Catching Up With…
His boss, the sprightly octogenarian singer Tony Bennett, is often described as an ageless talent. The same can be said of the drummer, who’s still burning it up after more than half a century near the top of the jazz heap.
by Bob Girouard
Harold Jones might be known as a legendary jazz drummer who’s worked with icons like Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, and Oscar Peterson, but this is one seventy-five-year-old who lives and plays in the now. Lately Jones has been touring with the iconic Tony Bennett and pop sensation Lady Gaga, including the delightful duo’s string of sold-out shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Jones’ energy is impressive; when asked about his next break from working, his reply is, “Break? My schedule with Tony is full. We’ve got forty new dates [booked], including three weeks in Europe that will take us clear into 2016. My golf game’s gonna suffer, but I’ll make do!”
In reality, we shouldn’t be surprised by Jones’ easy attitude toward a seemingly endless workload. The Richmond, Indiana, native’s first major gig was with famed guitarist Wes Montgomery in 1956, and he’s never stopped performing since. A 1961 move to Chicago proved pivotal when Jones hooked up with Eddie Harris and played on the saxophonist’s Exodus to Jazz, the first jazz LP to sell a million units. Jones’ own life-changing experience came in 1967, when his predecessor in Count Basie’s band, Rufus “Speedy” Jones, accepted
an extended tour of the Soviet Union with Duke Ellington. “I came up with a trombonist, Harlan Floyd, who was playing in the Basie band at the time,” Jones recalls, “and he recommended me because I could read. Those years with Basie remain some of the greatest in my life.”
Since then, Jones has backed a bevy of giants, including Paul Winter, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, B.B. King, Natalie Cole, and, of course, Bennett, with whom the drummer has been a permanent fixture since 2004. And, remarkably, Jones seems to have lost none of his fire. On 2014’s Grammy-winning Bennett/Gaga release, Cheek to Cheek, he’s swingin’ like crazy—kicking the rhythms, punching the horn lines against the melodies, and showing flawless support on sticks and brushes.
“The reason I can still do this at my age,” Harold says, “is because Tony treats all his musicians with respect and dignity. When you join him, you’re part of his extended family. Everything from travel to hotels, and naturally the venues, is all top notch.”
In 2013, Jones penned his memoirs with the help of friends Gil Jacobs and Joe Agro. Harold Jones: The Singer’s Drummer is chock full of celebrity remembrances, humorous anecdotes, and quotable quotes, not to mention a serious amount of jazz history. With his long résumé and the rare ability to discuss how music at the highest levels of popularity has changed, the drummer is in the perfect position to offer sage advice to players a quarter his age: “Be prepared” is his first suggestion. “I learned to read music before owning my first drumset. And listen to the singers—don’t step on their words or the music. Finally, treat those around you as you would like to be treated.”