Here, once again, is the story of a teenaged Charlie Parker, brilliant but incomplete, getting humiliated in public by drummer Jo Jones:

The tale is always told as a defining moment in the history of jazz: a youth on his own self-defined quest, being mocked and deflated by one of the aging masters — someone whom he ultimately surpasses.  It is thus a narrative of payback, of the underdog becoming the sun-god.

But every time I read it, especially since it is substantiated by Ross Russell, a notable fictionalizer, I wonder if it ever happened.  Or if it happened this way.  I met and spoke with and heard Papa Jo in his later years, and I have no trouble imagining him as a man intolerant of mediocrity, a man who spoke his mind, a man who would even be contemptuous of what he considered incompetence.

But drummers know and value and love their equipment.  They spend hours selecting the right cymbals, the right sticks.  Cymbals may be metal but they break, they bend, they become unplayable.

So I propose that what we have here is myth, inflating and uncontrolled.  Perhaps Jo made loud gonging sounds on his cymbal; perhaps his derision was palpable.  But I can’t see him throwing a cymbal, the cymbal sailing through the air, landing at the poor humiliated altoist’s feet.  You can, if you like.

UPDATE as of March 2017: all of the above might well be emotionally correct, but I must stand corrected.  I’ve learned from several sources including the very revered and reliable Dan Morgenstern that the incident of Jo, Bird, and the cymbal did happen, as witnessed by string bassist Gene Ramey.  Why am I letting this post stand, then?  Call it perversity, or call it this: anyone has the right to be wrong, and let wrongness stand as an expression of feeling, unaffected by those annoying facts.

10 responses to “BIRD, JO JONES, AND THAT CYMBAL

  1. I would like to know what Driggs & Haddix have to say about the throwing of cymbals at jam sessions in Kansas City in an historical context, but I have yet to get to their book… Regardless, I find the Guardian piece, like much “historical” literature about jazz, to really be a shame. Bird himself said he got shut up (one way or another) at the session because he couldn’t keep up, not because he was some 16-year old bebop god from another dimension… If I recall, he said he only knew “Honeysuckle Rose” in one key, and tried to play that over everything. That, too, is most likely hyperbole, but probably closer to the truth. To blame the incident on Jo Jones’ inablity to recognize a quality musician, or quality music, is, in my mind, almost criminal…

  2. Driggs & Haddix (pp.165-6) quote Gene Ramey, who tells the story (the footnote refers the quote to Reisner’s book on Bird).

    I still find it hard to believe. Would like to see what Stanley Crouch has to say about it in his bio, whenever it comes out.


  3. Also note that Jo Jones was only 26 in 1937 so hardly a case of the ageing master etc etc, more like a young man at the top of his game…..

  4. Yes, thank you for reminding us — Jo was born in 1911 and Charlie in 1920, so the distance in their ages was less than the myth would have it seem, although the distance between 16 and is a great one, emotionally — and if Jo was returning in triumph to the Reno Club as the drum master of Count Basie’s band, which had already recorded for Decca, he might have seemed someone who had already been to the mountaintop and knew what it was.

    (See you in November, o rare Mike Durham!)

  5. Bruno Leicht

    Now, that you say it, I would confirm the presumption that no drummer would have sacrificed only one of his expensive tools for humiliating a teenager on stage. — And Jo Jones, the ever smiling, the gentleman – most drummers honor him by calling him “Papa Jo” – he would have never done such a rude thing.

    He may have been a star already, but he was highly likely also short of funds, as were most black musicians at the time.

    Maybe he would have created some “noise”, as you said.

    Alas, that very myth is quite persistent, and Clint Eastwood has unfortunately immortalized it when putting it in motion pictures.

  6. Nobody knew Jo Jones better than Phil Schaap. His take on this would be interesting.


  8. Jo Jones sat in with my high school jazz band back in 1975 or 1976. Our regular drummer sat in a chair by his drum kit to watch him play. In the course of his performance, Jo hit the high school kid whose drums he was playing on the head with his own stick, at least two or three times, hard enough to hurt. Sure, he was smiling as he hit the kid. But the man was no plaster saint. He was willing to be rude to get a laugh, at least that night.

    I’ve never found it hard to believe the “thrown symbol” story.

  9. I meant “cymbal,” of course. But in Clint Eastwood’s movie, the cymbal was certainly a symbol.


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