I’ve never before seen a YouTube video promoting a book, but if any book deserved one, it would be RIFFTIDE: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF PAPA JO JONES (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), edited and compiled by Paul Devlin from taped conversations that drummer and raconteur Jo Jones had with writer Albert Murray:
Like its subject, RIFFTIDE is simultaneously enthralling, elusive, irritating, and unsettling. Jones (1910-85) was a great innovator and an equally great synthesizer of percussion technique, someone who understood that the drummer could liberate both himself and the band by rethinking jazz rhythm, by creating a flow rather than a series of demarcations. Although Henderson drummer Walter Johnson was working towards similar goals, Jones’ great sound was that of the floating, whispering hi-hat cymbal, carrying any band forward and upwards — but most especially the Count Basie band in its most glorious years. Behind the drums, at his best, he was both Loki and Dionysus — unpredictable, boyish, shape-changing, his sound always right. Away from the drums he was someone else, a monologist who rarely let his listeners know the plot of his play.
Jo Jones would have been furious if described as “normal.” That condescending description was for the “nine-to-fivers.” A self-described “nut,” he was a cosmos unto himself: elliptical, often enraged in conversation, given to diatribes that served to push most listeners away, the result seeming at best irritating, at worst irrational. (On that score, many have theorized that Jones’ behavior was the result of syphilis contracted early and not entirely cured.)
In the Seventies and early Eighties, Jones was eager to get his stories on paper, and he spoke to (rarely “with”) the African-American scholar Albert Murray, while Murray was working on another “as told to” book, the unsuccessful autobiography of Count Basie, GOOD MORNING BLUES. (Either Basie was too modest or he didn’t entirely trust Murray; the real stories went with Basie to the grave.) The tapes of Jones’s “autobiography” came to Devlin when Murray was too ill to edit and transcribe them, although the two men discussed what Devlin had come up with.
RIFFTIDE is made up of several short parts: an informal essay by Devlin, part reminiscence, part explanation of his editorial method, part graduate-school essay on Jones. What closes the book is a more effective (although cliché-ridden) twenty-two page essay by Phil Schaap, who knew Jones for the last thirty years of Jones’ life. Those two sections contain some fascinating information: Devlin’s comments on editing the tapes reveal much about Jones, although I wished Devlin had been willing to incorporate the stories Jones categorized as “private stock” to Murray. Schaap’s section is characteristically windy, he was a first-hand observer and participant: for example, musicians as mild-mannered as Buddy Tate and Doc Cheatham refused to ride in cars with Jones; Cheatham going so far as to purchase a small car because it would make it impossible to have Jo as a passenger. The book closes with useful footnotes and rare photographs.
The center of this paperback is, of course, Jones’ recollections, rants, enthusiasms, stories, anecdotes, score-settling . . . fervent yet digressive. I’m not sure if Jo was at this stage unable or unwilling to narrate a conventional autobiography in chronological sequence. I think his mind went in violently associative ways, so that everything reminded him of something or someone else he couldn’t bear to leave out. Early on in RIFFTIDE I felt as if I had signed on for an often airless monologue by someone with great energies and purposes known only to himself.
That, however, is the beauty of RIFFTIDE: Jo spoke at me several times in this period, when I met him at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop or asked for an autograph or the like, and the book captures those experiences. One listened while he spoke; one did not converse or attempt to direct the flow of conversation. The book is most readable in Jones’ brief portraits of people he knew, liked, or detested as fraudulent. He praises Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, the Harlem Globetrotters, Louis Bellson, his colleagues in the Basie band, the jockey Isaac Murphy, Bill Robinson, violinist Claude Williams, Basie’s manager Maceo Birch; scorns James Baldwin and John Hammond (the latter is a “R.P.P.,” a “Racist Prejudiced Prick”), is ambivalent about Count Basie in the present.
Here is a brief sample of his voice, digressive, oratorical: “Take me forty-something years to earn my keep. I’m fifty-six years in show business. I have earned my keep. There won’t be but two people in the United States can tell you. Now ask the president of France. I got my picture with the president of France. You know what I’m saying? But I’m into something heavy. Like when I go down with Grace Kelly; she’s got Josephine Baker’s thirteen children! I’m with the policeman that held the umbrella overhead when they’re dispossessing her. See, I’m kinda odd out here. I sleep with my door unlocked: me and my Bible. My friend comes in, she locks the door. I’ve never locked my door in fifty-six years. Everybody understands how I play: I play free. I’m not afraid of a living person. I fear God: I got four hundred religions and five hundred cults. There are two people that give me strength: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.”
These excerpts and portraits are both elusive and invaluable: as close to hearing Jo Jones as most will ever come. If at times I thought I had wandered into a Beckett play or reborn into a Browning dramatic monologue, that was the feeling that an encounter with Jo in the flesh created.
We are lucky to have RIFFTIDE, although its fragmentary nature makes me wish that a more comprehensive oral history had been taken and made accessible while Jones was eager and able to tell his stories.
For those who wish to read about my own encounters with the great man, here is SMILING JO JONES: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/smiling-jo-jones/ — complete with the photograph I took of Papa Jo in action at the West End Cafe in New York City, circa 1981.