Jo Jones was born on the 7th of October, 1911 in Chicago and I was fortunate (and surprised) to meet him while helping out in his friend Frank Ippolito’s ‘Professional Percussion’ in New York sometime in 1970! He is generally held to be the most important drummer of his time, mainly because he caused the transition, or at the very least was instrumental in it, when the art of drumming moved from ‘Ragtime’ music to what we now know as jazz – and drumming changed. He became known as ‘Papa’ Jo Jones to avoid confusion with ‘Philly’ Joe Jones who was a dozen years younger but eventually working at the same time.
Ragtime was a genre of drumming which appeared at the turn of the 20th century, and it was closely associated with a style of entertainment called ‘Vaudeville’. Vaudeville music was often played by one guy with drumsticks on a bass drum and a snare drum and this was called ‘double drumming’. There was of course a place for one guy playing the bass drum and another playing the snare but, the advent of the bass pedal in 1909 and the influence of the great depression would put paid to all of that. Just one guy now took care of all the associated percussion sounds (tuned or otherwise) in the band which in those days was frequently more grandly called an Orchestra .
Jo Jones wasn’t just a drummer, he could turn his hand to piano, trumpet and saxophone. By the time he joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1934, the centre of jazz had moved from New Orleans to Chicago, and mainly due to the influence of Jo Jones, the whole style of playing the music had changed. He shifted the drummer’s role from that of a strict-tempo timekeeper to that of an interactive member of an improvising group.
The ‘Big Band’ era really took off in the Twenties in Chicago and Jo Jones, along with several other notable drummers, began to strip down their kits and abandon the sound-effect producing instruments of Vaudeville, leaving themselves with toms, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, and possibly the odd cowbell. Count Basie’s orchestra certainly had no need of ‘traps’ (woodblocks, temple-blocks, rattles, coconuts for the sound of horse’s hooves and even klaxons and train horns) and this was because the sounds and the rhythms being produced had changed drastically.
Cymbals were getting larger thanks to Avedis Zildjian and important equipment to play them with had arrived including William Frederick Ludwig’s ‘bick a da bock’ mechanism. This was a framework for hand-operated cymbals but they started the ball rolling as far as the development of the hi hat was concerned. Once it gave way to the more useful foot-operated mechanism in 1927, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones was on hand to make it do things which it’s unlikely its inventor would have suspected it was capable of. By the way, it was Jo who lifted the ‘Low Boy’ up from the floor to waist high so it would be more easily playable with a stick and the hi hat, as we know it, was born.
This revolutionised drumming and Jo Jones was in the forefront of incorporating it into his ‘swing’ playing. He played most of the time on his hi hat and uniquely kept his cymbals gently touching one another so their sound would sizzle. Along with this he played his bass drum lightly, acquired a smaller, less obtrusive model, and kept the basic burgeoning ’10 to 2’ rhythm on the hi hat.
This, ‘ding- ding-da-ding’ rhythm was becoming more prevalent in jazz and was arguably first played by a chap called Vic Berton. Having seen a video of him tearing paper in time with the music and surrounded by the paraphernalia of an orchestra (timps, orchestral bells, vibes and a bass drum and snare) creates a hypothesis which is a little difficult to believe. That said, Vic (?) ‘Papa’ Jo and others used this rhythm as a device to underpin the music in the thirties when it had become slightly more commonplace. It became the sound of the ‘ride’ pattern and Jo Jones would accent on his hi hat post what at the time were called the ‘weak’ beats – which we know better as the off-beats, two and four. In time Jo moved the pattern to the ride cymbal which Avedis had thinned down, enlarged and made more capable of speaking quickly and sustaining the beats. He made them more able to provide a ‘wash’ of sound by what in hindsight now seems to be the obvious expedient of thinning them down and drastically increasing their diameters. The diameters of bass drums were going the other way and becoming smaller to provide less boom and help to pinpoint the beats. Jo would sometimes ‘bury’ the beater into the bass drum’s head to produce a different, more muted sound. When he moved the ride rhythm from hi hat to cymbal he would strike it and immediately lift the tip of the stick away to give a cleaner, sharper sound.
He was one of the first to play with brushes in 1937 and influenced Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
However, to continue the ‘Papa’ Jo life story, long before all of this came to pass, Jonathan Jones grew-up in Alabama and his musical career began at five years old when he was badly burned in a fire. His father bought him a ukulele to help him to forget the pain. His next acquisition was a snare drum, courtesy of his aunt, which he taught himself to play. On his father’s death he was enrolled into an orphanage school where he learned to play piano, sax and trumpet.
His first road gigs came at thirteen, when with a Carnival, he not only played drums, he sang, acted and tap danced. Sometime in the late twenties he played with Walter Page’s ‘Blue Devils’ in Oklahoma before moving to Kansas City in 1933 to join Count Basie. A year later he moved with Basie’s orchestra to New York, thus establishing what became famous as ‘The Great American Rhythm Section’ with Freddie Green, Walter Page and of course William James Basie himself. He stayed with ‘The Count’ until 1948 although like many musicians he was forced to take a sabbatical when he was drafted into the military during 1944 – 46.
In the Forties the centre of jazz moved again, this time to New York where ‘Be bop’ was born and Papa Jo was on hand to play it. Swing music was an entertaining type of music which you could dance to, but bop certainly wasn’t. It was an art form with more complex harmonies and melodies and the players began to solo more and the music was faster. As far as Jo Jones and the very art of drumming were concerned, the ride cymbal created a wash of sound and the smaller bass drum no longer marked all the beats in the bar. And probably most importantly, the hands and feet had become independent.
According to a chap named William Russell, Bop (or bebop) was: “the music of revolt against Big Bands, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley and the individuality of the jazz musician as a creative artist”.
Jo Jones found himself on the road around the world with several of the ‘Jazz at the Phil’ tours and at the same time recording with Ilinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. It’s interesting to note that when he was house drummer at the 1958 Newport Festival, he played with (presumably amongst others) Count Basie, the Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge sextet, and also backed Chuck Berry. You can see him playing “Sweet Little 16” and one has to assume that then, as now, Chuck didn’t bother with a rehearsal. That song features in the seminal film ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ and it has to be said that ‘Papa’ Jo looks a little bemused, although he still managed to wear his usual infectious grin. [The set list says that Chuck played “No Money Down” too and I’m guessing that Papa Jo made a very good fist of the song’s double-handed Kansas City shuffle]. He was always known as a brutally frank elder statesman, so I’d be very interested to know what he and Chuck Berry made of one another.
Having survived his baptism of fire in rock‘n’roll he went on to freelance with Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.
As far as drum kits were concerned he was certainly a Ludwig endorser in 1960 with a traditional jazz-sized four-piece White Marine Pearl set with a 20” bass, although I’ve also seen photos of him with a light-coloured Rogers set with script badge and ‘Swiv-o-matic’ fittings. However 20 years earlier he had a Gretsch Gladstone set in White Oriental Pearl with 26” bass, 13 x 9” mounted tom a 6½” deep wood snare and two 16 x 16” floor toms – one on each side. He used Zildjian cymbals with 13” hi hats, a couple of 13” crashes, and a choice of 16 or 15” to ride on. [It is possibly one of these cymbals that the forthright Jo Jones famously threw at the feet of a teenaged Charlie Parker during a jam session – as mentioned in the film ‘Whiplash’. This incident took place at a club in Kansas City when ‘Bird’ made a very obvious mistake.]
Not long before his death he was named a ‘Jazz Master’ by ‘The United States National Endowment for the Arts’. Max Roach called him the greatest drummer that ever lived! It’s impossible to watch Jo Jones play without smiling along with him.
He once said: “Just remember the difference between ‘play’ and ‘beat’ when it comes to percussion instruments. You don’t beat the drum, you play the drum.
‘Papa’ Jo Jones suffered a stroke towards the end of his life and passed away in New York on the 3rd of September, 1985. RIP.