“I need to hear those blue notes.”
—John Engels

“I was born the 13th of May 1935, in Groningen, the Netherlands. We were with thirteen kids, me being the eldest. I come from a musical family, those who played the drums were all self-taught. Because, you know, money was tight, so we couldn't afford costly lessons. My grandpa was the drummer in a Salvation Army Band. My father, John Engels senior, was a very distinguished drummer, I'd say one of the greatest, back in the thirties and later. Also his brother and two of mine brothers and my youngest sister, we all play the drums.

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1955 John Engels Sr. and John Engels Jr.

Whenever there was a jazz concert my father took me along. The 1950 Duke Ellington concert, for instance and the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. At that time I wanted so bad to sit in and play with those cats. So I had to be good, so I practiced and practiced. Later, at the North Sea Jazz festival, I jumped at the opportunity to play with Hank Jones, amongst others.
 
In 1953 I went to the conservatory. There I had an intake meeting with my tutor-to-be Frans van der Kraan, a good friend of my father. “It's in the genes”, he said, “but we have a problem. You're a left paw, here at the conservatory you're supposed to play right-handed.” Meaning, the setup of the drum kit had to be the other way around to what I was used to. So I should have to start all over again. I went two times to the conservatory, the first time and the last time. My breakthrough came with Mary Lou Williams, and after that when Pia Beck gave me a chance.

“The chances Mary Lou Williams and Pia Beck gave me, spelled my breakthrough.

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1978 Mary Lou Williams and John, united after 25 years.

This is the first step in a blazing career, taking him across the world and playing with the greatest. More than ten years he lays down a solid backbone to the “Diamond Five”. During the late fifties and early sixties of the last century this was the best known and by far the best band in Holland.

“For a number of years we played the Sheherazade jazzclub in Amsterdam, a famous hotspot. The audience wanted to hear the newest stuff from America, the music of Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, you name it. We did it our way of course. Four years I played there each night. That meant four years of bread and peanut butter”.

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1964 Diamond Five
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1990 John and Stan Getz

American musicians came to the club regularly, to jam with us. Members of the Quincy Jones big band attended most of the nights. I played with trumpeter Benny Bailey, saxophone player Phil Woods and Stan Getz, and all the other cats. To name a few more: Lee Konitz, Tom Harrell, Sal Nistico. I could go on and on. They filled you with inspiration, playing with these cats got you a real high. I recorded with Don Byas, Arnett Cobb, Teddy Edwards, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Monty Alexander, Slide Hampton, Kenny Drew, Johnny Griffin, Johnny Mandell,Charlie Rouse, Herb Geller, well, the list goes on and on.

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1996 Birdwinners concert John with Toots Thielemans and Ray Brown
1966 John and the Boy Edgar’s Big Band

In 1961 the Sheherazade goes bankrupt and has to close doors. John now joins the Louis van Dijk Trio.

“We had some really great times and made some amazing music. Did many recordings with the Americans too. Did so many other gigs on the side.
I played with Boy Edgar's Bigband, getting down to free jazz with Theo Loevendie, toured with the Mingus Dynasty across Europe, not to mention all the other groups and gigs. Exploring and experimenting, trying out, honing the art of playing the drums. Each and every day.”

John Engels is and stays open minded. No matter what.

1987 John and Chet Baker in Tokyo
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1984 John’s first concert with Chet Baker in the 'Concertgebouw', Amsterdam

“Ben Webster and Chet Baker were very special to me. These cats were awesome. But then, I'm a ballad freak.”

1935
Born in Groningen
1953
Mary Lou Williams
Pia Beck
Kid Dynamite
1957
Diamond Five Sheherazade
Boy Edgar’s Big Band
Louis van Dijk Trio
1980
Ferdinand Povel Prize
1985
Bird Award North Sea Jazz Festival
1986/87
Two tours in Japan with Chet Baker
1988
Boy Edgar Prize
1993
On tour with Lew Tabackin/Jimmy Knepper, in celebration of John’s 40th anniversary
1997
Hall of Fame Award in Jamaica
6 Edisons
for more than 250 recordings in various settings
2001
Knighthood of the Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw
2003
Meerjazz prize
2005
Chet Baker Project
2013
John’s 60 year jubileum
2013
Chet Baker Project double-CD is gold record
2015
On tour with JVD4 in Japan - JVD4 CD 'Dear John'
2016
Release CD and LP JVD4 'Dear John' in the Netherlands
2017
Re-release LP (limited edition) The Diamond Five 'Brilliant!'  
2018
John's 65 year jubileum with concerts across the Netherlands

Benelux award – Slagwerkkrant poll: since 1987: best jazz-drummer for 17 times number 1 (until now every year in the Top Ten List)

DISCOGRAPHY:
Jazzdisco, The Diamond Five
Discogs
AllMusic
Music Encyclopaedia

John rocks Remo skins, Sonor drums, and Zildjian cymbals.

2014 Jazzportrets (NJA) – interviewed by Jan Kelder