At the height of the swing era, Jones introduced a regular, lightly swinging, four-beat style that came to replace the more heavily accentuated two-beat style of earlier drummers. Jones’ name remains forever linked to Count Basie’s legendary rhythm section, of which he was an essential component in the late 1930s and the 1940s. His refined, subtle but vigorous touch remains unequaled.
Life and career
The early years
Born Jonathan Jones in Chicago, Illinois, he moved to Alabama where he learned to play several instruments, including trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums. He worked as a drummer and tap-dancer at carnival shows until joining Walter Page’s band, the Blue Devils, in Oklahoma City in the late 1920s. The Blue Devil were a so-called “territory band” operating in regions remote from the East and West Coast.
The Basie years
After the Blue Devils disbanded, Jones was one of several alumni of that band, including Page himself, to join a new band working out of Kansas City, that soon to become famous Count Basie Orchestra. Jones joined Basie's band in 1934 and his appearance on the drums greatly contributed to Basie’s quick success. Together with Basie on piano, guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Walter Page, Jones became part of what would be the quintessential swing rhythm section and perhaps the top rhythm section in jazz history.
Jones took a brief break for two years when he was in the military. After leaving Basie for good in 1948, he spent the remaining of his career working freelance, as the head or member of a variety of small bands, playing alongside some of his former colleagues, such as Buck Clayton and Lester Young, as well as many other jazz musicians. Beginning in 1947, Jones began to appear regularly in a concert series known as Jazz at the Philharmonic or JATP. Organized by Norman Granz, the JATP tours consisted of long, mostly improvised jam-sessions where star musicians like Jones could shine on stage.
Jones gradually created an image as the “elder statesman” of jazz drums for himself. He also starred in several films, most notably Jammin' the Blues in 1944. In 1985 (the year he passed away in New York City) Jones was the recipient of an American Jazz Masters fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Jones is not to be confused with the equally famous hard-bop drummer “Philly Joe” Jones.
Style and influence
Jones was one of the first drummers to promote the use of brushes on drums and shifting the role of timekeeping from the bass drum to the hi-hat cymbal. Jones is regarded as both one of the premier jazz drummer of the swing era and the transitional figure between classic and modern jazz drumming.
In contrast to his contemporary, drummer Gene Krupa's loud, insistent pounding of the bass drum on each beat, Jones often omitted bass drum playing altogether. Jones also continued a ride rhythm on “high-hat” while it was continuously opening and closing instead of the common practice of striking it while it was closed. Jones's style influenced the modern jazz drummer's tendency to play timekeeping rhythms on a suspended cymbal that is now known as the “ride cymbal.”
Unlike many other swing drummers, notably Chick Webb and Krupa, Jones was not primarily an extroverted soloist, though he could play solos as brilliantly as anyone and certainly did not lack the abilities of an entertainer. Much of the time, Jones would quietly stay in the background and provide the subtle, steady, almost airy rhythm that became the Basie band’s trademark. But his relative quietness would never go unnoticed. His presence guaranteed one of the most compelling swing effects ever experienced. Jones would also punctuate his steady rhythm keeping with brief interventions, always to maximum effect, and breaks that would multiply the energy of the band. A good example is found at the end of the 1941 recording of I Found a New Baby with the Benny Goodman Sextet.
Much of Jones’ best work is of course with Basie’s early band. Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (1939) offers one of Jones’ memorable full-scale solos (comparable in quality to Chick Webb’s classic solo on the same tune). In Roseland Shuffle (1937), Jones joins Basie on piano and Lester Young on tenor sax, transforming their historical dialogue into a three parties affair. On Honeysuckle Rose (also from 1937), Jones’ presence is similarly essential to the development of a climactic effect.
Jo Jones had an incalculable influence on major drummers such as Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, and Louie Bellson. After his silent revolution, Dixieland-style two-beat drumming would forever sound dated.
- The Drums; Jazz Odyssey JO-008/BX2 (France; 2-LP w/inner leaves; instructional, partly spoken)
- The Main Man (1976). ASIN: B000000Z1Q
- Our Man, Papa Jo! (1985). ASIN: B0007XD3HC
- The Essential Jo Jones (1995). ASIN: B000000ECG
- The Everest Years (2005). ASIN: B000929AUK
- Jammin’ the Blues (1944)
- Born to Swing (1973)
- The Last of the Blue Devils (1979)
- Basie, William (Count) as told to Albert Murray, Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0306811074
- Dance, Stanley. The World of Count Basie. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. ISBN 978-0306802454
- Gourse, Leslie. Time Keepers: The Great Jazz Drummers. Franklin Watts, 2000. ISBN 978-0531164051
- Spagnardi, Ronald. The Great Jazz Drummers (The Modern Drummer Library). Modern Drummer Publications, Pap/Com edition (1992). ISBN 978-0793515264
All links retrieved August 1, 2022.
- Internet Movie Database (IMDb): Jo Jones (II) – Film appearances and music used for films
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