PAPA JO JONES
I first met Papa Jo when I was 10 or 11. My dad used to take me to a club called Sandy’s [Melody Lounge, and later, Jazz Revival] in Beverly, Massachusetts; Papa Jo would play there sometimes with his own band and would let me sit in. At the time, of course, I was checking out people like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette, but going to see Papa Jo was special because I knew that he was the father of modern jazz drumming to them. Also, listening to him and watching him swing, he had a style about him–the way he swung was just different to the more modern players I was listening to at that time. That made me really appreciate his school of drumming because it was so sweet and it felt so good. It was a different pocket and I knew that it was an important pocket…and one that I for sure couldn’t emulate!
He used to come to our house and sometimes spend the night. I remember once that we had cooked all of this food for him and when he got there, he didn’t want to eat anything. He slept on the couch and before he went to bed he pulled out a pork chop, wrapped in tin foil, from his breast pocket. My father said, “I thought you weren’t hungry. We cooked all of this food for you.” He replied, “I don’t eat other people’s cooking!” We thought that was pretty funny.
He knew my dad well and also knew my grandfather, who played the drums and passed away before I was born. If you listen to the track called “Mr. Jo Jones” from my album Jazz Is A Spirit, I included some of Papa Jo’s speech and at the end of it he acknowledged the three generations of musicians in my family, saying “…because of your grandfather, because of your father and because of you.” Then he said, “Take care and say your prayers,” which was something he always used to say.
The saddest thing for me was that towards the end of his life, he felt underappreciated. He said he was in the hospital and nobody came to see him, but I know for sure that Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Higgins did. He was living in a very small apartment which didn’t have much in it and I felt bad that his last days weren’t a little more comfortable, although somebody was coming in and taking care of him. There was one other thing that I recall him saying… I can’t remember what kind of cancer he had but he was reflecting on his old friends, and in particular, Nat King Cole. He said that he used to tell Nat that he hoped he got laryngitis, because he wanted him to play the piano and not sing. I think maybe Nat King Cole subsequently had throat cancer, so Papa Jo said that he felt bad that he used to tell him that. I also remember asking him for some drum tips and he showed me some magic tricks–he had a magic trick with a coin!
My first professional gig–the first gig I ever got paid for–was as a guest with Clark Terry when I was 10-years-old in Wichita, Kansas. Clark Terry’s band consisted of Louie Bellson, George Duvivier, Jimmy Rowles, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Garnett Brown and maybe Al Cohn and Dianne Reeves was a guest, as well. I just remember playing those big drums. Louie had a lot of drums. I remained close friends with Louie and when he would come through Boston, I would sit in with his big band.
Elvin would also let me sit in on his drums when I was a kid and I remember those being difficult drums to play. It wasn’t the kit he used with Coltrane, it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine kit–they were larger drums and tuned lower, so they were harder to play; it was a really different set up for me. But I played Elvin’s drums, so that was great.
I remember playing at a tribute show and he paid me the biggest compliment–I was paying tribute to Roy Haynes, Marvin “Smitty” Smith was paying tribute to Max Roach, Steve Gadd was paying tribute to Louie Bellson and Peter Erskine was paying tribute to Elvin. After I played, honoring Roy, Elvin said to me that I was a real artist and not just a drummer–that meant a lot to me. I also recall the last time I saw Elvin. We were hanging out at a Zildjian function and there wasn’t anybody else around. I like this particular Californian wine and I knew Elvin liked red wine, so I said to his wife, Keiko, “I know Elvin likes red wine. Here’s one I really like.” She said, “Oh no, we only drink French red wine.” I poured some for Elvin and he sipped it and looked at me kind of funny and said, “Thank you,” but he didn’t like it. That was pretty funny to me.
When I think of Elvin, I just think of the kindness he showed me by encouraging me and letting me play when I was a young kid. I was very fortunate in that sense. It was funny watching his wife Keiko set up and tear down his drum kit. It was kind of cool because why can’t a woman do that? She also handled his business; she took care of Elvin.
What can you say about Elvin’s drumming? Elvin Jones is Elvin Jones. The one thing I will say is that, to me, nobody should try to play like him because you can’t play like Elvin–you end up sounding like a cartoon caricature of him because his style is so distinct. I don’t want to hear anybody try to play like him, so I try to stay away from some of that triplet vocabulary, because I knew it wasn’t going to sound like him…but sometimes, some of it sneaks out.
I didn’t know Mitch Mitchell but I did meet him. I was playing at a Jimi Hendrix tribute in Paris with the guitarist Nguyen Le, as we had done a Jimi Hendrix tribute record called Purple. Mitch, along with Jimi’s sister, Janie Hendrix, came and that was a real pleasure. This was a few years before he passed away. I remember him sitting and talking to my mother, who had come with me. I was pretty nervous playing all of that music in front of Mitch, but what a gentleman and a nice guy he was.