Jazz has often been called the true American classical music, finding its most immediate roots in the blues. Although the blues sang out against physical hardship and mental depression, its simple, haunting rhythms would most always convey a jubilance and spirit of optimism. The blues gave birth to the free-flowing spontaneity of jazz.
Rufus “Speedy” Jones has been a force in this metamorphosis, particularly in big bands, where his name was synonymous with excitement, rousing drum solos, solid dexterity and independence, and a unique approach to double bass drums.
He has worked with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, (who billed Jones as “the most exciting drummer in the world”) as well as with the Speedy Jones Quintet.
Lately, Speedy has turned his attention to writing, teaching, and performing on a limited basis, but the knowledge he’s acquired through his musical odyssey makes him one of the most informative conversationalists I’ve had the chance to chat with.
“My first competitive audition was for the Buddy Johnson band. There were 15 drummers auditioning. I was the twelfth. I guess they decided to take me because my experience with Lionel Hampton had given me a good foot, a ‘solid beat,’ as they used to call it. You need that in a big band. Plus I had developed a good left hand for what we call the ‘backbeat.’ Also, I was very fast. For big band you need a big, solid beat with no fluctuation in time, just straight ahead.”
Rufus “Speedy” Jones was one of a handful of drummers, at the time, who utilized two bass drums. I asked him how he began playing double bass drums. He drew a long breath, paused, and laughed a little. “I was playing with Maynard Ferguson. We had a gig in New Jersey and I was late. I walked in, looked up at the bandstand and saw a large drumset with two bass drums. I knew it wasn’t my set and I said ‘Oh, Lord. Someone’s got my job!’ I went over to Maynard and said ‘Whose set is that?’ and Maynard said, ‘It’s yours!’ It was bigger than the one I used with Duke Ellington. It was frightening, but because I was nervous, I played more drums that night than I think I ever played. I played more, and I played faster and smoother.
“After that night I had to go back and practice. For some reason, I couldn’t play like that afterwards. I decided to make two bass drums my thing. I enrolled at the gym and started working out with weights to develop strength in my left foot. You really have to be careful with two bass drums. You can really throw a band off if you don’t use them correctly. You have the opportunity to play very intricately with two bass drums and that can mix everybody up. I use the double bass drums mostly on fills and try to limit its use. Coming out of a drum solo you have to be especially careful. Say you’re coming out of a drum solo, you end up on the left bass drum and some of the band members are listening to the right bass drum for that ‘one.’ It can really throw them. Some musicians are very precise in the way they listen to time, and you can’t expect the bass player to cover for you.”
Although Jones would be the last one to describe himself as a disciplinarian in his approach to practice, his decision to use weight lifting and exercise for improving his bass drum technique is one that has “success” written all over it.
“Practice often and alone. Rehearsal is not practice. If you are practicing with someone standing in front of you, you are performing, not practicing.
“When I get up in the morning, my first instinct is to play. Basically, I practice what I feel. I use rudiments to keep moving, in a continuous flow, to leave myself open to see what ideas I can come up with. They sometimes happen before I know it. Rudiments are very important to know and you have to have a good working knowledge of them. They come in very handy, particularly when you’re stuck for ideas. You can rely on a paradiddle in a situation like that.
“When you are practicing specific techniques, like crossing over or high stroke rolls, obviously you have to do it over and over again. You can’t practice those techniques during a rehearsal because you hold back a little. You don’t want to chance embarrassment at making a mistake. The only way to develop those techniques is through repetition. If you think there is another way, you’re kidding yourself.
“I like to practice ideas with a firm understanding of the rudiments under my belt. Fit your ideas into patterns, and prac tice them over and over again. When you do, they become a part of you and come to you right at the best moment. For some reason, they will just kick in at the right time and you won’t have to think about it. Each pattern will lead into something else in sequence. You can move from a quiet passage to something loud, and then to something showcase. If your physical and mental capabilities are aligned, then you can make it happen. There are times when your physical capabilities are exhausted. At other times, your mental capabilities will be exhausted. When they are both exhausted, you know you’re in trouble and that’s when rudiments can really bail you out.”
Between his stay with Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson, Speedy Jones formed his own quintet. Years later, he was to resurrect that band once more. With his own group he got the opportunity to spread his wings a bit, and he could share the function of keeping time with the bass player. “In big bands, playing bass drum was important. That’s what most leaders were looking for—that consistent pulse/beat. In a small group, you don’t have to be aware of playing bass drum as much. When I was developing, I always played bass drum because the drummers I admired did—Gene Krupa, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke. Even Max Roach, when he was playing big band, played bass drum. When they started playing bebop, they just started playing puritan; right on the beats. Later, drummers started thinking in terms of bass drum and snare drum as a unit.’ They’d use the bass drum in more intricate patterns. For fills they’d use the bass drum right alongside the rest of the drums. The loudness of the bass drum was no longer the factor. The only time you really heard the bass drum was at the end of a fill, and you’d hardly hear it again until the end of another fill. In the small group, the bass player took over the responsibility of playing straight time. When you had a good bass player, it meant that the drummer had to be very subtle, very cool. Then came modern jazz, and you got to play heavy because you were doing your thing. The bass player was doing his thing, too. He wasn’t playing ‘one’ anymore. He was playing embellishments of chords. With jazz/rock, you can still hear the chords because the drummers are back to playing rhythm. It’s a broken rhythm, but you can still hear the pulse. For a while it was moving into odd rhythms like 5/8 and 6/4, but if you don’t have a knowledge of those rhythms, you can’t do it. You’re limited. Most jazz players like 4/4 time or waltz time. Those are time signatures they can open up on. 5/4 is hip, but going into something like 3/8, you just have to think about it too much. It’s just mechanical. I really don’t like the feel of many of the odd rhythms and I think the audience enjoys it less. Sometimes an audience will get lost on 3/4! They feel the simplicity of a rhythm. Most jazz musicians will tell you that jazz is a feeling, and to get that feeling, 4/4 is it. Next is 3/4, and 6/8 is good too if the melody is good and it’s in a good key. Often, show tunes will be in these time signatures, but the band will always come back to 4/4′ for that audience response. If a rhythm is too much for the artists themselves, how can you expect the audience to get to it?
“That’s why you may find that in solos the audience will give you more response on exciting patterns than on the harder stuff. Even if it’s not an exciting pattern, if it’s a simple pattern and you stay on that for a while, your audience will applaud. However, if you play that same thing fast and it gets by them, then it’s a lost cause.
”Take crossing over as an example. You can do a four-beat crossover twice, then go on to something else and the audience says, ‘Hey, that was nice.’ If you play that pattern three or four times in a row, you find the audience begins to applaud. It’s something they can understand, and by that time, you have their attention. Speed is good to have too, but there are two sides to that story. You can play fast and go right past your audience. It’s exciting to be able to play fast, but you have to play so that the audience can be a part of it, too. If you have a lot of ideas, break them down, and use them with discretion. Play those ideas so people can understand them.
“Don’t forget that your job is to entertain, as well. Crossing over and high stroke rolls are done basically because they look good! I could play the same simple beat another way and make it sound good, but I never forget that it’s a show. You do it to entertain, especially if you have a long solo. Old man Jo Jones used to cross over from the sock cymbal to the floor tom-tom. He got a really tight sound. I watched that for a while, and then went home and stole it! Then I started putting the snare drum into it, and later I saw Buddy Rich using the snare drum, too.
“I’ll tell you a little secret about crossing over. If you’re not physically geared for it that night, your hands can collide. Sticks start flying everywhere. You get a stick airborne and there you are playing with one hand, smiling like nothing’s wrong. Peo ple say ‘Wow, that was beautiful!’ and you know it was just a big mistake. You cover up, apply a little showmanship and somebody gets a souvenir!
“I was always a showman. For some reason, I just played with excitement and the people felt it too. People want excitement. I have Maynard Ferguson to thank for billing me as the most exciting drummer in the world because, for me, drums is it.
“After Maynard put me on the map, any band I’d go into would want me to play like that. So even if other players didn’t like me getting applause, I’d know I was getting paid to play solos and make the show more exciting. The only band I had trouble with in this respect was Buddy Johnson’s. Buddy fired me because he felt I was stealing the show. Then in Lionel Hampton’s band there was this young boy who felt I was playing my solos too hard, and he’d give me dirty looks and all that. I’d be spinnin’ sticks with Lionel, and when he’d point to me, I’d just play wild! I was just that type of guy. When I played, I played to satisfy the people, and a bandleader can’t ask for any more than that.
“Most of the time I’d slow the pace down a little, after a climax. Then I’d start up again to a second climax. Next I’d look up at the bandleader and he’d bring the band back in. I’d end on a big bang and the audience loved it, although they never knew what was going on. With musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, it was second nature to bring solos in and out. Then there were times when I’d open a solo and have to play it over again because the other musicians wouldn’t come in! They’d be laughing and applauding, and I’d be yelling ‘Come on in!’ However, I’d be playing loud and they couldn’t hear me. They’d think I was talking to myself or something. Most of the time the band members would enjoy each other’s solos. “The opportunity to be creative can ex cite an artist and you can draw ideas from your own excitement. It’s just naturally conveyed to the audience. Playing a figure by accident might excite you. I shouldn’t say ‘accident.’ It’s more like you wanted to do something else and it didn’t come out quite the way you wanted it to. You might want to play it again because it sounded better than what you had planned. That can excite you. It’s knowing what you’re going to play and playing it with feeling, from within. You have to have talent to play a solo. You have to know how to approach it. Every musician builds solos upon ideas, with one idea leading into another. With ideas, you can play all night and not repeat yourself. You can repeat yourself in the use of certain rudiments, but those rudiments can be embellished upon from time to time. Even a roll can be played so many different ways! You’ve got to change your patterns, too, otherwise it can be a bore. You can’t be bored and creative at the same time, but patterns are sometimes good to have. You can use a pattern until you’re sure that the band can go along with anything you substitute. Sometimes you’ll try to substitute something, and it’s the wrong time or the wrong environment. It’ll throw the whole thing off. It might be misinterpreted.
“Usually, by the time it was my turn to solo, I would have been listening to each player carefully; listening to it build. By the time it got to me, I’d know just what I was going to play. I’d play my solos and know I was doing it to make the band sound better and to excite the audience.”
When an artist identifies with creative liberty; spontaneity; excitement, how does he approach the all and often too confining situation of reading charts? “If you have chops, you can look at a chart and make the interpretation of it. You can memorize it if you have the ability to do so. I take a look at a chart and make a concept in my mind about it, listen to the entry, how the saxophones are first going down, the trumpets, the reeds, because there will be spaces within where I must be complementary. I keep the chart in mind, but there are fills and things I will hear that will not be on that chart. Still, I know those shadings will sound good. I do a great deal of shading. You see, a lot of very good arrangers don’t know how to write for drums. I’m not putting down good writers, but a good drummer can play what’s on the chart and add what he hears without losing something. After all he’s the one playing and he’s the one who has to sell the music. He should be able to put in what he hears. You have to feel free with what you’re doing. If it’s jazz, it has to be free flowing. It can’t sound stiff. Everyone has to be relaxed. It has to be tasteful. It has to be felt. Some players rely on charts for everything. A drummer can’t do that. He’s got to listen to what’s going on around him, play his part to the surroundings, be fitting.”
The big bands are gone. Though the era is behind us, the music will always feel “contemporary” to the discerning ear. With the passing of big band music as a dominant force in molding today’s budding drummers, we find ourselves somewhat empty-handed, especially when we consider the cornucopia of ideas and techniques used by drummers in those “good old days”—the machine-gun rapid fire of Gene Krupa’s rim shots, the cool and breezy sounds of circling brush strokes on the snare, the patterns on the hi-hat that so often embellished the drum solos. The drum solo itself is not one of the high points of a show as was the case in years gone by. Are these techniques gone for ever, or just lying dormant in hopes that a more resourceful generation of drummers will come forth, blow the dust off some of the old manuals and resurrect those techniques once more?
“Well, brushes, for example, are practically never used anymore. You cannot use brushes on hard rock. We used brushes a lot in a big band when we wanted the drums to be felt and not heard. The approach to the drums today is to be loud. The backbeat—that’s what people want today! Some of it’s good; some of it isn’t. A lot of players don’t know these techniques, so they cannot make a judgment about how or when they can use them. You see, a brush is an altogether different technique from a stick. You get no bounce from a brush. I used to get a little bounce from a brush by pulling the strands in about halfway and putting tape around it. Then it sounds a lot like a stick, but you can adjust it the way you want.
“We used to use the cymbals differently, too. We used to open and close our cymbals a lot. If the cymbal is one with a lot of give, if it’s paper-thin, then a strong player can almost feel the give. If it’s thick, naturally you’ll get a lot more bounce, a lot more ‘ping’ and a deader sound. On the sock cymbal, the floor cymbal, if you play it and close it, you’ll get a lot more bounce than by pressing it. If you play it open, you can get more of a press-roll sound by pressing the stick. It’s a lot smoother and you can develop that, but when you close the cymbal, you can almost hear all the beats individually. Most of the old players do stuff like that. Rim shots are hardly ever used anymore either. You don’t even see that many drummers playing solos today. You don’t see that many fills. What a bandleader wants to know from a drummer today is, can he keep a good beat? Can he back up a singer? Can he maintain a strong backbeat? A drummer goes to an audition today and they ask him, ‘Can you sing?’ In big band, your job is to keep time, play fills, solos, do openings and closings. It’s a whole different approach today.”
In the year 1969, Rufus “Speedy” Jones was riding the crest of success. He’d been all over the world as a performer, working with the greatest names in big band history. He toured the Soviet Union with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A tight-knit group of Russian drummers began to gravitate towards Speedy, and donned him yet another nickname, “Mr. Boom-Boom,” because he used two bass drums. Speedy noticed that, little by little, they all began to convert to the matched grip, which Speedy was using almost exclusively at the time. Matched grip felt more natural to Speedy. “It’s the way you pick up the sticks” he says, accentuating the obvious. “It’s the way I hold them.” He became more and more dependent upon matched grip for reasons he held secret. Weakness and pain began to seep into his arms through his wrists and into his hands. Some days it was worse than others. Arthritis was to eventually steal away the only life Speedy ever knew, that of a pro drummer.
“I was on cloud nine. I really was. I’d be up on the bandstand and I wouldn’t even know I was there. I wasn’t high. I’d be playing and the show would come to a close. I’d say, ‘Is it over?’ I wanted to do it again. I never really drank. I was never on dope. I was high on the music. I’d be playing drum solos all night long and the guys would say to me, ‘Wasn’t it hot up there?’ It would be hot, but I didn’t notice. We’d play one concert after another, ride the bus, and get up in the morning with not enough sleep. I did that all my young life. I didn’t know it, but I was tearing my body down bit by bit. When I got arthritis I went from 196 pounds to 118 pounds. At the time it seemed like fate took everything away from me, but I can’t blame it on fate because I wasn’t aware of what to do to keep a body healthy. I believe that, had I lived differently, I might not have arthritis today because I believe that arthritis can come from worry—and I was a chronic worrier—along with stress and the wrong foods. However, I did enjoy it while I was up there; while I was doing it.”
Talking about his affliction with arthritis revealed a side of Speedy that was deeply reflective, almost philosophical. In a reverie he spoke of the “old days.” Leaning back in his chair, he seemed to be having a private conversation with himself, trying to reconcile what he later described to me as having “two good lives.” He stood as an example of what every young, ambitious drummer could reach for. However, he said he would have done it differently. This made me wonder what advice he might lend to an admirer of the life he had as an accomplished professional.
“The first thing I’d say is forget about making it big. If you’re that good and it’s in the cards for you to make it big, you probably will and no one can stop it. However, I say first prove to yourself that you are a drummer. Everyone who merely wants to be a drummer may not have that quality. Then, on the other hand, if you have that quality, it probably will become known. First, you have to satisfy yourself, even in rehearsal. If you can’t, forget it. You see, I play better and enjoy myself more practicing. In practice, I can do anything I want to do. You’re trying to reach the people. That’s the difference. If a student comes to me and says, ‘I want to make it big,’ I say ‘Prove to yourself you can play first!’ Couple that with your ability to reach an audience and you’ve got a chance at making it big. There’s such a thing as ‘luck,’ too. That can make you big. I’m going to tell you a little secret. In my time, I was afraid of my being black. It made me go through a lot of things. I wanted to change my color and the texture of my hair because I wanted to be more in the public eye, like a Gene Krupa. I felt, being black, I couldn’t have it. People would say ‘You’re black! You’re a do-nothing!’ It was discouraging to me. I’d say to myself, ‘You’re well liked,’ but still it messed me up. Blacks have tried to express in their music, ‘Hey! I can do something, too!’ Each body of people, each race, wants to be recognized. In our society, you just can’t keep them down. If someone comes forth and says ‘You’re black, you’re a Jew, or whatever; you can’t do this,’ somehow that person is going to do it. That’s what happened in our country. The law said that all men were created equal, but in some minds, that didn’t apply to blacks. Using that ideology now, most young people can go anywhere and do anything they want, if you have the facility and the ability. You have the opportunity to express yourself in America. There are white people with genius; there are black people with genius. I feel that if a man has developed the urge to learn, he can learn anything he wants to. However, realize that if you don’t come forth and take this opportunity to express yourself, you will fall short of many things years down the line. Also, at some point in society, your offspring will be just like you. When you have something to offer that is from you alone, it causes people to recognize you. You never know what a man has to offer until you sit down with him and delve into what he knows.”