Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jones, Jo (Jonathan David Samuel)

The sound of Jo Jones' drums defined the sound of swing: he brought the beat up from the bass drum into the drummer's hands, which took rhythm into the modern era. He expanded the drum kit's palette of accents, and forged a path for every drummer who has followed in his soft steps. His "ting-ta-ting" taps are ubiquitous, yet few listeners realize this is the sound Jo built.

Jones's elegant, propulsive groove laid the foundation for William "Count" Basie's breakout big band hits, such as "Tickle Toe," and "One O'Clock Jump." . Also not to be missed are the drummer's memorable small-group sessions with Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, such as "I Can't Get Started" and "A Sailboat in the Moonlight."

Jonathan David Samuel Jones was born in Chicago, Illinois to Elizabeth and Samuel Jones. From an early age, he developed a taste for life on the road: his father worked as an itinerant shipbuilder and electrician along canals and rivers, and the family followed, settling for a while in Pittsburgh, then in Alabama.

 Jo Jones

At age five, little Jo suffered burns from head to toe in an accident. His father brought home a ukelele to soothe the bedridden boy, his first musical instrument. When his condition improved, his Aunt Mattie took him to the see the Ringling Brothers Circus.

There, he was transfixed when he heard the sound of the drum played by August Helmecke, who played with John Philip Sousa. "The bass drum hit my stomach and I never relinquished that feeling," Jones recalled. "That was my indoctrination to music." Aunt Mattie then bought the rhythm-addled boy a snare drum, which he taught himself to play for tips of ice cream and candy around the neighborhood.

When Jo was ten, his father was killed in an accident on a barge near Tuscaloosa. Unable to support the family, Elizabeth enrolled her son at an orphanage school, where he got his first musical training. He later attended Lincoln Junior High in Birmingham and an agricultural school near Huntsville, where he learned to play the trumpet, saxophone and piano. "I didn’t think I would end up a drummer,” Jones later told bassist Milt Hinton. “I was trying out all these instruments, but somehow I played drums on all of them.”

Jones developed an early taste for show business. He began to hang around the stage door at Birmingham's Famous Theater, where for every day for six months he would sit and watch Wilson Driver play drums to accompany silent movies. “He’d be there every day in the second row, staring at me the same way a rattlesnake does his victim,” Driver recalled. “When he finally let me show him some things, he would often question my methods. Occasionally, he’d suggest how I might do better.”

Driver introduced the quasi-orphan to vaudeville performers, including the popular comedy act Butterbeans and Susie, who occasionally let him play drums with their act at the Frolic Theater. By age thirteen, Jones was on the road, performing on the vaudeville circuit as well as at carnivals, circuses, Chautaquas and medicine tent shows. He would sing, act, dance, and play the drums as well as other instruments.

As Jones told the story, once he discovered the drummer was the best-paid member of a band, he set aside other instruments. His skills quickly developed as he traveled from Texas to Canada with bands such as the Dixie Ramblers, Walter Page's Blue Devils and the Bennie Moten Ensemble.

Synthesizing his experience in these bands, he began to develop his own sense of rhythm, which the world would soon come to know as swing: he smoothed out the odd-beat accents favored by early jazz drummers into a lilting, four-beat pulse.

"It was like a marriage," Jones explained. "Moten played on one and three. Walter Page played on two and four. When they wedded together, you had the one and the three against the two and the four, like a bouncing ball."

In 1931, Jones recorded for the first time, with Lloyd Hunter's Serenaders and blues singer Victoria Spivey. His playing on these recordings is remarkable for the era, full of orchestral colors, making him one of the first drummers to take advantage of the drum kit's full range of timbral as well as rhythmic possibilities.

In fact, some say Jones invented the modern drum kit, when he raised the "low boy," a foot-operated pair of cymbals used by early drummers, from below the knee to waist height, and placed it next to the snare drum, so he could mark accents to the music's pulse.

Modern drummers call Jones's creation the "high hat," and more than anything else its addition to the drum kit helped create the pulse not only of swing, but of all contemporary music. Adding the high hat to the kit brought the beat up from the bass drum into the drummer's hands, where he has more freedom to experiment with accents and colors.

In February of 1934, Jones found himself in Kansas City, where he reunited with friends from the Page and Moten groups, which had recently disbanded. One of these, pianist Bill Basie, saw an opportunity to regroup the pool of talented musicians as a big band under his leadership. Now known as "Count" Basie, his group – with Jones at the drum kit – defined the rhythms of the Swing Era that kept the nation dancing through World War II.

Jones stayed with Basie for the next fourteen years. Together, they recorded unforgettable sides for Columbia Records producer John Hammond, which include "Shoe Shine Boy," "Boogie Woogie" and "Lady Be Good." In fact, Basie's first hits from November of 1936 were recorded under Jones's name, since the bandleader was under contract to a different label, Decca, at the time.

Early in 1937, Basie moved his ensemble to New York, and Jones and other band members picked up occasional work – often under Hammond's guidance – at small-group recording sessions with local artists, such as clarinetist Benny Goodman and singer Billie Holiday. These include “One O’Clock Jump,” which became the Basie band's signature tune, "Me, Myself and I" and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

Jones refined his drum kit technique during the Basie band's long engagements at New York's Roseland Ballroom and Famous Door nightclubs in 1937. He began to use wire brushes at times instead of sticks, to achieve a lighter touch. “Jo Jones had that thing, that swing that everybody dug so much,” said Jay McShann, who led a rival band at the time. “His rhythm was light and natural. It was there, easy to feel, it got you going. See, it wasn’t ‘right to it, right to it, right to it,’ you understand? It was somewhere between tight and loose.”

One of Jones's closest friends in the Basie band was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who joined the group in November of 1936. Like Jo, Lester spent much of his youth traveling with circuses and carnival tent shows. Together, they produced some of the most memorable sides in all of recorded jazz, often with little or no rehearsal - these include "Lester Leaps In"and "Dickie's Dream" from September of 1939. Jones also reunited with Young to record poignant tracks in the saxophonist's twilight years, such as their 1956 version of "All of Me."

By 1944, Jones, Young and the other members of the Basie band were stars, as much as any African-American performers could be at the time. Jones and Young were asked to perform in a documentary film on jazz, "Jammin' the Blues," which is nominated for an Oscar. However, their careers were stalled when they were drafted into the Army.

The Army offered Jones an opportunity to play in a military band in Washington instead of active duty. Young, however, was sent into the infantry. Jones then insisted on being sent to the infantry, like his friend. While he ultimately rose to the rank of second lieutenant, the nonconformist Young did not fare as well in military life. Jones frequently visited his friend after he was placed in military detention for insubordination.

Jones rejoined Basie's band after his discharge from the Army in February of 1946, but the public's musical tastes were starting to shift. The group recorded a number of songs, including "Rambo," "The King," "Stay On It," and a number-one hit with the novelty tune, "Open the Door, Richard." However, the golden age of big bands was over, and Jones retired from Basie's band in 1948. The two remained friends and reunited on several occasions, such as in 1957, when they recorded "I Left My Baby."

Jones and other Swing-Era titans, including Lester Young, found steady work over the next decade in the Jazz at the Philharmonic road show organized by producer Norman Granz, the founder of Verve and Pablo Records. Jones joined the ensemble to record at Carnegie Hall in September of 1947, and toured off and on with the ensemble.

When not on the road, Jones held court at the Embers restaurant on 54th Street in Manhattan, with Milt Hinton on vibes and Joe Bushkin on piano. Small groups like this became Jones's mainstay for the next two decades, such his trio with Ray Bryant on piano and Tommy Bryant on bass which recorded "Little Susie," or the trio with Ray brown again on bass and guitarist Herb Ellis which backed singer Blossom Dearie on "They Say It's Spring," both from 1957. Jones recorded several albums for Granz, Hammond and Everest Records in this period which capture the informal feeling of his club dates.

Jones could also be frequently found onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival, where promoter George Wein asked him to serve as "house drummer" at the inaugural festival in 1954. That year, Jones was reunited to play with Basie, Young and Holiday, and he returned to play at the festival – as well as at Charles Mingus's alternative "Newport Rebels" festival – in coming years.

As "house drummer" at Newport, Jones got ample opportunity to demonstrate his showmanship and versatility, hearkening back to his days on the vaudeville circuit. Among the unlikely artists Wein paired him with on stage at Newport were Chuck Berry, with whom he performed "Sweet Little Sixteen" and blues belter Big Maybelle, with whom he performed I Ain't Mad At You" in July of 1958.

In August of 1955, Jones reunited with Basie and the other members of Basie's "All-American Rhythm Section" with Walter Page on bass, and Freddie Green on guitar, to record a two-LP album, The Jo Jones Special, for Hammond on Vanguard Records.

While Jones remained a fixture on the New York jazz scene and continued to record and perform, by the seventies his fame had been largely eclipsed by younger players and new styles. He helped his friend Frank Ipolito run a drum store, where he cultivated the talents of younger players, and emerged onstage from time to time to remind audiences – and younger drummers – that he still had fire in his sticks.

In July of 1973, Jones joined an all-star cast of drummers – all younger than he - in Central Park for a concert. Jones listened respectfully as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, and others performed before he took the stage. “Papa Jo closed the show," recalled drummer Charlie Persip. "He came out on the stage with a hi hat and a chair and some brushes in his back pocket and some sticks. He sat down and proceeded to wipe everybody out. He wiped us out, man, with a hi hat! It was beautiful.”

Jones suffered a stroke as well as cancer, yet continued to perform into the eighties at weekly gigs at the West End café near Columbia University, curated by radio producer Phil Schaap, a longtime friend. When Basie died in April of 1984, Jones was asked to perform at a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall in June. Because of his frailty, until the very end of the concert it was unclear whether he would be able to take the stage.

“Jo, alone on stage, started slow and uncertain,” recalled Nat Hentoff. “Then, his eyes shining, Jo got it together,” George Wein, the concert's promoter, was standing in the wings looking at his watch, anxious he might have to pay Carnegie Hall's egregious overtime fees. He shouted at Jones to wrap it up. Smiling, Jones shouted back, “I’m not going back in there no more!”

Jones died on September 3, 1985 in New York City, six months after he was named a Jazz Master by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the nation's highest honor for jazz musicians. He is also a member of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Hall of Fame and Jazz at Lincoln Center's Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.

Jones left behind an unforgettable legacy of recordings and musical innovations that can be heard in virtually every drum performance today.

Max Roach summed up the feelings of gratitude that he and many drummers felt for Jo in a memorial service held at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan.

“For every three beats a drummer plays, he owes Jo five,” Roach said. “He is the greatest drummer who ever lived.”

Contributor: Tim Wilkins