Ubiquitous Jazz Fan Jim DeJong of Chicago Dies at 81


DeJong (right) backstage with Ornette Coleman in 2008.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

DownBeat considers itself duty-bound to compile obituaries for famous musicians and annually celebrates firmament perennials in the magazine’s Hall of Fame. Yet for every famous protagonist, there are legions of supporters and abetters who go unnoticed. One elusive character deserving mention died unexpectedly after complications from routine surgery on Sept 16, Jim DeJong. A frequent correspondent with DownBeat over the decades, DeJong was the Scarlet Pimpernel of Chicago jazz (except that he always wore black). He’d appear and disappear at varied venues around the city, from Phil Cohran’s Afro-Arts Theatre on the South Side back in the day, to Symphony Center. Many were aware of Jim but few knew much about him, a handful where he lived, fewer still his age. He was 81 when he passed.

James Donald DeJong was born in Chicago. No antecedent heralded DeJong’s devotion to jazz, but his involvement deepened when he left a layout job at the Tribune to work at the legendary Jazz Record Mart at Grand and State in Chicago. For years he managed the shop and its voluminous inventory for Bob Koester. DownBeat writer and critic Howard Mandel, who also worked at the store in the late ’60s and early ’70s, recalled: “He was much more than a buyer and clerk, he created a beehive of information. He’d clip articles from the newspaper and post them in the store and keep track of gigs, informing editors at publications what was coming up so they would list. He was very detail oriented.”

Roger Klich began working with DeJong in 1975 and describes him as ethical and a great boss. “He was the only longterm manager who kept buyer and manager jobs separate,” he said. “More money to go around — others combined them so they could take more money home.”

Klich credits DeJong for helping make the store financially viable, with all the Delmark Records employees (Bob Koester’s other concern) being put on the JRM payroll. Another DeJong hire at JRM in the late ’70s, Don Meckley, also learned from him. “He very quickly deputized me to help draft an updated graphic identity for the store — that’s how we would pull people into the world as he knew how to live it, by sharing,” Meckley recalls. “He also taught, simply by his actions, to never give up on the possibility people might surprise you in a positive way … and the importance of always keeping one’s ears open.”

Percussionist Michael Zerang first met DeJong at Fred Anderson’s Birdhouse on Lincoln Avenue. In 1985 Zerang became involved with the creative space known as Links Hall and also booked the basement bar Lower Links. DeJong became involved and would eventually take over as artistic director for a spell in 1989. Zerang remarks that DeJong had an undemonstrative mentoring manner. “He knew where to take you (in music appreciation) without pushing you, in an enlightened way, but not forcefully,” he said.

Zerang once gave shelter in his loft space to DeJong’s humungous record collection when he was between accommodations. A jazz completist, DeJong was interested in all its forms, as well as Latin music, blues, neighborhood Polish and German bands, plus the classics.

Eventually, after JRM, DeJong took a position at Tower Records’ impressive store on Clark Street, managing jazz and classical departments. “Most people associate Jim with jazz,” remembers blues guitarist Dave Specter, who worked with him at Tower in the early ’90s, “but he knew the blues really well and turned me on to some great records.” Tower filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006.

Alongside his retail experience, DeJong collaborated with Marguerite Horberg on the founding of the multi-arts venue HotHouse. The two of them hatched the precursor acronym CIPEX (“The Center for International Performance and Exhibition”) back in 1987 when they created a tribute exhibition to (then-mayor) Harold Washington at the storied loft space at 616 W. Adams that Horberg shared with photographer D Shigley.

DeJong was secretary of the Jazz Institute of Chicago for many years and briefly served as its executive director.

DeJong had creative schemes about putting musicians together. One collaboration that worked particularly well, remembered his sister Catherine, was when he suggested booking tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin with vocalist Betty Carter.

“In his long service as board secretary,” recalled former JIC executive director Lauren Deutsch, “he thoroughly documented the conversations that in effect demonstrate the consensus-building process that was the core of how the organization grew. Most people in that role would just jot down decisions and other info shared at a board meeting. Jim captured dynamic verbal pictures.” His bureaucratic bent coupled with a desire to propagate knowledge telescoped back to his days at JRM when, as friend and photographer Marc Pokempner recalls, DeJong had a cabinet with shelves full of handbills advertising upcoming gigs. “This was pre-1971,” emphasized Pokempner, “before the Chicago Reader helped clue folk in on what was happening. The most reliable way you could find out what was going on on the music scene was to stop in on Jim and get a flier, or call him on the phone. This was the most basic service to the music.”

“Mingus would call him when he came to town,” Zerang heard DeJong once comment, in passing, “to ask him what was going on and where to play.”

“Chicago has been a great grounding point,” DeJong once told this writer. “Cooperation and respect for people is a factor here. … There’s a vibrance, a spiritual uplift, a core value that can be used as a gauge, going forward.” DB

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