Phil Chu and Philly Joe Jones
Northampton bade farewell to Phil Chu on Sunday. Chu died on December 15, and his funeral was held in New York, where he was born in 1935. But since he’d moved to Northampton after his retirement as a New York City schoolteacher in 1995, his family decided to hold a memorial service here too. July 14 was Philippe Chu’s 78th birthday anniversary, and his brother noted that like all nine of their siblings, Phil was named for a significant person, in his case, Philippe, King of France, in recognition of his Bastille Day birth.
A quintet of area musicians, pianist Paul Arslanian, bassist George Kaye, drummer Claire Arenius, trumpeter Donn Anderson, and saxophonist Sarah Manning, played music in Chu’s memory, including Tadd Dameron’s “The Chase” and “On a Misty Night;” Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks;” and the French ballad, “Autumn Leaves.” Phil would have heartily approved.
I never knew Phil’s given name till yesterday, nor that he’d hosted jazz shows at WHCR, Harlem Community Radio, before he relocated to Western Mass. But I knew from the moment he first called the WFCR studio 18 years ago that he loved modern jazz. He greeted me then, and in dozens of subsequent calls, with the exact same expression: “Tom Reney, you’re a lifesaver.” If that seems immodest of me, trust that Phil, and the community of jazz lovers I know and hold dear to my heart, mean the same to me. Chu had a religious-like devotion to bebop, and he appreciated WFCR for playing substantial amounts of it on the radio. His daughter Nicole said that Phil was so focused in his listening habits that he’d often stand in front of the radio and end up forgetting his dinner or something else he’d been doing.
Phil’s heroes were Bird and Bud and Miles and Monk and Hank Mobley, all of whom he saw in their prime, and he loved keepers of the flame like Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, and Louis Hayes and younger disciples like Tardo Hammer, Grant Stewart, and Peter Bernstein. He got back to the city often enough to stay in touch with the scene at Smalls and other venues that showcase these living masters, and invariably came back with news of a new player in town. His updates over the phone or on the street had a concision that reminded me of what Max Roach said about Charlie Parker: “He always left you wanting a little more.”
At yesterday’s memorial at Edwards Church, the Chu family exhibited his sketchbooks and art work. Phil translated his passion for the music into a series of highly-skilled ink wash drawings of musicians in action. And as we grieved the loss of a voice that, as Lester Young would say, “told a story,” Phil’s niece distributed a composite CD of some of his shows from his radio days in Harlem. I’d never heard Phil Chu, D.J., until I listened to the CD after the service, and now only wish that he’d shared this talent with area radio listeners. Hearing Phil’s patient and precise manner of announcing sides by Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and Chris Connor proved to be a wonderfully revealing surprise.
(Philly Joe Jones, 1958; photo (c) Dennis Stock)
Today is the 90th birthday anniversary of one of Chu’s favorites, Philly Joe Jones, the great drummer renowned for his work with the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-50’s, various sessions and tours with Bill Evans, and hundreds of hard bop dates with scores of jazz greats. This "Phil" was born Joseph Rudolph Jones in Philadelphia, and it wasn't until he was working with Tony Scott at Minton's in 1953 that the clarinetist laid the "Philly" moniker on him. I can readily appreciate the need that existed for something to distinguish between Philly Joe and Count Basie's great drummer, Jo Jones, as folks to this today confuse one for the other.
As Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong, "No him, no me," the same could be said of "Papa" Jo and "Philly" Joe, so pervasive was the Chicagoan's influence on jazz drummers. Joe absorbed his and numerous other models, including Cozy Cole, Sid Catlett, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach, and combined them with his own innate musicality, which early on was evident in his skill as a pianist, saxophonist, drummer, and tap dancer.
In Burt Korall's 2002 publication, Drummin' Men: The Bebop Years, Jimmy Heath said, "Joe was very natural. He understood music better than most drummers because he could play the piano. His drumming was meaningful and well-structured. He could swing at any tempo and make you feel it, anything from a slow groove to real, real fast, the Max Roach tempo...Joe had his problems, no doubt about that. But he always could play and basically he was a very generous person."
(Philly Joe Jones; photo (c) Francis Wolff)
The problems Heath alludes to were driven by Philly Joe's addiction to heroin. Miles Davis’s autobiography chronicles in unsparing, and occasionally hilarious detail some of the ups and downs he went through playing, employing, and hanging with Philly Joe. Miles and Joe were both strung out when they began working together, but as Miles got clean and rose to ever greater prominence in the late 50’s, Philly Joe’s drug use, con games, and increasing unreliability became too much of a liability, and he was fired in 1958. But during the three years he spent with Davis's legendary quintet, Jones was as vital and distinct as anyone else in that band of contrasting stylists. Speaking of contrast, it was Joe who persuaded Miles to give his friend John Coltrane a shot, and Trane, of course, proved to be what Miles described as "just the voice I needed on tenor to set off my own voice." As for Joe, it was the combination of his strong beat on four, the “Philly lick” on the rim, and his crisp snare and cymbal work that gave Davis the kind of aggressive attack that he loved in a drummer.
You must know the one about Philly Joe and Keith Moon. The Who’s riotous drummer inquired about taking lessons with the master when Jones was living in London in the late 60’s. Notwithstanding Joe's notoriety as a con man on the street, he apparently stuck to first principles when it came to music. When he heard how untutored and unorthodox Moon’s playing was, he asked, “How much money do you make?” When the answer indicated that Moon made more in a year than Philly Joe had in his career, he said, "Well then I sure don't want to spoil it for you."
We’ll hear Philly Joe throughout tonight’s Jazz a la Mode with Miles and Trane, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Sonny Clark, Art Pepper, Elmo Hope, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, Archie Shepp, and Bill Evans. Jones played on a couple of Evans’s classic Riverside sessions in 1958 and ’62, and he toured with the pianist and bassist Marc Johnson in 1978. Here they are at the Umbria Jazz Festival playing "Nardis" and “The Peacocks."
Hear the entire show here: