Jo Jones, who anchored Count Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, embodied a hard-earned musical mastery borne of humility and perseverance. Born in Chicago in 1911 but raised in Alabama, Jones spoke of his early odyssey as a player for The World of Count Basie, where he recalled playing trumpet till a “distant cousin took me to he hear Mr. Louis Armstrong. I said, ‘Well, that’s the end of my trumpet playing!’ When I went to the sax, I got smarter than the music teacher, but here comes Coleman Hawkins, so that was the end of that! Right afterwards I met Lester Young. So now I’m going to the piano, and I know I’m very great, but then I met Mr. Art Tatum, and that ended my piano career!”
Jones added that he “was always a gypsy, and I had an unusual urge to be in carnivals or circuses.” Beginning in his early teens, he criss-crossed the nation in traveling shows where he learned to box, tap-dance, and play checkers. He mastered at least two of these pursuits, claiming to have worn the crown of American Tap Charleston master in the ’20’s. As for checkers, six years after his death, a 1991 New York Times article on the city’s checker players made several mentions of Jones and quoted James Searles, who recalled him saying, ‘Boy, if I could play drums the way I play checkers!”
By the time he began working with an early Basie outfit around 1934, Jones was on his way to developing an innovative approach to drumming that changed the emphasis of time keeping from the bass drum to the high hat cymbal and made extensive use of brushes. Jones’s propulsive touch was part of the amazing rhythm section synergy that enabled Basie, Jones, bassist Walter Page, and guitarist Freddie Green to provide a springboard for the legato flights of Young, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Dickie Wells, and the other soloists who made Basie’s Swing Era band the most influential in the land. Jones lauded the Basie soloists as uniquely gifted players who were, in contrast to many of their big band contemporaries, “capable of standing up and playing with just the rhythm section.” The Basie-ites far outnumbered the sidemen of any other band, including Ellingtonians, in establishing solo careers.
The Jo Jones Special is one of only a handful of recordings Jones made as a leader. John Hammond, who produced the session, said Jones “can do more things superlatively well than any drummer I ever heard.” True that, but predecessor Gene Krupa and successor Buddy Rich tend to eclipse Jones in popularity even though the prototype created by Papa Jo was the most stylistically groundbreaking and influential for its time. It’s hard to exaggerate his importance, for jazz as we know it would be impossible without his elevation of the beat from floor to ceiling, and the same applies to the offshoot styles of r&b and rock.
Hammond played an important role in the Basie band’s rise to prominence in the ’30’s and remained a tireless partisan of all things Basie thereafter. In his capacity as a talent scout and producer for Columbia and affiliated labels, he’s credited with discovering such legends as Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Hammond’s passion was mainstream jazz, and in the mid-50’s he worked at maintaining a role for Swing Era veterans who no longer had big band affiliations. To this end, he produced the legendary Buck Clayton jam sessions at Columbia and Vanguard as well as small group dates by Jones, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Mel Powell.
In his autobiography, John Hammond on Record, he said, “I loved the element of surprise and it often worked well for me. The Jo Jones Special I did for Vanguard was a case in point. I had Jo, Freddie Green, and Walter Page, three quarters of the old Basie rhythm section, plus Nat Pierce on piano, Emmett Berry on trumpet, Lucky Thompson on tenor, and Benny Green on trombone.
“We recorded at the Masonic Temple, and things were going well…when in walked Basie himself. I had told him about the session and invited him over for a listen, but it was all pretty casual and I hadn’t thought for a minute he’d come. So what was more natural than that Basie should sit in? Nat moved out gracefully and the Basie rhythm section, which had long since gone its separate ways, was reunited. [Actually, Green was a constant with Basie between 1938 and ’87, the year of his death.] Not unexpectedly, a few of those choice Basie notes [were sounded] and the pace picked up. We did a ‘Shoe Shine Boy’ that was so good. Emmett and Lucky and Benny were blowing beautifully and the rhythm swung lightly and delicately and yet so decisively. It was sheer delight. And as one of the takes slowed down…Benny Green broke into a ‘yuk-yuk-yuk’ laugh that was so infectious we kept it on the record, too.” Listen for it here…and in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.
As these film clips make clear, Jones was a dynamo behind the trap set. Burt Korall says in his book Drummin’ Men that when he first saw Jo at the Roxy Theater in 1944, “his personality filled the great New York movie palace. Backing a line of thirty-six girls and a variety of acts [including the Basie band], catching every nuance, he swung like mad, making it all seem easy as pie.”