Friday, July 20, 2012

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones - A Review

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones provides insights into Jonathan David Samuel Jones, affectionately known as Papa Jo Jones, and one of the major innovators and influences in drum kit playing.

I'm going to immediately set expectations about this book: if you are searching for information and opinions about drumming and other drummers, this is not the book for you. I suggest that, instead, you read the information-rich chapter on Papa Jo Jones in Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz The Swing Years. In addition to that book, my previous post, Papa Jo Jones contains a wealth of information about him. More about additional resources later in this post.

On the other hand, if you are seeking to understand Papa Jo Jones the man, along with his views on a myriad of topics then this book is a treasure. And as you come to understand him you may get a glimpse into how he came about and what molded him.

Most folks describe the book as having three parts: Paul Devlin's Preface that discusses the trials and tribulations of transcribing interviews that Albert Murray conducted with Papa Jo, then Rifftide - Jo Jones in Jo Jones' own words, and an Afterward by Phil Shaap. I would like to add the Editor's Notes, which comprise 28 pages of invaluable information that is like the Rosetta Stone for the preceding sections.

Of the principals involved in creating this book, the editor - Paul Devlin - never met Papa Jo in person. That does not diminish his importance because transcribing and making sense of the interview tapes were daunting tasks. That is not to say that Albert Murray's interview sessions were easy either. For a taste listen to the 1973 interviews that Milt Hinton conducted with Papa Jo on this page. Milt and Jo went way back and Milt also knew a lot about his family, yet Jo Jones had moments of evading or deflecting. Plus his accent - known as Locust Valley Lockjaw after an upper class section of Long Island - takes some getting used to if you are not familiar with that particular accent.

The Rifftide section is what will separate those who are seeking knowledge from those who are seeking facts. The writing (especially if you hear it in Jo's voice) is akin to receiving enlightenment from Yoda. You know there are important lessons in the words, but those lessons seem to be doled out in some oblique manner.

What I got from this section is how well read Jo was, and that he was an astute observer who could synthesize a wide array of facts and observations into some unified philosophy and way of life. That same gift for synthesis, I am sure, enabled him to make not just one - but two - major contributions to the art of drum kit playing. He moved time to the hi-hat and did things that that piece of the drum kit that nobody before him could have conceived; he took the art of brush playing to a level that is still part of every jazz drummer's vocabulary. I was also gratified to read his mention and acknowledgement of Wilson Driver, his teacher, in the book. Mr. Driver was conspicuously missing from any mention in The Drums! (which adds another dimension to Papa Jo Jones the man and the drummer.) Strangely, there is no mention of Manzie Cambell whom Papa Jo considered to be the world's greatest drummer in The Drums!

Another thing that struck me was his love of books and voracious reading habits, which was not only indicative of an amazing intellect, but probably alienated him from his peers, especially in later life. I am sure he lived in a world apart from others. One clue was his own statement that he did not know there were racial differences until he was 19. In his era and geographic location where lynchings were common that is an odd statement. All the more so because he was such an astute observer. It only reinforces my own opinion that he lived in a world of his own mind.

His recounting of names, associations and places in this section of the book painted a vivid picture of his era and influences. Indeed, I recall that on the last track of The Drums! he exclaims "Butterbean and Susie" while playing a duet with Willie The Lion Smith. I had no idea who or what he was talking about until I read his account of how they took him in. It's the small details that portray the drummer as the man, instead of the other way around.

The final section is the Afterward by Phil Shaap. Not only is Phil a musician, but he spent a lot of time with Jo and shares insights that neither Albert Murray nor Paul Devlin would have. Louis Proyect's intriguing article discusses Phil's relationship with Papa Jo during the course of writing about a related topic. Phil, in this section of the book, is frank and exposes many facets of Jo, both flattering and not so flattering. Again, it fills in who Jo was as a man, and from Phil's vantage, also as a musician. The stories and observations are similar to Michael Stein's firsthand account titled Smiling Jo Jones. Stein also wrote what I consider to be one of the most insightful reviews of Rifftide I've encountered. I encourage you to take the time to read that review for things I missed in this one.

One resource that covers his Basie years - to a degree - is The Last of the Blue Devils - The Kansas City Jazz Story, which I highly recommend because Basie figures in this book for a number of reasons. First, by the time Albert Murray was conducting the interviews that are at the heart of this book Papa Jo and Basie were estranged. There are more than a few paragraphs devoted to implied hopes by Papa Jo that he and Basie could reconcile. Indeed, Murray co-authored Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography Of Count Basie and had a strong bond with Basie. Perhaps, as is alluded to in this book, too strong to do Papa Jo justice, but that is where Devlin and Schaap contribute subjectivity that balance any of the bias - if there ever was any - out.

Before wrapping up with my conclusions I'll share a promo video of this excellent book to which you can compare the publisher's perspective with mine.

What I gained from this is a deeper insight into one of my idols, plus a rich backdrop of history to satisfy my avocation as an amateur historian. As a drummer, this book gave me a deeper appreciation for the man upon whose shoulders we stand upon. That, to me, is priceless.

Here are a few clips of Papa Jo Jones that showcase his genius and keep his memory alive:

From Jazz Icons: Coleman Hawkins Live in '62 & '64

From a circa 70s concert in France

One more because I can never watch him enough ...

Enjoy ...


Louis Proyect said...

I wonder whatever happened to Jo Jones Jr., if he is still alive. I was very friendly with Jo Jo, as he called himself, in the 60s when I was a welfare worker in Harlem. He became my "client" after he got out of rehab and I got his drums out of hock. He began gigging here and there with Duke Jordan, who was driving a school bus in Brooklyn at the time, Les Spann and others. I tried to say hello to his father when he was up at the West End with the Countsmen but he cursed me out for no good reason. Phil Schaap thought this was funny.

Louis Proyect said...

I found myself in a somewhat similar situation to De Felitta in 1967 when as a welfare worker in Harlem I was assigned the case of Jonathan Jones Jr., son of Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones and a drummer himself. Jo Jones Jr. had just come out of drug rehab and I did everything I could to help him get his feet on the ground, even getting his drums out of hock. When my higher-ups told me that they could not pay for this, I “cheated” the taxpayers by filing a false claim on his behalf for new bedsprings and pots and pans so he could pay for his drums.

Jo Jones Jr. was always on the cusp of making it big. Just after Clifford Brown told him that he wanted him to join his band, he died in an auto accident. After he got his drums back, he began gigging again and I made every effort to watch him perform and give him encouragement. On date was particularly memorable. He told me that his trio got a job at mafia bar in Newark and it would be worth a trip out, especially since he had lined up Duke Jordan to play piano (Les Spann played guitar). It was very likely that Jackie Paris played with Jordan himself, since he was Charlie Parker’s pianist on many gigs. He also wrote the jazz standard “Jordu” that Clifford Brown and countless others have recorded. In 1967, Duke Jordan was not making a living as a jazz pianist. He was driving a school bus in Brooklyn, victim of the same blind market forces as Jackie Paris.

Mike Tarrani said...

Louis, I cannot thank you enough for those comments. Any other pieces of information about Jo Jones, jr would be greatly appreciated. In fact, I did not know of him until I came across your article I referenced above.

Michael Weiss said...

I played a few times with Jo Jones Jr. usually in the company of Junior Cook. I have a recording of one gig we played at The Jazz Cultural Theater on December 29, 1985 under Jo's name. In the group is Junior Cook, myself on piano and Larry Gales on bass. Clarence Sharpe sat in.
In the early 1980s Jo Jones Jr. used to run the jam sessions at Barbara's and the Jazz Forum.

Michael Weiss