100 Years: The life and "times" of jazz luminary Papa Jo Jones

“Papa Jo exists on the level of folklore, myth and parable; the cracker-barrel philosopher; teller of tall tales; venerable keeper of our oral traditions.”
—Chip Stern, “Papa Jo Jones.” Modern Drummer, January 1984


Freelance writer (Slate, the Root, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others), doctoral student at Stony Brook University, and editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

October 7th, 2011, marks the one-hundredth birthday of Jonathan David Samuel Jones (1911-1985), better known to the world as revolutionary jazz drummer Papa Jo, “the man who played like the wind.” One hundred years after his birth in Chicago, Papa Jo is not forgotten—and never was—but he is also not as well-known as his music and his unique personality warrant. The music he made with Count Basie (for which he is best known), as well as with Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Ida Cox, Tyree Glenn, Benny Carter, Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, and Duke Ellington (not to mention his work as a solo artist) is the epitome of taste, skill, and elegance, and can never be dated, as it rests on a deep historical foundation.

While very much a man of his time and engaged with the issues of his day (and should we mention he referred to himself as a “fashion plate”?), Jo Jones was also like a figure from an earlier era. Among his favorite books were James M. Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People (1880) and Reverend William J. Simmons’ Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887). Papa Jo hoped there would some day be a book on the autistic African American pianist Blind Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), and indeed today there are several about him.

Papa Jo entered show business at age twelve and spent years working on and off in traveling circuses and carnivals. He performed as an actor, dancer, and musician in vaudeville and on the Chautauqua circuit. When the bassist Milt Hinton interviewed Jones for the Smithsonian’s Jazz Oral History Project, he was keen to ask about this period. While Hinton was actually a year older than Jones, it seemed to him that Jones had access to a broader and, in many ways, unique historical base of knowledge. Along these lines, Jones told Albert Murray: “The people I’m talking about, I started meeting them from 1923 on up. I had had a head start. By the time when I was like 12 and 13 years old and was meeting these people [in show business], these people were like 45 and 50, 60 years old then.” Jones was fearful about history being lost and adamant that history – particularly African American musical history – must be preserved. And this is the first book about Papa Jo.

Jo Jones was able to use his historical knowledge of music (and culture) to chart new territory. I recently re-listened to the Jones-Murray interviews (featured in Rifftide) and came across one of the very few moments that I regret not including in the book. On a January 1937 studio date with Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, and Benny Goodman, Goodman quizzically asks Jones where his bass drum is. Jo replies “I don’t use it. Sock cymbal, snare drum, that’s all. Benny, I ain’t supposed to keep time for you!”

(I doubt that those who knew Papa Jo would doubt that the exchange went exactly that way! Of course, Jones didn’t mean that he wouldn’t keep time at all, but he would do so differently than before, and not on the bass drum.) It is uncanny that in 2011, in an article by Greg Thomas about pianist Bill Charlap in the New York Daily News, Charlap quotes saxophonist and composer Phil Woods expressing the very same idea: “Everybody’s gotta be a drummer,” said Woods.

Papa Jo Jones bedazzled many with his outrageous,
volatile personality and his innovative drumming.
Image from Drummerworld.

While the time of day is more or less available by looking at the sky, for centuries time was officially kept, at least in the west, by institutions. Hourly church bells marked off the hours for peasants of medieval Europe toiling in the fields. The advent of privately owned clocks and watches of course parallels many of the developments of the world from the Renaissance until now. Jo Jones had the vision to institute this in a jazz band and to unequivocally tell this to Bennie Moten. (Incidentally, Jones often called Bennie Moten the greatest band leader of all time. It’s a long story, but the Count Basie Orchestra was in many ways like “the Bennie Moten band 2.0.”)

Jones’s musical achievements are manifold, but what is often described as his signature innovation is that Papa Jo imagined a new way to play time, moving it away from the bass drum and onto the high hat (which he preferred to call a sock cymbal). As the master drummer Michael Carvin said in the trailer for Rifftide, “you touch that hi-hat, that’s Papa Jo Jones.” The legendary drummer Roy Haynes recently told me that the Count Basie record that influenced him the most, aside from the Basie standards (“One O’Clock Jump,” “Moten Swing,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “9:20 Special”) was “The World is Mad (Parts I and II).” On “The World is Mad” you can really hear the “woosh” that earned Papa Jo his other famous moniker: “The man who played like the wind.” Needless to say, that was something new and must have sounded completely revolutionary. The reason that the music of the 1920s sounds a little clunky in comparison to that of the 1930s is in many ways because of Jo Jones (though Jones would always give credit the bassist Walter Page for being the architect of the Basie’s groundbreaking “All-American Rhythm Section.”)

One of my favorite records (perhaps, secretly, my favorite record) by the Count Basie Orchestra is their rendition of “Five O’Clock Whistle” (1940) in full-tilt swing. A popular number in the early 40s, “Five O’Clock Whistle” is a borderline-silly song sung from the perspective of a young girl whose father is stuck at his factory job in perpetuity because the five o’clock whistle has not sounded. It is a song about institutional time keeping, and there perils thereof, on which Jo Jones showcases the styles with which he backs different instruments. Toward the end of his solo album The Drums (1973), on which he entertainingly narrates the early history of jazz drumming (even describing how to create sound effects for silent films), Jones gives a lesson on how to back all the major jazz instruments. He shows how he changes the sound of the drums to complement the sound of the instrument taking a solo (but without the other instrument actually playing). He had also demonstrated this decades earlier, with other instruments and with great verve, on “Five O’Clock Whistle.” Basie’s up-tempo version (without vocals) does not appear to exist on the Internet in its entirety, but Amazon has a long preview. For comparison, here is the version Duke Ellington recorded around the same time (with vocals).

On this slightly corny but sociologically interesting pop song about the nature of time, the Basie band subtracts the vocals, ramps up the tempo and for his part, Jo Jones, an original theorist of musical time, shines in a sort of reversal of the song’s theme of being hostage to time as rigidly dictated and defined by someone else. That said, keep in mind that he was a character of Shakespearean boundlessness and complexity. Indeed, like Shakespeare himself, Jo Jones was not for an age but for all time.


Paul Devlin is an English doctoral student and prolific writer. He is editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, which was assembled from taped interviews Jo Jones did with Albert Murray. It includes an afterword by jazz historian Phil Schaap, a close friend of Papa Jo.

This week, you can tune in to WKCR to the Jo Jones Centennial Festival, which is happening all week through Oct. 8th. You can also tune in to WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show on Friday afternoon, when Paul Devlin will appear on the show. And in November, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City will host a discussion of Rifftide as part of its “Listening Party” series at 7PM on Thursday, Nov. 17th, 2011. Paul Devlin will be interviewed by Ken Druker, coordinator of educational programming at JALC and host of its “Listening Party” series.

Don’t forget to check out that trailer!

“Albert Murray has helped keep the incomparable Jo Jones alive through the voice of Count Basie in Good Morning Blues and fictionally in The Magic Keys, but in Rifftide, thanks to the persistence of editor Paul Devlin, we get to hear Jo himself in all his dynamic, adrenalized, anecdotal, no-bull glory—riffing with words as heartily as he did on the hi-hat.”
—Gary Giddins, author of Warning Shadows and Jazz

“Jo Jones, an elegant, swinging dude, always had a style of his own. When he was with us, you could hear him, feel him—everything was right there.”
—Count Basie

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