Connie Jones was an earthly being. I saw him eat ice cream, talk about football, smile affectionately at his wife. And of course, I saw him play the cornet, and sing. But my encounters with him from 2011-2015 convinced me that although he resided in an ordinary envelope, his soul was always striving for beauty, too large for mere mortal things. He visited us; he left us; his spirit vibrates on.
Connie’s playing seems as close to celestial architecture as we might encounter. I am not the only one who felt this. My friend Howard Kadison — who appears on recordings with Connie’s Crescent City Jazz Band but whom I knew first as Donald Lambert’s chosen drummer — told me this about Connie:
I worked in Connie’s band for about seven years, off and on, mostly on, and I went to Bogota, Colombia with him during the Bicentennial in 1976. We were there for a month, playing. Part of it was a trade show and part was a Fourth of July celebration at the embassy there. We stayed in a hotel for a month and did a nightly performance.
What was interesting about Connie: of all the musicians I’ve ever known, he was one of the most principled, one of the most studious.
He was a good guy. He could be a tough leader. He once was in a jam, and he hired a guy to play tuba who wasn’t a very good player, and I was having a hell of a time trying to keep things together, and Connie turned around. There was a little riser for the drums, so he put his face right in my face, and he turned around and said, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on back here. Fix it.” That’s all that he said: “Fix it.” I was so pissed that I couldn’t see straight, like I’m supposed to teach this guy how to play?
He could be tough, he could be demanding, but he had a good sense of humor, and he was fun to work with. He was a very very specific kind of a player. He always said he just wanted to play with a good stand-up Dixieland band, that was his phrase.
I brought Connie and Dick Sudhalter together. At one point in my life — it’s the only time as an adult that I wasn’t playing full time — I was very lucky, once I started working, I never stopped. At one point I took a gig on the steamboat, the Delta Queen, on the Mississippi River, and I ended up staying with the gig for ten years, but not playing in the band. I became a manager. I still don’t understand how it happened, but I had a friend who was in the management part of the company and I ended up being in the entertainment department, and subsequently I became director of operations of the land part of the cruise. As you know, putting together all the things that happened “on the bank,” as they called it, on the shore, where they would have all these programs.
I knew Dick Sudhalter from a gig I had in Cape Cod, years before, and I ran into him again and thought he’d be a perfect guy to get to know Connie. I wanted to put a program together where they’d both play on the boat and talk about jazz, because we had jazz cruises. They were on the boat together — remember when we had that Black Tuesday, in the Eighties, with the stock market? — they were both on the boat, on the Cumberland River, in the Nashville area, they were working on that program and I was hanging out with them. They had put together a program where they would both play trumpet and talk about music. It never reached fruition, but they got to know each other, and that recording took place. Getting them together was purely accidental. At the time I was working part-time, playing for Al Hirt, and working for the Delta Queen. Eventually I quit, and went with Jumbo full-time in 1992.
I wanted to tell you one story about Connie that speaks volumes about who he was and what he was. I was working for him, and I had to get a night off, because I had a gig that really paid well. Connie was the kind of guy who would say, “You can make some money? Do it.” He hired a guy named Al Babin. Al was a New Orleans drummer who had what they call a broom route: people sell brooms door-to-door in New Orleans, for housewives, the New Orleans version of the Fuller Brush man. Babin was a great fan of the drummer Monk Hazel, a wonderful self-taught drummer who’s on a lot of recordings. Babin could play just like Hazel, and Connie used to love Hazel’s playing on all those Southland recordings. He hired Babin that night, and watched him very intently, and when I came back to work the next night, and at the end of the gig, he said, “You want to hang a little? I want to talk to you.” He sat down behind the drums and showed me everything he’d watched Babin do, and he could play them perfectly.
And he explained the way Hazel would build in the ensembles, and developed this tremendous push, and he even showed me the grip, the way Hazel would hold the stick. He would play the outchorus on the Chinese cymbal, and he would hold the stick between his index finger and second finger, rather than between his thumb and index, and he would play with the shoulder of the sick on the edge of the cymbal. Connie had watched Babin doing this, very carefully, and he showed me how it was done. It wasn’t necessary, to get that sound, but it interested me that Connie was so astute and careful, that he showed me every aspect of Babin’s playing, which helped me understand more about Hazel’s playing. That’s the kind of musician Connie was.
He was very strong in harmony. He shared that with Bobby Hackett, who had a great harmonic knowledge. Hackett, of course, played guitar with Glenn Miller part of the time. Connie played good piano, and saxophone. But the thing he was most proud of, his father had the parking lot at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans, and Connie used to work for his father sometimes, and he said he could drive a car in reverse faster than anyone.
Connie was like a singer. He would sing on his horn. He played beautiful, lovely music. There was a lyricism. He was funny, too. He said something once that really struck me. Before my wife and I bought our house, we had an apartment on the very last block of Bourbon: we were on the other side of the Esplanade. Connie would always park over there, and we’d walk to our gig. We’d walk about six or eight French Quarter blocks from my house. We had an afternoon gig at that point, we would start at noon and work until four or five. It wasn’t Connie’s gig; we were working for another leader together.
He’d come over and we’d hang, have coffee in my kitchen. We were talking one day, and he just blurted out — it was completely out of context, a surprising thing he said, “If you had one day left to live, what would you do?” Just a question out of the air. I thought about it a while, and said, “I’d probably just do what I’m doing. I’m having a nice time, and it’s fun, so I don’t imagine I’d do anything differently.” I came back at him, and said, “What would you do?” He looked at me and said, “Practice.” I never forgot that, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then.
Here’s a little more music from the last time I had the honor of being in Connie’s presence: on the top deck of the steamboat Natchez, during the 2015 Steamboat Stomp. He’s accompanied by Ray Heitger, clarinet; Tom Saunders, tuba; Neil Unterseher, banjo, singing and playing SUGAR (September 19, 2015):
When Connie moved on, in 2019, at 84, Howard wrote, “He was my friend and teacher. It was a privilege to know him, share time with him, and play music with him. Each day brought joy.”
Although I was only an audience member, I understand this. That joy continues.
May your happiness increase!