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
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’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.