Saturday, November 17, 2018

John DiGiovanni (June 19, 1952 ~ September 14, 2018)

If you're going to do something incredibly stupid, do it with a good friend, okay?   
That might seem to be an inapt way to remember my dear friend John DiGiovanni, who left this mortal coil early on the morning of September 14, but that's what happened a few minutes after I snapped this photograph of him in the Badlands of South Dakota in August of 1974.  Actually, a few minutes before I snapped this photograph, we had ingested a mind altering substance, all the better to enjoy exploring the labyrinth of layered rock formations, buttes and soaring pinnacles that give the Badlands their intimidating name.  
What we had not done was check the weather, a requisite when trekking off the beaten track, which we did repeatedly that summer on our westward-ho odyssey (which included scaling a 12,400 foot mountain in Colorado) and would have been easy to do from our sun-drenched vantage point at the edge of the Badlands, a breathtaking view of hundreds of miles of prairie grasslands stretching south and well into Nebraska.  Had we done so, we would have noticed a line of ominously dark gray cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds barreling our way.   
Going into the endless maze of box canyons in the face of an impending storm was . . . well, incredibly stupid.  
Our incredibly stupid selves had hiked a good distance off the road and into a dry wash.  I recall wondering in my altered state if we'd turn a corner and stumble upon a stegosaurus with her young.  Or a Tyrannosaurus rex or one of the other dinosaurs that roamed the Badlands tens of millions of years ago.  That thought -- and the sunlight -- evaporated with the first crack of thunder, which was followed within seconds by raindrops.  Which was followed within a few more seconds by a torrential downpour that left us proverbially dazed and confused and the formerly red-orange sky a putrid purple.   
We were soon up to our ankles and then some in churning rainwater as the dry wash in which we found ourselves became a raging torrent.  How we found our way back to my VW bus, muddy, soaked and chastened, is a never-to-be-solved mystery, but the skies did soon clear and we were rewarded with a gorgeous double rainbow.   
SNAKEGRINDER (1974) (JONATHAN TAYLOR PHOTO)
I had known John for about a year at that point and was greatly admiring of his chops as the drummer and percussionist for Snakegrinder and the Shredded Field Mice. 
Snakegrinder, for whom I designed a poster or two and occasionally helped lug their equipment to and from gigs (damn you, Dave Bennett, your Kustom organ and Leslie cabinet!) practiced in the basement of Steve and Kathy Roberts' apartment in the house of video pioneer Ed "Stretch" Wesolowski.  This was catty corner to my rowhouse on Wilbur Street, which was working on its image as a Newark, Delaware hippie enclave as Snakegrinder was working on its image as a cult band.  (Translation: Great music but few paying gigs, although 40 years on they have becoming wildly popular among collectors of obscure vinyl psychedelia in far flung places like Norway and Japan.  Go figure.) 
John needed a place to stay and I had a spare room, and so commenced my 45-year friendship with this self effacing and enormously talented man with a 1,000-watt smile. We ended up lining my basement walls with sound absorbent egg crates and John would practice for hours -- day in and day out.  While being in the same house with a drummer with a serious woodshed ethic would seem to be as crazy as hiking into that box canyon with a storm bearing down on us, I loved hearing John run through his practice drills and freer form explorations as he broadened his palette from rock to include jazz (Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra were influences) and Eastern drumming and percussion (ditto Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Devils and Ravi Shankar's ensembles). 
There was life after Snakegrinder, which dissolved in 1975. 
John and Dave joined a Mexican circus, John on drums and Dave on tuba.  There followed extensive gigging with, among other bands and innumerable guest appearances, the Sin City Band, Garry Cogdell and the Complainers, Old Soul, Bluestone, Live at the Fillmore, the Dinkendo Family Band, Stackabones, his own jazz band Kombu Combo, and most recently the mashup cover band Steal Your Peach. 
He also was a drum and percussion teacher and recording engineer and producer at Marsh Road Studios. 
George Wolkind, former Snakegrinder lead singer and co-founder and president of the Delaware Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame, presented John with a Rock Hall induction medal last month.   
COURTESY OF JEFFREY F. QUATTRO
While "Johnny Digs" spread his wings far beyond jazz, it remained his great love, and we shared and he exemplified the view that too much jazz is played for musicians and not the rest of us.  
Even though jazz is more popular than ever (the late great John Coltrane had a chart-topping record earlier this summer, an album I gifted John and he loved) and there are jazz venues, there also are a lot of empty seats. 
Very few musicians of any kind, and especially jazzos, are able to make the leap from having to work day jobs to being able to devote themselves to playing full time.  That has less to do with talent, which John had in spades, than luck.  John was no exception, and he became a master electrician -- and a damned good one -- to supplement his meager musical income. 
John had the qualities that make a great drummer and percussionist.  (Listen to his solo on "Sweet Clifford" at the 2008 Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware. And with Kombu Combo doing Horace Silver's "Filthy McNasty" in 2009.)   
First of all, as obvious as this may seem, John knew how to listen.  He could be athletic on the kit, but "felt" the music and had a great touch.  His sense of time and meter was impeccable, his technical vocabulary rich and deep, and he could set up wonderful rhythmic dialogues with the rest of a band.  (This helps explain why we had the same favorite Grateful Dead song -- "Eyes of the World" -- which I and many of John's friends are playing in tribute to him.)   
Most importantly to me, the spaces between the beats were as important to John as the beats themselves.  Or as Miles Davis famously put it, "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play."   
John DiGiovanni's life informed his drumming and his drumming informed his life.  He touched so many people in life and was so extraordinarily courageous as he faced the end of his own life.   
He will be missed. 

24 comments:

Unknown said...

This is a beautiful tribute to a gentleman I feel honored to have known. May he rest in peace.

Phillip Bannowsky said...

Shaun, Sorry for the loss of your friend, but moved by your tribute. Flip

Anonymous said...

Sad news, but thanks for sharing.

Dave Bennett said...

Thanks, Shaun - so sad to hear this.

Steve Hobson said...

That was a beautiful tribute Shaun. I loved playing with John because of the history we shared. Fun to read about some of the explorations before met. We will all miss John.
Steve Hobson

Patrice Manget said...

Such a lovely, lovely eulogy, Shaun. Thank you.

Tom Lewis said...

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man with whom we got share moments with on his way through.

Hugh Cutler said...

Moving salute to a stand-up dude. Death don’t have no mercy, but the music never stops.

Scott Birney said...

Blessed to have played with Johnny D.G. for a minute in Sin City Band. With Jerry Kirk we had the grooveist rhythm section.

Unknown said...
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Kris Pauley said...

Yes, "the space between the beats" that he created was a place where souls could dance together. His passion & smile could light up a room. The rhythm that he beat out helped me to move thru some of the most difficult times of my life. I will always be blessed to have known him.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Shaun. Thank you.

Jason Webb said...

The first time I saw John Digiovanni was in a black and white band picture on the wall at Deer Park Tavern. The man was wearing a bowler cap and looking like the baddest mf'er in town. I just remember thinking "god that guy looks so fucking cool. That is some serious dedication"

At that point, I was still pretty green on the Delaware music scene and hadn't yet had the opportunity to work with John or hear him play, but I could tell you from that picture alone that this man was one hell of a musician. And not too often does the book match the cover, but I can say with all certainty after getting to know him over the years, see him play countless shows, and even work with him once or twice - that man was 100% dedicated to his craft. Not one greeting didn't start with a smile and not one goodbye didnt end with a hug (though I'm still not sure if he was a hugger or not..)
Either way, he was dedicated, he was dependable, and he was my friend. I'm going to miss you John.

connie said...

I met John when he lived with you on "whole wheat street". I have such fond memories of those wonderful times of youth. I am honored to have been his friend for 45 years.

Kate Tyler Wall said...

Saw him in several bands back in the 70s and 80s. Fine drummer indeed.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful to read. Remember his talent playing drums with Temple professor Terrell Stafford. Haven’t heard music up close and tight like that night in a long long time.

david0824 said...

An excellent tribute, Shaun ... and captured a lot of John’s character ... John loved music so much, and he worked at it so much; he gave it everything he had. And he had a great attitude towards life - serious and bemused. He was an honorable man, a trustworthy man, easy to get along with. We will miss him for real.
David Berry

Mark Kenneally said...

John lived life on his own terms... a man to be admired. I already miss him.

Bob Cullen said...

I was shocked by his passing. I knew of his condition but thought he'd beat it several years ago. He was a longtime friend, bandmate (Complainers), and a boss in his electrical business. He called one day and needed help rewiring a small mansion in Westover Hills. He wanted to get in and out quickly as it was the scene of a murder/suicide. I don't spook easily but he certainly had some fun trying...weird noises, moans, moving things, and telling ghost stories. He had a pretty dry sense of humor. I don't get back to DE much but I kind of figured he'd always be around.

Beet Bailey said...

Johnny D was one of the kindest and most peaceful people I ever met.

Keep on drumming, Johnny, and send the peaceful vibes down to us who remain behind to help deal with this crazy world we live in.

Love Brother, Beet

michael fahey said...

Shaun, I heard about John's moving on out over a week ago and I knew that your Blog would be where I would go for some closure and you did not disappoint. We cannot help ourselves in these moments regarding death. We just can't seem to wrap our minds around the fact that birth is only one end of a round trip ticket. I think that our attachment , and thus our pain when one of our beloved playmates is gone, is to feel as if the party should never end.
Which takes me to one of my favorite John memories, one that is still crisp and that took place during your shared Wilbur Street days. I think that what endeared John to me forever, happened in that front room, where the heart of that house was: the music was there. We were all somewhere in our twenties and still getting comfortable with our "adult" selves. When someone "gets" you at that still vulnerable stage, you love them for that.
It was 1975 and John had seen me around town and told me there was something I "had" to hear. So, in the front room, your excellent speakers plenty loud, he put on John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer's "Timeless" and it was an ecstatic moment and such a beautiful gift. I have had that cut on my Yoga classes iPod always. I had that cut cued up for the moments shortly after the birth of our first child ,Tara, at the Bryn Mawr Birthing Center. Tara's first music was "Timeless" and given her taste at 36(musically) , I think it worked.
As a renovating carpenter I worked with John the Electrician many times and he was impeccable, just like his drumming. He is a great soul....an old soul, steady and on time, and in his Jazz drumming he lit up...he was illuminated from within as his eyes would sometimes roll up as he would enter some space that was Timeless. Well done, John.

Unknown said...

I easily got absorbed into these other tributes, very moving, quite telling .. of our admiration for John DiGiovanni They make one wonder whether he would have known we dug him so much. Here are a couple or three of my feelings and wonderful memories.
I was really so privileged to have shared a place .. with John, on Harrison Street. A lotta life was lived (and,for me, a lot of saxophoning) during there. Memories which will not easily be forgotten. John was great to click with on a basic, and sometimes a musical, level; though we rarely took the time to actively resonate there.
But it was okay. Things were laid back at that home, and John worked hard at the store. One extra note about him: I do not remember Johnny ever cursing. My language, naturally, was almost the opposite; not there in his cozy living room, however. (.. while I can't speak of the language and times of you all who have been in groups with each other.)
It's only through there (house-sharing) that I may have met a few of the posting players 'n devoted friends/fans on the blog here. Or at the gigs of the 80s.

Later on in life, I put John's number on speed dial, not the least after I crept into a Gallucios quartet gig of "theirs" -- I was likely coming from a Board Room set right in town - he was swinging, and I realized (though I had heard OF it) what John had put his chops to.
(I am not a great .. as it were .. correspondent with old friends, unfortunately. But drummers I do call.). Maybe we'd work together once, finally, after all.
Back on this brief exposure to the boppish - and extraordinarily diversified - band persona that I believe John became, I was not much surprised on the one hand, that he was able to take it to that level, his radiant time, the whole new direction from what I was used to associating my old roommate with. Just pleased, very pleased. He will be missed.
That and becoming (since a long while) a Master El. made one ,,, tip a hat (at least a kerchief) to such accomplishments by him, all of which took place after we'd each gone in separate states or directions. Yeah, 'well done' John; I like that part, above.
I can only imagine his own, outsize brand of courage , that as 'held in the light'/mentioned by others, in John's last days.
- Kerry Robertson

Shaun Mullen said...

Kerry:

I cannot, of course, speak for John. But I do think he knew how much he was loved and respected and that informed his life as did Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence.

Our last conversation of the several we had as his life slipped away centered around his repeated gratitude toward me. I had given John a place to live when he had none and, as Michael Fahey notes above, helped jumpstart John's appreciation of jazz. It was never about him, it was about "you," or sometimes about "us."

Leo Tammi said...

Thank you , Shaun. John personifies the idea that there is art and artists dedicated to art if we only look around us. It must be a great honor to have been close to him.