than I do. But I hear the Charles Mingus Big Band’s ‘Better Git It In Your Soul.’ That’s what that tune reminded me of... It’s a basic blues, basically a church/spiritual thing, gospel. But they lead to the same trail.”
For most of his career, Jaimoe has played behind improvising musicians. Behind the kit, he pushes and provokes, supports, even dances on the kit. Dance, he said, is important, whether you are playing music or just listening.
“If someone can’t dance, it has nothing to do with the music,” Jaimoe said. “If they are real dancers then they can dance to everything. It’s just like playing music. It’s a sound. Dancing is reacting to sounds, the body reacting to sounds. Whether that instrument is outside the body or inside doesn’t matter.”