The drumming community was saddened to learn that jazz great Philly Joe Jones died of a heart attack on August 30, at the age of 62. In recent months, he had been working with vibist Bobby Hutcherson, and with his own group Dameronia.
Joseph Rudolph Jones was born in Philadelphia, PA, on July 15, 1923. He began piano lessons at an early age, but his real love was for the drums. At the age of 15, Jones would sneak into a club to listen to a local drummer named James “Coatesville” Harris, the man who first taught Jones the mechanics of drumming. Jones entered the army at age 16, and although he wasn’t able to pursue formal study during that time, he occasionally had the chance to sit in with army bands. When he got out of the service, Joe took a job in Philadelphia as a streetcar conductor, and with the money he made at that job he bought his first set of drums.
Jones spent a few months practicing, and then began working with a band at night. During this time, he met such drummers as Max Roach and Art Blakey, who would ride with Jones on the streetcar during the day. He began making trips to New York to study with Max Roach, and also spent time working with Sid Catlett, who helped Jones with his brush playing. Kenny Clarke was another important drummer who befriended Jones.
In 1947, on the advice of Roach and Blakey, Jones moved to New York. But the next couple of years were spent primarily on the road with rhythm & blues bands led by such people as Joe Morris and Bull Moose Jackson. In the early ’50s, Jones decided to stay in New York and freelance. One of the gigs he took was with Tony Scott, who would introduce his drummer by saying, “This is the Joe Jones from Philly,” in order to avoid confusion with Jo Jones, who was known for his work in the Basie band. Eventually, Joe requested that Scott refer to him as Philly Joe Jones, and he subsequently had his name legally changed.
Philly Joe then began getting some big band work, first with Tadd Dameron— who left a strong impression on Jones— and then with Buddy Rich, during a period when Rich was fronting his band as a singer. Rich would play a feature drum solo each night, but Jones would play the rest of the show. In order to get his reading ability up to par, Jones began to study with Cozy Cole. During this same period, Jones became the house drummer for Prestige Records, and became one of the most-recorded drummers in New York.
In 1954, Jones joined the Miles Davis group. In a 1982 MD interview, Jones referred to that gig as “my greatest experience in the music business.” It was no secret that Jones was Miles’ favorite drummer, and stories are told of Davis telling other drummers, “Try to play like Philly Joe.” Jones was with the Davis group off and on for the next several years, and they recorded a number of classic albums, including Milestones and Round About Midnight.
After leaving Davis, Philly led his own group, and continued to record and perform with a variety of jazz artists. He moved to London in 1967, and then to Paris in ’69, where he taught at Kenny Clarke’s drum school. He returned to Philadelphia in ’72, and alternated between leading his own groups and working for other leaders, notably pianist Bill Evans. In 1983, Philly Joe assembled a group called Dameronia, dedicated to playing the music of Tadd Dameron. The group released two albums, both of which were praised by the critics.
In 1962, Leonard Feather suggested that Philly Joe “may well be the most controversial drummer in the history of jazz.” He was often criticized for overpowering the rest of the rhythm section, yet no one could deny his sense of swing and his ability to handle complex rhythms. Philly was also an acknowledged master of brush playing, and he even authored a book on the subject. In addition, Philly was an active teacher, and his students included such notables as Mel Brown and Andrew Cyrille. Perhaps Joe’s interest in teaching came from his own attitude, which he expressed in a 1982 interview: “I’ve never been too proud to ask. Even today, if I see a young drummer do something, I’ll say, ‘Man, do that again. Let me see that.’ I learn by doing that. If you get such a big head that you think you’re the greatest, then something is wrong with you. There is always somebody for you to learn from.” A lot of people learned from Philly Joe Jones, and through his recordings, his teaching will continue.