As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 


Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

14 responses to “SMILING JO JONES

  1. That last picture leaves me VERY thoughtful. You did better than I did with Jo Jones – in the late 50s I was a regular at the Central Plaza with a quartet: The others were Willie “The Lion” Smith, Charlie Shavers and Jo Jones. Most of the time we could scarcely get a word out of Jones. From what you say he had an angry side which must have been in play, and he mostly played as you describe him on a bad night. From a drummer/Jones protege I played with in the 80s it became clear that Jones taught drinking brandy as well as drums. That’s what the guys thought. Alcohol.

    And yet – the band was fun. Willie entertaining us with tales of his other career as a cantor (his business card was in Hebrew on the other side): Charlie Shavers showed me the showbiz side of our work that stood me in good stead – still does: He would climb up on the top of the old upright piano with his horn in his big black policeman’s shoes with white sox, start playing, and jump to the floor while blowing.

    And then that ever so final picture, with another iocnic drummer who MUST have learned from Jones, paying homage – I measure the jazz world with life before Jones, press rolls, and after, the ride cymbal. RIP….sp

  2. Bill Gallagher

    When I was doing research on my Sir Charles Thompson discography, I called Stanley Dance at his home to ask some questions about the 1961 recording date with Gonsalves, Nance and Jones. Stan also related the incident with Jones at that session – it must have been memorable. It seems that Gonsalves and Nance had over-imbibed the night before and came in late to the session with hangovers. Jones decided to punish them by drumming as loudly as he could. The sound engineer was pleading for Jones to lower his volume but that only propelled Jones to play more loudly. Finally, Dance had to ask Jones to cool it for the sake of the session, which he eventually did.

  3. sam parkins

    And – I wrote the above before I looked at the absolutely dazzling video drum solo. When in his prime he had that same elegance that I observed in Bill Robinson — a way of being that I don’t think survived the post WW II era. Seen any recently? I’d really like to know because I don’t go out and dig musicians so much now…sp

  4. I am in Milt Hinton’s basement, circa late 70’s, helping him sort through his large collection of live recordings, mostly gifted to him by grateful amateur recordists.

    He makes a phone call to Jo Jones.

    “I just want to tell you I love you.”

    We go back to sorting his collection.

    Am moved to tears by the post and recollections.


  5. A postscript, just remembered. It is perhaps the summer of 1974. Town Hall is sponsoring a series of one-hour “Interlude” concerts, running from 5:30 to 6:30, admission some pittance, perhaps five dollars. One of the concerts stars George Barnes, with Dick Hyman, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones. Jo brought his brushes and was in wonderful form and good humor. Peter Dean, singer and personality, came out and sang a few cheerful numbers, then — the guest star — one Ruby Braff, who instructed the band on how to play his “WHERE’S FREDDIE?” which, if I remember correctly, was “I Got Rhythm” with a “Lulu’s Back in Town” bridge. Then, someone called a fast blues to get off the stage, for an hour had gone by all too quickly. I recall Ruby and Jo working in perfect harmony, with Ruby taking the opening phrase of “Lester Leaps In” and shaping it to the blues changes. Magic, just magic.

  6. As always, thanks for those remembrances of the great Papa Jo!

    Regarding his occasional naughty behaviour, let us not forget the legendary -and eternally embellished- incident with a seventeen-years-old Charlie Parker. Here’s how it is analyzed in the amazing Bird Lives website:

    “At the beginning of 1936, Charlie experiences his famous humiliation at the hands of Jo Jones, as depicted in the well-intentioned Eastwood movie, ‘Bird’. The story is told that whilst Charlie was attempting to jam, Jones threw a cymbal on the floor, in ‘gong show’ assessment of Parker’s playing, embarrassing Charlie who left the club in tears. Strangely, Jo Jones makes no mention of this incident in any of the numerous interviews he gave about his life and although Charlie mentions being laughed at in the Stearns interview and remembers a possible embarrassment at the hands of the Kansas City Rockets, there is only one eyewitness account. Gene Ramey said, “Jo Jones waited until Bird started to play and, suddenly, in order to show how he felt about Bird, he threw the a cymbal across the dance floor. It fell with a deafening sound, and in humiliation, packed up his instrument and left. (…) The closest reference Jones makes to the event is from the classic jazz book ‘Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya’; “In Kansas City, in that time, some younger kids would gather across the street from the clubs where jazz was being played in order to listen. They were individualist too, and they were kids who were eager to learn – Gene Ramey, Charlie Parker, and other guys. A lot of the kids, for example, that played and were to play with Jay McShann’s band. In fact, some of those kids had a little band of their own then in Kansas, a little Basie band and they intended to take over and make something new.” This really does not sound like a person who would intentionally embarrass a young musician trying to play a session, especially when the musicians in Kansas City were famous for encouraging and supporting young musicians who wanted to learn. Recent research suggests that Jones was not even in Kansas City at the time of the incident, and the Rockets embarrassment probably dates from the summer of 1937 and perhaps too late in the chronology to have occurred at all. (…) ”


  7. Thanks for your memory and your analysis, Agustin. It reminds me of a time in the jazz hagiography (perhaps it never concluded) when Bird was God, and anyone who had ever doubled His divinity was automatically suspect, the enemy. That story demonized Jo, much as another tale satirized jazz saint Jerry Newman for refusing to record Bird at Minton’s. But none of us were there, so we have to construct our ideological positions from what others have told us, always a troublesome business. Cheers as always! Michael

  8. Trouble is, Bird WAS God. He defined the alto saxophone, Benny Carter went into eclipse; the only renegades that I can think of were the wonderful Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, and later Ornette, who cracked the legend wide open. I met Warne Marsh in the army as the superb big band he was with breezed through our post in 1945.

    In 1949, during that opening week in Birdland, there were three bands: Max Kaminsky, playing four beat, Charlie Parker playing a lot of two beat, and Lennie Tristano, whose show included Warne and Lee Konitz playing dead-pan a Bach two-part invention – the first one, in C.

    So I’m standing on the side lines with Warne during Bird’s set. He’s playing just OK. Warne turns to me and says “He sounds like some guy trying to play like Charlie Parker”. I turn to him in a quiet fury – hardly my style – and say, “Listen man — without Charlie Parker there’d be no Warne Marsh”.

  9. another way to look at it (since we are about the business of mythologizing) would be that the cymbal toss was a pass of the gauntlet to a new generation.

    Or, as a vail of roses tossed to a matador.

  10. I took a photo of Jo Jones in the same year, same place, although I was probably sitting in one of the booths to your right. It’s posted on Flickr if you look for Triebensee’s photo stream.
    I have a bunch more, and Jo even signed one of them for me. He joked that it was only good for scaring away criminals. My greatest memory form those days: sitting in the audience next to Max Roach (clearly digging Jo) and a snowy Christmas time set with Harold Cumberbach grooving on White Christmas. Also saw Jo at Michaels Pub, filling in for Sonny Greer (!) in a trio with Russell Procope and Brooks Kerr.


  12. Hi
    I was lucky enough to meet Jo Jones at a Jazz Bar called Sandy’s Place outside Boston in the summer of 78.

    He was playing with some ex-Basie guys including Doc Cheetam and singer Carrie Smith.
    It was a great night and I spent 10-15 mintes with him between sets. I was on holiday from Scotland and we talked about his visits to Scotland for the Open golf. Very pleasant – I got autographs from the whole band and a pair of sticks from the great man

  13. brett kemnitz

    I had the privilege of hearing Max Roach play a tribute to Jo Jones on the hi hat at the Performing Art Center in Milwaukee. Many are the drummers I admire but Jo Jones is the one I admire most.

  14. Occasionally on the first stool, in the corner nearest the door and furthest from the stage at Balaban’s Condon’s circa ’75+, Joe Jones would open his newspaper and without brushes by hand captivate us with a smile and a solo.

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