Simply put, jazz drumming eras could arguably be viewed as pre-Papa and post- Papa. Such was the immeasurable contribution of Jo Jones, whose elegant touch, feel, and sound marked a connecting bridge to our modern sense of jazz swing.
Jonathan David Samuel Jones was born in 1911 in Chicago, where he was captivated by the dancers and drummers of vaudeville shows and traveling circuses. By age thirteen, he’d jumped aboard the vaudeville circuit as a singing, dancing, and drumming triple threat. Here, the vivacious performer learned enduring lessons of showmanship.
Through the late ’20s the youngster traveled with Walter Page’s Blue Devils and the Bennie Moten Orchestra. Recording his first sides in 1931 with Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders, Jones was already showing a deft, organic approach to the kit, as opposed to the more clunky “traps” style common in the day.
Joining pianist Count Basie’s band in 1934 in Kansas City, Jones began a long partnership that spawned one of the classic sounds in jazz and ushered in his ascension as one of history’s most influential drummers. Citing the great debt owed to this innovator, Max Roach eulogized at Jones’ funeral, “For every three beats a drummer plays, he owes Joe five. He is the greatest drummer who ever lived.”
In 1937 the Count Basie Orchestra relocated to New York, where Jones further refined his smooth and relaxed yet irresistible pulse. His seamless swing was reinforced by like-minded bandmates Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), and Basie, a unit dubbed the All-American Rhythm Section. The confident, sometimes irascible drummer drove the band with his trademark broad smile, launching the unit to massive success with its dance-hall hits of the ’40s.
Papa Jo is frequently credited for perfecting the transition of the swing-pulse focus from the bass drum to the upper structure of the kit, primarily the hi-hat and sometimes the ride cymbal. Although it’s been argued that he “invented” the modern ride swing feel, other drummers of the day also employed the cymbal focus. But Jones brought an unparalleled smoothness and touch that delivered an even continuum, giving all four pulses equal meaning and defining the modern swing beat.
While other big bands insistently pushed the pulse with a conscious chugging on accented beats, Jones (along with the All- American Rhythm Section) delivered a fluid forward motion with less obvious demarcations of downbeats and barlines. Instead, here was the “effortless” magic carpet ride of four-feel swing. Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis noted, “You heard the time, but it wasn’t a ponderous thing that dictated where the phrases would go.”
Using the cymbal focus, Jones further freed up his bass drum and toms for strategic accents and setups. On many recordings he still employed an all-fours bass drum, but it was played subtly, serving as a subliminal enhancer rather than an obtrusive “definer.”
Above all, Jones’ signature remains his expressive, voice-like hi-hat work. Jo manipulated the rhythmic ebb and flow of the hats, exploring their sweeping, legato possibilities as never before. With the tiny metallic pair, he could masterfully transport an entire big band. As the great Kansas City bandleader Jay McShann observed, “His rhythm was light and natural. It was easy to feel, it got you going…. It was somewhere between tight and loose.”
To hear the amazing command of Jones’ “simple” hihat patterns with Basie, listen to “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), where his spare hits and accents speak volumes. Or check out “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (1938), where, with nary a hit or fill, Jones’ irresistible hats could transform the dourest wallflower into a jitterbugging fiend. Or experience “Cherokee (Parts 1 and 2)” (1939), in which the minimal, infectious open/closed cymbals gradually build the band’s energy through peaks and valleys for six-plus minutes. Jones applied the same concept to brushwork, as heard on “9:20 Special” (1941).
Papa’s powerful minimalism was equally evident in his setup and fill choices. The ultimate example may be the bluesy jazz classic “Goin’ to Chicago” (1941). Setting up the famous brass shout, Jones launches it with a single snare downbeat and then fills the next phrase space with only three cracking 8th notes. The effect is a knockout.
After retiring in 1948 from his long, historic Basie tenure, Jones occasionally reunited for special tribute concerts, including a 1954 Newport Jazz Festival set where he also served as the festival’s house drummer. Late in his career, Jones focused on smaller groups, including a unit he led featuring vibes player Milt Hinton and pianist Joe Bushkin, and a trio with Ray Bryant on piano and Tommy Bryant on bass. He also released several albums as a leader on Everest Records, and in 1955 he reunited with the All-American Rhythm Section on the double LP The Jo Jones Special. In 1957 he toured Europe with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald.
Outside the Basie canon, Jones recorded prolifically, including tracks with Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Art Tatum, Jimmy Rushing, and Red Norvo. His 1976 LP, The Main Man, features an octet including Basie alumni and plenty of dazzling drum solos. And on The Drums (1973), his unique solo love letter to the instrument, the master plays and reminisces about early influences.
Later in life, Jones could still command center stage. Participating in a 1973 Central Park concert featuring an all-star lineup of largely younger drummers, the elder statesman was slated to close the show. He strode upon the stage with only a stool and a hi-hat. Drummer Charli Persip was a witness: “He sat down and proceeded to wipe everybody out…with a hi-hat! It was beautiful.”
Despite battling cancer in the next decade, Jones gigged occasionally and also memorably triumphed at a 1984 Carnegie Hall concert honoring the passing of his beloved Count Basie. The great drummer died in September of the following year.