By Sabina L. Lilly
Saxophonist John Wojciechowski (or “Wojo”) has been quietly and steadily making a name for himself since moving from outside of Detroit to the Chicago area in 2002. In addition to working with the city’s finest musicians in configurations ranging from typical quartet settings to the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, he is a composer and bandleader in his own right.
Later this month, John will be performing at the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival. What a perfect time to ask 10 Questions!
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Is your family musical?
My father played the Hammond B3 and was a huge jazz fan. So, as I like to tell
people, I have been listening to jazz since before I was born! He was always playing recordings in the house and then as I got older and more interested in the music he would let me borrow his LPs and listen to them.
CJM: How did you end up playing saxophone, and do you consider yourself primarily a tenor player?
I chose the saxophone because I was drawn to the sound of it, specifically to Sonny Stitt. (My
father’s favorite organist was Don Patterson and there are many recordings of Sonny Stitt with Don Patterson.) I was originally an alto player all the way through college [Western Michigan University]; I sort of fell into playing tenor simply because there were more gigs on it, and over time I found myself playing tenor most of the time. That being said, while I do prefer to improvise on tenor, I really consider myself a “saxophonist” and enjoy playing alto, tenor, and soprano in different contexts and settings.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
I can’t say that I remember a specific event. I just remember always being drawn to the music.
CJM: Can you tell us about your experience in the Detroit jazz scene, as well as any significant teachers or mentors?
I was really only on “the scene” in Detroit from ’96 until 2002 when I moved to Chicago. But Detroit did, and still does, have a really robust scene with some really world-class players. I was fortunate to have some really great teachers, but in particular, [saxophonist] George
F. Benson—who just passed this March—really taught me how to understand jazz harmony.
CJM: Through the years you have performed with many musicians in various settings. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that have helped define your playing?
I would say that I have learned something from almost everyone I have played with! But, in particular, my long associations with both [drummer] Dana Hall and [pianist] Ryan Cohan have stretched me significantly as a musician. With Dana, he is so very “in the moment” and he has a
mastery of polyrhythms and metric modulation that very few musicians do. And Ryan continues to write parts for me on the flutes and clarinets that push the boundaries of what I’m able to do!
CJM: In addition to a successful playing career, you are a dedicated educator—teaching music full-time at St. Charles North High School for a decade and a half. What courses and ensembles do you currently teach, and how do you balance teaching and playing?
Currently I teach the 9th grade woodwind students, two of our three big bands, and AP Music Theory. I also serve as the department’s lead teacher. It can be a real balancing act to teach full time and still maintain an active performance schedule. I try to always put my students and my teaching first, though, because at the end of the day that is what I do every day and my time with my students is finite. It just takes time management and planning. I’m grateful that I’m able to share my experiences as a musician in Chicago with my students—I think it makes me a better teacher.
CJM: Your latest release on Origin Records is entitled Focus. How did that recording come about?
That recording came about after my father passed away in 2013. After a number of months, I just had an overwhelming sense that I had something to say musically, and that it should be
documented. I also felt pretty strongly about documenting the musical camaraderie that I had with Ryan Cohan, [bassist] Dennis Carroll, and Dana Hall.
CJM: Can you describe your writing concepts as well as the process you go through to compose original music?
I don’t really have a “process” per se. Sometimes I sit down at the piano and a
particular harmony will emerge, or a groove or bass line. Sometimes I am inspired by something that I hear when listening to other music. I’ve learned to try to get some kind of document of an idea though because I have a horrible memory—if I don’t write it down or record an idea on my phone I won’t remember it later!
CJM: You’ll be performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Thursday, August 29. Who is in the band, and what kind of music can we expect to hear?
The Jazz Festival performance is a reprise of a performance that we did for the Jazz Record Art Collective in March of 2018 of Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at “The Club.” I’ll be playing alto saxophone (obviously), and I’ll be joined by Tito Carrillo on trumpet, Joey Skoch on piano, Dennis Carroll on bass, and George Fludas on drums.
CJM: Besides Jazz Fest, what other gigs, projects, and/or recordings are on your horizon?
I’ve been developing a trio with bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall that I hope to record this year. This past November we were joined by pianist Xavier Davis for a performance at the Green Mill and I hope to be able to do more with that group. (Xavier and I went to college together.) I’ve also been busy working with my regular quartet of Ryan, Dennis, and Dana—and we’ve got more performances in 2019 and beyond.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at email@example.com.