“I don’t waste time,” Papa Jo says, the words snapping upside my head like a malevolent rimshot, the eyes bugging out and his voice becoming as hard and sharp as flint. “Time is too precious. Sheeeeeetttt. I’ve never wasted time in my life for one day. In my whole life I do not waste time. I’m too busy. I’ve put too much out here. I didn’t hold nothing back. I sleep with my door open, me and my Bible. I never done nothin’ to nobody in my life. I never been to jail. Only smart people go to jail. I’m too ignorant. I keep time with the drums. I don’t have no damn clock. See, there are three things that’ll drive you up the wall: a clock, a watch and a calendar. Goddamnnnnn! What time is it? What time is it? What time is it? What difference does it make? It’s the same day it was last year.”
I try to direct the flow of Papa Jo’s stream of consciousness, but that’s a mistake, and only succeeds in bringing him up to full froth. “There you go Chip, anticipating. I’m going to tell you one more time: Don’t anticipate me, because you don’t know one damn thing about me. Don’t play games with me. I’m no comedian—I take my life seriously. Put another man up against the wall with me. He can’t match me—he ain’t shit. No drummer ever had what I had—my coordination, my reflexes, my background. Nobody can say a word about me in the whole world I’ve traveled. Places I’ve wanted to go, I went. Places I didn’t, I wouldn’t and nobody could make me. I’ve played with everybody I wanted to play with—thems I didn’t, I wouldn’t.” His mood softens for a second and he becomes reflective. “Man, I’ve had some grand times, some grand times with all the peoples I’ve met.”
Yes siree, Pops. Jonathan David Samuel Jones is up ‘n’ at ’em again, and that’s cause for celebration among drummers of all generations, because at 73, Jo Jones has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about the drums. He is Old Man River, Father Time, the benchmark against which all other drummers must be judged. He is coarse; he is elegant. He is as cold-blooded as they come, and as warm and considerate as anyone you’ll ever meet. He is a web of contradictions, yet as consistent as the morning sunrise. “I don’t lie,” he insists. “I only lied twice in my life. First time was to my mother. She said, ‘Son, you don’t have to lie to me.’ Now I’m living a lie.”
What does he mean by that? Good question, and like so many others one would pose to Jo Jones, answers aren’t readily forthcoming. Papa Jo exists on the level of folklore, myth and parable; the cracker-barrel philosopher; teller of tall tales; venerable keeper of our oral traditions. An irascible old salt of a man: “The type of fellow you’d be seriously worried about if he wasn’t being salty,” as one young drummer explained to his girlfriend at a recent tribute to Papa Jo. And sure enough, like the first blossoms of spring, nothing is more hopeful a sign than the fact that Papa Jo is fussin’ and cussin’, spittin’ brimstone, kickin’ ass and taking names. Not for nothing were his most recent performing ensembles dubbed Jo Jones & Enemies. “I think it’s cute the way he yells at all his musicians,” my daughter Jennifer giggled during one of his sets at Manhattan’s West End Cafe. “I guess the musicians don’t think it’s too cute, but I think he’s funny.”
“When I say someone ain’t shit,” Papa Jo asserts, “I know who is chicken salad, and who is chicken shit. Musicians spend too much time reading their write ups and playing their records. Maybe they should try playing their write ups and reading their records,” he adds, chuckling at one of his favorite jokes. “You can see it in their attitudes up on the bandstand. You see, music is my mistress—that’s what controls me. I never put nobody living or dead in front of my music. I have to play to keep alive. I have to. I don’t know about nobody else—they’re afraid to live but they’re not afraid to die. Unn uhh . . . they’re going to have to come to get me.”
It’s good to hear Jo talking like that again, especially after the harrowing events of 1983, when he faced off death once again. As Jo recalls his first brush with death in the late ’70s: “My two best friends died. First Frank Ippolito [of the Professional Percussion Center], then Milt Buckner [the great pianist and organist, and Jo’s musical partner through much of the ’60s and ’70s], and off of those negative emotions I got cancer.” But he licked it, or so it seemed when he made a walk-on appearance at a Dizzy Gillespie Dreamband concert, and amazingly enough began playing again at the West End in 1981. It’s difficult to convey the intensity of those appearances; to fully depict the power and grace of his drumming, the sheer courage and will of the man. “I can’t make any fast moves,” he confessed, “only slow moves,” but when he sat behind his drums, you could feel his mastery, while experiencing Jo’s long-lost world of sand dancers, magicians, slapstick comedians, chorus girls, blues singers and nomadic musical gladiators. One marveled at his heroic fanfares on “Caravan,” as he bore witness to everything he’d lived, and everything he hoped to live. Up there on that bandstand, Papa Jo looked 30 years younger and as benign as Father Time.
Yet Jo Jones could barely walk off the stand. His steps were slow and halting, his knees would not bend, and he had to be helped to his seat. More telling was the readily perceptible shaking on his left side, the ever present hint of pain. You could ask anyone who was there—no one could understand how he had played at all, let alone how he had played so commandingly. Jo Jones was drawing upon some sort of extraordinary spiritual reserve, but with each succeeding gig you could feel the clock running down. How long could it last?
When Jo Jones returned from seeing his doctors in France this past February, he was tired, broke, and alone. A 1982 fire in his apartment had destroyed most of his prized possessions and momentos. “I’m through with the drums,” he insisted. “Who’m I gonna play with? They all dead. There ain’t gonna be another Walter Page. There ain’t gonna be another Lester Young. There ain’t gonna be another Milt Buckner. You’ll never hear music like that again. It’s gone.”
But what was really gone? “I’m over here,” he revealed, “but people that slept in my bed, ate my food—steaks, chops and chicken—spent my money . . . wore my clothes, used my drums, my everything, don’t even call up to see how I’m feeling. That’s okay,” he sighed, “I’ll meet them in heaven. Oh well.” But never a word about the pain—too old, too proud, too tough, and sometimes, too much. To know Jo Jones you have to pay your dues.
“Have you ever heard that expression, ‘Who have seen the wind, neither you nor I’?” Jo asked me. I drew a blank. “No, Chip,” Jo smiled, “you don’t know what I mean—you ain’t never done that kind of living in your life.”
This attitude, in part, should give a clue as to what sets Jo Jones apart from the trap players we’re used to reading about in these pages, and some sense of what it is that animates Jo Jones. The same contradictions that make up Jo Jones the man are part and parcel of what makes for Jo Jones the drum stylist. Not technical considerations; not the brand of equipment he plays. A lot of living. “You see, I’m playing people that I’ve met, places that I’ve been, things that I’ve seen. I’m playing expressions, slang, and you don’t even know what I’m saying. You don’t know what we playin’. How could you? You had to be there. I don’t know about all that technical shit. First time I met Mr. Ellington I went to one of his rehearsals, and I heard him say to the band ‘Tutti Frutti.’ I went to the drug store and got me a pint of tutti-frutti ice cream. Ha. I didn’t know what he was saying. I didn’t know nothin’ about them I-Talian expressions.”
But for drummers the world over, Jo Jones’ trademark is more than beats, rhythms and insider’s code words. It is a sound—the man who plays like the wind. While other great drummers of the ’20s and ’30s were painting pictures of fire and earth, Jo Jones depicted light and sky. Going beyond the tick-tick-tick of a clock, he discovered the space between the beats where time is not so much counted as felt, as epitomized by his flowing hi-hat pulse—a graceful, witty choreography of time, motion, dynamics and color that could cushion or cajole a soloist; each accent, pause and non-sequitur mirrored in his infectious smile and elegant body language. “People are always looking to connect me with other drummers,” he told me years ago. “I’ve listened to all the drummers, but [Charlie] Chaplin was an influence on me,” he concluded with a regal tilt of his eyebrows.
Even more remarkable is his distinctive sense of touch and nuance, which owes more to a dancer’s steps than to any primal, armflailing display of force. His soloing and accompaniment have always been cyclical, thematic and as melodic as any song. “You know why,” Jo explains, “because when you play in all those territorial bands, they might call on you to sing tonight, and me to sing tomorrow. All I play is melody. Years ago, when you got on a show, they would advertise, ‘The Drum mer: He can sing; he can dance.’ The drummer could sit with the megaphone and be the vocalist—I was the first one to sing ‘All Of Me’ on the radio. But you had to know the words. They wouldn’t let you play on no songs where you didn’t know the words.”
In short, Jo Jones grew up not merely as a drummer, but as an all-around entertainer, back in an era when radio and records were new innovations, just beginning to take hold. He brought these experiences to Kansas City in the ’30s, at a time when that town was a wide open party-town full of nightclubs, gambling dens, bordellos and all-night jam sessions; a creative cauldron of swing and dance beats. When he performed with pianist Count Basie, bassist Walter Page, and guitarist Freddie Greene, Jo Jones was the percussive force behind the All-American Rhythm Section; a sound so subtle and insinuating that it’s entered the collective subconscious of every contemporary rhythm player, whether they’re aware of it or not. To be sure, it’s almost impossible to play piano, bass, guitar or drums’ without referring to some of their individual or collective innovations.
“If I explained it once, I’ve explained it a thousand times, and people still don’t get the message,” Jo said with palpable irritation. “Before Basie you had a horn section, and you had a brass section, but there’d never been a rhythm section, see. Cats used to go off North, South, East and West, but we went one way. When Freddie Greene joined us, Walter Page asked him, ‘Where you going? It don’t go like that—it goes this way. One way.’ There’s never been a bassist like Mr. Walter Page. He could make any pianist go his way; just pull him along. He used to play with his back to Basie. Years later we did something with Mr. Teddy Wilson and he told me, ‘I see what you mean.’ And Basie wasn’t back there pounding. Unn uhh. You had to really put your antennae up to hear him. You had to work to listen. We never did play with the band—we played with each other, spiritually and mentally—and even if everyone else was down, there was always one of us who could hold it all together.”
Never in American musical history did any rhythm section create so much heat with so little wasted motion—an effortless kind of cruise control. Walter Page’s bass was the trunk and Freddie Greene’s brush-like strumming was the rustling of the leaves, as Basie skittered in and out of their beat in a cat and mouse exchange with Jones’ understated yet indomitable pulse. In air checks from the ’30s, you can already hear Jones “dropping bombs,” as it came to be known, moving beyond pure timekeeping into the realm of melodic free association and off-beat syncopations. In his melodic dialogues with the great tenorist Lester Young, you could hear the roots of bebop and modern jazz in the making; and when he tore into a hip-grinding break with Young’s spiritual brother (and stylistic opposite), tenorist Hershel Evans, you could hear the birth of modern R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the making. Of course, Jo Jones and his fellow pioneers of American music never called it anything but their music— making a gift of it to an entire planet. “Blues music,” Papa Jo allows, “that’s the only kind of music I know how to play. And you know, for all the pain and problems we endured being black men in America,” he reiterated, “we really had some wonderful times. We accomplished so much, and now it’s all out here for the little kiddies. It’s their turn now.”
And so it seemed as if it were all over, and Jo Jones would never play again. But something happened in the hospital that helped Jo Jones find his will anew; a combination of pride, anger and love. The doctors and nurses had given up on Papa Jo, but he wouldn’t cop to the tremors passing through his body. Somewhere deep down he was reaching for something, and he found it in resentment for the hospital, in the pride of knowing that he was “Jo Jones, mister!” He also found it in the visits of old friends like Sam Ulano and Max Roach; the outpouring of love at his Swing Plaza tribute; the support of people like Bill Cosby and George Wein; and the comfort of knowing that all the people who wrote and called him through Jack DeJohnette’s Modern Drummer appeal were on his side, through thick and thin, and wanted him to hang around just a little while longer. Papa Jo felt the love, and what other way was there for him to acknowledge it except to take a few more bows? Who knows what forces drive Jo Jones? No one can say with any certainty, but like a great prize fighter, he was once again in training to take back the crown; his limbs fleshing out and his tongue becoming sharp and cutting. “I don’t want to know nothing about a drum or a woman until I’m 90,” he’s said, and perhaps, I suggested, he was preparing to attain that goal. Jo eyed me once again for a straight man, in between bites of a Hershey Bar, slyly sneaking a glimpse at the drums and cymbals in the next room from his rocking
“How’m I gonna play anything for anybody when I been dead for 20 years? Do you believe in ghosts? If you didn’t catch me during the ’30s, you missed it.”
The old man had caught me flat-footed again, and he relished the quizzical look on my face. “Sounds like my cue to go,” I thought. “Take care and say your prayers young talent.” Good night Papa Jo.
Jo Jones is a complex figure, to put it mildly. Many have been stung by his acid tongue, but many more have been helped by his guidance, generosity and advice, which he gives freely to anyone who’ll listen—whether they asked for it or not. One long-time observer of the jazz scene recalled an incident at Birdland with some merriment. “Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones were trying to sneak off the bandstand to avoid Jo, who had some sort of lesson he wanted to convey to them,” he chuckled, “but they might just as well have been trying to avoid the Ancient Mariner. They were just getting off, but Jo was already there fussing—and he had his finger out.”
Others recall how he took them under his wing and looked out for them when they first came to New York. Ronald Shannon Jackson told me that, “Jo had heard me play and I had all this raggedy equipment. He made a point of taking me up to the Zildjian factory, not once, but twice, just to make sure that I had some good cymbals to play on. I don’t know if he even remembers, but I sure do.” Still others have been the beneficiaries of gigs, introductions, musical suggestions and parables (the meaning of which might only become clear years after the fact). In a sense, Jo is simply trying to convey the kind of fatherly direction and no-nonsense experience he received at the knees of his elders as a young man. That kind of environment no longer exists for young players trying to become musicians. “Experience is based on mistakes,” he concludes, “and I wish it was in my power to just reach in my pocket and say ‘here.’ But it’s impossible. Look at all the people I’ve rubbed elbows with. It took a whole lot of helping and hard knocks to make me what I am, and I myself am really hundreds of people— peoples that I’ve met. Where are kids today going to get the kind of apprenticeship I had, to play the kind of places I’ve been? They destroyed all the continuity from generation to generation during World War II when they took away the dance floors. It’s like trying to go from the sandlots to the major leagues. You’ve got to work your way up.
“Let me tell you about a special gentleman, Mr. Freddie Moore. When you hear Freddie Moore, you’re hearing drums, mister. It took me 30 years to be able to walk up to him and say hello. I saw him as a kid, but I wasn’t in that league. I couldn’t stay up that late at night. I couldn’t go where he went. But when we came to New York, he was next door to the Woodside, and he was the most gracious man. When a strange musician came to New York, the first thing Freddie would say was, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ And he’d take you out to the kitchen and sit you down. Not to the bar; he didn’t get you a drink. To the kitchen! ‘Where are you staying? Do you need any money?’ They don’t make those kinds of peoples anymore.”
Taking that story as a cue, it’s clear that Papa Jo is trying, and always has tried, to convey that kind of help to “young talent” on the way up, to ease the transistion and help them avoid pitfalls. A host of remarkable black men and women helped shape Jo Jones’ character and talent back in the days when virulent racism and ignorance denied African-Americans the chance to strut their stuff. But they did anyway. Jo strains to convey and remember that time and those people. He remembers the oral tradition. He bears the lessons. He also bears the scars.
For Jonathan David Samuel Jones—born October 7, 1911 in Chicago, Illinois, to Samuel and Elizabeth Jones—there existed not only the burden of racism’s ugly cultural legacy, but the mark of an affliction which robbed him of his youth, and which in a lesser man might very well have pre-empted any sort of productive life, let alone a creative one. But Jo Jones fought back from a crippling accident with courage, grace and style.
“I was very young,” Jo recalls. “I elected to try to copy one of my uncles lighting a cigar from a fire with a newspaper, and I had a terrific burn that left me an invalid for a year and a half. I had to crawl before I could walk again, and they didn’t know anything about burns at that particular time. They changed two doctors at the time, and I can remember my father bringing me silver dollars and laying them in the bed. He also brought me a ukulele. I’ll never forget that ukulele. I was burned from head to foot on my right side. It was very hazy for me coming out of my affliction and trying to get myself together. It took me until I was 16 or 17 years old to come out of this affliction.”
Jo’s father was a remarkable man, and for Samuel Jones and his family (including Jo’s sister, Lillian), the nature of his work was such that they found themselves moving all over the country, living in many places. This is how Jo eventually found himself in Alabama.
Jo’s recollections of this period are somewhat hazy, but it was somewhere around the time of his accident that he made his first real spiritual connection with music. “I had an aunt on my mother’s side of the family who I always referred to as Sister Mattie because she had a twin. She took me, at the time of my convalescing, to hear the Ringling Brothers Circus. I must have been about five or six or seven years old. I heard—I felt—this bass drum. This was Mr. Emil Helmicke, the greatest bass drum player that ever lived. Later on he played with the Goldman band up in Central Park, and he was the highest paid man in the band. The last time I saw him he was 86 years old, and I used to always go to see him after the concerts—bring him some beer, you know. I brought all the drummers up to hear him. I brought Max Roach. I brought Art Blakey. I brought Joe Harris. Just playing the bass drum, he could get eight different notes out of it. He was one of a kind. I remember that bass drum hit my stomach and I never relinquished that feeling. That was my indoctrination to music. I couldn’t keep still. My Aunt Mattie held me in her arms. That’s when she bought me a snare drum.”
In Birmingham, Alabama, Jo studied at a black school called the Tuggle Institute. “When I came out of the Tuggle Institute, I was going to play trumpet. A fellow named George Hudson, who later went into St. Louis and played with Jeter Pillars, was teaching me to play. Later on, after I grew up, I played in the band with him. So I started on trumpet, I tried to play the sax, and I tried to play the piano. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“Somehow or other I wound up at the A&M Institute in Huntsville, Alabama. Right on the outskirts, four miles away, is a place called Normal, Alabama. At that time, one of the foremost cornetists in the whole world was there. His name was James H. Wilson, and he was the only one that could play the cadenza of a tune called “Salute Polka.” That’s when I began to get my musical education. When I went into the band room and he put up “Poet and Peasant,” it took me two months to get back into the room. I didn’t know nothing about a half note or less.
“Mr. Wilson was the one who told me about Louis Armstrong. I said, ‘Who is Louis Armstrong?’ I had a distant cousin that took me back to Chicago. I went to see Mr. Armstrong playing with Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theatre with that trumpet with the spotlight on him—I quickly gave up the trumpet. Then I was going to play saxophone and here comes Coleman Hawkins, so I forgot it. I switched to piano. Then years later, in Omaha, Nebraska, here comes Art Tatum. So much for piano.”
In fact, though, Jo Jones might have been found performing on any or all of these instruments through the latter ’20s, as well as vibes, chimes and timpani. He was also involved in singing, dancing and dramatics in the company of some of the great all-around entertainers of that period.
“I didn’t think I was going to end up as a drummer. I was playing all these instruments, but I was playing drums on all of them. Then I found out that the drummer was the highest paid man in the band. I don’t know why all these guys jump on the drums and think it’s the easiest way out. Sheeeet. When I first met Mr. Wilson Driver [one of the first jazz drummers to come out of Birmingham], he had a set of drums, a xylophone and a cornet, and he could teach the whole thing. Same with Jimmy King. You know how many instruments Benny Carter plays? To be in Lawrence Welk’s band you had to play at least six instruments, mister. The drummer had to know as much music as the conductor. I took all of that and put it on the drums.
“How did I learn the music? I learned it. I earned it. I mowed lawns. I did all sorts of chores. In 1923 I met Butterbeans & Suzie. I was running errands and getting their food at the Prolic Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama. And then I went to the music teacher, and while he gave lessons, I sat there and listened.
“I always hung out with older, experienced people—I never hung out with no one my age. In my formative years, having as a kid dabbled around in shows . . . in Chautauqua shows, in medicine shows, in carnivals and circuses and little girlie shows and what have you, I was in an advantage to travel. And when I came out in show biz, there weren’t nobody flying no oceans but Lindbergh, and now they think it’s a rough trip to fly to California. When you joined a show, you had to be recommended from your minister or rabbi or somebody, and you had to be 25 years old before you drank alcohol. You just didn’t go into no nightclub. But at the same time, that way we were juveniles and you started in show business young . . . I’ve only known Buddy Rich since he was six. But you had a whole lot of fathers and uncles and mothers out here, you see, and that’s what was so remarkable about it. I do remember that we were connected with peoples that had foreign intrigue. These people— Hungarians, Lithuanians, trapeze artists and what-have-you—they taught us how to eat, how to think, they taught us personal hygiene. They taught us moral and civil discipline. At that time, musicians and baseball players couldn’t stay at the best hotels. It had nothing to do with color. It was just the way you were identified. ‘You’re a musician? What? You’re in a carnival? Out!’ Because at that time the Billboard had a thing called the blacklist. If you picked up that issue and saw your name on the blacklist, that meant you were grounded for a year. It was impossible for you to get a job shining shoes on the Sahara Desert.
“During these periods in different parts and places I’ve been, when the show got stranded in a certain area—Chattanooga, Louisville, Paducah or whatever—they’d come over from those madhouses and say to me, ‘You come over and play in this band.’ They knew me as Jo. I’d come in and play with those bands. I didn’t know nothing about white and colored. I just thought it was music, just so nobody don’t bother my drums. I knew where I stood. Sometimes they didn’t even have a set of drums. I’d borrow a snare and a bass drum, and use a coat hanger for a cymbal holder; I had a coat hanger, a foot pedal and a pair of sock cymbals. And these guys were musicians. I didn’t know nothing about colored and white until I was 19 or 20.
”I remember seeing a black woman in South Alabama out on roller skates all by herself on a rink where she didn’t have no business being. She was wonderful, and I was watching her when this white man turned to me and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I didn’t. He said, ‘That’s Miss Bessie Smith.’ Can you imagine that? A white man in Alabama calling a black woman Miss. I couldn’t believe it. Bessie Smith, mister! Do you know who was the first jazz band to play Carneige Hall? Not Benny Goodman. James Reece Europe—a black man.”
After covering the United States several times over, Jo Jones found himself in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1930 (with Skeet Morgan and R.C. Hicks and their Dixie Ramblers). For the next four years, up until the time he went to Kansas City, he got his seminal experience playing with territory bands on the circuit extending from Texas up through Canada. “Trouble was,” he bellows, “everywhere I went and tried to get into a band, the bandleader would say, ‘Son, are you married?’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m not married; I’m not marrying nobody.’ He’d say, ‘You have to be married to be in this band.’ Everywhere I turned there were people telling me I had to be married. So finally, after making six feeble attempts in two months, I married! I married on June 23, 1933. Vivian Greenne, the daughter of a minister,” he smiled, drifting back with the recollection. “I begged the girl. I said, ‘Will you do me a favor?’ ‘What?’ ‘Just marry me.’
“All those guys could read music; not like the boys in Kansas City. At that time, no one could out-read these guys in Omaha. See, when I joined the union, I had to take a test. They sat me down and the first thing they put in front of me was a march called ‘Chicago Tribune.’ I tore that son-of-a-gun up, and that’s how I got my card. Other than that they wouldn’t have given me a card. They didn’t have no ‘ooof goof musicians.
“In Omaha, when I found a piano player who was limpid, I’d go and push him off the job. But here would come some hobo who would push me off the job. So I’d go around the corner and find me a weak drummer and push him off the job. And here would come another drummer who would push me off the job. Then I met the greatest drummer who ever lived, who made me what I am today, a fellow by the name of Manzie Campbell, who played with the Siles Green show. He could take one stick and roll ten blocks with a field drum, just with one hand. He could make a roll that was like tissue paper.
“I was Chicken Little. I was smarter than they were. Don’t tell me nothing. Now I have met people that traveled the whole world. They’ve been everywhere, and they tried to tell me, but I knew. Mr. Manzie Campbell told me how to learn to play drums, because I was trying to emulate the popular drummers in the territory I was in, and as far as I was concerned, this was my world. When I got to Omaha, Nebraska, I had made it. I wasn’t going to go nowhere. Years later I did a faux pas. I made a boo boo. I did something wrong and this man, Manzie Campbell, came up and sat down at the drums where I was playing and he said, ‘Son, you might go far. Don’t make this mistake no more.’ ”
During this period Jo had occasion to make his first recording with Lloyd Hunter’s serenaders in Chicago in June of 1931, for Vocalion, producing the titles “Sensational Mood” and “Dreaming ‘Bout My Man” (with Victoria Spivey). These recordings stand as the very first examples of a drummer making melodic, syncopated use of tom-toms on record (although Gene Krupa had used toms on his recording of “Dinah” with Red Nichols in 1929, he was still using them primarily for playing time, whereas Jo was beginning to use them for fills and orchestral colors, jumping in and out of time, pausing only to catch a cymbal in his hand for splash effects). “We were trying to play like Mc- Kinney’s Cotton Pickers on those records, and I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Henri Wood for the exposure he gave me to arranging, orchestration and voicing with that ten-piece band. He was really something. That man was always writing on the road, without a piano. We’d be doing these one-nighters, and he’d be using the bed as a piano, just writing and singing. I thought he was going crazy, but I watched him and he conveyed many important lessons to me in ear training.
“I learned from everyone, and I always tried to hang out and pick up as much information as I could. You had to play every kind of music with these territory bands, so I would find these guys that knew. Ely Rice and his son Sylvester Rice would put on a show, and they had all these bells up there. They had dancers and singers too. Sylvester Rice would conduct his father’s orchestra, and he was the cause for me narrowing down and concentrating on the drums. During that time, I learned how to play a waltz by fooling around with Lawrence Welk in Minneapolis. You think Lawrence Welk is funny young man? Let me tell you something. Back then Lawrence Welk had the biggest little band in America, which played from Omaha to Witchita Falls and stayed booked. Once we had a battle of the bands—Lawrence Welk and Bennie Moten. We had 15 pieces; he had six. After we got through playing, Lawrence calls out “Tiger Rag,” you know what I mean, and points to this cat who gets up and solos on two trumpets! That was his way of telling us, ‘Here’s some “Tiger Rag” for you.’ ”
Of course, today we remember Lawrence Welk mainly as a prime-time curiosity, while the music that Jo Jones made with Count Basie and company is still being re-discovered by new listeners. However, it is unlikely that we would have heard any of these influential sounds if it wasn’t for the influence of two very great leaders, Bennie Moten and Walter Page. Certainly, as Jo pointed out to me on several occasions, there were an incredible number of great musicians and bands centered around Kansas City during this period; veterans of dance halls, ballrooms and competitive jam sessions; names like George E. Lee, Buster Smith, and Dick Wilson that elicit a fond smile of remembrance among those who were there, while drawing a blank among contemporary audiences. But by every account, the spiritual and artistic influence of Moten and Page has been enduring.
“Bennie Moten was the greatest bandleader that ever lived,” Jo asserts without qualification. “He covered the whole sphere.” In fact, in one of his more selfcritical moments, while listening to a Count Basie version of “Moten’s Swing,” Jo characterized his own band as “a poor imitation of life, and they knew it, but they were for real. Got the right people to imitate.
“Now Walter Page had a band, The Blue Devils, that was the greatest band I ever heard in my life. Walter Page was my son and my father. He was the father of us all. Without Walter Page, you would never have heard of Hot Lips Page. You would never have heard of Jimmy Rushing. You would never have heard of Basie. You would never have heard of Lester Young. You would never have heard of Charlie Parker. You would never have heard of Jo Jones. Walter Page taught me how to phrase on the drums, taught me how to drop bombs . . . a beautiful man. The Big ‘Un, Walter Page. Now Walter Page had the Blue Devils, and eventually Jimmy Rushing left him to join Bennie Moten; then Basie, then Hot Lips Page; then by 1932 Walter Page joined Moten, too. When Walter Page gave up his band and joined Moten along with Dan Minor and Buster Smith and what-have-you . . . this is why the Basie rhythm section was so special. Because Bennie Moten played “1” and “3.” Walter Page played on “2” and “4”; but when they wedded together you had “1, 2, 3, 4.” The two mediums met, from the “1” and the “3” against the “2” and the “4,” like a bouncing ball. Mac Washington was the drummer with Moten, and what they call ‘bombs’ now, he made ‘stumbles.’ He made that connection from the interlude to the chorus. Nobody could drop in the bucket like him.
“When Bennie would hear the band all messed up, the minute he put his hands on the piano—just like Fats Waller, plump!—the whole thing settled. When Bennie Moten sat down that’s the only time I heard piano. I didn’t hear no piano from Basie and Bus Moten. They was too busy drinking and hanging out with chicks. And Bennie would sit down and say ‘All right, fellows.’ And when he sat down that band became something else.”
Jo recalled that Bennie Moten and his Orchestra came to New York City in 1930 and 1932 and upset everybody. But the ec onomic pressures were such that many of his top players were beginning to seek out more gainful employment, and the handwriting was already on the wall for his organization when Bennie died suddenly. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Depression, Jo Jones was playing with a variety of territory bands, and at least one group of musicians in a ten-piece band where “We all changed uniforms, but it’s the same people and the same book. Whoever the gangster thought should be the leader, said ‘Fellows, we got a place to go.’ And you just went and changed your uniform. We worked like that for three years.”
Jo found his way to Kansas City by way of Joplin, Missouri, and the Tommy Douglass Band, where he replaced Jesse Price on drums and sang. “Tommy Douglass, you better believe, played saxophone and clarinet, and what Mr. Benny Carter was to the East, Tommy Douglass was to the Midwest. He had a great big open sound.
“I joined them in Joplin. The job went out. I came to Kansas City, played piano and had my vibraphone. I wasn’t going to play any drums, and I only played two jobs in six weeks. I was playing a special dance with Tommy Douglass, and Walter Page came up and sat in the band. He said, ‘How would you like to join Count Basie’s band?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I played one night and quit.
“I played Topeka, Kansas, and they played ‘After You’ve Gone.’ When Hot Lips Page got through playing, Lester Young stood up and took the second chorus, and my heart went in my mouth—I died. I went downstairs and refused to accept my money. I said, ‘I’m going back to Omaha to go back to school,’ and Basie begged me to stay. But that band had destroyed me. I said, ‘I’m not staying; I can’t play with your band Mr. Basie.’ They had me in the washroom and wouldn’t let me out. I said, ‘I’m picking up my drums because I’m going back to school. I won’t be playing in no band.’ And Hershel Evans said, ‘You’re crazy. You can play in this band.’ So I said, ‘All right Mr. Basie, I will play with you for two weeks until you find a drummer.’ That lasted 14 years and I’m still with him.”
Jo joined Basie on St. Valentine’s Day, 1934. He recounted how Basie pawned his bass drum for gasoline so they could make a gig at Sam Baker’s in Little Rock, Arkansas. “I had a bass drum, about a 26 x 5, but I couldn’t get the pliers to tighten it up. So they stopped the band, held up the whole dance, and I had to haul it off the bandstand. I went over to a great big potbellied stove to heat it so it could tighten up and I could finish the dance. I had a cymbal that’s like a pot, pan and skillet. Jimmy Rushing used to sit around and say, ‘That sounds good.’ We were supposed to get $14 a week and I worked three weeks before Basie gave me $5. I pulled out my pistol and I was going to shoot everybody. I said, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘Well, you took Mac’s place and he took $25. You have to pay his debt.’ I died! You see, in those days, when you joined the band nobody told you nothing. When you took another man’s place, you were him, and if he owed anything, fine.”
There were two great Basie bands Jo recalls before the version that came to New York in December, 1936 to thrill dancers at the Savoy Theatre and make records for Willard Alexander at MCA and later for John Hammond. With their improvised “head” arrangements, conversational riffing, and great soloists, the Basie band had all the intimacy and subtlety of a small group, but with a blaring, blues-drenched, house-rocking power and relaxation that has yet to be equaled. With the addition of Mr. Rhythm Guitar, Freddie Greene, early in 1937, and their vocalists Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday (as documented on the June 30, 1937 radio broadcast Count Basie at the Savoy Ballroom on Everest), Jo Jones and friends achieved legendary stature.
There isn’t room here to detail further the history and personnel of the Basie band, or to dwell on the unfortunate treatment Jo and Lester Young received at the hands of Uncle Sam in the Army from ’44 through early ’46, and the sudden loss Jo suffered with the passing of his first wife later that year. But as an epilogue to these details of Jo’s early years, it is well worth noting the underlying values that Jo credits with making the All-American Rhythm Section so special. “It takes a whole lot of living to do what we did. That’s why I tell these little kids that came after us not to try to play like us, because that’s impossible. We were having a conversation about our lives. You weren’t there; you can’t know what we were talking about. What I played had to do with who I rubbed elbows with—the Lester Youngs, the Hershel Evans, the Billie Holidays, the Buck Claytons. I just did get to know these people. We played who we were at the time. You can’t re-create that. You can’t copy that. It could only happen once. I didn’t have to play a thing. All I was doing was sitting there listening. I always was an audience, and I will be an audience as long as I live.
“It’s very difficult to teach people how to play with people, not for people. The key word is understanding. We never spoke a word to each other on the bandstand, and nobody spoke to us. We functioned as one. We never played with the band; we played with ourselves. Each one of us had a personal life and we incorporated that; the kinds of lives we lived, the people we reached out and touched. It takes a long time to learn how to function as an individual. We brought that on the bandstand and we were strong enough to go through these things. Now I want you to understand that we started first spiritually. What it takes to get this spiritual ingredient: You have to live this spiritual ingredient. We lived spiritually! I don’t believe in ghosts, but there is a Supreme Being. He is the force. He’s the heart…”
The first thing you learn with Jo Jones is not to ask any questions. As with his music, Jo has a habit of circling back on himself, so that bread cast upon the waters may yet come back on another wave. It’s all very indirect and metaphorical. He’s always trying to convey attitudes, practical experiences and anecdotes to help you, as an individual, discover the meaning of music; by yourself and for yourself. There are lots of familiar aphorisms like “tune and tempo,” a lot of knowledge, but very few facts as such, at least not the kind of nuts-and-bolts shop talk one is used to in Modern Drummer.
“I ain’t going to talk drums with you,” he shrugs. “I don’t talk drums with nobody. You gonna have to find out for yourself. I tell my son nothin’, I show him nothin’—my own son. I took him out on the road, to Chicago and different places. He watched me and he watched other people. He loved Philly Joe. I said, ‘Go with Philly Joe . . . ‘ I have a reason for that, not showin’ nobody nothin’. You can watch me… unn, uhh—it’s my secret and I’ll keep it to myself. I wouldn’t give a crippled crab a crutch to crawl across Bridgette Bardot.”
Still, despite the crusty words, Jo is a very generous man; and if one had the sense to visit him regularly at the West End Cafe and shut up and watch, he was dealing plenty of lessons off of that bandstand; and if you hung around afterwards (depending on whether or not you were granted an audience), his philosophizing on life, music and drumming could often be a revelation. For those requiring even more in-depth information, the obvious solution is to find a copy of The Drums by Jo Jones (Jazz Odyssey, French Import), an extraordinary two-record set Papa Jo did around 1970 in Paris for producer Hugues Panassie; a tour-de-force solo demonstration of gadgets, effects, instruments, techniques, rudiments and reminiscences on the great drummers that he knew (with his own verbal and musical tributes to Baby Dodds, Alvin Burroughs, A.G. Godley, Gene Krupa, Big Sid Catlett, Walter Johnson, Sonny Greer, Billy Gladstone, Manzie Campbell, Chick Webb, Baby Lovett and a host of unnamed drummers and famous dancers). This is the definitive Jo Jones drum lesson.
“There are three things you can do to jazz,” Jo is fond of saying. “Listen to it. Dance to it. Make love to it. If you can’t do that, there is something wrong with it.” When Jo plays, you can do all three, because at the root of everything he expresses on his instrument is a deep first-hand understanding of the blues. “To play the blues, you must live the blues,” he concludes. “People have the wrong interpretation of the blues. They think it’s just a sad thing. It can be a happy thing. You must remember how the blues started. The blues started in the 1800s, when they had the slaves. They wanted to outlaw the drums because somebody told them that messages were being sent to different plantations with the drums; they had different signals and the drums carried a long way. Learning the drums was like learning to read and write. They communicated like that, just like the old troubadors used to go around and tell everybody what was happening from one section of the country to the other.”
So because the drum was outlawed in 19th century America, that drumming sensitivity had to be transferred to other forms of expression; finding other outlets, as in the Church and the human voice. “That’s the reason the minstrels came up. Our people weren’t allowed to do anything, so they turned to music. Through out the history of mankind, it has been musicians who could feel the pulse of the people and set it to music. We became creative artists, and through our creativity, people could see things. There has only been one culture since there has been America—music! And who put the culture in it? It was the Negroes, as they called them. America has never put nothing in the world but music—black music. Nobody has given to the world like the black artist. I don’t play European music and I don’t play African music because the Afri can don’t play like the Negro in America. Do you understand? That ain’t his culture. We don’t know nothing about no jungles with no lions and tigers and crocodiles and all that. I don’t play none of that. But I can play the blues.”
Which is the way Jo Jones & Enemies opened and closed every set at the West End, employing one of his favorite tricks—playing the drums with his hands. After lightly salting his skins, one crack ling flam on the snare and bass drum calls the children home. Jo accompanies his four-to-the-bar bass drum pattern with off-beat accents on the hi-hat, and a remarkable range of texture and melody from his two lateral floor toms (one to his left, one to the right next to his sock cymbal) and his snare (with the snares off). The fingers on both his hands are working as if he were playing a boogie woogie piano. The drums, though battered and humble compared to most contemporary kits, have a singing quality that is totally unique. “This is the whole idea,” he shouts, pulling on the key hanging by a leather braid around his neck. “Tuning! They got these things on there. Tune the damn drum! I tune my drums to my ear. I have perfect pitch. I have a trained ear. I have a very expensive set of drums up there at the West End. It cost me $125 . . . Stewarts, made in Japan.” (Although I must add that there was an old WFL insignia on the mounted tom.) “See, Max Roach came up to me years ago and said ‘Jo, I just discovered something. It don’t make no difference what drums you play because they all sound alike.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m like Art Tatum. No matter what kind of piano it was, he’d make it sound alike. If they ain’t in tune, he’ll play ’em in tune.’ See, ’cause we was going to do a concert with Mary Lou Williams, James Moody and Dizzy up at the college, and he wanted me to use his new drums. I said, ‘Unn uh. I ain’t goin’ to break in them new drums. I ain’t goin’ to break in no new shoes. Get me your old drums. I’ll play them. Now he’s got all that new-fangled electric stuff. Damn. I remember they did a benefit for me one year when I came back from Europe, and I told them about these electric drums they had over in Italy [Hollywood drums]. They wanted to get me a reservation at Bellevue. I remember Max brought back a set one year, and we had them up at Frank’s shop. They never did work. Finally we took all that shit out from inside and they sounded alright. Ha.”
Not just any hobo can sit behind Jo Jones’ drums and play them. First of all, the snare is at an odd angle, pitching down towards the bass drum; secondly, his sock cymbals are set up almost completely parallel to the snare with no clearance for cross sticking; thirdly, his right floor tom-tom is set up dangerously close to the socks. You could lose your hand trying to get over and under those cymbals, but Jo doesn’t pay it any mind, and takes great pride in how baffled younger drummers are when trying to come to terms with the set. Even more imposing is his bass drum. For years Jo has been using a very thin calfskin timpani head on the batter side, and when I first had a chance to sound it years ago, the thing just barked at me and went BOOM. Yet from out in the audience it was tight, soft, punchy and controlled. I was confused.
“Don’t nobody understand it. That’s why I don’t have no problems. I’ll have guys sit down and play that drum, and it just kicks the shit out of them. I was at Sandy’s in Boston a few years ago and I invited some little kid to sit down. They had to push it back on the bandstand. Boy, he pushed that whole thing off there. I said ‘Damn, boy, what you trying to do?’ He went BAM! I laugh at them drummers.”
Only years later, watching Papa Jo in his rocking chair keeping time to the music with his right foot did it occur to me what he was doing. He was playing with a rocking heel-to-toe, toe-to-heel motion, and later when I saw him on the bandstand he seemed to be pushing the beater into the head, striking and muting in the same motion, much as a timpani player might use his hands or a marching drummer might damp the head. In this way, he is able to shade, accent and color, getting more melody and pitch from that one drum than most players could get from a set of concert toms. Even when he’s not playing the drum, he’s pedaling, so that the beat is always felt if not heard. I’m not saying I understand how he does it. That’s just what I saw. (Remember what Jo said about Mr. Emil Helmicke and his bass drum?)
His cymbal playing is even more remarkable. He approaches his cymbals gingerly, playing them with a broad, sweeping motion, again reminding one of a pianist. That is to say, he never seems to hit a cymbal or play down on it; just as a pianist will quickly lift a finger from the key, Jo’s stick seems to be rising as soon as it makes contact, which accounts in part for his crystalclear articulation and his immaculate control of overtones and build up. He plays the cymbal; it never plays him. “That cymbal I got up there I gave away five times to five different drummers. I told ’em, ‘I’m going to let you have this for a month. You learn how to play this, you can have it.’ They ain’t learned how to play it yet. I took that cymbal down to a Tony Bennett recording session and Joe Cocuzzo was there. Tony says, ‘You brought the cymbal.’ I finally just got mad and gave it to Joe Cocuzzo anyway. He said, ‘I’ll never play this cymbal.’ Just like I got two snare drums. I said, ‘Here, learn how to play it. Don’t beat it; play it,’ and that damn drum bounced up and hit ’em all over the head. I said, ‘Can you spell play? P-L-A-Y! What’s the difference between playing and beating?'”
For the record, Jo’s most recent setup featured what looked like an old (make that old) pair of 13″ Zildjian sock cymbals of a fairly light weight, a single crotale, and an 18″ medium ride. Jo’s relationship with the Zildjian family goes back many years, and he was one of the guiding forces in helping them to perfect modern cymbals for contemporary trap drummers. He recalls meeting Avedis Zildjian through Bill Maither (one of the original New York drum and cymbal retailers). “He was at the Ritz Carlton and the kids was in school. I used to get cymbals from him, from Gretsch and from Manny’s. I used to pick cymbals for all the guys. I’ve shown them a thousand times how to pick a cymbal, and they still don’t know. Last time I was up there they had a sign: ‘Welcome Max Roach.’ And I said, ‘You don’t welcome me?’ And they said, ‘Hell, you live here.’ I went into the vault, and got this little cat to go up a ladder and get me something. Max asked, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It ain’t nothin’.’ He had to have eight of them. I only took but one—just like I only play but one cymbal. I don’t have but one and I’m trying to get rid of that.”
Hopefully, he won’t get rid of his sock cymbals too, because his approach to that instrument put it on the map for all time. “Cuba Austin was with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. And I saw him and he had this little sock cymbal that you used to slide your foot in. It was through necessity that I went and got a pipe. I couldn’t go down there and play the sock cymbal on the floor. So I had a great big stand-up drum. I had a cymbal holder that was a coat hanger and I put that on there. That’s how the sock cymbal came. Before then it was down on the floor and Cuba Austin had a little overlapping thing where you used to slide your foot in. But they didn’t have it up here. As recent as 1934 nobody had a sock cymbal but Alvin Burroughs. George Wettling, Gene Krupa . . . they didn’t know nothing about a sock cymbal. They had a sock cymbal, but they put it in the closet. Tubby [Holland Harold], Zutty [Singleton], those guys never played the sock cymbal, but mine was through necessity, because that was all I had.”
Despite his mastery of sock cymbals, for Jo, like all the greater drummers of his era, the snare drum is the heart and soul of the performance. “I used to tell all the youngsters, ‘I don’t care what you do—you start with the snare drum. You go to the bass, the tom-toms and cymbals. Whenever you hear Zutty Singleton, whenever you hear Gene Krupa, whenever you hear George Wettling, whenever you hear Davey Tough—don’t listen to nothing but the snare drum. They never got to that touch yet, not in our travels. They don’t have that.”
Jo Jones is to brushes what Casals is to cello and Segovia to classical guitar—the absolute standard for how the instrument should sound. “Now what the hell do you think you’re doing with those?” he said impatiently when I picked up a pair of brushes in his presence. “You don’t even know how to spell brush. Damn, I’ve had four cats and each one of them knows more about brushes than you’ll ever know.” Then, backing off a bit, he tried to give me a sense of what the most important priority was on the instrument. “You have to learn how to control yourself, see. That’s why I’ve always kept cats around me—the cat controls itself. Sid Catlett was a bigger man than you, but he could play so delicately.
“You see, it takes two totally different kinds of control to play fast and to play slow. Each one has its own degree of difficulty. It’s the difference between playing loud and soft. It demands control. See, the two words: play and beat. When it comes to percussion instruments, you don’t beat the drum; you play the drum. You have a horn: is he a horn blower or a horn player? You see, there are two words, fast and slow, and you have to dissect them and control them. Nobody played faster than Johnny Hodges. Nobody played faster than Louis Armstrong, and he didn’t play but one note; Count Basie played three, and that’s enough. That’s all he needs, and you know he can play some piano. See, I don’t understand something. I don’t understand how come nobody improved on us. We improved on 1915, 1920, 1925. We improved on the peoples we learned from. How come they don’t improve on a Lester Young or a Coleman Hawkins or a Teddy Wilson or a Sid Catlett or a Chick Webb? They don’t do this no more. They could do it, but they don’t know how to do it. They want to do something new, huh. Why can’t the kids do better than this, improve on us? Walter Bolden told me he heard some little kid playing all up against the wall. Walter asked him ‘Whatcha doin’ son?’ he said, ‘I’m playin’ something new.’ Walter said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ When I asked him what happened Walter said, ‘He couldn’t keep time.’
“The kids don’t understand how Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and me could play their music, but they couldn’t play ours. When I made that Newport Rebels album with Max, this little kid was really surprised to see me up there. He said, ‘Well, you were really good for your day.’ I said ‘Thank you, but tell me, what kind of drummer do you think I am?’ He thought I was a Dixieland drummer,” he says with a smile. “But you know, we tried out anything and everything in the band room until the leader come down and blew that whistle.”
In truth, what Jo Jones has put down for close to 60 years is timeless and modern in the best sense of the words—his sense of space and restraint, knowing when to jump in and when to lay out; the endless array of press rolls, rimshots and timbres he elicits from his instrument; the way he drives a band; and the hypnotic power of his soloing. Whether demonstrating his show-stopping cross-sticking technique on his flanking tom-toms (as if he were playing a two-bass-drum bolero) or simply making quarter notes swing, his music is not dated. It is stylish and classic.
Yet for all his contributions to the drums and popular music, for all his hard-earned pride, there exists a streak of modesty and awe in him because Jo Jones never stopped being a student of the drums. Certain names crop up constantly in conversation: Buddy, Max, Philly Joe, Klook, Billy Gladstone . . . But towering above them all in his hall of memories are two contemporaries from the ’30s who rival his greatness, and often exceed it in his estimation: Big Sid Catlett and Chick Webb. When he talks of drumming, Big Sid and Chick seem to hover beside him, standing in judgment, giving him strength, and scold ing him when he stumbles. Together they form a trinity of modern drumming, and most of the great players of today owe some aspect of their styles to them. When Jo speaks of them, he is talking about drumming mister—the bluesmen who rocked the ’30s.
“Big Sid was like my brother. I never go anyplace without a picture of Big Sid Catlett. I’ve got a little picture of him that I carry with me. That’s why I am never afraid. I know I’ve got Sid with me. See, I was very privileged to play with a Count Basie, to be around so many creative peoples. I remember one time Sidney sat in and he said, ‘Man, I ought to knock you down—now I got to go back to the coal mines.’ Did you see Jamming The Blues? Remember when Sid threw that one stick at me? We used to do a thing every Thurs day night at the Apollo when we closed. The theater’s packed, but there are two seats set aside for Sid Catlett and his wife. I used to throw the stick to Sidney, and a man would put the light on him and BOOM—he’d catch it. Then, BOOM, he’d throw the stick back to me and we’d go into ‘One O’Clock Jump.’ Don’t ask me. Ask the people that were there. They done saw it. They saw show business. Yeah, we did some strange things out there.
“Well, you know they always say the first should be the last and the last should be the first. Speaking about Chick Webb, I don’t speak of Chick Webb the drummer. I speak of Chick Webb, the epitome. Now, Mr. Chick Webb’s sense of timing . . . he didn’t settle for nothing but the best. Mr. Webb had something along with his leadership, and he had to be a natural, a great natural, like what he know today as an Errol Garner—it’s impossible to write, to study, to do whatever. We developed a friendship, and the man gave me some secrets that I could never divulge because I wouldn’t know who to impart them to.
“The man was very musical. In the later years since his death, I have had the pleasure of playing his records and asking some of the young great drummers to try to emulate him. I said, ‘Let me hear you play this.’ They’d say, ‘He did all that?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, he did it with a pair of sticks that looked like pencils. Now you have to have all these two-pound sticks to go bang, bang, bang. No, no, no, he played the drums and he played them in tune.’ Mr. Chick Webb also got things from Mr. Drums, Walter Johnson. He told me. When he found out that I tuned my drums and that I used a timpani head on my bass drum, then he began to talk to me. He gave me some secrets. Chick Webb didn’t normally hang out with other drummers, but he wasn’t threatened by me because he realized that I would never be as great a drummer as he was.
“This man saw what I was trying to do with the Basie band. He saw the material I had to work with. He would have loved to have had the material that I had to work with. But without this man’s encouragement, without this man telling me what I was supposed to do, you wouldn’t see me sitting here today. I was ready to go back to Omaha when he said, ‘Well, my boy, why don’t you stay and stick it out?’ He encouraged me and he told me of things to come. There are a lot of things that he told me to do and told me I must do, that I have never forgotten.
“He said, ‘It isn’t a form of humility. It’s just a form of don’t-lose-your-naturalness—be yourself.’ I said, ‘Thank you. That’s what my grandmother told me.’ He said, ‘You don’t have to do this because somebody’s doing something like that. You just go on and you develop what you develop. Pretty soon you’ll have a style of your own, because you have a wealth, and I’m looking at that.’
”He showed it to me. These are the conversations I had with Mr. Webb. When everybody else would be going to the after hours spots, I would be with Mr. Webb. He would be talking, but I would be listening. He’d show me, and then he’d come out and check me out. The last time was in Detroit. He came around to the Greystone Ballroom and he was falling through town. He heard the band and we went to the Norwood Hotel. We went across the street to get sausages and grits. He turned around and asked me for a cigarette. I said, ‘Wait a minute—ain’t you got enough money to buy those cigarettes?’ He taught me all that, too. He said, ‘Don’t buy no cigarettes.’ I said, ‘But you’re the great bandleader.’ But this man taught me something that I had almost forgotten—he taught me discipline. He taught me the character. He told me how important the drum was.
“He must have known he was going to die, and I realized this. There were several drummers in New York that never took advantage of being around Mr. Chick Webb, and they had been in New York and been around the man longer than I had. But I figured that if I could get any crumbs from the table by having a direct contact with the man . . .
“When Chick Webb died, we were in Chicago, staying on 39th Street, and they wouldn’t tell me for two days. They filed my radio off so I couldn’t get nothing on the radio, because they knew good and well I would split to go to Baltimore. Later on something happened that was a phenomenon. I was in Dayton, Ohio . . . this man appeared to me in a dream, stood right over me and told me something that I have never been able to divulge to nobody. But from that time until now it has given me strength, because this man was remarkable. Nobody that played with him appreciated him till after he died. They didn’t know what a great man he was.”
This explains why Modern Drummer would like to say, “Thank you, Jo Jones.” In a culture where anything that happened more than six months ago is old news, it seems important to affirm certain values— to acknowledge our roots. Jo Jones is the past, present and future of American rhythm.
“Another thing about rhythm,” Jo once told Nat Hentoff, “is that when an artist is performing on his instrument he breathes in his normal fashion. When the artist is breathing improperly, it’s like the audience is left with a little case of indigestion. It’s like eating a meal in a hurry. Not swinging is like that. It leads to tension in the audience. It’s a physical reaction which you give off.
“We’ll start off playing a very simple beat—the basic beat,” Papa Jo concluded in his keynote to The Drums album. “Always start basic and you’ll never go wrong…after you have control of your instrument, you can do whatever you wish. Regardless of whatever they name it: YOU PLAY.”
We ‘d like to thank the Institute For Jazz Studies on the Newark campus of Rutgers University for their gracious assistance in researching this piece. A special thanks to Dan Morgenstern, Ron Welburn, and Milt Hinton for allowing us to tap into the Institute’s invaluable Oral History Program. Anyone with any curiosity about the roots of A merican jazz, blues and popular song should avail themselves of the Institute’s extensive library of books and records, including countless titles deleted from the current catalog. The Institute’s phone number is (201) 648-5800.
Special thanks to Joanna Grammon for looking after Mr. Jones, who wishes to extend his heartfelt thanks to all the fans and friends who’ve seen him through hard times.