Papa Jo Jones

One winter night about four years ago, Scott Fish, my wife, and I went up to the West End Cafe, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Papa Jo Jones was holding down a regular Wednesday night gig— his last steady job. When we walked in, the first set had already begun, and there sat Papa Jo behind the drums, smiling and swinging. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had met Papa Jo a few months before, when Charli Persip had taken me up to Jones’ East Side apartment. The man I met in that apartment was elderly and weak; the man who was playing drums at the West End Cafe looked 20 years younger.

During the next hour, we were treated to a display of everything that made Jo Jones great: the deft hi-hat work, the smooth sound of his brushes, the classic licks, the humor, and most of all, the swing. Even the things that would have sounded corny if someone else had played them sounded right when coming from Jo, probably because he had created them to begin with. At the end of the set, Jo stood up, and through pantomime thanked the audience and gave credit to his sidemen. And then, as the stage lights dimmed, a startling transformation took place: Jo Jones suddenly turned back into a feeble old man who had to be helped off the stage and into a chair.

Born in Chicago on October 7, 1911, Jonathan David Samuel Jones was best known for his work with the Count Basie band from 1934 to 1946. He also worked with Jazz At The Philharmonic, Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Ray Bryant, Milt Buckner, Coleman Hawkins, and his own trio. Jones, more than any other single drummer, paved the way for modern jazz drumming by playing with a smooth 4/4 feel, rather than the two-beat feel that had been standard.

As important as he was as a musician, Jones was also a father figure to other musicians—although his “lessons” were often harsh. Charli Persip tells a typical story: “I first met Mr. Jones in the summer of 1953,” Charli remembers, “and it was quite an experience. I had taken over the drum chair with the Tadd Dameron band, and we were playing in Atlantic City. I looked up one night and there stood Mr. Jones. I was both thrilled and terrified. During this time I was experimenting with two bass drums. After the show, Mr. Jones approached me, and his opening statement was, ‘How can you try to play two drums when it takes a lifetime to master one?’ He went on to criticize other facets of my playing, as he continued to do throughout his life. But I was always thrilled by his criticisms, because for an artist of Mr. Jones’ talent and wisdom to listen to my performance enough to be critical was the greatest of compliments.”

No matter how well people thought they knew Papa Jo, he could still be counted on to surprise them. For example, going back to that night at the West End Cafe, I thought I saw Papa Jo sprinkling salt on his drumheads before using brushes. I recently asked Max Roach if he ever knew of Jones salting his drumheads, and Max roared with laughter. “That old codger,” Max said. “He had more tricks . . . .” Mel Lewis had a similar reaction: “I never saw him do that, but it’s a great idea, isn’t it? When those plastic heads get too smooth, you need something to create a little friction.”

Everyone who knew Jo Jones has a story about him. My favorite comes from Joe Morello, who was on a European tour with Jones during the ’60s. It seems that the tour had been winding its way through Europe for about two weeks. The musicians arrived at an airport in Berlin one morning for an early flight. Everyone was running around trying to find something to eat, but none of the restaurants were open yet. The only person who was unconcerned was Jo Jones, who was sitting on a bench in the middle of the airport, smiling and shaking his head. “The young talent don’t know how to take care of themselves,” he told Morello. With that, Jo opened his trap case and produced a package of fried chicken, wrapped in aluminum foil. As he opened the package, musicians came running. “Jo! Where’d you get that chicken?” they asked. “I brought it from home,” he replied. “But Jo,” they answered, “We’ve been on the road for two weeks! That chicken will have worms.” Jo gave them one of those looks of his. “I put plenty of salt and pepper on this chicken. Ain’t no worms going in there.”

Jo Jones suffered from a series of illnesses over the past few years. Three years ago, he survived a bout with throat cancer, and last year, he spent several months in the hospital with a broken hip. He also had a stroke, followed by pneumonia, in the spring of ’84, but in June ’84, he performed at the Kool Jazz Festival tribute to Count Basie. It was another of those magic performances. As Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice, “Jo, alone on stage, started slow and uncertain. But he was using both arms, even though the left arm had been hanging almost useless since his stroke. Then, his eyes shining, Jo got it together.” In August of this year, Jo was inducted into the International Jazz Hall Of Fame in Kansas City, MO. Two weeks later, on September 3, Jo Jones died.

On the surface, Jo Jones was not the type of person that one would refer to as being “lovable.” But I’m reminded of that line from The Wizard Of Oz: “The size of your heart is not measured by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” Judging by the crowd who showed up at Jo Jones’ funeral, and by what was said that night by musicians, writers, and friends, Jo Jones’ heart was as big as they come. Somehow, no matter how harsh his manner, those on the receiv- ing end of his wrath knew that, if he didn’t care about them, he wouldn’t bother trying to set them straight. Papa is gone now, but the children must continue.