By: Chuck Obuchowski
For: The Hartford Courant
The Allman Brothers Band is regarded as one of the seminal purveyors of so-called Southern rock. Macon, Ga., has long been home base for the ABB; many of the group’s most highly regarded recordings were made there.
So how did one of their founding members come to reside in Bloomfield?
“Love at first sight,” says drummer/percussionist Jaimoe, whose wife, Catherine, was a Connecticut resident when the two met at an Allmans concert at the University of Massachusets 18 years ago. They moved to Bloomfield in 1991 and have a daughter in high school.
A native of Ocean Springs, Miss., Jaimoe (born Johni Lee Johnson on July 8, 1944) plays locally while maintaining his association with the Allman Brothers Band. In Connecticut, he’s known for jazz and blues, although he sat in with the Grateful Dead in a 1971 outdoor concert at Hartford’s Dillon Stadium.
Tonight, Jaimoe leads a septet at First Church in Middletown in a benefit concert for the Buttonwood Tree. On Sunday, he brings his full-fledged Jasssz Band to Café Luna in Simsbury for the first time, at a venue where he’s been performing often in recent months.
Although his early performance experiences were R&B, Jaimoe was attracted to jazz from an early age. He fondly recalls watching the 1959 Hallmark Hall of Fame jazz program on network TV. He rattles off the featured musicians’ names as if it had aired yesterday: ” Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman …Oscar Peterson, Ellington … it was great!”
In high school, he started reading about jazz.
“God sent Downbeat magazine to the 33rd Avenue High School [in Gulfport, Miss.] — He sent it to me! I read [every issue] from cover to cover, everything, for three years.”
At 16, Jaimoe met Donald “Cadillac” Henry, who played saxophone in soul singer Otis Redding’s touring band. He hipped the young drummer to touring opportunities with the likes of Joe Tex, Percy Sledge and Redding.
Jaimoe joined the backup band for Johnny Jenkins, a blues guitarist and singer whose manager had encouraged him to follow a “more electric, more Jimi Hendrix direction.” Although the experiment failed, Jaimoe felt empowered to pursue the sounds he’d been hearing inside for a long time but had been discouraged from playing by his employers.
Jaimoe decided to seek his fortunes in New York City, but instead he received a call from a songwriter urging him to come to Macon for an audition with guitarist Duane Allman, one of the finest session players in the South.
The two hit it off instantly. They began jamming between Duane’s sessions, eventually joined by bassist Berry Oakley. They knew they were on to something special right from the start.
“No one ever turned on a [tape] machine,” Jaimoe laments. “The best way I can describe what we played is the sound of the [original] Mahavishnu Orchestra.”
The group rapidly expanded to a six-piece unit, and by the spring of 1969, they were on their way. Although they’ve always been lumped in with other Southern rockers, the Allman Brothers Band’s sound is culled from a broad array of influences. Blues and rock form the cornerstones, but they’ve also drawn upon American roots music, with hints of jazz and country as well.
Jaimoe’s ventures into jazz are lesser known, if no less important. In 1977, he founded Sea Level with fellow ABB members Chuck Leavell (keyboards, vocals) and Lamar Williams (bass). The ensemble played a high-energy fusion music that attracted a large following during its short-lived existence.
Jaimoe’s fascination with jazz has led him to informal study and friendship with many improvisational drummers, from Billy Cobham to Roy Haynes. He’s toured or guested with Ahmad Jamal, Melvin Sparks and Big Joe Turner. Last fall, he sat in with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane during the Hartford International Jazz Festival for an inspired rendition of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”
Jaimoe lists a number of jazz drummers who’ve been integral influences: “Cozy Cole, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Stix Hooper.”
Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band will perform tonight at the Ed Blackwell Memorial Concert to recognize the legacy of innovative jazz drummer Blackwell, who was raised in New Orleans but spent the last years of his life in Middletown. He taught as an artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University.
This event also serves as a fundraiser for one of the city’s most unique art spaces, the Buttonwood Tree.
Jaimoe met Blackwell for the first time at a festival in Atlanta in 1989, when the latter was working with saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. After moving to Connecticut, Jaimoe visited the traps master numerous times in the year before Blackwell’s death in 1992.
The Jasssz Band will be serving up a musical gumbo worthy of the Crescent City native, offering blues, funk and jazz classics. Their repertoire ranges from “Night in Tunisia” to “Let the Good Times Roll.” They might pull out an old Allmans hit like “Blue Sky” or a Herbie Hancock favorite like “Cantaloupe Island.” Jaimoe also promises several originals penned by his sidemen.
Jaimoe’s core group, electric bassist Dave Stoltz and guitarist/vocalist Junior Mack, will be augmented by keyboardist Mathias Schuber plus a three-man horn section with trumpeter Richard Boulger and saxophonists Jay Collins and Chris Karlick.
On Saturday, Jaimoe and the Jassz Band will headline at Café Luna in Simsbury. Jaimoe and Stoltz have been performing at the café almost every weekend since December in a variety of musical settings, sometimes backing vocalists, sometimes working with instrumentalists from New York.
Beginning March 9, he’ll limit his appearances at Café Luna to Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. Jaimoe’s Bebop Band will be featured, with different personnel and a more strictly jazz approach. Jaimoe likes Sunday afternoon jam sessions, something he became very familiar with during his younger days.
JAIMOE and his band play tonight, 7:30, in a tribute to Ed Blackwell at First Church, 190 Court St., Middletown. A $15 donation is requested. Information: 860-347-4957 or www.buttonwood.org.
On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., a six-piece version of the Jasssz Band will headline at Café Luna, 6 Wilcox St., Simsbury. Information: 860-408-1407 or www.cafeluna.net.