I’m always intrigued yet sometimes puzzled by the waves of interest in jazz figures that I can discern in the searchers who find this blog. I’m thrilled to know that somewhere, people yearn to know more about the obscure, “al drootin,” or “bernard addison.”
But often the curiosity (as tabulated by search engine visits) has been both odd and sad. It feels as if unknown people want badly to put large figures into tiny labeled boxes.
I note with discomfort the morbidly voyeuristic fascination with Billie Holiday unrelated to her music, as documented in many inquiries about her last husband, Louis McKay, about heroin (some searchers have gotten the threads tangled and search for “ella fitzgerald heroin death”), as well as “billy holiday nude” and “how much did billie holiday weigh,” which I find both inexplicable and painful.
More recently, I’ve noted a consistent fascination with Jo Jones. That in itself would cheer me up, but it seems to grow out of one legend connecting Jo — disdainful, furious — with a youthful and unprepared Charlie Parker. I wrote about that incident in 2011 here. (Do people still take Clint Eastwood’s BIRD, where this incident is a repeated narrative thread, as an accurate historical record?)
I saw and heard Jo Jones often in person between 1971 and 1982, and although he was not a predictable individual, what I remember about him is more than the potential for violence, as I have written here.
Jazz enthusiasts and makers of myth apparently need to simplify; they take pleasure in flattening out complex individuals into single iconic gestures, as if making plastic action figures out of them. I imagine a series of dolls sold at giant toy store. Buy them. Trade them. Collect the set! Here’s Billie Holiday with a needle in her arm or knocked to the ground by her man. A plastic Louis Armstrong grins and sweats. In another box, Miles Davis scorns the audience. Count Basie strikes a single note. Duke Ellington, in an electric-blue suit, woos a woman.
And now, Jo Jones imperiously humiliating Charlie Parker — complete with tiny gold cymbal flying through the air as if to decapitate the boy who has presumed to enter the world of men.
The Jo Jones I experienced was part mannered exhibitionist, a complete commedia dell’arte troupe in himself, grinning, gesticulating, insisting on playing eleven-minute solo spectacles, demanding our sustained attention.
And then there was the unpredictable deity who commanded the ocean, summoning cosmic rhythms. His outward appearance — someone you could see on the subway, the compact balding man wearing short trousers that revealed white socks — was only a guise put on so that he could pass among mortals.
Hear him with his peers Emmett Berry, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and that same Count, playing SHOE SHINE BOY:
The sounds Jo creates — I use the present tense intentionally — will outlast any concocted myths, searchers and search engines.
And if future cosmologists discover that the Basie rhythm section was and is really the music that animates the universe, it would explain the durability of this cosmos that some people have tried so hard to destroy.
May your happiness increase!