The Father of Modern Jazz Drumming

July 2020 Papa Jo Jones

Papa Jo Jones was the epitome of swing, from his very early days with the Count Basie band in the ’30s until he passed away in 1985. His style, grace, and incredibly musical approach to drumming inspired other legends, including Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Max Roach, and Kenny Clarke. Jones’ technical skills were substantial, but he never let that get in the way of the music. With his featherlight touch, he could drive the out-chorus with just a pair of brushes. Papa Jo truly played for the tune, and man did he swing! He’s affectionately known as the father of the hi-hat, and all you have to do to understand why is listen to his vast discography.

When I was eighteen years old, I had the pleasure of having private sessions with Papa Jo at Frank Ippolito’s shop in New York City. I would take the four-hour bus ride from Providence, Rhode Island, to Frank’s. At that time in my life, I was a huge fan of Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, so I focused all of my practice in a more technical direction. Papa Jo asked me to play for him, and I basically played every Buddy lick I knew. After I finished, he took a huge breath, and then he just looked at me with a quirky, devilish smile. Being a dumb kid, I had no clue what he meant. Then he said, “Breathe.” He was right—I was tensing up and not letting the energy flow freely.

Papa Jo then went on to explain how I should view the entire drumset as one large instrument. Each cymbal has many different sounds—the bell, the edge, the middle, etc. And every drum has multiple sounds. He would often play on the snare at the edge, in the center, on the rim, and even with his fingers. He also told me to think of the drumset as a dance partner. He would say, “Don’t beat up your partner—dance with her.”

Papa Jo also taught me how to pick cymbals. He would just touch the edge of the cymbal between his thumb and fingers. What he was doing was feeling the thickness. He always wanted lighter cymbals because he felt they have more tonal colors. He said he tweaked the edges “so I can see all the little devils dancing on the edge.” He wanted to see and feel the wobble.

I could go on and on about Papa Jo Jones, but the best thing for you to do is to listen to some of his best work. Find some early Count Basie recordings, including “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), “Jumping at the Woodside” (1938), and “Cherokee” (1939). Also check some of his work with the great jazz organist Milt Buckner from the early ’70s, especially the legendary solo he took on the tune “Caravan,” which was fortunately captured on film. It’s on Youtube under the title “Jo Jones, A Magician on Drums, in Caravan.”

You should also check out some of Papa Jo’s solo albums. And for brush work, go to Youtube and search “The Legendary Papa Jo Jones Drum Solo.”

A five-minute solo by Papa Jo is also featured on the Hudson Music compilation Classic Drum Solos, Volume 2. He looks like he was born sitting in that drum chair. I’ve never seen anyone so “at home” behind the drumkit. Another great Youtube video is the one posted by Music Circle and titled “Jo Jones Drum Solo” [1964].

I treasure the time I was able to spend with Papa Jo. He truly opened my eyes to an entirely different way of playing, which was so instrumental in rounding out my playing skills. If you haven’t yet, check out some of Papa Jo Jones’ work, and then make sure that you do what Papa always told me to do: “Pass it on.” It’s our collective responsibility to not let this legendary artist ever be forgotten.

by Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell is the owner of Maxwell Drums and Fork’s Drum Closet and president of Craviotto Drum Company.